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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Daniel Dennett, Tufts professor emeritus and renowned philosopher, passes away at 82

The illustrious scholar, who died of interstitial lung disease on April 19, taught at Tufts from 1971 until his retirement at the end of 2022.

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Daniel Dennett is pictured in 2012.

On April 19, Daniel Dennett, University and Fletcher Professor of Philosophy Emeritus, passed away at the Maine Medical Center in Portland, Maine. His death was caused by complications from interstitial lung disease.

Known globally for his works on consciousness, religion and evolution, Dennett came to Tufts in 1971 and served as a professor of philosophy until his retirement at the end of 2022. Dennett also established and directed the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts and was a key figure in the establishment of Tufts’ first computer science program through his work on the Curricular Software Studio. Dennett is survived by his wife of over 60 years, Susan Bell Dennett, as well as their son, daughter and six grandchildren, and his two sisters.

A statement issued by the Tufts Department of Philosophy commended Dennett for his “wisdom, sense of humor, dedication, and generosity,” and stated that it was “a privilege and an inspiration” to work with Dennett. A separate statement from James M. Glaser, Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, hailed Dennett as a “once-in-a-generation scholar, teacher, and colleague,” citing both the 21 books that Dennett wrote and the 18 written about him as testaments to his status as an esteemed international intellectual figure. The Tufts Department of Philosophy plans to hold a larger memorial event to celebrate Dennett’s legacy this October.

George Smith, fellow professor of philosophy emeritus, was Dennett’s closest colleague at Tufts. The two knew each other for 51 years, worked together for 46 years and even retired together at the end of 2022. In Dennett’s final memoir, “I’ve Been Thinking,” published last year, he dedicated an entire chapter to his relationship with Smith. Smith also cited this memoir as where Tufts students interested in Dennett should begin exploring his work.

Smith described what he wanted people to take away from Dennett’s life and work, namely his effort to eliminate what he considered sources of confusion generated by belief in the supernatural.

“Philosophers think that one of their duties as professional philosophers is to identify sources of confusion, expose them and convince people to give up these sources of confusion,” Smith said. “Now what unified all of Dan’s thoughts is that he thought one single element was the greatest source of confusion in all of human thought: namely, any kind of appeal whatsoever to the supernatural.”

Teresa Salvato, the program administrator of Tufts’ cognitive science Ph.D. program, was Dennett’s assistant for over 25 years. She cited the clarity and eloquence of Dennett’s writing style as one of his most important scholarly contributions.

“I think one of his greatest contributions is that he was thought-provoking,” Salvato said. “He was an engaging writer that could be read by people from all fields and he asked a lot of thought-provoking questions. Whether you ultimately agreed with him or disagreed with him, he made you think. And I think that was one of his greatest gifts.”

Avner Baz, chair of the Department of Philosophy, explained how Dennett’s influence changed his own thinking.

“Nowadays, I will be much more open to taking into consideration, even as I speak about experience, phenomenology, perception [and] empirical findings in a way that I wasn’t open to before,” Baz acknowledged.

Baz also shared how Dennett helped fundamentally change the course of the Department of Philosophy.

“He has contributed to the department being a very ambitious department. And a department of many people who are, in one way or another, outsiders who don’t think within the box,” Baz said.

Similarly, Salvato shared details about Dennett’s creation of the Center for Cognitive Studies.

“Tufts administration wanted to keep [Dennett] and they said, ‘What do you want?’ Salvato said. “So they created this place that was like a fun playroom, from an academic point of view, a place where he could do whatever he wanted. So he did all the research that he wanted to do, and the postdocs who came were people that were eager to do that work with him.”

As for his personality outside of the classroom, Smith highlighted his consistency in manner and demeanor across all walks of life.

“Dan in public was exactly the same person as Dan in private,” Smith said. “He just lived life to the hilt, all the time. So how he presented himself to students, how he presented himself to colleagues [and] how he presented himself to other philosophers, is exactly how he was. And I can’t say the same thing about myself.”

Likewise, Salvato described Dennett’s affability, easygoing nature and close-knit relationships with students and faculty.

“[Dennett] loved to tell stories. He did a ton of traveling and had a lot of experiences, so he always had a story ready to tell you,” Salvato said. “He would often host parties at his house for students and postdocs and visiting fellows. … He would have cider-bottling days, where everyone would turn up [at Dennett’s farm] and help with bottling the cider.”

Enoch Lambert, a lecturer in the Department of Philosophy, described his time under Dennett’s wing as a postdoc in an email to the Daily.

“In the classroom, one thing Dan liked to do was present a slide with something quite provocative, often one of his more controversial ideas about consciousness, and then sit back and field objections,” Lambert wrote. “In the classroom he couldn’t be more open to criticisms, taking them in, showing students how seriously he took their ideas, responding as a partner in the cooperative intellectual enterprise he always took himself and his students to be engaged in.”

Similarly, Smith conveyed his experience co-teaching with Dennett in the 1990s, when the two taught a seminar on Descartes’ corpus.

“He was very easy to teach with because he thought of the classroom as a vehicle for him to learn. And when it was co-taught, we were learning from one another,” Smith said.

In regard to how Dennett impacted Tufts as an institution, Smith related how Dennett’s major academic standing bolstered the university’s international recognition significantly.

“I think [Dennett] did more than anyone at Tufts to make Tufts recognized worldwide,” he said.

When asked why Dennett’s work matters today, Smith detailed how many fellow philosophers, incensed by Dennett’s fervent beliefs, seemed unable to comprehend Dennett’s greater purpose.

“Other professional philosophers very often asked me how we could have coexisted all this time, and my reply is always how that was never a problem at all,” Smith relayed. “They just see [Dennett] as this barracuda attacking other people’s precious ideas. And he saw himself as trying to do the world a favor.”