RIP Denis Dutton

A friend and fan of spiked who took ideas and the world wide web seriously.

Everyone at spiked was saddened to hear of the death at the age of 66 of Denis Dutton, the philosopher, author and founding editor of Arts and Letters Daily. A fan and friend of spiked, Dutton was consistently intellectually curious, whether he was challenging the urban religion of climate-change activism or chucking intellectual hand-grenades at the cult of cultural relativism.

Despite his achievements - from launching one of the finest sites on the world wide web to writing the provocative book The Art Instinct - Dutton remained modest. ‘You are a real journalist, not a putz like me’, he said in one of the last emails he sent me, in October. In truth he had an extensive knowledge. When I wrote a piece for spiked on the Roman Polanski arrest saga, he enjoyed correcting my assertion that the Manson Family were ‘shaven-headed’ hippies. He remembered the Manson murders well, having been resident in California at the time. His brothers - Doug and Dave - still live there, running the famous Dutton’s Bookstore.

Dutton later moved to New Zealand, where he was professor of philosophy at Canterbury University and from where he oversaw Arts and Letters, reading a phenomenal amount of stuff in order to find those nuggets of wisdom and provocative essays to link to every day. Probably the best thing about A&L is its daily affront to the idea that being on the web means having to dumb down. It might be designed to look like an eighteenth-century broadsheet, but A&L is a very modern form of collecting together challenging ideas and arguments and providing access to them to anyone on earth who has an internet connection and a curious mind. Even with all the will in the world, the thinkers of the eighteenth century could not have created such a universally accessible portal to thought.

Dutton made some people, including some of his fans, uncomfortable. For them, he was a bit too taboo-busting. He was a ‘contrarian’, they’d say, using the c-word that is so often hurled at anyone who steps outside of the increasingly ringfenced arena of Acceptable Thought. So a New Yorker obit praises Dutton’s work with A&L but criticises his decision to set up Climate Debate Daily on the basis that it was ‘falsely even-handed’ - that is, it gave too much weight to those who criticise climate-change alarmism. Apparently no serious philosopher would ever want to facilitate an actual debate about climate change, and Climate Debate Daily looked more like ‘an assignment for an industry lobbying firm than the passion project of a philosophy professor with little patience for nonsense’, the New Yorker pronounces.

‘Falsely even-handed’ - what a curious way to describe open debate. What it really means is that there are certain things that should not be said, or presumably even thought, and anyone who does say them, or who provides links to those who say them, is clearly in the pay of some dirty industry rather than being genuinely philosophically engaged. This discomfort with Dutton’s questioning of green orthodoxy shows that even in the smarter, savvier bits of the world wide web, there is an intellectual allergy to grappling with mainstream monoliths. It is to Dutton’s credit that he was never afraid to do that. He will be sorely missed by those who believe the web can and should be a modern-day square or salon, a place of free and profound public discussion.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.

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