George B. Cotkin

Professor Emeritus


  • U.S. History 
  • Historical Methods 
  • American Intellectual History

Contact Information


  • Ph.D. The Ohio State University (1978)
  • M.A. The Ohio State University (1974)
  • B.A. Brooklyn College (1972)

Research and Teaching Interests

My new book is Dive Deeper: Journeys with Moby-Dick. This book creatively traces the novel’s history –its representations in film, art, literature, popular and high culture. It begins with Ishmael’s musing on suicide and ends with Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream.

My previous project combined nicely with my teaching interests. I am concerned with how morality and history intersect. Can historical narratives help to illuminate moral problems? Can moral categories help us to understand history better? What are the dangers and benefits from thinking morally about historical actors and actions?  Can morality be viewed as a process of thinking rather than one of judging? Some of these questions define my history 304 seminar, “Morality and History,” as the students and I look at bombing  (conventional and atomic), the potential for our “understanding” evil and its value for historical analysis, and the challenges of historical understanding, in general, especially in the light of postmodernist claims.
Morality’s Muddy Waters: Moral Quandaries in Modern America, attempts to address some of the above issues. Was the use of the atomic bomb inevitable? Might “mature consideration” have made wartime decisions more palatable as a process? Another chapter looks at how Hannah Arendt dealt with the challenge of evil, especially as personified in totalitarianism and recent history. How has the concept of evil changed over time? In contrast to the postwar years, when evil was something both internal and external to the individual, we have moved to the present when we seem to have a rather narrower notion of evil as something external to us.  In another chapter, I consider the power of empathy as a moral value through the work of John Howard Griffin, a white man who became briefly a “Negro” to experience racism in the south. But can empathy and compassion become a moral problem?  Another chapter examines the breakdown of compassion and character in My Lai.  What were the morals that the young soldiers carried with them, and how were they unpacked during the war. Other chapters will examine how interventionism presents itself as both necessity and problem and how the death penalty in America functions as a form of therapeutic rather than moral conviction.

Awards and Honors

  • Senior Fulbright Scholar, University of Rome, 1994.
  • National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship, 1991-1992.
  • Cal Poly Nominee for Trustees’ Outstanding Professor Award, CSU System, 1992.
  • Distinguished Teaching Award, Cal Poly, 1988-1989.

Selected Publications and Presentations


  • Morality’s Muddy Waters: Ethical Quandaries in Modern America (Penn Press, 2010).
  • Existential America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003; paperback edition 2005).
  • Reluctant Modernism: American Thought and Culture, 1880-1920 (Twayne, 1992; paperbound edition in print, Rowman and Littlefield, 2004).
  • William James, Public Philosopher (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992; paperback edition, University of Illinois Press, 1994).

Recent articles:

  • “History’s Moral Turn,” Journal of the History of Ideas 69 (April 2008), 293-315, with comments on piece by Lewis Perry, James Livingston, Michael O’Brien, and Neil Jumonville, . Response from author, JHI 69 (July, 2008), 493-497.
  • “The Challenge of Evil: Hannah Arendt and Moral History,” Modern Intellectual History, 4 (Nov., 2007), 463-490.
  • “The Culture of Commerce and Criticism,” The Columbia History of the Postwar United States ed. Mark C. Carnes (NY: Columbia University Press, 2007), 179-197.
  • “The Democratization of Cultural Criticism,” Chronicle of Higher Education Review (2 July 2004), 8-9.

Professional Activities

  • Editor for book series,  Ideas in Action: Thought and Culture in the United States, since 1945 (Rutgers University Press).
  • Editorial Board, American Studies, 1993-2002.

Organizational Memberships

  • Organization of American Historians
  • American Historical Association


  • HIST 304
  • HIST 460
  • HIST 505
  • HIST 512
  • HIST 599

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