Monday, 3 January 2011

Canterbury and the Open Society

Robin Maconie writes:
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.
I'd only add a couple of Popper anecdotes that float round the traps here. I can't verify them, but they seem to be part of the common institutional knowledge. I'm told it's from his memoirs, but I haven't a copy.

Karl Popper gave a press interview while at Canterbury. When the reporter asked what he'd be doing while in Christchurch, he replied that he was writing a book. He quickly received a stern note from the University reminding him that he was employed to teach and not to write books. He calmly wrote back promising to write the book on his own time in the evenings and on weekends.

He later got in trouble with the University for all the paper he was going through.

If any Cantabrians can verify the Popper stories, please do so in the comments.

One note of correction on Maconie's post, without comment on any of the other parts, is that Ian Town is Deputy Vice Chancellor; he is Acting Vice Chancellor when the Vice Chancellor is away.

HT: Heather Roy


  1. Popper says in his memoir, Unended Quest, about his time at Canterbury,

    I had a desperately heavy teaching load, and the University authorities not only were unhelpful, but tried actively to make difficulties for me. I was told that I should be well advised not to publish anything while in New Zealand, and that any time spent on research was a theft from the working time as a lecturer for which I was being paid.

    (p.136, Routledge Classics edition)