Coming ToConsciousness and Natality in Early Modern England

Coming ToConsciousness and Natality in Early Modern England

Timothy M. Harrison

Print publication date: 2021

ISBN: 9780226725093

Publisher: University of Chicago Press


Coming To argues that poetry played a central but forgotten role in the seventeenth-century invention of the concept of consciousness. The story of consciousness’s emergence is usually told in a purely philosophical register: sometime between René Descartes’s Meditationes (1641) and the second edition of John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1694), philosophers developed the concept of consciousness to advance epistemological theories about the role of the subjective observer in the scene of knowledge production. Coming To revises this narrative by arguing that poetry—sensuous mimetic fiction enhanced by verse—played a major, even necessary role in the emergence of consciousness as a concept. The poetry of John Milton and Thomas Traherne illuminated and even contributed to early modern understandings of consciousness by clarifying the extent to which the concept was entangled with new understandings of human natality, the condition of life as it begins—either at the moment of creation in Paradise or at the moment when embryonic sensation begins in the womb. By situating Milton and Traherne within an intellectual milieu that includes embryology, metaphysics, theology, law, and political theory, among other discourses, this book argues that when Locke and his followers drew out the implications of consciousness as a concept, they smuggled poetry into the heart of modern epistemology. They deployed an idea hatched in the poetic imagination: to understand mindedness one must examine the birth of consciousness insofar as it intersects with the consciousness of birth.

Table of Contents

Front Matter

Part 1 Milton and the Birth of Consciousness

Part 2 Traherne and the Consciousness of Birth

Part 3 Locke and the Life of Consciousness