Hubert Dreyfus, 1929-2017

Long-serving Berkeley philosopher and critic of artificial intelligence remembered

May 4, 2017
Hubert Dreyfus

A philosopher who offered a trenchant critique of artificial intelligence has died.

Hubert Dreyfus was born in October 1929 in Terre Haute, Indiana. His excellence on the local high school’s debating team helped him to secure a place at Harvard University to major in physics, although he switched to philosophy after attending a lecture by the logician C. I. Lewis. He was at Harvard from 1951 to 1964, earning a bachelor’s degree, then a master’s and a PhD in philosophy.  

In 1968, after short periods teaching at Brandeis University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Professor Dreyfus moved to the University of California, Berkeley as an associate professor of philosophy. He was to remain there for the rest of his career, although he often took up visiting positions all over the world. Despite formally retiring as emeritus professor of philosophy in 1994, he continued teaching until the end of last year.

Although he gained an early grounding in artificial intelligence, Professor Dreyfus was always sceptical about whether human reasoning could be reduced to algorithms, and he developed his analysis in a number of acclaimed books. These included three editions of What Computers Can’t Do: The Limits of Artificial Intelligence (1972, 1979 and 1992) and Mind over Machine: The Power of Human Intuition and Expertise in the Era of the Computer (1986), co-written with his younger brother Stuart, professor emeritus of industrial engineering at Berkeley.

A more specialist text, Being-in-the-World: A Commentary on Heidegger’s ‘Being and Time’ (1991), went on to inspire a documentary by Tao Ruspoli, Being in the World (2010), in which Professor Dreyfus appears as a talking head. His book All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age (2011), co-authored with Harvard philosopher Sean Dorrance Kelly, proved an unexpected best-seller.

A number of Professor Dreyfus’ students went on to make a mark within philosophy, but he also taught Eric Kaplan, writer and producer of TV series such as The Simpsons and The Big Bang Theory. A character in Futurama was even named Professor Hubert Farnsworth in his honour.

“We’re happy that he was able to carry on with all aspects of his work right up to the end,” commented Hannah Ginsborg, departmental chair in philosophy at Berkeley, adding that “the intellectual openness and sense of excitement which pervaded his teaching will continue to serve as an inspiration for us”.

Professor Dreyfus died of cancer on 22 April and is survived by his wife Geneviève Boissier-Dreyfus, son Stéphane and daughter Gabrielle.

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