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Hubert Dreyfus

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Hubert Dreyfus
Dreyfus in 2011
Hubert Lederer Dreyfus

(1929-10-15)October 15, 1929
DiedApril 22, 2017(2017-04-22) (aged 87)
Alma materHarvard University
SpouseGeneviève Boissier-Dreyfus[3]
ThesisHusserl's Phenomenology of Perception (1964)
Doctoral students
Other notable studentsEric Kaplan
Main interests
Notable ideas

Hubert Lederer Dreyfus (/ˈdrfəs/ DRY-fəs; October 15, 1929 – April 22, 2017) was an American philosopher and professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. His main interests included phenomenology, existentialism and the philosophy of both psychology and literature, as well as the philosophical implications of artificial intelligence. He was widely known for his exegesis of Martin Heidegger, which critics labeled "Dreydegger".[4]

Dreyfus was featured in Tao Ruspoli's film Being in the World (2010),[5] and was among the philosophers interviewed by Bryan Magee for the BBC Television series The Great Philosophers (1987).[6]

The Futurama character Professor Hubert Farnsworth is partly named after him, writer Eric Kaplan having been a former student.[3]

Life and career[edit]

Dreyfus was born on 15 October 1929, in Terre Haute, Indiana, to Stanley S. and Irene (Lederer) Dreyfus.[7][8]

He attended Harvard University from 1947.[9] With a senior honors thesis on Causality and Quantum Theory (for which W. V. O. Quine was the main examiner)[9] he was awarded a BA summa cum laude in 1951[8] and joined Phi Beta Kappa.[10] He was awarded an MA in 1952.[8][10] He was a Teaching Fellow at Harvard in 1952-1953 (as he was again in 1954 and 1956).[11] Then, on a Harvard Sheldon traveling fellowship, Dreyfus studied at the University of Freiburg over 1953–1954.[10] During this time he had an interview with Martin Heidegger.[9] Sean D. Kelly records that Dreyfus found the meeting 'disappointing.'[12] Brief mention of it was made by Dreyfus during his 1987 BBC interview with Bryan Magee in remarks that are revealing of both his and Heidegger's opinion of the work of Jean-Paul Sartre.[13][6]

Between 1956 and 1957, Dreyfus undertook research at the Husserl Archives at the University of Louvain on a Fulbright Fellowship.[10] Towards the end of his stay, his first (jointly authored) paper "Curds and Lions in Don Quijote" would appear in print.[12][14] After acting as an instructor in philosophy at Brandeis University (1957–1959),[8][11] he attended the Ecole Normale Supérieure, Paris, on a French government grant (1959–1960).[10]

From 1960, first as an instructor, then as an assistant and then associate professor, Dreyfus taught philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).[8] In 1964, with his dissertation Husserl's Phenomenology of Perception, he obtained his PhD from Harvard.[10][15] (Due to his knowledge of Husserl, Dagfinn Føllesdal sat on the thesis committee but he has asserted that Dreyfus "was not really my student.")[16] That same year, his co-translation (with his first wife) of Sense and Non-Sense by Maurice Merleau-Ponty was published.[7]

Also in 1964, and whilst still at MIT, he was employed as a consultant by the RAND Corporation to review the work of Allen Newell and Herbert A. Simon in the field of artificial intelligence (AI).[9] This resulted in the publication, in 1965, of the "famously combative" Alchemy and Artificial Intelligence, which proved to be the first of a series of papers and books attacking the AI field's claims and assumptions.[17][18] The first edition of What Computers Can't Do would follow in 1972, and this critique of AI (which has been translated into at least ten languages) would establish Dreyfus's public reputation.[9] However, as the editors of his Festschrift noted: "the study and interpretation of 'continental' philosophers... came first in the order of his philosophical interests and influences."[9]

Dreyfus (left) outside his Berkeley home in 1976

In 1968, although he had been granted tenure, Dreyfus left MIT and became an associate professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley[8][10] (winning, that same year, the Harbison Prize for Outstanding Teaching).[3] In 1972 he was promoted to full professor.[8][10] Though Dreyfus retired from his chair in 1994, he continued as professor of philosophy in the Graduate School (and held, from 1999, a joint appointment in the rhetoric department).[3] And he continued to teach philosophy at UC Berkeley until his last class in December 2016.[3]

Dreyfus was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2001.[19] He was also awarded an honorary doctorate for "his brilliant and highly influential work in the field of artificial intelligence" and his interpretation of twentieth century continental philosophy by Erasmus University.[3]

Dreyfus died on April 22, 2017.[7][12]

His younger brother and sometimes collaborator, Stuart Dreyfus, is a professor emeritus of industrial engineering and operations research at the University of California, Berkeley.

Dreyfus' criticism of AI[edit]

Dreyfus' critique of artificial intelligence (AI) concerns what he considers to be the four primary assumptions of AI research. The first two assumptions are what he calls the "biological" and "psychological" assumptions. The biological assumption is that the brain is analogous to computer hardware and the mind is analogous to computer software. The psychological assumption is that the mind works by performing discrete computations (in the form of algorithmic rules) on discrete representations or symbols.

Dreyfus claims that the plausibility of the psychological assumption rests on two others: the epistemological and ontological assumptions. The epistemological assumption is that all activity (either by animate or inanimate objects) can be formalized (mathematically) in the form of predictive rules or laws. The ontological assumption is that reality consists entirely of a set of mutually independent, atomic (indivisible) facts. It's because of the epistemological assumption that workers in the field argue that intelligence is the same as formal rule-following, and it's because of the ontological one that they argue that human knowledge consists entirely of internal representations of reality.

On the basis of these two assumptions, workers in the field claim that cognition is the manipulation of internal symbols by internal rules, and that, therefore, human behaviour is, to a large extent, context free (see contextualism). Therefore, a truly scientific psychology is possible, which will detail the 'internal' rules of the human mind, in the same way the laws of physics detail the 'external' laws of the physical world. However, it is this key assumption that Dreyfus denies. In other words, he argues that we cannot now (and never will be able to) understand our own behavior in the same way as we understand objects in, for example, physics or chemistry: that is, by considering ourselves as things whose behaviour can be predicted via 'objective', context free scientific laws. According to Dreyfus, a context-free psychology is a contradiction in terms.

Dreyfus's arguments against this position are taken from the phenomenological and hermeneutical tradition (especially the work of Martin Heidegger). Heidegger argued that, contrary to the cognitivist views (on which AI has been based), our being is in fact highly context-bound, which is why the two context-free assumptions are false. Dreyfus doesn't deny that we can choose to see human (or any) activity as being 'law-governed', in the same way that we can choose to see reality as consisting of indivisible atomic facts... if we wish. But it is a huge leap from that to state that because we want to or can see things in this way that it is therefore an objective fact that they are the case. In fact, Dreyfus argues that they are not (necessarily) the case, and that, therefore, any research program that assumes they are will quickly run into profound theoretical and practical problems. Therefore, the current efforts of workers in the field are doomed to failure.

Dreyfus argues that to get a device or devices with human-like intelligence would require them to have a human-like being-in-the-world and to have bodies more or less like ours, and social acculturation (i.e. a society) more or less like ours. (This view is shared by psychologists in the embodied psychology (Lakoff and Johnson 1999) and distributed cognition traditions. His opinions are similar to those of robotics researchers such as Rodney Brooks as well as researchers in the field of artificial life.)

Daniel Crevier writes: "time has proven the accuracy and perceptiveness of some of Dreyfus's comments. Had he formulated them less aggressively, constructive actions they suggested might have been taken much earlier."[20]

Webcasting philosophy[edit]

When UC Berkeley and Apple began making a selected number of lecture classes freely available to the public as podcasts beginning around 2006, a recording of Dreyfus teaching a course called "Man, God, and Society in Western Literature – From Gods to God and Back" rose to the 58th most popular webcast on iTunes.[21] These webcasts have attracted the attention of many, including non-academics, to Dreyfus and his subject area.[22]



  • 1972. What Computers Can't Do: The Limits of Artificial Intelligence. ISBN 0-06-011082-1 (At Internet Archive)
  • 1983. (with Paul Rabinow) Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. Chicago, Ill: The University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-16312-3 (At Open Library)
  • 1986 (with Stuart Dreyfus). Mind Over Machine: The Power of Human Intuition and Expertise in the Era of the Computer. New York: Free Press.(At Open Library)
  • 1991. Being-in-the-World: A Commentary on Heidegger's Being and Time, Division I.Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-54056-8, ISBN 978-0-262-54056-8
  • 1992. What Computers Still Can't Do: A Critique of Artificial Reason. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-54067-3 [23]
  • 1997, Disclosing New Worlds: Entrepreneurship, Democratic Action, and the Cultivation of Solidarity (co-author, with Fernando Flores and Charles Spinosa)
  • 2001. On the Internet First Edition. London and New York: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-77516-8; 2nd edition 1979 (At Internet Archive)[24]
  • 2011. (with Sean Dorrance Kelly) All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age. (At Open Library)[25]
  • 2014 Skillful Coping: Essays on the Phenomenology of Everyday Perception and Action, Mark A. Wrathall (ed.), ISBN 9780199654703 [26]
  • 2015 (with Charles Taylor) Retrieving Realism. Harvard University Press, ISBN 9780198796220 [27]
  • 2017 Background Practices: Essays on the Understanding of Being, Mark A. Wrathall (ed.), Oxford University Press, ISBN 9780198796220 [28]


  • 2000. Heidegger, Authenticity, and Modernity: Essays in Honor of Hubert Dreyfus, Volume 1. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-73127-4.[29]
  • 2000. Heidegger, Coping, and Cognitive Science: Essays in Honor of Hubert L. Dreyfus, Volume 2. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-73128-2 [29][30]

Select articles[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hubert L. Dreyfus, Mark A. Wrathall (eds.), Heidegger Reexamined: Truth, realism, and the history of being, Routledge, 2002, pp. 245, 274, 280
  2. ^ Wrathall, Mark A., ed. (2017-07-20). Heidegger's Hermeneutic Realism (1991). Vol. 1. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/oso/9780198796220.003.0005. ISBN 978-0-19-879622-0.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Anwar, Yasmin (2017-04-25). "Hubert Dreyfus, preeminent philosopher and AI critic, dies at 87". Berkeley News. Retrieved 2019-04-15.
  4. ^ Woessner, Martin (2011). Heidegger in America. Cambridge University Press. p. 203. ISBN 978-0-521-51837-6.
  5. ^ "BEING IN THE WORLD by Tao Ruspoli @ Brooklyn Film Festival". Retrieved 2019-10-04.
  6. ^ a b Magee, Bryan, Dreyfus, Hubert L. Bryan Magee talks to Hubert Dreyfus about Husserl, Heidegger and modern existentialism. [via YouTube] The Great Philosophers BBC (1987)
  7. ^ a b c Grimes, William (2017-05-02). "Hubert L. Dreyfus, Philosopher of the Limits of Computers, Dies at 87". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2019-04-15.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g "Dreyfus, Hubert L(ederer) 1929-." Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series. Encyclopedia.com. 22 Aug. 2019
  9. ^ a b c d e f "Introduction". Heidegger, authenticity, and modernity. Dreyfus, Hubert L., Wrathall, Mark A., Malpas, J. E. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press. 2000. ISBN 9780262286459. OCLC 62157918.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h Shook, John R. (2005). "Dreyfus, Hubert Lederer (1929–)". The Dictionary of Modern American Philosophers. Bristol: Thoemmes Continuum. ISBN 9781849723589. OCLC 276357640.
  11. ^ a b "Professor Hubert Dreyfus Long form CV". sophos.berkeley.edu. Archived from the original on 2019-08-22. Retrieved 2019-08-23.
  12. ^ a b c Kelly, Sean D. (2017-04-24). Weinberg, Justin (ed.). "Hubert Dreyfus (1929-2017)". Daily Nous. Retrieved 2019-04-15.
  13. ^ Magee, Bryan (1988). The Great Philosophers: An Introduction to Western Philosophy. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 275. ISBN 9780192822017. OL 2043183M. Sartre started out as a Husserlian, and as a phenomenologist he wrote a good novel called Nausea, which is a first-person description of a person's world breaking down. Then he read Heidegger and was converted to what he thought was Heideggerian existentialism. But as a Husserlian and a Frenchman he felt he had to fix up Heidegger and make him more Cartesian. So he starts with the individual conscious subject, but writes about Death, Anxiety, lnauthenticity, Being and Nothing - all the things that Heidegger talks about. The result, Being and Nothingness, is a brilliant misunderstanding of Being and Time. If the story that we've been telling is right, Heidegger was precisely trying to free us from our Cartesian assumptions. When I went to visit Heidegger he had Being and Nothingness on his desk, in German translation, and I said, 'So you're reading Sartre?, and he responded, 'How can I even begin to read this muck?' (His word was 'Dreck'.) That's pretty strong, but I think accurate, since if you treat Heidegger as if he were talking about subjects you turn him back into Husserl.
  14. ^ Dreyfus, Hubert L.; Broderick, James H. (1957-06-01). "Curds and Lions in Don Quijote a Study of Chapter 17, Book II". Modern Language Quarterly. 18 (2): 100–106. doi:10.1215/00267929-18-2-100. ISSN 0026-7929.
  15. ^ Dreyfus, Hubert L (1963). Husserl's phenomenology of perception: from transcendental to existential phenomenology (Thesis). OCLC 18179097.
  16. ^ Korsnes, C. 2016, A Matter of Perspective: Interview with Dagfinn Føllesdal, Filosofisk supplement, 2/2015
  17. ^ Müller, Vincent C., ed. (2015). "Errors, Insights, and Lessons of Famous Artificial Intelligence Predictions: And What They Mean for the Future" (PDF). Risks of Artificial Intelligence. Chapter by Stuart Armstrong, Kaj Sotala, Seán Ó hÉigeartaigh. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press - Chapman & Hall. doi:10.1201/b19187. ISBN 978-1498734837. OCLC 921182846.
  18. ^ a b Dreyfus, Hubert L. (1965). "Alchemy and Artificial Intelligence". www.rand.org. Retrieved 2019-08-23.
  19. ^ "Book of Members, 1780-2010: Chapter D" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2018-08-09. Retrieved 2011-04-19.
  20. ^ Crevier, Daniel (1993). AI : the tumultuous history of the search for artificial intelligence. New York: Basic Books. pp. 125. ISBN 0465029973. OCLC 26858345.
  21. ^ The iPod lecture circuit, Michelle Quinn Los Angeles Times, 24 November 2007, Archived by Wayback Machine
  22. ^ "Episode III: The Life and Death of Hubert Dreyfus · At World's End". atworldsend.co. Retrieved 2019-10-25.
  23. ^ Haugeland, John (1996-01-01). "Body and world: a review of What Computers Still Can't Do: A critique of artificial reason (Hubert L. Dreyfus): (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1992); liii + 354 pages, $13.95" (PDF). Artificial Intelligence. 80 (1): 119–128. doi:10.1016/0004-3702(95)00084-4. ISSN 0004-3702. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2018-07-12.
  24. ^ Starr, Sandy "Nihilism online?", 2001-07031, Spiked, Archived from the original on 2001-11-18 [Review]
  25. ^ [Reviewed by Garry Wills in Superficial & Sublime?, New York Review of Books, 2011-04-07, this being followed by 'All Things Shining': An Exchange in NYRB on 2011-05-26]
  26. ^ MacAvoy, Leslie (2015-05-19). "Review of Skillful Coping: Essays on the Phenomenology of Everyday Perception and Action". Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. ISSN 1538-1617.
  27. ^ Roth, Paul A. (2015-11-16). "Review of Retrieving Realism". Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. ISSN 1538-1617.
  28. ^ Okrent, Mark (2018-02-08). "Review of Background Practices: Essays on the Understanding of Being". Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. ISSN 1538-1617.
  29. ^ a b Brinkmann, Svend (2010) On the Road with Heidegger: Review of the Festschrift in honor of Hubert Dreyfus PrePrint of published review in: SATS, Volume 3, Issue 1, Pages 175–180, ISSN (Online) 1869-7577, ISSN (Print) 1600-1974
  30. ^ Sean Dorrance Kelly. 2000. Grasping at Straws: Motor Intentionality and the Cognitive Science of Skilled Behavior In Heidegger, Coping, and Cognitive Science: Essays in Honor of Hubert L. Dreyfus - Vol. II, edited by Mark Wrathall and Jeff Malpas, II: Pp. 161–177. Cambridge, MA, USA: MIT Press [Author Copy]

Criticism of AI sources[edit]

External links[edit]