Emeritus Professor of Political Theory, King's College, University of Cambridge
Dunn’s work focuses on applying a historical perspective to modern political theory. His early reputation was based upon the careful reconstruction of the political thought of John Locke: this benefited from Peter Laslett’s critical edition of Locke’s Two Treatises of Government. Together with his contemporary, the historian Quentin Skinner, and their mentor/colleague J.G.A. Pocock, he offered methodological prescriptions in the late 1960s which aimed at correcting the historical insensitivity of political science by reconstructing what past political thinkers intended to do in writing. Much of his subsequent work – reflective essays, edited collections, and several books – has tackled substantive issues in political theory, although his historical sense continues to inform a certain skepticism about the degree to which politics is ultimately amenable to reason. He is the author of The Cunning of Unreason (2001), a work that discusses how the limits of human knowledge and rationality prevent democratic republicanism from achieving all that it promises. His reflections upon the vicissitudes of democracy as a political ideal have continued with Setting the People Free: the Story of Democracy (2005). His most recent book on the subject is Breaking Democracy’s Spell (2014).