Vale Professor Hubert Dreyfus.
I have only just learned online of the death in April this year of Hubert ‘Bert’ Dreyfus.
Many nurses would have known of Professor Dreyfus through their readings of nursing theorist Patricia Benner and the ‘Novice to Expert’ approach to understanding expertise. Many more qualitative researchers would have cherished his Commentary ‘guidebook’ to Heidegger’s Being in the World (Dreyfus 1991) as they took those first scary steps into the world of Continental Philosophy and Heidegger himself.
As a novice doctoral student in the 1980s trying to get to grips with Heidegger’s thought, I remember receiving a dog eared photocopy of Dreyfus’s notes for The Commentary as if they were a kind of sacrament. Heidegger is never ‘easy’ but reading The Commentary was like being walked through the darkest of forests with the best of travel guides.
In an era of greater and greater specialisation, Bert Dreyfus’s curiosity, breadth of thought and genuine expertise were breathtaking. Here was a philosopher who could write and think with commanding understanding of topics ranging from philosophy (of course), through great literature, around computing and across artificial intelligence. Every book or new paper seemed a tour de force that you read thinking, ‘I wish I could write and think like that.’
I only ever met Bert Dreyfus once, at a beach barbecue in Santa Cruz where he was speaking with Patricia Benner at a symposium. It is always such a joy when your heroes do not have feet of clay. In a very short meeting and conversation, he was a total delight and far more interested in talking to me about “my work” than in discussing his own. A mark of the man.
Long, long before MOOCs were even thought of, Bert Dreyfus was already organising with his students to tape record his legendary and often standing-room-only lectures at Berkeley. As with The Commentary, obtaining a tape of his Heidegger or Dante lectures was like winning the lottery. Now, thanks to the internet and YouTube, we have hours and hours of Bert Dreyfus and his thinking to enjoy.
There is a wonderful story (not apocryphal, I am assured) about these Heidegger lectures, where one day Bert noticed that a swathe of the students were not the ‘usual’ philosophy crowd, looking far more like the sharp-dressed business students at Berkeley. As he noted their growing sense of puzzlement as the lecture progressed, eventually one student raised their hand to ask ‘When would he would be describing the Time Management strategies?’
Apparently the difference between ‘Being and Time’ and ‘Being on Time’ can be easily overlooked.
In an age of increasing academic incivility and ideological divisiveness (see Jonathan Haidt’s work here) Bert Dreyfus was a beacon of civility and academic rigour. At his lectures, he would regularly invite and debate thoughtfully and respectfully with his most implacable philosophical opponents. He would welcome comments, tough questions and criticism from the lowliest of students without a hint of preciousness or imperiousness. As one appreciation of his work has already noted, his lectures were ‘electrifying’ for good reason. The same respectful dialogue is evident in his writing and responses to critique. Even in his two volume festschrift (Wrathall and Malpas, 2000a, b) in his honour, entire chapters are given over to his critics that he responds to as cogently and carefully as ever.
Stellar as Professor Dreyfus’s philosophical and writing reputations are, even they almost pale beside the quality of his teaching and pedagogy. Re-listening to some of Professor Dreyfus’s ‘Lectures’ is to hear an absolute master teacher and learner at work. You can hear him thinking on his feet, asking genuine questions that open up rather than close down issues and involve everyone in that vast lecture theatre to join with and engage in the thinking process.
The idea of Bert Dreyfus worrying whether he had ‘covered the curriculum’, or ‘ensured’ that his students had ‘met their competencies’, agonising over the design of his ‘PowerPoint deck’ or hoping that his students were ‘satisfied’ is beyond laughable.
To say that the world will miss him hardly comes close.
- Dreyfus, HL 1991, Being in the World: A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time, Div I.
- Wrathall, M & J Malpas 2000, Heidegger, Coping, and Cognitive Science: Essays in Honor of Hubert L. Dreyfus, Vol. 1 & 2. The MIT Press.