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Defending the Open Society: the Heritage of Denis Dutton

Defending the Open Society: the Heritage of Denis Dutton

by Robin Maconie

The untimely death of Denis Dutton in December at 66 years of age threatens to sever a tenuous but vital link connecting New Zealand intellectual life with the international currency of ideas represented by his online site Arts and Letters Daily, hitherto edited by Dutton in New Zealand but for some years now owned and administered by the Chronicle of Higher Education in the United States, well out of reach of vested interests in this country. In Christchurch, US expat philosopher Dutton feigned innocence while courting notoriety as an independent freethinker in the tradition of Sir George Grey, Edward Tregear, Ernst Dieffenbach, and Samuel Butler, winning international success and esteem calculated to excite envy and resentment among domesticated University of Canterbury academic colleagues.

In many ways, Christchurch remains as conservative as 75 years ago when the philosopher Karl Popper came to stay, sequestered to the Psychology Department as a tutor and German speaking foreigner, where he drafted The Open Society and its Enemies. I suspect that more than a little bit of Popper's experience of Christchurch culture rubbed off on Dutton. From Popper's own reminiscences it is possible to read his defence of the open society as a criticism aimed, not simply at the ideologies of National Socialism and totalitarianism in greater Europe in the 1930s, but equally targeted at the closed-mindedness of supposedly free societies such as Britain and New Zealand. Dutton may well have been driven to establish Arts and Letters Daily in 1998 as an international forum for the exchange of provocative ideas at least partly in response to the closed mentality of university life in New Zealand, as to the impoverishment and self-censorship rampant in New Zealand intellectual life, the arts, and print media.

At Dutton's memorial service the Vice-chancellor of Canterbury University, Ian Town, admitted that he "had only come to know Denis Dutton recently, but learned he was held in great esteem by his colleagues and students", going on to say that Dutton had "a lively intellect" and that his website was "an extraordinary accomplishment". Readers familiar with the language of academic life will understand that "lively intellect" is university code for "maverick troublemaker", and "an extraordinary achievement" as another way of saying that from the university's perspective, Dutton was out of control.

For an incumbent vice-chancellor not to know who Dutton was, is either incredible or an astonishing reflection on the prevailing university culture. For a senior university official to affect not to know, let alone appreciate the concept, of Dutton's website—a publication as potent a manifesto for freedom of thought today as Popper's Open Society in its time—is a posture open to be read as the official view of a University smiling through gritted teeth at an internationally recognized achievement over which it has no authority, would rather ignore, and for which it is able to claim zero credit.

In an article to commemorate the public installation in 2007 of a plaque in belated recognition of Popper's period of residence in Christchurch, the late Peter Munz observed that Popper realized that his research was unlikely to gain the international recognition it deserved "as long as he was propounding it from . . . a New Zealand which his wife, in a letter to a friend in the USA, referred to as 'behind the moon'." No doubt that same sense of remoteness from international conversation also touched Dutton, by birth a naturally sociable and quick-witted Los Angelean. Dutton’s great achievement in the internet age was to show that it was possible to be a familar as well as a player in the international world of ideas, while remaining true to his role as a stimulating thinker and trainer in the place where he was most needed, his adopted homeland.


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