Oscar Kenshur, known to his friends as "Oz," grew up learning Yiddish in a bilingual household and refining his comparatist's ear on the playgrounds of Chicago. After earning two degrees at Northwestern University and mastering German, French, and Spanish while traveling in Europe, he completed his doctorate in Comparative Literature at the University of Iowa in 1977. The next year he began teaching at Indiana, where for nearly three decades he worked to expand the definition of the discipline and to invigorate Comparative Literature as an academic department, serving as chair from 2001 until his retirement in 2006. For most of this time he has also held adjunct appointments in Philosophy and English. As director of the Individualized Major Program from 1991 to 1997, he guided the program through a crucial phase of its development; more recently, he was a founding member of this Center, whose spirit of collegiality and cordial debate he helped to foster.
Rigorous, lean, and erudite, his own writings on early-modern thought reflect the turn in literary study from text-immanent and aesthetic modes of interpretation to a concern with intellectual contexts. Besides offering new perspectives on major figures of the Enlightenment (Dryden, Bayle, Shaftesbury, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Diderot, Johnson, Hume, and Gibbon, among many others), he has challenged the inherited division between literature on the one hand and philosophy, science, and politics on the other. His first book, Open Form and the Shape of Ideas: Literary Structures as Representations of Philosophical Concepts in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (1986), revised our common notions of disciplinary boundaries, interpreting the encyclopedia, for example, as a literary mode, and assailing the opposition of order and fragmentation through new readings of such "discontinuous" works as Don Quixote. Beginning in the late eighties, his focus shifted to the critique of ideological essentialism-the notion that specific philosophical positions are inherently linked to specific political interests-a theme he developed in a series of essays published in prominent collections and journals (Critical Inquiry, Eighteenth-Century Studies, and ELH, among others) and in his acclaimed book, Dilemmas of Enlightenment: Studies in the Rhetoric and Logic of Ideology (1993), which established his reputation as the critical conscience of the New Historicism.
Collateral studies, like his recent monograph on "Virtue and Defilement" in Montesquieu's Lettres Persanes, have dealt with similar issues at the boundary of literature and philosophy, now advancing our understanding of Enlightenment skepticism, now exposing what Oz has called the "metaphysical snares of ideological criticism." Through all his evolutions, he has been careful always to ground his appetite for subtle paradox in sound historical research and and the nuances of specific texts. Reviewers have praised his "reasoned, poised challenge to theoretical orthodoxies," but also his ability to illuminate the work of individual authors, to "show in practice the wonderful complexities of the interplay of rhetoric and philosophy." Honors have included an array of prestigious fellowships, including two from the National Endowment for the Humanities; election to the editorial boards of Eighteenth-Century Studies and the Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment; and invitations to lecture in such notable venues as the Centre d'Etudes sur Rhétorique, Philosophie et Histoire des Idées, Ecole Normale Supérieure de Fontenay-St Cloud, where he presented the keynote address at the conference on Pierre Bayle, and the New York Academy of Sciences. Most recently he has been focusing on the intellectual and ideological contexts of British aesthetics and ethical theory, and we look forward to the publication of his work-in-progress, Order and Proportion: The Ideology of the Beautiful from Hobbes to Burke.