what do you want to be when you grow up?

I’m genuinely interested in the answer to that question — and I’ve deliberately used the present tense for whoever, like me, is still trying to figure this out!

When I was going through my (protracted) childhood dinosaur phase, my unhesitating answer was, ‘paeleontologist’. I loved the idea of unearthing things, digging up their prehistory.

Which is why one of the displays at the Ashmoleum museum in Oxford grabbed my attention. According to the display, the term ‘prehistory’ was coined in the 1830s. But it didn’t attain wide currency until 1859 — the year John Evans and Joseph Prestwich confirmed some important findings in Somme valley gravel pits. Alongside fossils of organisms they didn’t recognise, they found flint tools — evidence of human habitation and activity massively antedating any recorded history!

What I find compelling about this story is the idea that a seemingly obvious notion like ‘prehistory’ can itself have a history. It’s not a necessary concept, fallen from the mind of God. People didn’t always think this way. They had to feel their way towards the idea in order to account for the otherwise puzzling evidence before them. It’s ‘necessity’ was contingent on the situation and the more or less deeply felt need to solve the puzzle.

I haven’t grown up to be a paeleontologist. But I’m still fascinated by unearthing things, digging up their prehistory. These days, it’s concepts that I love to uncover, brush the dust from, and scrutinise to determine their function — whether psychological, sociological, ethical or whatever.

That’s why I’m setting out to read Charles Taylor’s magisterial Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity. Taylor promises to unearth the prehistory of our modern western sense of self — visible in our remarkably tenacious sense of ‘inwardness’ and individual agency as much as in our more common anxieties over identity.

I’m hoping that in doing so Taylor sheds light on how this sense of self functions, revealing what needs it meets. If it can do this, then Sources of the Self has the potential to break the deadlock between those who brandish the fruit of western individualism and those who feel they’ve solved (or rather dissolved) every problem when they’ve chased it back there — to its supposedly tainted source.

Either way, I’m looking forward to doing some digging!


  1. Thank God the Christian’s pre-history is still “Christ”, and “In Christ”, (Rom. 8:28-30).The Christian has no past but Christ, and no future but Christ also. One of the sources of western “inwardness” must certainly be Greek and Roman.

  2. In answer to your question, here’s a rough history of what I have wanted to be when I grow up:
    5-11yo: David Attenborough (or his female equivalent)
    12-17yo: Foreign Correspondent
    18-21yo: National Parks Ranger
    21-22yo: Anything – please God, someone just give me a job
    22-29yo: Student!

    Oh, and I’m looking forward to Taylor too…

  3. Well, since I have basically lived the majority of my life, I can say.. thanks be to God! I wanted to become a General lol, I was a mustang (enlisted to officer) and made it to Captain.

    I went to Israel, and taught there, philosophy and theology. I wanted to write a book on Divinity (like Packer). I wrote instead just articles. But, I did get to do what God called me to do, and that was to be a priest-pastor-teacher.. and that is still my “call” of God!

    To God be the glory!

  4. I suspect the term pre-history, arriving in the middle of Modernity like it did, says a lot more about the people who coined it than any actual insight into the nature of human existence in the world. While it is fair to say that the discoveries predated current description of human civilisation, my suspicious self would suggest that Modern man was forced to come to terms with the fact that our ability to explain our place in the world is far less absolute and a lot more relative than we might feel comfortable saying out loud.

    1. I’m happy to accept your suggestion that ‘pre-history’ became necessary as “Modern man was forced to come to terms with the fact that our ability to explain our place in the world is far less absolute and a lot more relative than we might feel comfortable saying out loud”. That sounds fair to me.

      Do you think the language of ‘pre-history’ assisted or hindered us in recognising our not so absolute ability to explain our place in the world?

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