One of the movers and shakers in the rapidly converging fields of cognitive science, philosophy of the mind, and cognitive ethology, Daniel C. Dennett is also one of the most popular and engaging expositors of science writing of the 1990s. The essays in Brainchildren
will therefore be of interest not only to specialists but to the general reader as well. It is especially convenient to have these essays collected in one volume, as most of them appeared originally in relatively inaccessible publications.
Much of Brainchildren defends and expands views that Dennett advanced elsewhere, particularly in his 1991 magnum opus, Consciousness Explained. The most noteworthy of these is the essay "Real Patterns," in which he locates his "mildly realistic" view of the ontology of beliefs (and other mental items) in relation to the views of Jerry Fodor, Donald Davidson, Richard Rorty, and Paul Churchland. Dennett comments, quite correctly, that "Real Patterns" is utterly central to his thinking; nobody interested in his work should neglect it. Less central but more controversial is "Speaking for Our Selves," coauthored with the psychologist Nicholas Humphrey, which argues that Dennett's view of the self neatly accommodates the possibility of the dubious phenomenon of multiple personality disorder. Also included is a handful of book reviews, forewords, commentaries, and other occasional pieces that will perhaps be of only limited interest to the nonspecialist. But Dennett provides enough philosophical and psychological excitement in Brainchildren to thrill even the casual reader. --Glenn Branch
From Publishers Weekly
The author of Darwin's Dangerous Idea and Consciousness Explained here collects essays from conference volumes and "specialized journals" that have appeared from 1984 to 1996, with the idea of making them available "for students and other readers." But any reader curious about the nuts and bolts of recent theories of mind and our attempts at modeling it will find even Dennett's technical side accessible enough, given a willingness to be occasionally thrown in medias res. The lead essay, "Can Machines Think?" is a clearly formulated reassessment of current contenders for passing the Turing test?the criterion by which thinking machines are judged. "Speaking for Our Selves" evaluates claims for the legitimacy of multiple personality disorder, and extends the discussion into questioning the notion of selfhood. "Real Patterns," which Dennett calls "utterly central to my thinking," is tougher going, as Dennett seems to be addressing an ongoing dispute among philosophers about what it might mean for a belief to be "real," but the essay rewards repeated reading. A section on animal cognition and one on the philosophical possibility of zombies are further draws, but many of the other essays and reviews will hold interest only for the specialist. Throughout, however, Dennett's careful attention to word choice and definition helps the uninitiated along, and reveals one of our most celebrated?and controversial?philosophers of mind at work.
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