Skip to main content
John McGowan photo

John McGowan

Director Emeritus (Director 2006-2014), Professor Emeritus of English and Comparative Literature

John McGowan served for eight years as the Director of UNC’s Institute for the Arts and Humanities.

His work sits at the intersection of philosophy, political theory, and literary studies.  He is interested in how writers respond to the social conditions in which they live—and how they imagine alternative social arrangements.  In particular, he focuses on images and norms of democracy and justice since the Romantic era.  He teaches a wide variety of courses in American and British intellectual  culture since 1800. His first book, Representation and Revelation: Victorian Realism from Carlyle to Yeats (U Missouri P, 1986), explores the theory and practice of representation in seven Victorian writers. His Postmodernism and its Critics (Cornell UP, 1991) considers the philosophical antecedents to contemporary theory; offers an account of the work of Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, Rorty, Said, and Jameson; and presents an alternative political vision (based in a theory of democracy) to that found in postmodern thought. Hannah Arendt: An Introduction (U Minnesota P, 1998) and Hannah Arendt and the Meaning of Politics (U Minnesota, 1997), edited with Craig Calhoun, continue exploring the resources of democratic theory through an engagement with Arendt’s work on the public sphere, judgment, and storytelling. McGowan is one of the editors of the massive (2500 pages) Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (2001; 2nd. Edition 2010; 3rd. edition, 2017). His Democracy’s Children: Intellectuals and the Rise of Cultural Politics (Cornell UP, 2002) collects essays on the shifting roles of the intellectual and of the university in our time. In response to the shifts in American politics over the past thirty years, American Liberalism: An Interpretation for Our Time (UNC Press, 2007) tries to articulate a liberal vision drawn from James Madison and John Dewey that can animate a contemporary American politics. With Italian colleague Bruno Dallago (of the University of Trento), McGowan has edited two books derived from conferences on the European crisis of 2008-2012. Pragmatist Politics: Making the Case for Liberal Democracy mines the pragmatist tradition in American philosophy (especially William James, John Dewey, and Kenneth Burke) to articulate a vision of liberal democracy that can serve contemporary needs.

McGowan is a founding and active member of UNC’s Program in Cultural Studies, and he was the first Director of the Graduate School’s Royster Society of Fellows.

View all Staff