Elbow Room

Elbow Room

The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting

By Daniel C. Dennett

Bradford Books





Anyone who has wondered if free will is just an illusion or has asked 'could I have chosen otherwise?' after performing some rash deed will find this book an absorbing discussion of an endlessly fascinating subject. Daniel Dennett, whose previous books include Brainstorms and (with Douglas Hofstadter) The Mind's I, tackles the free will problem in a highly original and witty manner, drawing on the theories and concepts of several fields usually ignored by philosophers; not just physics and evolutionary biology, but engineering, automata theory, and artificial intelligence.

In Elbow Room, Dennett shows how the classical formulations of the problem in philosophy depend on misuses of imagination, and he disentangles the philosophical problems of real interest from the "family of anxieties' they get enmeshed in - imaginary agents, bogeymen, and dire prospects that seem to threaten our freedom. Putting sociobiology in its rightful place, he concludes that we can have free will and science too. Elbow Room begins by showing how we can be "moved by reasons" without being exempt from physical causation. It goes on to analyze concepts of control and self-control-concepts often skimped by philosophers but which are central to the questions of free will and determinism. A chapter on "self-made selves" discusses the idea of self or agent to see how it can be kept from disappearing under the onslaught of science. Dennett then sees what can be made of the notion of acting under the idea of freedomdoes the elbow room we think we have really exist? What is an opportunity, and how can anything in our futures be "up to us"? He investigates the meaning of "can" and "could have done otherwise," and asks why we want free will in the first place.We are wise, Dennett notes, to want free will, but that in itself raises a host of questions about responsibility. In a final chapter, he takes up the problem of how anyone can ever be guilty, and what the rationale is for holding people responsible and even, on occasion, punishing them.

Elbow Room is an expanded version of the John Locke Lectures which Dennett gave at Oxford University in 1983.

Bradford Books imprint


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262040778 212 pp. | 5.75 in x 9 in


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262540421 212 pp. | 5.75 in x 9 in


  • Once again Daniel Dennett has made a stunning contribution to our achieving a monist physicalism which is compatible with human experiences. Just as his funtional mind-brain identity theory enable us to avoid positing 'grandmother neurons', so his new analysis enables psychologist to understand the competitive advantage of those species that believe they have free will and the stupidity of teaching introductory psychology students that they have none. A readable, light hearted book on a very serious subject. While philosphy citations outnumber those to psychology about two to one, Dennett is both well read and subtley competent in psychology, and the book will be enjoyed by intellecutal psychology students fully as much as by philosophy majors.

    Donald T. Campbell

    University Professor of Social Relations & Psychology, Past President, American Psychological Association

  • I have always enjoyed the energetic and often unexpected provocation of Daniel Dennett's mind. In these powerful and no doubt controversial lectures, he gives elbow room for fresh thought as well as free will. Anyone who reads them carefully will be delighted by the unexpected views which Daniel Dennett provides.

    Jonathan Miller

    Lever Hulme Research Fellow in Cognitive Science, University of Sussex

  • Daniel Dennett throws light into the darkness of ourselves by asking whether we are free to control our actions. I am glad I was free to choose to read this book.

    Professor Richard L. Gregory

    Director, Brain and Perception Labratory, University of Bristol, England