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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Teaching Philosophy

In a recent interview you said that there is in the universe a power to grab people and motivate them to do great things which doesn't come out of their inner [being] and doesn't come out of their culture. We don't know what it is but people call it a calling. So, I want you to reflect a moment. You led us to coming to philosophy -- what do you see in your background that led to that calling? Or was it the problem that interested you?

It was always being grabbed by a problem. That's close to a calling, but I think my calling is being a teacher, and that's different.

I don't get my identity from philosophy or from solving, or at least pushing ahead, one of these issues like what computers can and can't do. The real [calling] came when I became a teaching assistant. I suddenly discovered that I could throw myself into a discussion section so completely that I literally forgot where I was, and for about an hour afterwards I was wandering in a daze because it was just so fascinating. And it's been like that ever since. I still put so much energy into teaching, and I still just sort of forget where I am. I'm sure anybody in flow, doing whatever they do, feels it. And that was a calling.

I have a clue, if you want to know where I think I got it. I have a hunch that people who are teachers probably have younger siblings. I got credit for teaching my younger brother; not hitting him but helping him. So, I was a teacher from the age of three. It'd be interesting to study. I wish somebody, maybe hearing this, will go look into whether people who win teaching awards are older siblings.

You said actually -- it's something that you gave me to read -- that at a certain point you were somewhat disappointed or frustrated when your younger brother was born and that you almost felt a kind of nothingness, that you no longer had anything to prove, and therefore you were ready to risk everything. Is that it?

That's right. That is a Heideggerian way of thinking, way before I had come across Heidegger. Most people believe (I guess -- it's hard for me to remember what it would be like to believe it because I must have lost it at the age of three) that there is an intrinsic meaning in things and that you get credit for what you do by way of the approval of people, and that you know what's good and what's not, and that you can earn credit by doing the appropriate thing.

I think I lost that when all of a sudden my world was smashed by some little baby who seemed to be getting as much credit, or more, than I did. But going through that kind of despair, one might call it -- Heidegger called it anxiety, but in a very special meaning of anxiety, where you discover that nothing has any intrinsic meaning. That frees you up to hear the call and to respond to whatever calls you. I guess I can connect that with graduate school. While everybody else was charging along, seeming to know what they should do to get a job and what they should read, I had no clue; but I read all kinds of weird stuff that nobody else read. On the qualifying exams, nobody could grade my qualifying exam because it was about stuff they'd never read. My thesis on quantum physics was read by Quine, who is a logician and I don't think had any particular [knowledge] of quantum physics.

I was always just doing what the situation required, and the ultimate -- back to computers: nobody else in philosophy was paying any attention to these people who were claiming that they were using their computers to understand the mind. And as soon as I heard it, it grabbed me, and I just started thinking about it, although there was no philosophy written on the subject. That was all right. I read the AI people's stuff and ...

Artificial intelligence.

Yes, artificial intelligence, things that they published. And that's the way it goes.

Now you have two vocations, primarily a teacher, you just said, but you're also a philosopher. Let's talk a little about doing philosophy and then we'll get to what you've done with philosophy. What does a philosopher do?

Most of my colleagues and former graduate student friends work at solving problems that have been around since Plato and Aristotle, like the nature of time and space and causality -- and perception was a big one when I was a graduate student. There's a reigning view, and some try to defend it and others attack it, and everybody publishes stuff and gets promoted on the basis of how well they defend or attack. It never interested me.

What interested me, again, was trying to understand a current issue. Other philosophers, I guess, have done that; I can't think of any right now who've done it, but they must've. Well, Kant was doing it. He was trying to understand how physics was possible, how mathematics was possible, and so forth, given certain assumptions.

Philosophy amounts to finding an interesting thing going on that it seems important to know the answer to. It gives you the equipment to do it: you learn to think clearly, to think of generalizations, to think of counter-examples, to answer the counter-examples. That's what all of these people were doing, but the content of what they were doing didn't interest me. The method was fine, except -- oh, another thing: It just so happens that there's a division between the philosophers who mainly think -- it isn't using logic, that's too narrow -- but think analytically, as they would say, making claims and counter-claims and counter-examples. I think that's fine, but I got more and more called, or pulled into, phenomenology, where the important thing is to describe the experience involved in perceiving, in acting. This whole talk we're having about finding your calling is phenomenology. You can't get it by analysis of concepts or rules or propositions, and so forth. It's an experience.

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