I’m writing Dan Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon currently. So far there are two things that strike me about the book.

First, he spends a lot of time setting up the issues, pondering what sort of damage one might do by investigating religious issues and arguing that the investigation is worth it, semi-apologizing for the fact that he’s going to step on people’s toes, and ecouraging said people to read the book anyways. Perhaps this is good for a popular audience, but for a philosophy professor like me, it’s pretty unenlightening. I wonder too if it would really help — I could see it being the case that those theists who are already inclined to start reading Dennett’s book don’t need the pages of hand-holding he’s giving them before getting to the main discussion.

Second, he sometimes says things that make me cringe. For example, on page 374, in Appendix B, he writes:

That’s the practical answer, but I want to consider a deeper challenge as well. (A philosopher is someone who says, “We know it’s possible in practice; we’re trying to work out if it’s possible in principle!”)

(Note, by the way, that Dennett says that the appendicies are supposed to contain the more academically sophisticated discussion.) 

Well, I’ve never heard a philosopher say that, or anything like that, until reading Dennett, and it’s a stupid thing to say. Now, perhaps Dennett is just trying to make a joke, but I don’t find it funny, perhaps because it’s a joke at the expense of philosophers — that philosophers are so focussed on issues of principle that they don’t understand the most basic of practical facts about the work (such as that if something is happening, then it’s possible). Dennett has done such a good job in general at breaking the stereotype that philosophers can’t talk to regular people; I can’t imagine that jokes like this help.

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