Hubert Dreyfus (1929-2017)

Dreyfus had a knack for finding deep philosophical themes in surprising places, and he loved presenting, discussing, and learning about these themes with the smart engineers at MIT. Despite this, his time there was not easy. In 1965, while still untenured but finally having received his Ph.D., Dreyfus published an influential document for the RAND Corporation called “Alchemy and Artificial Intelligence.” The paper argued that AI research was like alchemy: its initial success covered up the fact that the basic orientation of the research program was wrong. In a recent paper he explained this early argument with a quip from his brother and frequent collaborator Stuart: “it’s like claiming that the first monkey that climbed a tree was making progress towards flight to the moon.” These were fighting words for the powerful AI researchers at MIT, and Dreyfus’ tenure case was held in limbo in part because of their objections. After eventually being granted tenure at MIT, Dreyfus moved quickly to Berkeley in 1968, where he spent the rest of his life and career.

The RAND paper eventually became Dreyfus’ influential 1972 book What Computers Can’t Do: A Critique of Artificial Reason. A twenty-year anniversary edition of the book was published in 1992 under the title What Computers Still Can’t Do. In this book Dreyfus made a move that became characteristic of much of his philosophical work. He took the phenomenological account of human existence—especially as he found it in Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty—and applied it to influential domains outside of philosophy. Dreyfus’ interpretation of human being, of Dasein as Heidegger calls us, would eventually reverberate through natural and social scientific disciplines as diverse as nursing, leadership and management practice, psychotherapy, education, filmmaking, religious studies, and others.

Source: Hubert Dreyfus (1929-2017)