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Coming To

Consciousness and Natality in Early Modern England

Coming To

Consciousness and Natality in Early Modern England

In 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.

328 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2020

History: History of Ideas

History of Science

Literature and Literary Criticism: British and Irish Literature


"This is an important work that scholars will want to return to often. . . . Summing Up: Highly recommended."


"Insightful . . . . Coming To follows a doubled trajectory: insisting on poetry’s embeddedness in the history of consciousness and narrating the emergence of consciousness as fundamental to the development of early modern poetry. Harrison brings to life this entanglement through subtle, close readings of the early modern poets Thomas Traherne and John Milton, and the philosopher John Locke, all situated within their shared cultural matrix. . . . Harrison’s book will be of interest to scholars of Renaissance literature, religion, and philosophy, particularly in the areas of experiential spirituality, devotional writing, and embodiment. Additionally, Coming To contributes to our understanding of the entwined early modern discourses of subjectivity, consciousness, and identity."

John Yargo | Renaissance and Reformation

"Harrison is a comprehensive scholar. . . . The arc of consciousness and its history is so wide that Harrison comes close to becoming an intellectual polymath as he leads the reader through his book. I have already found myself returning to it more than once."

Sun News Tuscon

“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

Table of Contents

Introduction: Beginnings

Part 1: Milton and the Birth of Consciousness
Chapter 1: Unexperienced Thought
Chapter 2: Human Nature Experienced

Part 2: Traherne and the Consciousness of Birth
Chapter 3: From Creation to Birth
Chapter 4: In Utero

Part 3: Locke and the Life of Consciousness
Chapter 5: Natality and Empiricism



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