Helen SmallApr 7, 2023
The Function of Cynicism at the Present Time
Oxford University Press 2020
Cynicism is usually seen as a provocative mode of dissent from conventional moral thought, casting doubt on the motives that guide right conduct. When critics today complain that it is ubiquitous but lacks the serious bite of classical Cynicism, they express concern that it can now only be corrosively negative. The Function of Cynicism at the Present Time (Oxford UP, 2020) takes a more balanced view. Re-evaluating the role of cynicism in literature, cultural criticism, and philosophy from 1840 to the present, it treats cynic confrontationalism as a widely-employed credibility-check on the promotion of moral ideals--with roots in human psychology.
Helen Small investigates how writers have engaged with Cynic traditions of thought, and later more gestural styles of cynicism, to re-calibrate dominant moral values, judgements of taste, and political agreements. The argument develops through a series of cynic challenges to accepted moral thinking: Friedrich Nietzsche on morality; Thomas Carlyle v. J. S. Mill on the permissible limits of moral provocation; Arnold on the freedom of criticism; George Eliot and Ford Madox Ford on cosmopolitanism; Bertrand Russell, John Dewey, and Laura Kipnis on the conditions of work in the university. The Function of Cynicism treats topics of present-day public concern: abrasive styles of public argument; debasing challenges to conventional morality; free speech, moral controversialism; the authority of reason and the limits of that authority; nationalism and resistance to nationalism; and liberty of expression as a core principle of the university.
Helen Small is Merton Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Oxford. She is the author of The Value of the Humanities (OUP, 2013) and The Long Life (OUP, 2007) (winner of the Truman Capote Prize for Literary Criticism (2008) and the British Academy's Rose Mary Crawshay Prize (2008)), and editor of The Public Intellectual (Blackwell, 2002). She has written widely on literature and philosophy, nineteenth-century fiction and public moralism, and the relationship between the Humanities, Sciences, and Social Sciences.Morteza Hajizadeh is a Ph.D. graduate in English from the University of Auckland in New Zealand. His research interests are Cultural Studies; Critical Theory; Environmental History; Medieval (Intellectual) History; Gothic Studies; 18th and 19th Century British Literature. YouTube channel.