That Special Something: Dennett on the Making of Minds and Selves

In Andrew Brook & Don Ross (eds.), Daniel Dennett. Cambridge University Press 187--205 (2002)
Dennett depicts human minds as both deeply different from, yet profoundly continuous with, the minds of other animals and simple agents. His treatments of mind, consciousness, free will and human agency all reflect this distinctive dual perspective. There is, on the one hand, the (in)famous Intentional Stance, relative to which humans, dogs, insects and even the lowly thermostat (e.g. Dennett (1998) p.327) are all pronounced capable of believing and desiring in essentially the same theoretical sense. And there is, on the other hand, a noteworthy (and increasing) insistence that human minds are special in that they exhibit a distinctive kind of “informational organization”: one that confers consciousness (Dennett (1998) p.347), and creates the space for agency, purpose, self-control (Dennett (1984) p.100), and “significant suffering” (Dennett (1998) p.351). What follows is a critical examination of this dual perspective, and of Dennett’s account of the key factor that makes us special - human language and our immersion in the sea of culture (Dennett (1998) p.146, (1996) p.130, (in press) p.7). In particular, I shall ask whether Dennett’s dual perspective masks a deeper tension in his accounts of consciousness and personhood, and whether the appeal to the transformative power of human language and culture can bear the heavy explanatory burden Dennett places upon it. These turn out to be significant challenges but ones which also help clarify the scope and power of this complex, multi-layered account. I end by commenting briefly on the wider significance of Dennett’s project as a major contribution to current debates concerning the continuity (or otherwise) of evolved cognitive strategies and the essentially hybrid (biological and non-biological) nature of human minds and persons
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