The Autobiography of Daniel Dennett, Part I

From Philosophy Now, reprinted over at

It came as a pleasant surprise to me when I learned – around age twelve or thirteen – that not all the delicious and unspeakable thoughts of my childhood had to be kept private. Some of them were called ‘philosophy’, and there were legitimate, smart people who discussed these fascinating topics in public. While less immediately exciting than some of the other, still unspeakable, topics of my private musings, they were attention-riveting, and they had an aura of secret knowledge. Maybe I was a philosopher. That’s what the counselors at Camp Mowglis in New Hampshire suggested, and it seemed that I might be good at it.

My family didn’t discourage the idea. My mother and father were both the children of doctors, and both had chosen the humanities. My mother, an English major at Carleton College in Minnesota, went on for a Masters in English from the University of Minnesota, before deciding that she simply had to get out of Minnesota and see the world. Never having been out the Midwest, and bereft of any foreign languages, she took a job teaching English at the American Community School in Beirut. There she met my father, Daniel C. Dennett Jr, working on his PhD in Islamic history at Harvard while teaching at the American University of Beirut. His father, the first Daniel C. Dennett, was a classic small town general practitioner in Winchester, Massachusetts, the suburb of Boston where I spent most of my childhood. So yes, I am Daniel C. Dennett III; but since childhood I’ve disliked the Roman numerals, and so I chose to court confusion among librarians (how can DCD Jr be the father of DCD?) instead of acquiescing in my qualifier.

My father’s academic career got off to a fine start, with an oft-reprinted essay, ‘Pirenne and Muhammed’, which I was thrilled to find on the syllabus of a history course I took as an undergraduate. His first job was at Clark University. When World War II came along, he put his intimate knowledge of the Middle East to use as a secret agent in the OSS, stationed in Beirut. He was killed on a mission, in an airplane crash in Ethiopia in 1947, when I was five. So my mother and two sisters and I moved from Beirut to Winchester, where I grew up in the shadow of everybody’s memories of a quite legendary father. In my youth some of my friends were the sons of eminent or even famous professors at Harvard or MIT, and I saw the toll it took on them as they strove to be worthy of their fathers’ attention.