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!