Gunn, Giles

Distinguished Professor of English and of Global Studies


Ph.D., University of Chicago, 1967

Giles Gunn is Distinguished Professor of English (Chair, 1993-97) and of Global Studies (Chair, 2005-13) at the University of California Santa Barbara.  A graduate of Amherst College (1959), he received his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago (1963;1967) and has held appointments principally at three institutions: the University of Chicago in both the Divinity School and, from 1972, the Department of English (1966-1974); the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in both Religious Studies and American Studies (1974-1985); and the University of California, Santa Barbara in English and, from 1999, in Global Studies (l985 to the present). He has also held shorter appointments at Eckerd College (1965-66), Stanford University (1973), and the University of Florida (1984-85). In addition, he has held appointments as the Benedict Distinguished Visiting Professor of Religion at Carlton College (1977), the William R. Kenan Visiting Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at the College of William and Mary (1983-84), Humanities Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder (1989), and Eric Voegelin Distnguished Visiting Professor of the Human Sciences at Ludwig Maximillian University, Munich (1994-95). He also served in 2000-01 as a Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Distinguished Lecturer. Giles Gunn is the author of seven books, the editor of thirteen volumes, and has written over 200 articles and reviews. His new book entitled The Pragmatist Turn: Religion, the Enlightenment, and the Formation of American Literature will be published by the University of Virginia Press in Fall 2017.

He has held various fellowships and grants, including a Edward John Noble Leadership Grant (1959-64), an Amherst-Dochisha Fellowship (1960-61), a Kent Fellowship (1963-65), a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship (1977-78), a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship (1990), a University of California President's Research Fellowship in the Humanities (1990), and a Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Fellowship (2010). He has been a director of 7 summer seminars for school teachers sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, 3 summer seminars for college and university teachers sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and 2 summer institutes for international professors of American literature sponsored by the United States Information Agency.



SSMS 2017

Office Hours: 

Spring 18: Please email


(805) 893-4299


(805) 893-4622

Email: or ggunn@

Mailing Address: 

English Department
UC Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara, CA 93106-3170


American Cultures and Global Contexts
Literature and the Mind
American Literature
Cultural Studies
Literary Theory

Research Interests: 

  • Global Theory, Culture, and Ethics;
  • Cosmopolitanisms in a World of Global Absolutisms;
  • Globalizing the Humanities;
  • American Literary, Cultural, Intellectual, and Religious Studies



Books Authored:

Ideas To Live For:  Towards a Global Ethics (The University of Virginia Press, 2015)

Ideas To Die For:  The Cosmopolitan Challenge (Routledge, 2013)

Beyond Solidarity: Pragmatism and Difference in a Globalized World (University of Chicago Press, Spring 2001)

Thinking Across the American Grain: Ideology, Intellect, and the New Pragmatism (University of Chicago Press, 1992)

The Culture of Criticism and the Criticism of Culture (Oxford University Press,1987)

The Interpretation of Otherness: Literature, Religion, and the American Imagination (Oxford University Press, 1979)

F.O. Matthiessen:  The Critical Achievement (The University of Washington Press,1975)


Books Edited:

America and the Misshaping of a New World Order, with Carl Gutierrez-Jones (University of California Press, 2010)

A Historical Guide to Herman Melville (Oxford University Press, 2005)

War Narratives and American Culture, with Carl Gutierrez-Jones (American Cultures and Global Contexts Center, 2005)

Global Studies 1 (Kendall-Hunt Publishing Co., 2003)

Globalizing Literary Studies, Special Issue of PMLA (116/1, January 2001)

William James, Pragmatism and Other Writings (Penguin,2000)

Early American Writing (Penguin, 1994)

Redrawing the Boundaries: The Transformation of English and American Literary Studies, with Stephen Greenblatt (Modern Language Association, 1992)

Church, State, and American Culture (University of North Carolina Press,1984)

The Bible and American Arts and Letters (Fortress, 1983)

New World Metaphysics: Reading on the Religious Meaning of the American Experience (Oxford University Press, 1981)

Henry James, Senior: A Selection of His Writing (American Library Association, 1974)

Literature and Religion (Harper and Row, 1971)


Book in Production:

The Pragmatist Turn: Religion, the Englightenment, and the Formation of American Literature  (University of Virginia Press, 2017)




Research Excerpt: 

Preface to Ideas to Live For: Toward a Global Ethics (University of Virginia Press, 2015)


     The ten essays in this volume were published between 1987 and 2012.  They cover a period of a quarter of a century in which I have moved through several different fields of inquiry, from religious studies, to literary and critical studies, to American cultural and philosophical studies, to Global Studies.  As with evolution generally, this has been a process during which earlier disciplinary interests were by no means set aside or left behind but rather re-appropriated and restructured to address new problems that have become steadily more inter- and transnational in scope and focus.  That task of re-appropriating and restructuring for the sake of making these disciplinary crossings has been facilitated by my interest in pragmatism as a method of thinking without the support of absolutes.  The book therefore begins with a semi-autobiographical essay that attempts to explain where my interest in disciplinary boundary crossing comes from in my own personal experience, why pragmatism both in the work of its founders but also in some of its modern exponents has become so important to my own intellectual development, and where such concerns were likely to take me in the 25 years that have followed. 

     In the interest of tying these essays together, I have introduced each of them with a set of comments intended to suggest what I was initially driving at when I composed them and how, insofar as there are differences, I think of such matters now.  Apart from small editorial changes and corrections, none of these essays have been revised or amended for re-publication, though several have been shortened to avoid repetition.  They stand as they were originally conceived, as opportunities to further discussion of how pragmatic perspectives might be brought to bear on issues that for me at least have taken on greater urgency and complexity in an increasingly globalized world. 

By “pragmatic,” as will become apparent throughout this volume, I refer to a theory of critical inquiry and not to a sentiment of practicality.   As for practicality, John Dewey said it best when he remarked that the real challenge for thought is not to make intelligence more practical but to make practice more intelligent.  By “global,” on the other hand, I refer a world whose interconnections among people, societies, cultures, politics, economies, and religions can no longer be understood, if they ever could be, simply by reference to a world organized chiefly around states and the institutions that manage the relations between and among them.   

This state-based notion of international order is now, for a variety of reasons, being challenged, and by nothing so much as the widening and deepening awareness of events, processes, and perceptions that operate both above and below nation-states and have linkages with territories of experience and practice well beyond them.  As these supra-, sub-, and intra-national processes and developments have become more extensive and, at the same time, more interwoven and interdependent, the need has arisen to devise better maps to plot and track them and to develop new disciplinary and interdisciplinary methods to assess and potentially revise them.  This is the task of what I have come to think of as a critical globalism that possesses several key components:  historical perspectives to place these processes in richer cross- and intercultural contexts; conceptual and theoretical models to better comprehend them in ways that are not simply nation- or regional-centric; normative standards to assess and regulate them that are more sensitive to areas of overlapping consensus between differing legal, valuational, and spiritual systems; and political strategies to engage them that are more democratically responsible as well as politically humane.

While this book approaches such a task only indirectly, it is based on the belief that the limits of a field of inquiry are not determined alone by the types of material it examines, or the constellation of methods it employs, or even the sorts of results it looks for, but rather by the kinds of questions it asks and the new conditions that generate them.  The kinds of questions that have increasingly absorbed me during the period when the essays for this book were written have circulated around threats to our collective idea of the human, threats that seem to be caused by the link between the continual collision of values and mindsets across the world and the widening spheres of systemic violence it arouses.  The particular issue I have focused on has to do with whether such threats can at least be partially mitigated, even if never wholly removed, by understanding and persuasion as well as by force and power, and what resources a more pragmatic cosmopolitanism might provide for doing so—that is, for reconstructing our sense of the ethical not around our indifference, fear, or antipathy toward others but rather around our need of them, particularly in terms of what they can show us about ourselves.

This has become still more difficult in the world of the 21st century, a world where absolutisms of various kinds have presented themselves as the remedy for new uncertainties and threatened calamities, and ideologies of every kind have rushed in to fill the vacuum.  This explosion of often militant ideological thinking has merely confirmed for many the atavistic view that we are suffering from something as extreme as a clash of civilizations for which religion is to blame.  It has reminded others, much smaller in numbers, that ideologies and other essentialisms, whether sacred or profane, take on such power precisely because they operate both above and below the level of conscious thought and are used to justify or rationalize the ideas they represent while at the same time often masking or disguising the real interests they serve. 

But this realization has opened up a still larger issue concerned with the predatory uses to which religion and other ideologies can be employed, most especially in an age of social media, to put at risk those most fundamental processes of world-making and world-extending known as mondialization.  What is to prevent those processes from slipping away from us, as the French philosopher Jacques Derrida feared after 9/11 that they might, both because of the possibilities of technologies of devastation falling into the hands of state as well as non-state actors only too eager to use them and also because their use, or even the mere threat of it, could be and, in effect, may be setting off reactions of reprisals and revenge seemingly without end? 

Derrida’s sense of alarm echoed a note sounded several decades earlier by the interpretive anthropologist Clifford Geertz when he found himself wondering whether people inhabiting increasingly diverse and frequently conflicting worlds of sense and sense-making across the globe could continue to have a mutually beneficial influence on one another, could make any constructive difference to each other’s self-understanding.  This was not a backhanded way of asking whether there is any source of value that might be immune to contemporary global divisions and afflictions, much less transcendent to them, but whether such divisions, local or global, could be turned to ethical account.  

What has lent a measure of unity to these reflections and their normative implications is the way they have often played themselves out in the changing relations between religious concepts and values and cultural forms.  But as my focus has widened over the years to include civilizational and transcivilizational contexts, so the forms I have sought to understand have expanded from the literary, aesthetic, and cultural to the philosophical, political, and social.   Within this frame, however, my understanding of religion and culture has been shaped by two rather different conceptions of their relationship.  The first, which I acquired as a graduate student and have never lost sight of, is that religious meanings and practices often survive their successive institutional articulation as beliefs and norms to create some of the basic continuities of cultural life itself.  They persist, that is, as structures of feeling and modes of imagination that are often expressed and critiqued in a vast array of literary, aesthetic, and other symbolic forms.  The second view, which has grown more apparent since the beginning of the new century, is that religion and culture can often be de-coupled as quickly as they were once re-coupled when they become ideologically dissociated from any specific societal expression of their meaning and are set loose as free floating signifiers.  Then they can be attached to virtually any cause or concern, their authority and efficacy related solely to their ability to represent themselves as abstract, totalizing, irrefutable remedies or correctives to a world grown foreign, inexplicable, and terrifying.

While much of my thinking about religion and culture over the years has been situated between these two divergent understandings of their relations, I have nonetheless also found myself taking up a variety of additional subjects in order to negotiate my own passage between them.  Those related subjects range from the theory of culture and the cultural study of religion to the nature of interdisciplinarity, the philosophy and psychology of pragmatism, the politics and morality of solidarity, and the re-theorization of the global imaginary in relation to the idea of the human and the corollary notion of the stranger, or what Judaism and Christianity variously re-describe as the “neighbor.”  Weaving throughout them all, from the kind of literary and aesthetic theory to which pragmatism has given support to later meditations on the issue of what holds us together as a human community in the face of so much that is pulling us apart, is the issue of otherness and the other.  Just as otherness refers in literary and aesthetic experience to a sense of things not exactly our own which they mediate to us by asking us to follow the arrow of sense and sensibility, whether masked or avowed, disclosed by the logic of their own fictive propositions, so in social, political, moral, and religious experience that otherness refers more specifically to forms of life that not only exceed the limits of our own conventional ways of thinking and feeling but challenge them by revealing to us modes of being that simply cannot, as the saying goes, be put by.  Both these forms of otherness make their appeal principally to the heart rather than the head, to what the poet T.S. Eliot called the logic of the imagination rather than the logic of concepts, but they differ in relation to the terms of their address.  The aesthetic puts those terms in such forms as the hypothetical, the suppositional, the conjectural, the subjective; the social, the political, and the religious in such forms as the declarative, the assertive, the obligatory, and the paradigmatic.  Either way, the alterity of such experiences has the effect of carrying us out of ourselves, or, rather, of leaving us beside ourselves, because of the way that the uncanniness of their claims on us resist incorporation within any of the ordinary arrangements of knowledge and emotion. 












Articles & Chapters: 

Numerous essays on American and modern literature, critical theory, and American intellectual and cultural history, and global issues, including most recently:

“The Transcivilizational, the Intercivilizational, and the Human: The Quest for the Normative in the Legitimacy Debate,” Legality and Legitimacy in Global Affairs, ed. by Richard Falk, Mark Juergensmeyer, and Vesselin Popovski (Oxford University Press, 2012)

"Cultural Models and Rethinking Secularism," The Immanent Frame

"Global Ethics," Encyclopedia of Global Studies, ed. Helmut K. Anheier and Mark Juergensmeyer (Sage Publications)

"Global Literature," Encyclopedia of Global Studies, ed. Helmut K. Anheier and Mark Juergensmeyer (Sage Publications)


Forthcoming Projects: 

The Pragmatist Turn: Religion, the Englightenment, and the Formation of American Literature (University of Virginia Press, 2017)


Recent Courses Taught