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Hubert Dreyfus
In Memoriam

Hubert Dreyfus

Professor of Philosophy, Emeritus

UC Berkeley
When my friend and colleague Hubert Dreyfus left us on April 22, 2017, he did so with a twitter message that said simply: “Reports of my demise are not exaggerated.” The tone of philosophical composure and gentle irony in these words captures a great deal of who Dreyfus was, both as a thinker and as a human being. His death ended a most remarkable career during which Dreyfus taught at Berkeley for almost half a century, brought up a whole generation of scholars following in his footsteps, was a visiting professor and lecturer in four continents, published a half-dozen books that were translated into numerous languages, and wrote almost 200 philosophical papers. An astonishing part of that work was done in the last twenty years of his life, after he had officially retired. As a professor in the graduate school he remained just as deeply engaged in his work as he had always been. He was just as often in his office, spent just as many hours there, remained just as freely accessible to his students, and was just as productive in his thinking and publishing. Since we were both early risers and our offices were across the hall from each other, we competed in those years in who would be first to arrive in Moses Hall. I must admit that he usually beat me even when I got there at 7 a.m., and he was often still in his office when I left in the evening.

In the mornings when no one else was yet around, he would often knock on my door, book in hand, to ask me about a particularly vexing passage of German philosophy. The book in question would frequently be one of Martin Heidegger’s. He had so deeply penetrated into these texts and had such an understanding of what they should mean, that the finest nuances of Heidegger’s language became important to him. His dedication to this one thinker was, indeed, unique. That does not mean that he simply surrendered to the lure of Heidegger’s thinking. His take on it remained original and independent and also drew insights from American pragmatism and the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein. In 1991, Dreyfus put his vision of Heidegger together in an influential commentary on Heidegger’s early main work, Being and Time. (Being-in-the-World: A commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time). It was through Dreyfus that my own earlier interest in Heidegger was also revived.

We differed, however, over Heidegger’s notorious politics. Dreyfus thought that he could cleanly separate Heidegger’s philosophical insights from his political mistakes. I was less convinced of that and had my eye on Heidegger’s politics and the broad question of how philosophy and politics intersect. Dreyfus had also no specific concern with the field of ethics that engaged me. He was a phenomenologist focused on human knowledge, experience, perception, action, and the mind. Political philosophy and ethics lay outside his range. In this last respect, he was once again in tune with Heidegger himself, who had developed neither a specific political philosophy nor an ethics. There was another respect, however, in which Dreyfus did depart from Heidegger. He had no particular attraction to the later Heidegger’s turn towards a historically oriented form of philosophical thinking, to his fixation specifically on the Pre-Socratic thinkers. Dreyfus remained always a problem-oriented philosopher rather than a historically motivated one. Central to Dreyfus’ reading of Heidegger was the idea that practical engagement with the world is more fundamental than conceptual understanding, that knowing how comes before knowing that. Human understanding had to be interpreted in pragmatic rather than in cognitive and conceptual terms. And that, he concluded, required giving primacy and prominence to the human body over the human mind.

This take on Heidegger was probably due to where and how he had come to encounter that philosopher. Dreyfus, who was born in Terre Haute, Indiana in 1929, had gone to Harvard University in 1947, and had there, with the help of the “holistic pragmatist” philosopher Morton White, acquired an unexpected passion for Heidegger’s philosophy that was to nourish him for his entire philosophical career. His classes at Berkeley inspired hundreds of students to engage themselves in Heidegger’s thought, and he trained a dozen dedicated graduate students to continue that work elsewhere. His method of teaching was admirably Socratic in style. He would set out to convince his students of how puzzling a philosophical text or a philosophical problem really was and then invite them to help him in resolving the puzzlement. Thus, teaching became for him a shared process of learning.

Dreyfus carried this collaborative approach also into his research. Most philosophers still write on their own. Dreyfus, by contrast, often collaborated with others - students, former students, and colleagues, notably also his brother Stuart Dreyfus, himself now a Berkeley emeritus professor of industrial engineering and operations research, and Paul Rabinow in anthropology. It was all part of Dreyfus’ determination to reach beyond the usual disciplinary boundaries. He sometimes described himself accordingly as an “applied” rather than a “pure” philosopher. His much discussed first book, What Computers Can’t Do, published in 1972, was written in precisely this spirit as a philosophical critique of artificial reason. In a similar spirit he published, together with his brother, Mind over Machines: The Power of Human Intuitive Experience in the Era of the Computer (1986), and in 2011, All Things Shining, together with his former student Sean Kelly, as a reading of Western classics for a secular age. He also worked repeatedly with the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, most recently on a book entitled Retrieving Realism, published in 2015.

While Martin Heidegger remained for him an inspiration, he increasingly reached out beyond him in his later years. In the path-breaking book he wrote together with Paul Rabinow on Michel Foucault, he developed the first comprehensive treatment of that philosopher – certainly for English language readers. He also became increasingly engaged with the writings of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and his contribution to resolving “the myth of the mental.” The names of Heidegger, Foucault, and Merleau-Ponty - to which one should add those of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Husserl, and Sartre as also having been of interest to him - indicate that Dreyfus’ philosophical thought belongs largely to the European or “continental” side in the ongoing philosophical debate, rather than the American and “analytic” one. But he was always ready to build bridges between these two supposedly hostile fronts, kept up a dialogue with philosophers from the analytic side, like Dan Dennett, John Searle, and John McDowell, and maintained an interest in technical fields such as artificial intelligence, cognitive science, the philosophy of mind, and the theory of action. Characteristic of his approach to philosophy are the more than 80 interviews he gave in his lifetime, in which he sought to make philosophical ideas accessible to a broad, educated public.

Dreyfus is survived by his wife, Genevieve, who was his companion for 42 years and assisted him tirelessly in his work, two children, a grandchild, and his younger brother Stuart.

All in all, his was a full and enviable philosophical life.  

Hans Sluga