Daniel Dennett’s Mis-step

Daniel Dennett’s steps for “How to compose a successful critical commentary” have been swimming around the internet recently. For those of you who haven’t read them, they are below.

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

They are quite helpful for, as its author intended, “composing a successful critical commentary.” But I would add another point, which could actually summarize the first four: How would your opponent respond? If you can successfully refute your own criticism of the work in question (target), a requirement of being able to do this would be both a firm grasp on the text (your target’s position) and, most importantly, understood the content, orienting principles, and trajectory of the work.

The fundamental difference between my step and Dennett’s is that of purpose. If one’s primary task is to compose a critique, then I would suggest that the primary intention or thrust of the critique is to show that your opponent is wrong and that you are right. In order to show you are right with intellectual rigor, then proceed with Dennett’s steps to success. If your task is to read and learn from the text, then the ability to “re-express your target’s position” should be your chief task in the first place.

Now, am I being fair to Dennett and his steps? First, the four steps were on a half-page article on the internet and seem to be taken from his book “Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking.” So he may have prefaced these four steps with something like “if you are going to criticize, here are some good tools to do so. Included in these tools are four helpful steps.” Second, closely related, these steps may be misquoting or mis representing the author. Third, he does say that they are tools for criticisms and not that they are four steps to learning or engaging with a text.

After having read the section of his book on the steps, the first two of my attempts to be fair are easily answered. The steps are actually those of Anatol Rapoport which Dennett follows with “somewhat of a struggle.” The article in question is rather misleading. First it says that the rules were formulated by Rapoport. In the next sentence it says that Dennett has “synthesized” the rules. So they are not of his own construction. They are a part of his bag of critical thinking tools.

So. Do the four steps embody a certain disposition towards people and their works? If I am reading him right, Dennett holds that it is more rewarding to follow the steps than to give a thoughtless critique (angry hatchet job). “It is worth reminding yourself that a heroic attempt to find a defensible interpretation of an author, if it comes up empty, can be even more devastating than an angry hatchet job. I recommend it.” This sentence comes at the end of his thoughts on the four steps. His last words are about the rewards one reaps by being right or wrong in a debate.

The final emphasis is on being right, on having an intellectually fortified position which one either wins or loses. Nowhere does he stress that the point of engaging with a text (opponent) is to learn from it. Put at its worst: learn from your opponent so that you can be in a better position to criticize them. You can re-express their position, but don’t try and answer for them.

I think the most profitable way to read a text is to be able to learn the author’s position and trajectory so that you can answer questions that they have not been able to answer yet and to let the text speak new thoughts by means of your newly posed questions (criticisms).

In sum, the four steps are centered around winning an intellectual argument and not about an engagement that would loosen the bonds that hold you to your own position; the loosening and distancing of these bonds i call change, and the practice of loosening and challenging these bonds — the opening up and engagement with inherently different practices — I call growth.

I would love to be convinced that Dennett advocates for this kind of growth, or, even better, that my conception of growth is flawed and is in need of revision.

About JoeL

I completed a Master of Music degree from McGill University. I am currently working towards an Artist Diploma also at McGill. I like to do philosophy as a hobby.

4 thoughts on “Daniel Dennett’s Mis-step

  1. Nice piece. Two questions.

    1. How does coming to inquiry from a particular place, history, body work within what you’ve called engagement? Relatedly, where is emotion in the mode of inquiry you’ve described?

    2. Sometimes or even often people advocate for ideas that are really bad – you know, those ideas that destroy lives. Sometimes people think that those bad ideas are just the best way and othertimes people are unaware of implicit bad ideas lurking within what they think is a good idea. What does the refutation of an argument look like in this context for you?


  2. @1. Our modes of engagement are certainly conditioned by the world that we live in. And sometimes (if not most times) these worlds do not allow for us to engage in the way that I have described. For instance, minorities and feminists will often remind each other that you have to pick your battles because you don’t have the strength to fight or win every battle, especially because often times your opponent only wants to fight and not to learn (perhaps like Dennett)

    @2. The first part of this question I think is answered in my previous point. The second part might have to do with an engagement with one’s own work: rather than proclaiming my ideas, and doing what I do, it is healthy to ask this question: what might my ideas look like to someone else?


    1. So, sort of a “set your own house in order” to the idea that we need to fight the good fight against bad ideas?

      In regards to the first question, I’m wondering whether your response indicates not only that the kind of engagement you describe is not always possible, but whether it is in fact not always desirable.


  3. Exactly.

    My fight with Dennett is that he seems to engage with his opponents for the pure purpose of defeating them with an intellectual critique. Nowhere have I found him praising the kind of engagement which I have described.


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