“The middle ground, roughly halfway between poetry and mathematics, is where philosophers can make their best contributions, I believe, yielding genuine clarifications of deeply puzzling problems . There are no feasible algorithms for doing this kind of work. Since everything is up for grabs, one chooses one’s fixed points with due caution.”
–Daniel C. Dennett

Key Terms: Intuition pump, Boom crutch, Reductio ad absurdum, et al.

Daniel C. Dennett describes Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking as “a book of celebrating the power of non-mathematical tools, informal tools, the tools of prose and poetry, if you like, a power that scientists often underestimate” (10). In it, he advocates for many of the principles of philosophy, as he presents them, being used in the service of other fields. Much of his advice is easily taken at face value, such as the claim that “I have always figured that if I can’t explain something I’m doing to a group of bright undergraduates, I don’t really understand it myself, and that challenge has shaped everything I have written” (12). Venturing slightly farther afield, he draws connections between his own field and those of the “hard” sciences: “There is no such thing as philosophy-free science, just science that has been conducted without any consideration of its underlying philosophical assumptions” (20). While his work does not directly relate to composition, I do believe it offers an interesting and creative approach to rhetoric that might easily be adaptable to classroom use.

What follows are a few memorable quotations from his introductory chapters.

On Mistakes:

“Try to acquire the weird practice of savoring your mistakes, delighting in uncovering the strange quirks that led you astray. Then, once you have sucked out all the goodness to be gained from having made them, you can cheerfully set them behind you, and go on to the next big opportunity . But that is not enough: you should actively seek out opportunities to make grand mistakes, just so you can then recover from them” (23).

“The more complex a problem you’re facing, of course, the more difficult the analysis is. This is known to researchers in artificial intelligence (AI) as the problem of ‘credit assignment’ (it could as well be called blame assignment). Figuring out what to credit and what to blame is one of the knottiest problems in AI, and it is also a problem faced by natural selection”(25).

A definition and context for reductio ad absurdum:

“The crowbar of rational inquiry, the great lever that enforces consistency, is reductio ad absurdum—literally, reduction (of the argument) to absurdity. You take the assertion or conjecture at issue and see if you can pry any contradictions (or just preposterous implications) out of it. If you can, that proposition has to be discarded or sent back to the shop for retooling” (29).

What Dennett constructs, here, is the importance of error in the process of learning and discovery. In examining the ability to point out the errors of others, such as by taking their logic to an absurd conclusion, he points out that there may be generative usefulness to this practice, not merely the face value of “shutting down” an argument. He links this idea to the sense of “thrill of the chase” that one may feel when challenging the position of an intellectual opponent. Citing Anatol Rapoport, Dennett offers the following advice:

1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism. (Dennett 33-35)

From here Dennett moves on to discuss Sturgeon’s Law that “ninety percent of everything is crud, and it’s the ten percent that isn’t crud that is important” (Qtd. in Dennet 36). He notes that even a well-cited rule like Occam’s Razor can become absurd and useless if carried to extremes (38). He also warns against a concept he cites borrowing from biologist Sidney Brenner, “Occam’s Broom,” which uses Occam’s Razor as an excuse to “sweep” inconvenient facts “under the rug” (40). Viewed collectively, these chapters all lead to the conclusion that even the most respected ideas can be fallible, that fallibility is not to be feared, and that ideas require context to be relevant.

The subsequent chapters offer various specific thought-tools (or, in some cases, pitfalls of false reasoning) that can be of practical use. (One that I found quite interesting was the idea of “jootsing,” coined by Doug Hofstadter, which refers to “jumping out of the system” (45). This concept postulates that in order for something to be seen as creative or innovative, there must exist a system of expectations that it can modify or depart from. If there were no system or structure to, for example, an artistic field, then it would be very challenging to be innovative since no structure would exist to modify or comment upon. These structures may be unstated, even assumed–and they may, in fact, be false premises. Jootsing entails finding and questioning fundamental assumptions for either scientific or artistic development.

Another fascinating discussion offered is the distinction, which Dennett cites from philosopher Wilfrid Sellars, is “manifest image” vs. “scientific image,” or conceptions of reality based on the phenomenology of lived experience (color, objects, smells, sights, etc.) vs. scientific classification (molecules, quarks, atoms, etc.) (69). Dennet questions how these might be reconciled: “The task of figuring out how to put all the familiar things in our manifest image into registration with all the relatively unfamiliar things of the scientific image is not a job that scientists are especially well equipped to do” (70). And so, this again falls into the province of philosophy. He suggests that one may follow from the scientific image to the “emergence of the manifest image from that vantage point” (70). Dennett does not allude to the “magic” of language, but he certainly allows here for its power over the conceptual:

“Even without grammar to knit them together into sentences, words as mere labels can help bring important categories into sharply focused existence in our manifest image: Mommy, doggie, cookie. Could you ever frame a clear concept of a bargain, or a mistake, or a promise—let alone a home run or a bachelor— without the help of the words I’ve just used to mention them?” (72)

From here, Dennet outlines an extensive array of various intellectual tools and concepts, which I will neither attempt to chronicle here nor pretend to fully command from one reading of the book. In part due to its length and in part due to its scope, the work is more one part beginning of a process and another part reference material. He closes with a discussion of what it is to be a philosopher and encouragement to utilize the tools in the book, despite the murky and mysterious nature of the problems confronted by his discipline.


Dennett, Daniel C. Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2013. Kindle edition.