Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Denis Dutton, 1944–2010

My old friend, mentor, and collaborator Denis Dutton has died in Christchurch, New Zealand, of prostate cancer. He was sixty-six.

Dutton, a Southern California native who earned his PhD in philosophy from the University of California at Santa Barbara, founded the journal Philosophy and Literature, the listserve discussion group PHIL-LIT (which I moderated for him from its inception in 1994 until its demise in 2003), and the first of the great “web aggregators” Arts & Letters Daily. Perhaps he was better known, though, as the animating spirit behind the annual Bad Writing Contest. (My own account of the contest is here.) He also took great delight in publishing Alan Sokal’s postscript to the famous hoax. As he saw it, the two events were deeply related.

Denis was a lifelong opponent of fashionable gibberish served up in the name of postmodern profundity. Philosophy and Literature, one of the few academic literary journals to hold the line against “theory,” became the warm refuge of those who believed that the philosophical tradition offered a better framework and vocabulary for literary reflection. Dutton actively sought out articles to knock down the modish concepts of “theory,” one by one, as they rose to graduate students’ cheers. The best Festschrift that could possibly be published in his honor is a complete run of Philosophy and Literature under his editorship from 1977 until today.

Despite his abiding skepticism (“Skepticism is a good policy for any editor,” he said, “because it’s generally a good idea for any scholar”), Denis in person was good-humored, always smiling and finding reasons to smile. Generous and self-effacing, he was quick to give credit to someone else for his own ideas. We shared a short week together several years ago in College Station and Houston. He taught me how to “see” Van Gogh, and how to detect fraudulent “primitive art.” (He was a great collector of native art from New Guinea.)

Denis was first diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer two years ago. Since I had been diagnosed with the same disease a year earlier, we exchanged notes and phone calls on the subject, although he was “super-insistent,” as he put it, about keeping his own cancer secret. He reacted badly to hormone treatments, with a high fever for several days, and was not encouraged by his prognosis. The news of breakthroughs in treatment, though, gave him some hope. “[W]e may live long enough for some of these new treatments to start working for us,” he said. Alas, it was not to be.

Perhaps more of an academic entrepreneur than an original philosopher, he was nevertheless an unfailingly provocative writer. He influenced the academic culture with his irreverence, his impatience for trendy posturing, his commitment to argument and plain language, his love of beauty, and his encouragement of younger writers who shared his crochets. Denis liked to say that he “discovered” me as a writer. If that is true then I owe him an apology for not being a better one and bringing to him even more of the honor that he deserved.

I will miss him.


Unknown said...

Thank you for writing such a nice obit. I wanted to also mention what an impact that Denis had on his students. As a former student of his I can honestly say that no one with the exception of my parents was as influential in making me into what I am today. Denis taught me how to think critically. I’m sure that anyone who took one of his classes feels grateful that they did.

My introduction to Denis was in 1978 at the University of Michigan. The name of that first class was Intro to Philosophy. He had the ability to take what could have been very dry material and make it come alive. He was also tough. If you hadn’t done your homework or didn’t think through an argument thoroughly, he could be brutal. It was more than a few times that I left his class feeling emotionally and intellectually beaten but exhilarated at the same time. I still remember what he said at the end of the first class that I took from him. “In the years to come, if you don’t remember anything about this class, remember this: Make sure that if you take a stand on something, leave open that possibility that you could be wrong. Your hypothesis must be falsifiable. Don’t be afraid to be wrong.”

Over the years I took four classes from Denis. Although I was a business major, I consider his classes on ethics and critical thinking to be more important in my career than a lot of the business courses I took.

I kept in touch with him over the years. I would often make suggestions for articles to include in his website Arts and Letters Daily. I bet I was one of the first to buy his book “The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution.” I sent him a congratulatory email when he appeared on The Colbert Report and marveled that he was on the same show as Paul McCartney.

Denis told me that he was sick but swore me to secrecy. I have some comfort in knowing that I was able to express to him how important he and his classes meant to me. He will be greatly missed.

My condolences go out to his family and friends.


Rich Roberts
Dearborn Heights, MI

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for writing this. I wish you the best in overcoming your health troubles.

In the years since 1999 when I discovered A&L Daily and immediately made it my home page, I wrote a handful of e-mails to Denis. Some flagged a bad link or an unfortunately phrased "Nota Bene" tag, some suggested posting an article from an American newspaper he wasn't likely to be reading. He wrote back without fail, usually the same day, always with thanks for the query/correction/quibble, and his brisk, kind responses affirmed a love of ideas and a welcoming regard for anyone who takes ideas seriously. He'd always tell me his decision about posting one of my suggestions, and a "yes" always made my day. Though infrequent and brief, Denis's messages delivered his liveliness and graciousness. I'll miss them.

R.I.P., Denis Dutton. I hope that all of us who've learned so much from ALD -- which has been my virtual seminar during years of desk jockeying in some aggressively nonintellectual workspaces -- will keep reading and writing, thinking and conversing, in his spirit and in the model of his wonderful enterprise.