In Memoriam

Vale Denis Dutton

A professor of philosophy who civilized the Internet.

By 12.30.10

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If I had to make a list of people we could not afford to lose, the late Professor Denis Dutton, who died in New Zealand on December 20, aged 66, would have been high on it.

Denis was best known for his Arts & Letters Daily, the indispensable website and guide to the best being published in the world (TAS is there, of course), which he founded in 1998. It is said to have been modeled on an 18th century broadsheet. If so, so much the better for the 18th century! With ALD Denis proved the web could be the vehicle for the popular dissemination and exchange of intelligent ideas that its most idealistic founders may have once hoped for. Steven Pinker called him a visionary: "among the first to realize that a website could be a forum for cutting-edge ideas." 

"It's a grave mistake in publishing, whether you're talking about Internet or print publication, to try to play to a limited repertoire of established reader interests," Denis said in a 2000 interview. "A few years ago, Bill Gates was boasting that we'll soon have sensors which will turn on the music that we like or show on the walls the paintings we like when we walk into a room. How boring! The hell with our preexisting likes; let's expand ourselves intellectually."

Certainly not everything re-published or made available at ALD was of the highest standard, but a great deal of it was. Denis told me he tried to avoid giving ALD a narrow image, but conservatives in particular have reason to be grateful for the forum he created – it opened magazines like TAS, Quadrant, City Journal and the Weekly Standard to the world, along with the sites of such as Michelle Malkin, Thomas Sowell, Keith Windshuttle and Mark Steyn. The list goes on…

I know of no one who has done more for the international distribution of conservative ideas. For a professor of philosophy his contribution to the world would have been eminently practical even if her had done nothing else. And he did it from a provincial university at the bottom of the world.

His achievements, however, ranged far beyond this. Denis was raised in Los Angeles and was the brother of booksellers Doug and Dave Dutton of the legendary Dutton's Bookstores in Los Angeles. He was educated at the University of California-Santa Barbara.

He concluded his career as professor of philosophy at Canterbury College at Christchurch in New Zealand, having joined the faculty in 1984. He wrote widely on aesthetics and his last major publication in his own field was the 2009 book, The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution. Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University, wrote of this: "The Art Instinct is an important book that raises questions often avoided in contemporary aesthetics and art criticism.… His arguments against major figures in the philosophy and anthropology of the arts are often devastating -- and amusing." His overarching philosophical interest was an exploration of the nature of beauty.

He believed that, because of our heritage, the same sort of beauty appeals to all humans (We get our liking of trees with branches close to the ground, he said, because they were handy for our ancestors to scramble up to avoid predators, and, wherever we come from, we like pictures of landscapes with paths or rivers in them.)

I knew him as a Quixotic publisher. His experimental online publishing company, Cybereditions, brought out two books of mine, Return of the Heroes on "The Lord of The Rings" and "Star Wars," and Caverns  of Magic on caves in myth and storytelling. Neither, unfortunately, made either Cybereditions or me a fortune (Amazon tells the tale), but their publication showed his readiness to take a chance and his commitment to a community of ideas. His support of Caverns of Magic in particular showed his readiness to take risks in promoting interests beyond the commercial. Few writers would ever find their first feet without people like the Denis Duttons.

As the editor of the journal Philosophy and Literature, he  fought a lonely crusade for clear writing among academics and intellectuals, perhaps the most Quixotic of all his crusades. He saw that, given the Internet has no gate-keepers, clear writing and good editors are needed more than ever. He founded the celebrated bad writing contest in Philosophy and Literature In 1998, the contest awarded first place to someone at the University of California-Berkeley called Professor Judith Butler, for this gem of a sentence in the journal diacritics:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

As Denis put it, "To ask what this means is to miss the point. This sentence beats readers into submission and instructs them that they are in the presence of a great and deep mind. Actual communication has nothing to do with it." As part of his war on nihilistic gobbledegook he also published Alan Sokal's postscript to his famous hoax on so-called Quantum Gravity.

He was one of the great civilized men. I almost put "one of the last," but I think such pessimism would have been foreign to him.

I spent an afternoon with him in June, 2009, at Canterbury University. The tiny office he occupied gave little indication that here was a scholar, and an intellectual mover and shaker, of the highest international significance. We spent several hours talking. He was a witty, charming and gracious host. He must have been aware by then of the cancer that was killing him but gave no sign of it. We walked by a lovely little river very like the ideal he illustrated of a beautiful landscape.

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About the Author

Hal G.P. Colebatch, a lawyer and author, has lectured in International Law and International Relations at Notre Dame University and Edith Cowan University in Western Australia and worked on the staff of two Australian Federal Ministers.