Daniel Dennett Reminisces About Gilbert Ryle, JZ Young, and AJ Ayer

Daniel Dennett Reminisces About Gilbert Ryle, JZ Young, and AJ Ayer September 27, 2009

In Philosophy Now, Daniel Dennett engagingly tells his life story—or at least part one of it.  It’s a fascinating read and for me the most interesting parts are these on Gilbert Ryle and AJ Ayer.  In particular, the account of Ryle’s method of mentoring and influencing is remarkable an inspiring.  Or maybe just evidence that there are practical benefits of being a shrewd behaviorist?

Gilbert Ryle himself was the other pillar of support I needed. In many regards he ruled Oxford philosophy at the time, as editor of Mind and informal clearing-house for jobs throughout the Anglophone world, but at the same time he stood somewhat outside the cliques and coteries, the hotbeds of philosophical fashion. He disliked and disapproved of the reigning Oxford fashion of clever, supercilious philosophical one-upmanship, and disrupted it when he could. He never ‘fought back’. In fact, I tried to provoke him, with elaborately-prepared and heavily-armed criticisms of his own ideas, but he would genially agree with all my good points as if I were talking about somebody else, and get us thinking what repairs and improvements we could together make of what remained. It was disorienting, and my opinion of him then – often expressed to my fellow graduate students, I am sad to say – was that while he was wonderful at cheering me up and encouraging me to stay the course, I hadn’t learned any philosophy from him.

I finished a presentable draft of my dissertation in the minimum time (six terms or two years) and submitted it with scant expectation that it would be accepted on first go. On the eve of submitting it, I came across an early draft of it, and compared the final product with its ancestor. To my astonishment, I could see Ryle’s influence on every page. How had he done it? Osmosis? Hypnotism? This gave me an early appreciation of the power of indirect methods in philosophy. You seldom talk anybody out of a position by arguing directly with their premises and inferences. Sometimes it is more effective to nudge them sideways with images, examples, helpful formulations that stick to their habits of thought. My examiners were A.J. Ayer and the great neuroanatomist J.Z. Young from London – an unprecedented alien presence at a philosophy viva, occasioned by my insistence on packing my thesis with speculations on brain science. He too had been struck by the idea of learning as evolution in the brain, and was writing a book on it, so we were kindred spirits on that topic, if not on the philosophy, which he found intriguing but impenetrable. Ayer was reserved. I feared he had not read much of the thesis, but I later found out he was simply made uncomfortable by his friend Young’s too-enthusiastic forays into philosophy, and he found silence more useful than intervention. I waited in agony for more than a week before I learned via a cheery postcard from Ryle that the examiners had voted me the degree.

In the final paragraphs he gloats nostalgically about the days when he was hired and how much comparatively easier it was to get a tenure track positions in philosophy back then:

Ah, those were the glorious expansionist days in American academia, when it was a seller’s market in jobs, and I had garnered two solid offers and a few feelers without so much as an interview, let alone a campus visit and job talk. For formality’s sake, Melden asked me to send a curriculum vitae along with my official acceptance letter, and I had to ask around Oxford to find out what such an obscure document might be.

For those reading this blog who may not be that familiar with the current job market for tenure-track jobs in philosophy, let’s just say that things are not quite the same today.

(via Brian Leiter)

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