Timothy Harrison

Tim Harrison
Associate Professor
Rosenwald 426
Ph.D., University of Toronto, 2014
Teaching at UChicago since 2014
Research Interests: Critical Theory| Renaissance and Early Modern Literature| History of Ideas | History of Literary Criticism| History of Science | Literary History | Literature and Philosophy| Nonfiction Prose


My work examines the conditions that enabled the literary representation of the first-person perspective in early modernity. I am currently the director of the undergraduate program in Renaissance Studies, a program I developed together with Ada Palmer (History). In 2015, I started and have then continued to organize the Early Modern European Reading Group, an interdisciplinary study group in which faculty and Ph.D. students spend a year working through difficult texts together.

My first book, Coming To: Consciousness and Natality in Early Modern England (University of Chicago Press, 2020) examines the role played by poetry in the emergence of the concept of consciousness. Somewhere between the work of René Descartes in the 1640s and the writings of John Locke in the 1690s, the modern concept of consciousness was born. Coming To analyses the historical genesis of this concept by exploring the poetry and prose of John Milton and Thomas Traherne. I argue that these writers attempt to clarify the nature of consciousness by describing in first person terms what it is like for human thought to begin, by putting into words the moment when human life was first created or when embryonic awareness first flares into existence. Using the resources of the imagination to burrow behind what they see was the distorting influences of nurture, Milton and Traherne present coherent and sustained fantasies of human nature as it might exist in a state of radical natality.

I am currently writing three books. In John Donne’s Physics, my co-author Elizabeth D. Harvey and I reconsider Donne’s representation of the body and embodiment in the Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions. Written while Donne lay on what he thought was his deathbed, the Devotions provides a series of meditations, expostulations, and prayers that compress investigations of God, time, the cosmos, the social world, religious institutions, political power, and the body into a representation of what it feels like to live through illness. Donne’s depiction of the first-person perspective is organized around a rich understanding of body as it intersects with change. We explore how the Devotions introduces three valences of body. First, Donne examines the bodies treated by physics, from atoms and corpuscles to planets and stars, and the rules that govern their existence, properties, duration, and motion. Second, he thinks through the difference between bodies as such and the body studied by physic or medicine, the sick human body understood as an object that obeys certain laws and follows predictable patterns. And third, he explores the body as lived, the phenomenological scene of sensations, passions, and the presence or absence of disparate abilities. Playing with the shared lexical root of physics and physic, Donne distinguishes these three understandings of the body and then generates meaning by pressurizing their relations in the crucible of illness.

In Horizons of the Mind: Experiences of Self and World in Early Modern Persian and English Poetry, my co-author Jane Mikkelson and I construct a comparative literary history of mindedness. Early modern English and Persian literary traditions have never been thoroughly studied together. We argue for the necessity of this comparative work by bringing together two important philosophical poets—one from northern India, one from rural England—who both composed poetry that explores questions about the nature and structure of the human mind: Bidel of Delhi and Thomas Traherne. Separated by a distance of more than 5,000 miles, Traherne and Bidel articulated strikingly similar ideas about mind, self, and world during many of the same orbital circuits that the earth made around the sun. We reveal how these two seemingly unconnected poets belonged to a shared intellectual world, one that was shaped by the philosophy of Ibn Sīnā, known as Avicenna in Latin. Avicenna’s important interventions in psychology, medicine, metaphysics, logic, and other fields circulated widely throughout Afro-Eurasia and beyond, transforming intellectual cultures across the globe. Tracing some of the branching pathways by which Avicenna’s ideas travelled to England and India, we argue that Bidel’s and Traherne’s explorations of mind and self both belong to a shared world of Avicennan thought. Developing novel modes of comparison, we offer a new history of mindedness, reveal an Afro-Eurasian world of ideas hitherto overlooked by Euro-American scholarship, and account for the role played by poetry in early modern models of the mind.

In Life in Milton’s Late Poetry, I examine what early modern thinkers understood by the concept of life prior to the development of biology. The book routes a wide-ranging discussion of this concept through a treatment of Milton’s late poems: Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes. Exploring how Milton weaves his vast learning on life into his poetry, I show how Milton’s struggle to synthesize his theological, humanistic, philosophical, and literary inclinations enabled a poetry that represented life-as-object simultaneously with life-as-subject. The book approaches the topic of life from the vantage point of endeavor, a word that indexes the expense of effort and translates the Latin conatus, which was central both to religious debates and philosophical inquiry. I show that the capacity to endeavor or expend effort is what connects Milton’s abiding concern for freedom in all of its forms with his interest in life.




Select Publications


Articles and Book Chapters

  • “Fictions of Human Nature in Seventeenth-Century Poetry and Philosophy,” English Literary Renaissance (2022, forthcoming), part of Theorizing Fiction in the Early Modern Period, a special issue edited by Wendy Beth Hyman and Jennifer Waldron. 5000 words.
  • “What Was Early Modern World Literature?” Co-authored with Jane Mikkelson. Modern Philology 119.1 (2021): 166-88 (part of Multiplicities: Recasting the Early Modern Global, a special issue edited by Ayesha Ramachandran and Carina Johnson). 9,500 words.  
  • “Confusion: Cymbeline, The Merchant of Venice, The Winter’s Tale.” In Shakespeare and Emotion, ed. Katharine Craik (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2020), 330-43. 5,000 words.
  • “John Donne, the Instant of Change, and the Time of the Body.” English Literary History (ELH) 85.4 (Winter 2018): 909-39. 13,000 words. Recipient of the John Donne Society Award for Distinguished Publication.
  • “Personhood and Impersonal Feeling in Montaigne’s ‘De l’exercitation.’” Modern Philology 114 (2016): 219-42. 11,000 words.
  • “Adamic Awakening and the Feeling of Being Alive in Paradise Lost.” Milton Studies 54 (2013): 29-58. 13,500 words. 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. English Literary History (ELH) 80 (2013): 981-1008. 13,000 words.


  • Andrea Gadberry, Cartesian Poetics: The Art of Thinking (University of Chicago Press, 2020). Reviewed for Critical Inquiry, 2020.
  • Mary Thomas Crane, Losing Touch with Nature: Literature and the New Science in 16th-Century England (Johns Hopkins, 2014). Reviewed for Modern Philology 113 (2016). 
  • Joe Moshenska, Feeling Pleasures: The Sense of Touch in Renaissance England (Oxford, 2014). Reviewed for The Review of English Studies 66 (2015).


  • Graduate: The Being of Effort in Early Modernity; Early Modern Natality; Milton and the Literature of Origins; The Uses of Fiction: Poetry and Philosophy in Early Modernity.
  • Undergraduate: Inventing Consciousness: Literature, Philosophy, Psychology; Shakespeare II: Tragedies and Romances; Philosophical Perspectives I, Philosophical Perspectives II