"Letting Oneself Go": John Stuart Mill and Helmuth Plessner on Tears
In 2013 I published a study of the defences for the humanities that have been most influential in the 19th and 20th centuries and still exert some persuasive power. (The Value of the Humanities, Oxford University Press.) The study has a dual purpose: to provide a historical account of the arguments, and test their validity for the present day.
The traditions of defence considered are:
• the claim that the humanities study the meaning-making practices of the culture, focusing on interpretation and evaluation, with an indispensable element of subjectivity. This claim has accrued supportive (but often incorrect) assumptions about differences between the humanities, sciences, and social sciences.
• the claim that the humanities are (laudably) uselessness, at a remove from accounts of economic use value.
• the argument (from J. S. Mill) for the pursuit of happiness.
• the claim that ‘Democracy Needs Us’.
• claims for intrinsic value.
I am now working on a book-length study of modern cynicism, provisionally titled The Function of Cynicism at the Present Time. Cynicism was, in antiquity, an extreme but important challenge to the value placed on material goods and desire-satisfaction; for later periods it connotes, more negatively, disbelief in the sincerity of people’s motives for action. Recent commentators see it as having now lost its critical ‘bite’. My aim is to re-evaluate the function of cynicism within literature and critical philosophy since 1840, identifying cases where it operates as an internal credibility check on expression of ideals. I argue that, corrosive though cynicism can be, confrontation with its assertive style and ethical affront has in the past helped, and can still help, to calibrate the articulation of ideals.
Other recent work includes essays on Emily Brontë and Degradation, and on Trollope’s realism and Realipolitik. I have continuing interests in advocacy for the Humanities.
English literature, 1740-present; critical theory; gender and writing.
Currently writing a chapter on ‘Subjectivity, Psychology and the Imagination' for the new Cambridge History of English Literature (Victorian volume, ed. Kate Flint), editing Wuthering Heights for World's Classics (OUP), and writing on the poetry of Miroslav Holub and Roald Hoffmann.