Hubert L. Dreyfus Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Meaning, Relevance, and the Limits of Technology: Conversations with Hubert L. Dreyfus, Professor of Philosophy, UCB; November 2, 2005, by Harry Kreisler

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Bert, welcome to the show.

Thanks, Harry.

Where were you born and raised?

In the middle of nowhere: Terre Haute, Indiana. I was there for seventeen years without realizing there was an outside world.

Looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your thinking about the world?

Only in reaction. I lived in a vacuum. They didn't read books, they didn't listen to classical music, they just went to the Hollywood movies that were there in the theaters. Everything I did, when I read a good book or listened to music, had the added advantage of seeming like a radical new world in reaction to them.

I would've been stuck there forever if it hadn't been for a debate coach in high school who always thought that her good debaters should be sent to Harvard. She hadn't sent any for a while because I guess she hadn't had any, but she insisted that I should go to Harvard. I'd never heard of Harvard. I thought it must be in England because it was in Cambridge, which I thought must be in England.

I wanted to go to MIT. I was interested in science. I had great fun blowing up things, making bombs, and so forth, when I was hanging around in high school and junior high school.

Was this a rebellion against all the monotony?

Maybe. I guess it was. At the time, I just thought, how cool, you can make these bombs and set them off with electrical wires from a distance. I wanted to go to MIT because I figured they would help me make better bombs. In the end, I don't think I quite flipped a coin, I just did what the debate coach said and I went to Harvard. And then I discovered the real world.

And at Harvard what did you major in?

Physics. I loved science. When I wasn't making bombs, I was making poison gas and other things in the house. I wanted to do science, but I wandered into a philosophy course because I needed to meet a distribution requirement. It was C.I. Lewis, who I now in retrospect realize was a famous philosopher of the time, giving a course on Kant, who was certainly the famous philosopher of all times. I was simply stunned, and switched to philosophy.

Looking back, what do you think was the difference in physics and philosophy that made the one more attractive to you?

I guess relating it to the real world and to people's lives. They seem in such different dimensions, I can hardly compare them. They were both fascinating, but I wanted to understand myself and the world I was in. Physics is about the universe. It has nothing to do with me or with the world, or even the cosmos.

You mentioned before we started the interview that you had had dyslexia as a young person, and even today. Did that impact at all this movement to philosophy?

Yes, in a way. I think it may have even influenced my interest in science. It was clear that I couldn't go into history or English, or anything where you had to read a whole lot. At that point I hadn't noticed that I read half as fast as others and that I could hardly understand a foreign language when I saw it, although I could speak it if I heard it. I had to go into something that didn't require much reading, and physics was just equations. But philosophy is funny. You can only read Kant at ten pages an hour -- that's probably too fast, maybe five -- and Heidegger too, who is my favorite now. So, it doesn't matter if you're dyslexic. It's almost an advantage because you've got to slow down. So, that influenced me, I'm sure.

You got your BA at Harvard in what year?


And then there was a long period before you completed your dissertation. Tell us about that, because you were learning a lot during that period. What were you doing? You were teaching philosophy at MIT?

Right. I needed a problem. I think it's important. I keep telling students that you can't write good papers or theses if you haven't got a question. I wrote my undergraduate honors thesis on causality in quantum mechanics, sort of shifting from physics to philosophy. I wanted to know whether contemporary physics proved that Einstein and Kant were wrong in thinking you have to have to strict causality or you're not talking about reality. I worked on my honors for a year, trying to figure out the answer to that.

Then when it was time to do a Ph.D., I didn't have any question, and I didn't have anybody who was even helping me find any question because, for reasons I don't know, I was never interested in mainline philosophy -- the normal science of philosophy that my fellow graduate students were [interested] in. It seemed to me utterly boring. Now, everybody thinks that analytic philosophy in the fifties and sixties was utterly boring, but nobody could point me in any other direction.

Luckily, I got a traveling fellowship and I went and listened to Karl Jaspers in Basel, and Heidegger's followers in Freiburg, and saw that there was another way of thinking about things. And that helped. But still, I really didn't have any topic. So, although I graduated in '51, I didn't write my thesis until '64, meanwhile teaching at MIT. It wasn't a good thesis. I never published it, although people asked me to, because it was about Husserl, who I think is, unfortunately, a boring philosopher, and it didn't answer any question.

But when did I get a question? Ah, well, yes, I got a question and that may have changed my life and career. At MIT I was teaching the usual stuff, and luckily at MIT, the students were coming over from what was called then the robot lab (it's now called the artificial intelligence laboratory), saying, "Oh, you philosophers, you've never understood understanding and language and perception. You've had 2000 years and you just keep disagreeing and getting nowhere. But we, with our computers, are making programs that understand, and solve problems, and make plans, and learn languages. When we do that we'll understand how it's done." And I thought, "Gee, I want to be in on that, but I don't think they can do that," because Heidegger and Wittgenstein, who I was reading, say that intelligence doesn't consist of following rules. And their stuff is all rules. So, then I was interested.

So you had a problem. We're going to talk about that problem in a minute, but I want to go to a different place with you, because there are some interesting things that I want to walk you through first.

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