Professor emeritus of philosophy Hubert Dreyfus dies of cancer at 87

Hubert L. Dreyfus harvard Oct. 2003

UC Berkeley professor emeritus of philosophy Hubert Dreyfus, a scholar in phenomenology and critic of artificial intelligence, died April 22 from cancer. He was 87.

Dreyfus grew up in Indiana and obtained a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and doctoral degree in philosophy at Harvard University from 1951 to 1964. He brought his knowledge of phenomenology as well as his energetic teaching style to UC Berkeley in 1968, where he remained until December 2016.

“(Dreyfus) had intuitions where nobody else did, and they usually turned out to be right. He was on to something and you just had to work incredibly hard to get it; his classes were just electrifying,” said Sean Kelly, Dreyfus’ colleague and former student. “He wanted to get students right up to the edge of what he understood and then engaged them in conversation, and the goal was for him to learn something from them.”

Dreyfus, known to his family and friends as Bert, is known for his early criticism of artificial intelligence, culminating in the classic “What Computers Still Can’t Do,” which has been translated into 12 different languages.

Kelly said he was immediately transfixed by Dreyfus after taking his phenomenology of perception course in 1990. Kelly was also particularly intrigued by Dreyfus’ lectures on artificial intelligence, which best reflected Dreyfus’ unique insight and engaging teaching style.

Patricia Benner, a nursing professor emerita at UCSF, said Dreyfus’ mind and body philosophy classes helped her understand the human experience of health and coping in relation to stress. Dreyfus’ teachings have made an impact on many different disciplines, from nursing to language learning, according to Benner.

“(Dreyfus’) work on skill acquisition, known as the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition, really provided an understanding of how clinicians learn over time and how their craft changes over time based on that learning,” Benner said.

Dreyfus’ son, Stéphane Dreyfus, said his father got him to look up “crazy, new words” and think about the world intently at a young age. He said he found it helpful that his father was always eager to debate and discuss things with him.

“I’m so glad UC Berkeley was where he taught. I think it made a lot of sense to him culturally,” Stéphane Dreyfus said. “He had his own way of teaching that fit in very well with Berkeley students.”

Geneviève Boissier-Dreyfus, Dreyfus’ wife of 42 years, said the couple was very much a team. She added that when he needed something to be proofread, “We would discuss it together.”

Boissier-Dreyfus added that Dreyfus’ teaching was inclusive and more discussion-based than typical lectures on campus.

“(Dreyfus’) home was (an) extension of (his) office,” said Jessica Dreyfus, Dreyfus’ daughter-in-law. “One of the hallmarks of his teaching was that his classroom became a living room, very much alive. He brought all of these things to life, and as a result, he developed close relationships to his students and family members.”

Contact Carina Zhao at [email protected].