Denis Dutton, RIP

Denis Dutton, the philosopher-cum-scourge-of-mediocrity is dead at the ridiculously young age of 66. He was one of the joys of academic life, and a luminary of the early Web. I first got to know him when I was asked one Christmas for a list of my favourite web sites, and I put his Arts and Letters Daily at the very top because it was the opening page of every browser that I used. Shortly after that, I received a nice, sardonic email message from him, and thus began a sporadic but always enjoyable correspondence. Robert Cottrell has a nice tribute to him on The New York Review of Books blog.

Dutton’s genius lay not in his philosophy, but in his capacity to provoke intelligently. Look at him speaking at a TED conference last year, and you see not only a thinker, but also a charmer, a gentle bruiser, an ironist. Even more than an intellectual, he was an intellectual entrepreneur. In The Art Instinct he found a captivating idea that built on winning themes—evolution, beauty, sex—and he advanced it as if it were truth. At Philosophy and Literature, his great legacy was not so much the promotion of good writing, which all journals have as their object, but the destruction of bad writing, which few in the academy were brave enough to attempt. At ALD, he found his relative advantage not in the production of fine writing, but in the boutique retailing of it, to the benefit of everyone: writers, readers, Dutton himself.

At the end of his piece, Cottrell says “If only there were a ‘more»’ link at the end of Denis Dutton’s life, I would be clicking on it now.”

Me too.