Remembering Denis Dutton

Guest post by Garry L. Hagberg

Denis Dutton (1944–2010) spent over more than thirty-five years editing or jointly editing Philosophy and Literature, the collective intellectual adventure in humane learning that saw its first issue in 1976, and was steadfastly concerned to make room for younger scholars just starting out. It would have been easy for him to give all the space to the established and often very well-known authors he was also publishing, but he saw the mission of Philosophy and Literature in broader terms. Indeed, he wanted it to help both disciplines named in the journal’s title evolve. He was marvelously successful: through his work in Philosophy and Literature he helped many shape and then stabilize their scholarly agendas, and the number of books that grew from articles that first appeared here is large.

At the same time, Denis did publish many senior scholars, often bringing them into debates that originated within these pages (on ethical criticism, for example, featuring names such as Nussbaum, Posner, and Booth, among others). But most important, with this journal he helped change what was, at the time of its inception, doubt about the appropriateness of the very conjunction of the two main subjects named in its title. The fact that this may be hard to imagine now is another measure of his success as an editor.

An obituary in the New York Times described Denis as “an impassioned polymath, a genial contrarian, and native Californian” (the first two traits were always visible). It also said that he “delighted in the tangential, the parenthetical and the weaving of seemingly diverse strands of human enterprise into a seamless whole.” This is precisely what his evolutionary conception of aesthetics encouraged, and although he was perhaps criticized more than once for allowing his thought to move into realms of unprovable speculation, he was nevertheless a true champion of empirical fact and the connection between scientific inquiry and aesthetic understanding.

In its remembrance, the Los Angeles Times said, “Dutton’s work, contrary or inspiring, encouraged a multiplicity of ideas.” Indeed it did, and as readers will see, the pieces included in a special issue honoring Denis’ memory continue this tradition.

Denis always looked for the expansion of a debate, of our grasp of relevant empirical knowledge, of the range of aesthetic experience that drove our interest in the subject in the first place. In an interview in Salon, Denis said, “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.”

The Washington Post’s tribute praised Denis’s creation in 1998 of his encompassing website, Arts & Letters Daily, which he established as a digital meeting ground for academics and intellectually engaged readers around the world. Always respectful of tradition and quick to see connections across temporally and technologically distinct cultural phases, he modeled the design on an eighteenth-century broadsheet. Arts & Letters Daily immediately garnered a huge following, and in 1999 London’s Guardian called it “the best website in the world.” Denis’s powerfully succinct and fiendishly clever introductions to linked articles (“teasers,” in the trade) invariably made one want to read more; the New York Review of Books called him “a master of the tweet long before Twitter existed.” The New Yorker said that Arts & Letters Daily “was the first and foremost aggregator of well-written and well-argued book reviews, essays, and other articles in the realm of ideas,” and that Denis himself was “the intellectual’s Matt Drudge” (of the Drudge Report).

But it was the Chronicle of Higher Education that used the word that captures Denis most succinctly: “irreplaceable.” The CHE, as anyone who knew Denis well knows, was right. And Slate’s obituary contained perhaps the most telling detail of all: “His eye gleamed differently from other humanities professors” the writer had known.

Philosophy and Literature was one of the brightest gleams in Denis’s eye, and those of us who had the opportunity to work with him were fortunate. The recently published special issue in his memory contains personal reminiscences, as well as observations on the reach and significance of his contributions to the understanding of artistic activity in evolutionary terms. But it also contains far more than that: for reasons at which I have hinted, Denis would have wanted it to be a lively, broad-ranging contribution to the ongoing debate, and a further exploration of Darwinian themes in the arts beyond where he left the matter in his own work. To stay true to the force of nature that he was, and in fond memory and deep appreciation of the irreplaceable Denis Laurence Dutton and his exemplary contribution, the special issue strives to be just that.

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