Consciousness and Natality in Early Modern England
University of Chicago Press
Coming To, Timothy M. Harrison uncovers the forgotten role of poetry in the history of the idea of consciousness. Drawing our attention to a sea change in the English seventeenth century, when, over the course of a half century, “conscience” made a sudden shift to “consciousness,” he traces a line that leads from the philosophy of René Descartes to the poetry of John Milton, from the prenatal memories of theologian Thomas Traherne to the unresolved perspective on natality, consciousness, and ethics in the philosophy of John Locke. Each of these figures responded to the first-person perspective by turning to the origins of how human thought began. Taken together, as Harrison shows, this unlikely group of thinkers sheds new light on the emergence of the concept of consciousness and the significance of human natality to central questions in the fields of literature, philosophy, and the history of science.
Timothy M. Harrison is assistant professor of English at the University of Chicago.
“Harrison argues that the notion of consciousness emerged over the course of the seventeenth century by being connected with another concern: natality, the earliest, infant experiences of existence, beginning in the fetal state. This is original scholarship and thought, immensely and accurately learned, impressive in every way, and is likely to become a standard in the field of seventeenth-century studies, on a shelf with Martz, Lewalski, and Colie. I have read few books in a long time that are as technically accomplished and that strike me as not only interesting but also as important.”
— Gordon Teskey, Harvard University
“Harrison is an acute student of philosophy, an erudite guide to intellectual history, and a sensitive and revelatory reader of poetry. As in the very best studies of poetry and its intellectual contexts, Harrison demonstrates that poets do not merely reflect philosophical developments, they also shape them. In
Coming To, Harrison, tracing a line from Descartes through Milton and Traherne to Locke, unearths the contribution of two poets to modern understandings of consciousness.”
— Stephen M. Fallon, Cavanaugh Professor of the Humanities, University of Notre Dame