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date: 15 May 2021

Sources of the Self From the Renaissance to the 20th Centurylocked

  • Elwin HofmanElwin HofmanPostdoctoral Researcher, Research Foundation - Flanders, KU Leuven


The history of the self studies continuities and changes in ideas about and experiences of the individual mind through time, attending to questions of individuality, identity, stability, self-possession, and interiority. Traditionally, this subject has often been approached as an intellectual history, analyzing philosophers’ explicit writings about the self. Through the work of people such as René Descartes, John Locke, and Immanuel Kant, scholars have traced a growing sense of individuality and self-possession since the 16th century, and an increasing feeling of inner depth since the 18th century. The focus on intellectual sources of the self has been criticized, however, by scholars who stress the importance of practices and of social differences. They have broadened the scope of the field by looking at cultural sources, such as autobiographical writing, literature, art, rituals, and festivities. Still other historians have criticized the absence of power in many accounts of the history of the self and stress the institutional and political sources of the self, including religious institutions, schools, and legal systems. Throughout these different approaches, debates continue about whether a “modern self” can be traced, and when such a modern self can be situated. While many recent scholars stress the need to examine different cultures of the self at any given time in their own right, others argue that it remains important to trace grand shifts in this history.

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