Timothy Harrison

Timothy Harrison
Assistant Professor
  • Department of English
Rosenwald 426

I am interested in the relationship between language, history, and lived experience. My research and teaching focus on how sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literature intersects with practices of knowledge production ranging from the sciences to theology. Combining a historical focus on early modernity with the study of phenomenological philosophy, my work probes a range of verbal techniques for articulating (and perhaps inventing) modes of experience that resist comprehension.
My current book project, Impossible Experience: Death, Birth, and Sentience in Early Modernity, explores how writers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries developed accounts of human awareness by imagining experiences that should be inaccessible. Early modern writers repeatedly sought to clarify the nature of consciousness by occupying the instant of death or the moment of birth. By inserting awareness into the end and beginning of human life—limits that are by definition opaque and irretrievable—such literary figures as William Shakespeare, John Donne, Henry Vaughan, Thomas Traherne, and John Milton attempted to isolate consciousness in its most basic state in order to describe its most fundamental features. What shows up when everyday investments and distractions fall away at the onset of death? What discloses itself when neonatal awareness first flares into existence? When early modern English poets answered these questions, they rendered explicit a latent structure of fantasy that underpinned contemporary philosophical discourse, animating from within and actualizing the impossible ideals of thinkers as diverse as Michel de Montaigne, Edward Herbert, Thomas Hobbes, René Descartes, Nathaniel Culverwell, Nicolas Malebranche, and John Locke. Situating early modern literature in relation to the reception of Augustinian theology, the reworking of ancient philosophy, and the prehistory of biology, I argue that when English poets imagined the experiences of death and birth they consistently discovered the phenomenon of sentience, a minimal and intransitive sense of one’s own life.
I am also working on another book project, John Donne’s Physics, co-authored with Elizabeth D. Harvey. This book explores the various forms of being in the world described and imagined in Donne’s poetry and prose. Bringing together the histories of the sciences, theology, the body, and the passions, we argue that Donne transforms the principles of physics into a phenomenological register, and that this mingling of lived experience and scientific fact addresses the epistemic anxieties of his age. 

For more information, see my Academia.edu profile: https://chicago.academia.edu/TimothyMHarrison


2016-17 courses: Autumn 2016, The Being of Effort in Early Modernity (graduate). Winter 2017, Shakespeare II: Tragedies and Romances (undergraduate).

Graduate: Milton and the Literature of Origins, Early Modern Natality

Undergraduate: Shakespeare II: Tragedies and Romances, Philosophical Perspectives I, Philosophical Perspectives II



  • “Personhood and Impersonal Feeling in Montaigne’s ‘De l’exercitation.’” Modern Philology a (forthcoming).
  • “Adamic Awakening and the Feeling of Being Alive in Paradise Lost.Milton Studies 54 (2013): 29-58. Recipient of the Milton Society of America’s Albert C. Labriola Award.
  • “Embodied Resonances: Early Modern Science and Tropologies of Connection in Donne’s Anniversaries.” Co-authored with Elizabeth D. Harvey. ELH 80 (2013): 981-1008.


  • Joe Moshenska, Feeling Pleasures: The Sense of Touch in Renaissance England (Oxford, 2014). Reviewed for The Review of English Studies (forthcoming).
  • Mary Thomas Crane, Losing Touch with Nature: Literature and the New Science in 16th-Century England (Johns Hopkins, 2014). Reviewed for Modern Philology (forthcoming).


Ph.D., University of Toronto, 2014; Teaching at Chicago since 2014