In the discourse about the rise of pre-modern individualism or the discovery of the individual in pre-modern Europe (ca. 1000-1600), historians are inclined to argue that there was a period of time in which the interest in one’s own self had become a dominant character of the age. They support their understanding of this change of interest, focus and expression by pointing to sources such as literature, theological and ethical texts, legal documents, and the fine arts. Within these sources, they draw our attention to changes in verbal and visual vocabulary and rhetoric, as if they reflect contemporaries’ state of mind; as if language – of any kind – mirrors the psyche that produces it.
Noa Yaari, The Discovery of Discovery, 2017, Toronto
The problem of historicizing how people approached their own self through analyzing such sources can be clarified by thinking of those people’s connection with their body. It wouldn’t make sense to claim that pre-modern people didn’t feel their body; that they weren’t aware of the fact that their souls are interconnected with a dynamic physical entity. But when historians locate the “discovery” of the self on the axis of time, they do so while ignoring that the “self” is a bodily phenomenon. They think about their subjects of inquiry as if they had never had a headache, never enjoyed a kiss, never been stung by a bee; as if the discovery of the “self,” and subsequently the constitution of the self itself, start with its theorization. It makes the pre-modern self, about which the historians write a narrative, as much the historians’ as it is their subjects’. It makes the history of the pre-modern discovery of the self a discovery of discovery; a story that couldn’t have been established without rejecting the self as a bodily existence.