Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking

Daniel C. Dennett

Penguin 2013
A book review by Danny Yee © 2015
The front cover of my copy of Intuition Pumps has a red circle on it proclaiming "Contains over 70 tools to help you think better", but despite this sales pitch it is not even remotely a popular "how to think" book. I have seen piles stacked in airport bookshops, but business travellers who pick up Intuition Pumps hoping for a relaxing read and some simple ideas of practical use are in for a rude shock.

Of the seventy-seven chapters, a few of the earlier are explanations of particular ways of thinking: Sturgeon's Law, Occam's Razor, rhetorical questions, and so forth. And chapter twenty-four is a 25 page introduction to a register machine formalism for computation, which could perhaps be considered "a tool for thinking" (presumably along with set theory and Special Relativity).

The bulk of Intuition Pumps deploys various tools and intuition pumps (thought experiments) to expound specific ideas. The result is a summary of Dennett's life work, attempting to answer the big questions: "how meaning can exist in the material world", "how life arose and evolved", "how consciousness works", and "whether free will can be one of our endowments". This roughly corresponds to the topics covered by his books The Intentional Stance, Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, Consciousness Explained and Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting. A short conclusion offers some general observations on philosophy as a discipline, as it is practised and as Dennett thinks it ought to be practised. (For anyone completely unaware of his ideas, their single most striking feature is probably a positive and full engagement with the sciences; there is way too much for me to attempt a summary in a short review.)

This is a more popular account than most of Dennett's books, with a brief pointer to fuller explanations for each chapter but without full references or the detailed to-and-fro of academic debate. There is a sense in which it is actually a more challenging read, however, since it compresses the core ideas of many books into one. I really enjoyed Intuition Pumps, but for me it served as a kind of "Dennett refresher" and it is hard to see anyone with no background at all in philosophy finding it very tractable. While Dennett makes a point about not writing for his fellow academics, his proclaimed "test audience" consisted of first year philosophy students at a prestigious and highly selective university.

Note: the only thing that seemed very wrong to me was the strange claim that "Java is the invention that is most responsible for giving the Internet its versatility".

September 2015

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%T Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking
%A Dennett, Daniel C.
%I Penguin
%D 2013
%O paperback, bibliography, index
%G ISBN-13 9780241954621
%P 496pp