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St Cross Special Ethics Seminar: Professor Helen Small


Modern cynicism is generally understood as an eccentric challenge to moral thought: an explicit casting of doubt on the motives that guide right conduct. The styling of speech and writing along cynicism’s non-conformist lines assumes, and potentially generates, a strongly libertarian ethos: fearless in self-expression, reckless of the consequences of dissent. This paper will explore the role cynicism has played since the late 19th century, and continues to play now, in contesting norms of morality and public self-expression within modern cultural criticism and modern (primarily critical) philosophy. Like others who have taken up this topic in recent years, I am drawn to the questions cynicism raises about the nature and limits of normative thinking about public morality, public values, social commitments and shared tastes, and the extent of any individual’s capacity to take up a position of distance on ‘the common currency’ of ideas and values in a society (including ideas about the limits of free speech). The paper will also reflect on the connections and disconnections between modern psychology and philosophy as they have put the concept of ‘cynicism’ to ethical work.



Helen Small FBA is Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Pembroke College, Oxford.

Research interests: The value of the Humanities, literature and philosophy, public intellectuals, literature and history of science, history of the book.

In 2013 Professor Small 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 book, The Value of the Humanities (Oxford University Press) received widespread acclaim.

Among other highlights, her career in Literature so far has seen her win the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism (for The Long Life, 2007).

She is currently working on a book-length study of modern cynicism.