Timothy Harrison

Tim Harrison
Randy L. and Melvin R. Berlin Assistant Professor of Renaissance and Early Modern English Literature
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


In my research and teaching, I focus on how early modern literature intersects with other practices of knowledge production, including philosophy, theology, and the sciences. Much of my work probes how early modern authors developed verbal strategies adequate to experiences that resist comprehension. 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. Their accounts of newly created, embryonic, and infant experience are, I argue, part of an attempt to address a blind spot built into consciousness, a new and inchoate concept the nature of which was being debated by contemporary theologians and philosophers. Milton and Traherne use poetry to do what other forms of discourse could not: to think consciousness qua consciousness.

I am currently working on a second book project, The Being of Effort in Early Modernity, which extends my work on consciousness by using the previously unexamined history of effort to demonstrate the extent to which early modern understandings of the affordances and limitations of subjectivity were folded into the pre-history of biology. The book will follow the philological evidence afforded by the Latin term conatus (effort, endeavor, exertion). This term was used in at least two separate conceptual registers, which, when pulled together, shed light on early modern understandings of life. First, I will examine the central role played by conatus in Reformation debates about the freedom of the will. In the arguments between such theologians as Desiderius Erasmus, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Jacobus Arminius, conatus provides common ground in the microanalyses of psychological processes at the heart of these debates. Second, I will explore how the terms of this debate were transformed when theological concerns about the freedom of the will entered into the philosophical work of such thinkers as Hugo Grotius, Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, Baruch Spinoza, Margaret Cavendish, and Anne Conway. If, for Reformation theologians, conatus is the voluntary expenditure of effort towards a particular goal, for Spinoza and other philosophers the term evokes an involuntary drive towards self-preservation more related to theories of inertia than associated with the conscious deployment of effort. The Being of Effort will examine how such literary writers as Michel de Montaigne, William Shakespeare, John Donne, Joost van den Vondel, and Milton approach the intersection of voluntary and involuntary conatus in order to develop a notion of life adequate to both life-as-subject and life-as-object.

I am also working on another book project, John Donne’s Physics, co-authored with Elizabeth D. Harvey. Focusing on Donne’s Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, 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.

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