William Nelson

Associate Professor
MW216, 1265 Military Trail, Toronto, Ontario, M1C 1A4


Fields of Study

Areas of Interest

The Enlightenment; Intellectual History; the History of Science; historical development of ideas of race; modernist prose.


William Nelson specializes in the history of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. His research focuses on the ways that ideas about time, race, and biopolitics emerged in eighteenth-century France and the Atlantic world. The Time of Enlightenment: Constructing the Future in France 1750 to Year One was published in 2021. He has completed another book manuscript on the Enlightenment birth of biopolitics. He co-edited the book The French Revolution in Global Perspective (Cornell, 2013) with Suzanne Desan and Lynn Hunt. Articles and essays of his have been published in The American Historical Review and History Workshop Journal, while chapters on a distinctively Atlantic Enlightenment and the effects of colonial history on the French Revolution have appeared in edited volumes. Other research and teaching interests include the development of early modern globalization, the history of the life sciences, social theory, the phenomenological tradition, modernist prose, and experimental forms of writing history. His essay “Five Ways of Being a Painting” won the Notting Hill Editions Essay Prize in 2017 and was subsequently published in Five Ways of Being a Painting and Other Essays (Notting Hill Editions, 2017). Weaving together the personal and the historical, the essay builds on his interests in experimental modernist prose, early modern globalization, aesthetics, and the history of ideas.

In 2018, Professor Nelson was a Visiting Professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris. Before coming to the University of Toronto, Professor Nelson was a Research Fellow at The Institute for Historical Studies at The University of Texas at Austin, a Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Miami, and at Cambridge University he was a Mellon Postdoctoral Research Fellow and Associate Director of Studies at the Centre for History and Economics (where he is currently a Research Associate).


MA and PhD, University of California–Los Angeles
MA, University of Chicago
BA, University of Wisconsin–Madison