I work at the intersection of literature, intellectual history, and philosophy (especially moral philosophy). Two subjects have occupied most of my writing time in recent years: advocacy for the humanities, and the literature and philosophy of ageing.
My book The Value of the Humanities (2013) is a critical account of the claims standardly employed to defend the public value of the humanities. It identifies five main arguments: that the Humanities study the meaning-making practices of culture, and have a distinctive understanding of what constitutes knowledge and understanding; that, they are useful to society, but often at odds with or at a remove from the descriptions of ‘usefulness’ preferred by economists; that they contribute to human happiness; that they are a force for democracy; and that they are a good in themselves, to be valued 'for their own sake'. Unlike much Humanities advocacy, The Value of the Humanities is not a polemic or a manifesto. Its purpose is to identify the arguments typically relied upon, clarify their terms, and ascertain the extent of their validity.
The Long Life (2007) is about the difference between living a long and a shorter life. This book explores the view that to understand old age we have to consider more fundamentally what it means to be a person, to have a life, to have or to lead a ‘good’ life, and to be part of a just society. The Long Life was the first major consideration of old age in Western philosophy and literature since Simone de Beauvoir’s The Coming of Age. It ranges from the writings of Plato through to recent work by (among others) Derek Parfit and Bernard Williams, and from Shakespeare’s King Lear through to Philip Roth and J. M. Coetzee.
More recently I have completed a book, funded by a Leverhulme Trust Fellowship, entitled The Function of Cynicism at the Present Time (2021). The aim is to correct a dominant view of modern cynicism as unduly negative, and politically and philosophically weak. I consider what cynicism is and show how it has been employed by 19th-century and later writers to help calibrate levels of idealism in public debate and everyday psychology.
I am currently working on the cultural understanding of care of the old. Relevant publications to date include an essay in the inaugural issue of Age, Culture, Humanities: ‘Assisted Living: Acting Naturally in Room 135’, https://tidsskrift.dk/ageculturehumanities/article/view/129497; also an essay on the clash between what statistical data tell us about old age expectations and our tendency toward optimism for ourselves: ‘On Not Knowing How to Feel’, https://englishassociation.ac.uk/essays-studies-2020-literature-and-ageing/.
I regularly write about Victorian fiction and poetry, and I have edited several well-known and less well-known nineteenth-century literary works, including Vanity Fair, Wuthering Heights, The Lifted Veil and Brother Jacob, The Eustace Diamonds, The Last Chronicle of Barset, and (with Stephen Wall) Little Dorrit. I am on the editorial board of the Journal of Victorian Culture (https://academic.oup.com/jvc) and the advisory boards of History of Humanities (https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/toc/hoh/current) and Age, Culture, Humanities(https://tidsskrift.dk/ageculturehumanities/).
Most of my teaching is concentrated on Victorian and later literature. I also teach Critical Theory, and supervise undergraduate and graduate work in the cross-disciplinary areas of literature and philosophy, literature and intellectual history, and literature and history of science (primarily post 1830).
I am a Fellow of the British Academy, and a Fellow of the English Association. I served on the REF panel for English Language and Literature 2021, and have a continuing interest in UK research policy.