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Photograph of John McGowan

John W. and Anna H. Hanes Distinguished Professor

John McGowan’s 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, 2018). 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. (This book is now available as a free download on the Cornell University Press website.) 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.  That book ends with a consideration of the ways that comedy provides models for just societies, and is the basis for McGowan’s two-pronged current project: an exploration of the virtues—love, forgiveness, humility, negotiation—necessary to social peace and an examination of the sources and meaning of violence.  McGowan is a founding and active member of UNC’s Program in Cultural Studies, was the first Director of the Graduate School’s Royster Society of Fellows, and served for eight years as the Director of UNC’s Institute for the Arts and Humanities. He blogs at his personal website Public Intelligence.


1978, PhD English, University of Buffalo

1974, AB English, Georgetown University



  • Postmodernism and Its Critics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991).
  • Hannah Arendt: An Introduction (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998).
  • Deomocracy’s Children: Intellectuals and the Rise of Cultural Politics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002).
  • American Liberalism: An Interpretation for Our Time (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007).
  • Pragmatist Politics: Making the Case for Liberal Democracy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012).
  • Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, edited by Vincent B. Leitch, John McGowan, and four others (New York: W. W Norton, 2001; 3rd. edition 2018).



  • Graduate Mentoring Award, Comparative Literature and English Association of Graduate Students, 2004 and 2015
  • Sitterson Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, 2005
  • Award for Excellence in Teaching Post-Baccalaureate Students, 2002
  • Chapman Award for Excellence in Teaching, 1999


  • Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship, National Humanities Center, 2017-18
  • Erasmus Mundus Scholar, University of Trento, 2011
  • Co-Director (with James Thompson of UNC) of Mellon Foundation Summer Seminar for Doctoral Students on “History and the Aesthetic Object.” Amount: $230,000. 2004
  • Co-Director (with Allen Dunn, University of Tennessee), NEH Summer Seminar for College Teachers on “Literature and Values.” Total Amount of Grant: $106,000. 1997 and 2001.
  • NEH Fellowship for College Teachers, 1987-88.