Stengers on Dennett

I was irritated to see the inclusion of  Isabelle Stengers’ lazy diatribe against Daniel Dennett’s so-called eliminativism in the essays of The Speculative Turn. Here’s an indicative quote from her piece:

The universal acid of the so-called dangerous idea of Darwin is just what is needed. It brings no effective understanding of evolutionary processes but is eliminating, dissolving away, all reasons to resist the redefinition of humans as a piece of engineering that can be understood in terms of algorithms, and modified at will. And those who struggle against this operative redefinition of our worlds will have against them the authority of reason and science.

Dennett’s ‘interpretationism’ holds that the explanation and predictions of behaviour must assume the rationality and cognisance of the agent under interpretation. When we view an agent in this way, we assume what Dennett refers to as the ‘intentional stance’. For Dennett (as for Donald Davidson) a behavioural episode is indicative of intentionality only where – applying the principle of ‘charity’ – it can also be construed as appropriate or rational relative to the agent’s environment. This implies both semantic holism and content holism: the indivisibility of the intentional sphere, rather than a redefinition of ‘humans as a piece of engineering’.  Dennett’s position in the philosophy cognitive science is naturalistic insofar as it seeks to understand the computational mechanisms which make us apt subjects for intentional interpretation. However, it is ontologically pluralist insofar as it accommodates multiple equally real grains of reality, each accessible to different ‘stances’. So for Dennett the design stance, which opens up sub-personal processes and agents in the mind to functional analysis does not disclose patterns that are more real than those opened up by the personal level intentional stance (The title of his essay ‘Real Patterns‘ might have given Stengers pause). How is this eliminativist? Again, Dennett has consistently argued for the role of culture and narration in structuring agency and consciousness. I could go on but I’ve better things to do.

2 thoughts on “Stengers on Dennett

  1. I seem to remember reading something by Stengers on Dennett in Radical Philosophy some time ago, quite possibly her piece for the journal’s conference on ‘Matter and Materials’ a few years back, and being pretty unimpressed with her strawmanning of Dennett’s position. I’m not sure why Dennett seems to so often be the recipient of these sorts of caricatures, given that he’s pretty tolerant of ‘the mental’ ontologically speaking compared to other naturalists like Quine or the Churchlands. Maybe a pragmatist but hardly an eliminativist. Perhaps it’s his unapologetic delivery (‘Consciousness Explained’) that riles people.

  2. Hi David,

    I think this is the same piece as the one in RP. It’s such a pity. I greatly admired her work with Ilya Prigogine but this one really riled me up. It’s just bad, bad philosophy. Dreck as Heidegger would say!

    That said, I’m enjoying the other pieces in the Speculative Turn. Delanda’s essay on emergence has been most helpful, as was Ray’s piece,so I’ll probably write up something more constructive one of those soon.

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