The profession of philosophy lost one of its most distinguished members with the death of Hubert Dreyfus on Saturday, April 22. Dreyfus taught for nearly five decades, from 1968 until his death, at the University of California at Berkeley. He was introduced to philosophy in 1950 when, as an undergraduate physics major at Harvard, he “wandered in” to a course in epistemology taught by the great neo-Kantian pragmatist C. I. Lewis. Dreyfus then changed his major and wrote an undergraduate honors thesis on causality in quantum mechanics. Later, as a graduate student, Dreyfus left behind the philosophy of science to pursue his interest in the work of Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.
Harvard in the 1950s was an unlikely place to focus on existential phenomenology, but Dreyfus read Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit and Merleau-Ponty’s Phénoménologie de la Perception with a group of his fellow graduate students, and had dinner regularly with Aron Gurwitsch, a Lithuanian-born phenomenologist who had studied with Edmund Husserl. In 1955, as a visiting student at the University of Oxford, Dreyfus was introduced to a young philosopher named Charles Taylor, who shared his interest in Merleau-Ponty. Dreyfus and Taylor remained friends and collaborators to the end, and their co-authored book Retrieving Realism was published by Harvard University Press in 2015.
What attracted Dreyfus to Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty was their account of a form of engagement with the world that is more basic or “primordial” than conceptual thinking. Concepts, as Kant observed, are necessarily general and universal, which raises the question of how these representations can relate meaningfully to particular things in the world. The dominant tradition in Western philosophy attempts to explain this with an epistemological account of how concepts arise and are justified—whereas Dreyfus argued that the most fundamental form of what Heidegger called “being-in-the-world” was the active response to opportunities for meaningful engagement with things. The point of hyphenating “being-in-the-world” is to emphasize that, at this level, there is not an agent or subject on one side, with objects in the world on the other. Rather, it is part of the very being of one who engages the world in this meaningful way that he or she is embedded in the world where it all takes place. There is no more basic form of existence—no disembodied thinking subject of Descartes’s Meditations, for example—out of which this orientation toward meaningful engagement arises.
All this sounds rather austere, but one of Dreyfus’s great talents was in identifying ordinary phenomena that can illustrate philosophical concepts and distinctions. Heidegger’s classic example of this basic form of engagement was the unreflective use of a tool: According to Heidegger, a hammer appears “ready-to-hand” for use in practical tasks before it is conceived reflectively as an object “present-at-hand” with a certain shape and size, its movements governed by abstract causal laws. One of Dreyfus’s favorite examples was the way that passengers in an elevator will shift around until they find an optimal distance from one another. While none of the passengers can say explicitly what this distance is, each is motivated by a sense that something is discordant in the social situation, which is remedied once they settle on the appropriate positions to stand in. For Dreyfus, examples like these of what he called “skilled coping” show how our fundamental position in the world is not that of detached subjects who need to figure out how things are, but of embedded beings who always already stand in meaningful relations to the things that engage us.
This phenomenological critique of traditional epistemology was also behind one of Dreyfus’s other longstanding interests. After he was hired as an assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1960, Dreyfus began to explore the philosophical presuppositions of the research in artificial intelligence that was then in its early years, with MIT at the center of the movement. Dreyfus argued, most famously in his 1972 book What Computers Can’t Do, that this research program was entirely misconceived. Once again the basis of the critique was Heideggerian. Dreyfus observed that AI researchers were trying to model intelligence as a matter of correctly representing objects in the world and then reasoning in a rule-governed way with the contents of these representations. He argued that this understanding would be too abstract, and its results useless in practice, unless symbolic representation was rooted in the more basic form of being-in-the-world that Heidegger had described. An illustration of this difficulty is the so-called “frame problem,” which concerns how to determine which set of representations an intelligent system should treat as relevant in a given context. Without an appropriate “frame,” the system won’t be able to operate intelligently. But the computational task of picking the right frame is massively complex. Dreyfus argued that for beings who are already “in-the-world” in virtue of their fundamental orientation toward meaningful engagement, the frame problem doesn’t arise. Since the symbolic systems developed by AI researchers lacked this orientation, they would be intelligent only in the abstract, and functionally stupid except in the execution of certain specialized, predetermined tasks.
Dreyfus’s philosophical interests weren’t limited to abstract topics like the nature of intelligence and the challenge of modeling it in artificial systems. Together with his brother Stuart, he developed a Heideggerian model of the acquisition of expert skill, which they applied at first to the work of fighter pilots in the Air Force, and which then was extended to other domains, such as nursing. Dreyfus thought that this account of expertise could yield an understanding of what Greek philosophers called phronēsis, or moral wisdom, which he followed Aristotle in analogizing to a kind of “perception” wherein a practically wise person can simply see, without explicit reasoning, what sort of action is called for in a particular situation. And with his student Sean Dorrance Kelly, now a professor of philosophy at Harvard University, Dreyfus presented in their book All Things Shining a reading of classic works of Western literature in order to explore how people can find wonder, meaning, and purpose in a world conceived in the absence of God.
Anyone who knew Dreyfus will attest to his brilliance as well as his kindness, generosity of spirit, and seemingly limitless energy. None of this lessened over the years. When I first met Bert, it was 2005 and he was well into his seventies, while I was a very young graduate student with my own reputation for energy and enthusiasm. He was working then on a presidential address he was going to give to the American Philosophical Association, with the title “Overcoming the Myth of the Mental: How Philosophers Can Profit from the Phenomenology of Everyday Expertise.” We talked for a very long time, and then he sent me off with instructions to come back for more discussion first thing the next day. A couple of years later I would take his legendary undergraduate course on Heidegger’s Being and Time, which was always so popular that many in attendance had to camp out on the floor.
Those students were there because Bert was an impossibly good teacher: He taught Heidegger (and Homer, Dante, Melville, and more) to undergraduates because he believed that as long as the material was difficult enough, he would always be able to learn from his students, and his approach to it would never get stale. Meanwhile he would record every lecture and listen to them again the following year in order to discover how he could improve. And the dozens or hundreds of students who took these classes each semester knew they were always welcome to raise questions, to challenge his interpretation of the texts, to drop by his office and keep him there long past the end of the work day, when he’d hop in his vintage green convertible and drive home. Now it falls to the thousands who learned from him, and profited by his example, to carry on his work.
John Schwenkler is assistant professor of philosophy at Florida State University.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this column gave April 20 as the date of Hubert Dreyfus's death; it was in fact April 22. We regret the error.