Denis Dutton R.I.P.-December 28th, 2010

Sadly, like everyone else who visited the Arts & Letters Daily today, I found out that its founder, Denis Dutton, has passed away.

After linking to his turn on Bloggingheads over a year ago, he left a comment and asked me to review his book, ‘The Art Instinct’.  I was flattered, accepted, and wrote what can really only be termed a brief commentary on the book.  While I didn’t know him beyond this contact, his website (one of the best out there), his book, and his thinking have influenced me a good deal. I’m grateful for his example and saddened by his death.

My condolences to his family, friends and colleagues.  R.I.P.

Edge has more here, including a video explaining what might have moved Dutton most.

Denis Dutton by wnyc

Related On This Site:  Review of Denis Dutton’s ‘The Art Instinct’

From Bloggingheads: Denis Dutton On His New Book: ‘The Art Instinct’A Few More Thoughts On Denis Dutton’s New Book: ‘The Art Instinct’

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Review of Denis Dutton’s ‘The Art Instinct’

I think it would be more appropriate to call this a commentary:

Book here.

“What would a universal aesthetics or theory of art look like?”

“…my aim has been to elucidate general characteristics of the arts in terms of evolved adaptations.”

I think these quotations are fairly representative of what most engages Denis Dutton in his new book “The Art Instinct’.

Landscape painting, for example, can be best understood as exemplifying the traits developed for our own survival within Darwinian natural selection (to which he appeals to the popularity of landscapes as portraying abundant food and water, a good view and a safe place to enjoy it from).

Thus, Dutton may be trying to synthesize Darwin’s theory of natural selection with aesthetic theory and art (and also by drawing somewhat on the philosophies of Kant, Aristotle and Plato).   From this synthesis, Dutton comes up with a rough list of the criterion he thinks art ought to give, possess, or meet:

1.  Direct pleasure

2.  Skill and virtuosity

3.  Style

4.  Novelty and creativity

5.  Criticism

6.  Representation

7.  Special Focus

8.  Expressive Individuality

9.  Emotional Saturation

10. Intellectual Challenge

11. Art Traditions and institutions

12. Imaginative experience


Dutton then puts these ideas to the test (not scientifically) against a piece of art which openly questions what a piece of art ought to be, and which he finds emblematic of where he thinks art theory and criticism have gone partially wrong:  Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Fountain,’ or likely the most famous urinal in the world.

Marcel Duchamp 'Fountain' 1950, Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania by hanneorla.

by hanneorla

Dutton finds that while ‘Fountain’ does meet a majority of his criterion, it is best thought of as an outlier, and an outlier which has influenced art for quite some time now (think Duchamp to Andy Warhol to Damien Hirst) and which Dutton seeks to change by aiming the debate toward evolutionary science and thus broadening it considerably.

This is where his theory meets with some success.  If I were an art critic, for example, or a theorist or academic making a living in this field, or perhaps just someone who had spent an hour listening to Mozart and been tremendously moved….then I might find these ideas useful in providing a broader context for the experience I had just had (though I still think Nietzsche provides the deepest thought here, which is why he and the existentialists have been so influential).

So, as a theory of aesthetics, Dutton may be on to something.


However, I grew doubtful as to the scientific validity of his thinking when he tried to apply natural selection theory to orgasms, sex, and chocolate.

As a scientific theory Dutton seems to fall short of the mark:  that the truths and universality of Darwin’s theory of natural selection when applied to the arts fully and best explain why people make art.  I’m pretty sure Dutton’s theories aren’t intended too, nor function, as scientific theories.  In addition, I don’t think many scientists will find his thinking a compelling addition to their respective fields of knowledge.

I should mention there is some philosophical debate as to whether or not Darwin’s ideas are scientific (upon which creationists seize), but they are quite obviously more predictively successful and universally applicable than aesthetic theories are….and I just don’t believe that Dutton has come up with a true synthesis here that would benefit, say, an evolutionary biologist.


That said, Dutton does however demonstrate a good understanding of Kant, and where Kant may (or may not) have left room for aesthetics in his thinking.  The ‘imagination’ as defined by Kant was a part of the elaborate metpahysical framework of his, and as Dutton notes:

“Trying to understand what life was like in ancient Rome is an imaginative act, but so is recalling that I left my car keys in the kitchen.  However, the experience of art is notable marked by the manner in which it decouples imagination from practical concern, freeing it, as Kant instructed from the constraints of logic and rational understanding.”

Dutton also brings up Plato, and Plato’s idealism: that art is an imitation of an imitation…twice removed from the ideal forms that yield genuine knowledge.

Plato regarded the whole Greek literary tradition, but especially the Homeric epics that lay at its heart, as setting the worst possible moral examples.”

…so much so that Plato’s Ideal State would cen(sor) them.

Dutton responds with the following caveat:

“Religion, ethics, and politics all require to some degree adherence to a conceptual stability that even the most conformist artist may wish to test.  The arts never quite fit with the moral demands on which any functioning society depends.”

He seems to understand reasonably well some of the philosophical challenges that await an aesthetic theory…


All in all, it’s not a bad read.   If you’re interested in the philosophy of art, aesthetics and art theory…libertarian aesthetics?…perhaps the debate within psychology and its philosophical influences (the Pinker/Spelke debate) evolutionary psychology and anthropology…then I would recommend it.

There are certain targets (cultural relativism and social contructionism particularly) that Dutton, as a libertarian, has in his sights.  Hopefully, he doesn’t focus too much on them…

Addition:  I should add that I’m quite sympathetic to many of Dutton’s themes, and am impressed with the scope of his aesthetic thinking (especially in regard to philosophy). I’m trying to piece together how his theory is pieced together and what it may achieve and what it may not.

Dutton’s bloggingheads appearance here. (read the comments).

Dutton On The Colbert Report here.

Denis Dutton by wnyc

See Also On This SiteFrom The Washington Post: A Few Thoughts On Jonah Lehrer’s Review Of Denis Dutton’s ‘The Art Instinct’

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From The Washington Post: A Few Thoughts On Jonah Lehrer’s Review Of Denis Dutton’s ‘The Art Instinct’

Full review here.

Lehrer perhaps sympathizes with Dutton:

“There’s an alluring logic to such arguments, which promise to rescue aesthetics from the fog of post-modernist theory…”


“Dutton is an elegant writer, and his book should be admired for its attempt to close the gap between art and science.”

but finds much of his thinking lacking; occupying a kind of no man’s land:

“…Dutton’s ideas are ultimately undone by what they can’t explain. This is the irony of evolutionary aesthetics: Although it sets out to solve the mystery of art, to explain why people write poems and smear paint on canvases, it ends up affirming the mystery. The most exquisite stuff is what we can’t explain. That’s why we call it art.”

Lehrer argues that the weakness of Dutton’s theory is not really meeting a standard of science and thus doesn’t allow it to plumb the depths of art nor even aesthetic theory as well as it could…


Lehrer, of course, has his own dog in the art/science hunt as a writer and popularizer of neuroscience and the cognitive sciences (formerly an editor of Seed Magazine, his own page here):

“It really is time that art critics learn about the visual cortex, musicologists study the inner ear and evolutionary psychologists unpack Jane Austen.”

Perhaps.   Though watching his Colbert interview as he discussed his new book “How We Decide,” I realized I had heard some of those ideas before in the following Bloggingheads episode:

Jesse Prinz discusses his book ‘The Emotional Construction Of Morals

Prinz, in my opinion, is a deeper philosophical thinker, and as his site suggests:

My theoretical convictions are unabashedly empiricist. I hope to resuscitate core claims of British Empiricism against the backdrop of contemporary philosophy of mind and cognitive science”

So Lehrer is likely getting some of his ideas from Prinz, and I would point out the contradiction that Prinz potentially omits in depending on the sciences (as the fields of neuroscience, psychology, and cognitive science depend on the sciences)…but then only relying on British empiricism to philosophically justify these claims to knowledge. 

As for me, I’m trying to defend Kantian transcendental idealism yet again.

I’m not sure that anyone (Dutton, Lehrer, nor Prinz)  has convinced me that one can make a successful theory that covers both art and science…as such a challenge has baffled even the greatest philosophers.


As for the art, there’s also Nietzsche at work here too , and anyone in the last 120 years with any contact to nearly all recent works of art, art theory, existentialism, postmodernism etc (most, if not all, of us) bear such influence:

Here’s Nietzsche scholar J.P. Stern on Nietzsche’s anti-Christian, anti-secular morality (Kant, utilitarians), anti-democratic, and anti-Greek (except the “heroic” Greek) biases…

Addition:  I should add that I think Lehrer’s review is quite thorough, but that I wanted to piont out some of the other questions that may arise from his own arguments.

Also On This SiteFrom Bloggingheads: Denis Dutton On His New Book: ‘The Art Instinct’Jesse Prinz Discusses “The Emotional Construction Of Morals” On Bloggingheads.A Brief Review of Jesse Prinz’s ‘The Emotional Construction Of Morals’A Few More Thoughts On Denis Dutton’s New Book: ‘The Art Instinct’

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A Few More Thoughts On Denis Dutton’s New Book: ‘The Art Instinct’

Dutton’s site here.

I used the analogy of Noam Chomsky and his theory of language to describe Denis Dutton’s aims in his new book, The Art Instinct.  As much as I disagree with Chomsky’s anarcho-syndicalist politics, I think his achievement lies quite far apart from his politics (though even this could be argued).

Dutton’s book may be more of an attempt to use libertarian principles, Darwin’s Origin Of Species, and perhaps ultimately the transcendental idealism of Immanuel Kant to try and direct the arts in our country in a new direction (hopefully away from the toxic mix of politics and moral sentiment active in many of our universities and major publications, often on the left…which can divide us politically). 

This could be a useful goal.

However, it doesn’t seem quite like philosophy, and seems much more like aesthetics (deep theories about art and the pursuit of beauty and truth within it). 

Perhaps it’s not radical enough to be ignored and reviled as much as it could be?

Dutton’s bloggingheads appearance here.

Dutton On The Colbert Report here.

Again, I’m saying a lot on very little, as I haven’t read the book.  Your thoughts and comments are welcome.

Addition:  I have read the book and offered some commentary (not a formal book review):  Review of Denis Dutton’s ‘The Art Instinct’

Related On This SiteFrom Bloggingheads: Denis Dutton On His New Book: ‘The Art Instinct’A Sympathetic View Of Noam Chomsky?

Denis Dutton by wnyc


by wnyc

Dutton also runs the Arts & Letters Daily, which can be found on the blogroll at right.

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From Bloggingheads: Denis Dutton On His New Book: ‘The Art Instinct’

First 7:00 min here.

Dutton argues against what he views as the dominant intellectual and academic trend of the last 40 years:  art as a function of culture, and understood as such.  Rather than seeing art tied into a web of other political and philosophical ideas about culture (Marxism and social constructionism he mentions…he is a libertarian)

Dutton would like:

…to perhaps do what Noam Chomsky did for the study of language (there is a universal appartatus common to us all which is inexplicable through analysis alone…least of all through a post-modern and non-scientific analysis.  This approach has deepened and attached linguistics to something akin to Immanuel Kant’s metaphysics and philosophical transcendental idealism).

Dutton appears to rely on Kant, but also heavily on Darwin’s theory of evolution.

It’s quite a task to try and systematize, understand and explain the arts at all, and something only a philosopher might try.

Without having read it, I can say very little more than I’ve said, though I wonder a little at his motivations…

I’ve read the book and commented here:  Review of Denis Dutton’s ‘The Art Instinct’

Related On This Site:  How might Kantian metaphysics mesh with political philosophy?: More On Daniel Deudney’s Bounding PowerDaniel Deudney on Bloggingheads.   Jesse Prinz (with Nietzsche thrown in) wants to push the cognitive sciences toward Humean empiricism:  A Brief Review of Jesse Prinz’s ‘The Emotional Construction Of Morals’

Also:  Mixing Kant with Aesthetics?  apparently I can’t do it justice and look silly trying:  Some Quotes From Kant And A Visual Exercise…also a brief post on A Sympathetic View Of Noam Chomsky?