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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The Question of the Body

It strikes me, as I listen to you and having read some of your work, that there's a real focus on humanity. The words that come up again and again are "vulnerability," " commitment," "risk," and "meaning." Is that a fair assessment?

That's right.

So, these are the problems within philosophy that have preoccupied you.

That's right. There is a minority strain in philosophy who were the people that I was reading that nobody knew how to grade on my exams, and that's Kierkegaard -- well, it starts with Pascal, who was the first to say that the human condition is fundamentally contradictory. Everybody in the Plato/Aristotle Greek philosophy tradition had tried to find out what we essentially are and then to say, well, you've got to do your essential thing, be rational, love the good and whatever, and discard the part of you that is going against that. Mostly it was [that] the mind was the good part and the body was the bad part. They thought we were essentially minds.

Then Pascal comes around and says, no, we're essentially bodies and essentially minds, and they're in conflict in many ways, and we're stretched on this conflict, we're sort of crucified on the conflict, as I picture it. He says that great people go to both extremes and fill all the intervening space, and they are constantly anxious because it's impossible to get all this -- what it means to be a human being -- together. And they don't even take risks, it just happens that their life is a kind of risk. And so, Pascal starts this all by himself, a kind of genius. He was responding to Descartes, who was one of the [traditionalists claiming that] "We're just minds, and we'll just retire from all [physicality]; our body is just another object and we can get along without it." Pascal broke with that in 1670, roughly. And then Kierkegaard, way later, in 1850, took it up again.

I was very interested in Kierkegaard because he says explicitly that the self is a contradiction between the finite and the infinite, the temporal and eternal, the possible and the necessary; but he could also mean the body and the mind, except -- well, for this discussion -- he thought the body/mind distinction wasn't a good one because it leads people to think that they could have one without the other, whereas you've got to see that these two factors not only are in conflict, but they are necessary for each other at the same time. So, anyway, I got interested in that.

You seem to be very much influenced by Merleau-Ponty, in terms of the statement that helps you understand and define what it is to be human. Is that right?

Not really, not Merleau-Ponty. No.

That's an overstatement?

Merleau-Ponty is a kind of spin-off from Heidegger. It's Heidegger who takes up Kierkegaard. But we should go back one minute to Kierkegaard. He's got the notion of calling that I've got, that you are called to have what he calls an unconditional commitment or an infinite passion for something, and only by that can you get these seemingly contradictory factors together. But that puts you at a terrible risk, because if your commitment is to somebody, they may leave or die; if it's to some cause, it could fail; if it's to being a teacher, say, I could be struck dumb and not be able to talk and then there'd go the teacher business. So, it's always a risk.

Heidegger took up from Kierkegaard this whole idea of a calling and of the holding on to anxiety, which for him (he gets everything from Kierkegaard; that's already in Kierkegaard) means seeing that nothing has intrinsic meaning, that there are no guidelines that you can follow. You can follow them, but then you will have a life that is banal and standard and routine. Kierkegaard calls it leveled. But if you're going to respond in an alive way to the particular situation you're in, then you've got no guidelines. The guidelines will level you to the standard way of doing it. Heidegger takes that up and calls it being authentic.

So, that's why that resonated with something in my life. I don't know what exactly. It resonated with the story about skills and what it is to have a skill. That's where my brother comes into this. He's always around in the background, but long after I was teaching him, he was teaching me.

He's a philosopher too?

No, he's a professor here of industrial engineering. But he's a better philosopher -- not a philosopher, exactly, but a better phenomenologist -- than most of the philosophers.

All kinds of things happen by luck, by the way. I think that's a real factor. It was luck to be at MIT, and then it was luck to be here, and one day a guy showed up who turned out to be from the Air Force ...

I'd written this book, What Computers Still Can't Do -- well, What Computers Can't Do it was called in those days. He thought that I would help him fight the Air Force belief that to become an expert you had to learn rules, and to test if you were an expert they would test to see if you still remembered the rules. And this guy, Jack Thorpe, thought that was wrong and that I would support him and give him outside authority. And so, it turned out that the Air Force paid for me to think about skills, but I didn't know how to think about skills so I got my brother, Stuart into it, and he started thinking hard about skills.

We decided we would think about what it is to become a driver, because I'd said to Jack Thorpe, "I can't do this because you want to know about pilot's skills and I don't know anything about pilots or planes." And Stuart said, "That's all right. We'll talk about drivers and cars, and when we turn this in to the Air Force, we'll just substitute pilots for drivers and airplanes for cars." And it worked. The Air Force loved it and it showed a generality of the skills story. The skills story has built in it from my brother's side similar things to what I've been telling you, that if you start out with rules -- and you have to if you're going to learn a new skill -- you will just be doing something routine, like drivers who learn to shift when the speedometer needle points at 10 miles an hour.

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