It is also fair to say, I think, that the conception of free will I defend in Elbow Room is less an evenhanded analysis, and more a reform, of our everyday conception than I was willing to admit at the time. In the 1980s, Ordinary Language Philosophy had already plummeted from its dominant position in the 1960s, but I, an appreciative student of Ryle, was still engaged in the enterprise of trying to make sense of what we ordinarily say before dismissing it as mythic nonsense. Indeed I am still engaged in that project, an essential component, I believe, of the philosopher’s task as pronounced by Wilfrid Sellars in “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man,” (1962)
The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.
The tacit assumptions built into ordinary language do not provide a bulwark against the imperialist encroachments of science—as some zealots supposed fifty years ago—but they are in force, setting the terms, at the outset of any investigation, scientific or otherwise. “What are things made of?” is not couched in scientific language, but expresses a curiosity that science must attempt to satisfy directly or indirectly. So you need to understand the things (in that broadest possible sense) we ordinarily take to be real if you aspire to show how they hang together with the things science postulates. Understanding always invokes the principle of charity (to cite my other mentor, Quine), so there is never a bright line between pure analysis and reform. Making sense of something is making the best sense of it you can find, and that may often—even typically—lead you to clean up an everyday conception, removing its excess baggage, the scars of its history, in the course of analyzing it.
That is what I took myself to be doing in Elbow Room, saving everything that mattered about the everyday concept of free will, while jettisoning the impediments. If many folk were unpersuaded by my housecleaning efforts, one could with some justice conclude that I had been trying to salvage the unsalvageable, and should give it up as a lost cause.--Daniel C. Dennett (forthcoming) "Introduction to the new edition of Elbow Room (in German)." [Quoted with permission]
While my college writing sample included an extended reflection on Isaac Asimov and robot consciousness, I didn't go to Tufts to study with Dennett--I intended to be an international diplomat for the Worldbank. I had, however, heard of Dennett because he had co-edited a volume with Douglas Hofstadter, whose Gödel, Escher, Bach I had devoured as a teenager (and I am pretty sure I had encountered Dennett's name on the back of one of Hofstadter's books). So, I enrolled in an intro to philosophy course with Dennett. I left the first class bewildered - I didn't understand anything Dennett talked about -- and so dropped the class.
Despite this false start at academic philosophy, I returned to philosophy a few years later by way of puzzlement about the nature of science and, especially, social science; these puzzles have stayed with me. Dennett had his own 'Center for Cognitive Studies,' but even as an undergraduate, I did not experience him as the dominating figure in the department (despite his large, very real presence in person): too many of his colleagues (some of them more charismatic teachers) disagreed with him in the philosophy of mind and ontology. Armed with a lot more philosophy, I took Dennett's wonderful seminar on the manuscript that became Darwin's Dangerous Idea, which influenced my decision to go to graduate school. After college, and in preparation of graduate school, I read and adored Elbow Room, which I still consider one of the very best works in analytical philosophy because while drawing on relevant sciences, it beautifully blends conceptual analysis, a literary sensibility, and subtle-enough* moral psychology. I was so thoroughly influenced that my first graduate school papers were about Dennett in Wimsatt's philosophy of biology courses.+ Dennett got me to read the manuscript of Freedom Evolving with John Haugeland (about which some other time), and this cured me from the excesses of scientific naturalism.
In reading Dennett's introduction to the German edition of Elbow Room, I was struck by the (quoted) claim that "Making sense of something is making the best sense of it you can find, and that may often—even typically—lead you to clean up an everyday conception, removing its excess baggage, the scars of its history, in the course of analyzing it." It's an important corrective to the image of Dennett's hardnosed scientific naturalism -- often prompted by Dennett's writings -- which tends to evoke a normative-free conception of philosophy that describes without really intervening (the Quine-eanism without regimentation).
One might have thought -- say because of familiarity with history of sentimentalist tradition in ethics -- that the issue here is that if one genuinely understands a person, then one might end up approving of their action. Dennett's writings on the intentional stance help explain why one might think this; for the intentional stance involves reflecting on what a person (who is stipulated to be a rational agent)** ought to do and thereby predict their behavior. The intentional stance is a genuine form of explanation. So, despite the fact that one might think that one can distance oneself as a spectator from approving another person's action while explaining this action, it is not so easy to do given that one has explained their actions in terms of what they ought to do--so one cuts oneself of from the natural distinction between explaining and excusing/approving action. I think this result can be avoided by some strategies (relativism about rationality; methodological distinction between spectators and agents, etc.), but none of these strategies are -- as Adam Smith discerned - as parsimonious as the slide from explanation to approval.
But while I think the previous paragraph is relevant to what follows, that's not what Dennett is saying in the quoted passage. Rather, he is claiming that in philosophical analysis we perform (i) not just an act of clarification (a familiar analytical trope), but we are also (ii) optimizing in some sense (recall: "making sense of something is making the best sense of it you can find," (emphasis added)). Now one can resolutely claim that such optimizing is a form of 'as if' that leaves everything it touches alone (as a student, I was directed to Vaihinger by Dennett's Italian visitor Simone Gozzano); one finds something of this in certain interpretations of Milton Friedman's prescriptive 'as if' methodology for economics. [To put this as a serious joke: much of standard economics is an incautious blending of the design and intentional stances.] But -- without sounding too Augustinian, I hope -- our world is (almost) never optimal--the agents and situations we encounter are imperfectly rational (and our ordinary concepts tend to be granular because not designed by philosopher kings); so if you are trying to explain by way of optimization then you are committed not to what is concretely (or a real pattern), but what might be, once suitably improved. In economics optimization commitments are (when challenged) now routinely viewed as 'normative,' but it took a long time to get economists to see this (see Hands).
So, while it is possible that an analysis, when understood as a mere decomposition, could leave everything as is, it is no surprise that, in practice, it has a reformist tendency ("there is never a bright line between pure analysis and reform.") This is, incidentally, also why some of the crude forms of XPHI are misdirected against analysis; the practice is not wholly descriptive. (This should not be taken as a defense of analysis; analysis always has a tendency to efface perspectives that are taken to be unclear or don't fit the optimal, clarifying path.)
I said that the intentional stance is not wholly irrelevant here. For in bread-and-butter conceptual analysis rationality and normative commitments are rarely wholly absent. Dennett has offered a device (the stances) that make these commitments far more explicit than one ordinarily finds in the philosophical literature. As we clarify, we emendate, and improve toward an optimum (it's in this sense that analytical philosophy evokes, say, Seneca or Spinoza).++ So, the sense-making that is consequent to the non-Russellian analysis (and non-Carnapian explication) that Dennett articulates becomes part of, a real pattern in, the improved furniture of the intentional world. That is to say, sense-making is a reflexive activity in which the analytical philosopher is a coupled part of the intentional system that is analyed and, possibly improved. (As regular readers of this blog know, this situation generates special responsibilities/duties as well as non-trivial methodological self-awareness.) If this much is right, it seems that it took me twenty years to figure out what I have taken from Dennett (and what was there in the Intentional Stance, all along).
* By 'subtle enough,' I mean that it avoids the fallacy of trying to account for every possible counter example and so can do without all the scholastic epicycles so characteristic of an average, specialist journal article.
+I also TA'ed a course, "Philosophy of Mind & Science Fiction" for Wimsatt in which The Mind's I was assigned.
**The significance of the rationality assumption was brought home to my by an article by Carol Rovane.
++Bryce Huebner has alerted me to the deep Spinozistic roots of Dennett (see Elbow Room).