Psychohistory Research Paper

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1. The Meaning of Psychohistory

The term psychohistory emerged in America in the 1950s to designate historical writings utilizing psychology, for the most part depth psychology, as their primary frame of reference or mode of explanation. Two of its tenets in particular distinguish psychohistory sharply from other systematic approaches to the human past. The first of the two, which is rarely spelled out even in methodological writings, is that the facts of human history consist entirely of what people did whether spontaneously or under pressure of circumstances. To the psychohistorian, an intellectual revolution thus signifies thinkers changing their minds; a decline in fertility translates as women bearing fewer children; urbanization conveys people living increasingly in cities. Other historians may agree that even such seemingly impersonal historic developments all come down to human doings, yet whenever other historians narrate or explain developments of the sort they tend in the first instance to see belief systems or birth rates or urban:rural ratios changing rather than people thinking or acting differently. The other highly distinctive tenet of psychohistory is, by contrast, fully and even emphatically explicit in the psychohistorical literature: that the determinants of human conduct, whether individual or collective, are largely unconscious. Historians of other schools will often freely acknowledge deeply subjective causation of historic human behavior only to shy away from it in their own research as too dauntingly difficult to reconstruct, let alone demonstrate. To the psychohistorian, however, whatever the difficulties involved, there is simply no other way for history to be understood.

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2. The Development of Psychohistory

Psychohistory originated as applied psychoanalysis, with Freud and his disciples drawing on their clinical findings now and again to illuminate historical facts. At first, those clinical findings bore heavily on the patterns and pitfalls of individual emotional development, with a strong emphasis on pregenital sexuality as it emerges in childhood bit by bit and then undergoes repression even while continuing to inform emotional life. Accordingly, the earliest applications of psychoanalysis to history—including those by Freud himself, who long set the standard for his followers—were biographic and focused on the infantile concerns latent in the words and deeds of eminent or paradigmatic historic figures. A landmark work in this category was psychoanalyst Erik H. Erikson’s Young Man Luther of 1958, which argued that Luther’s bold quest for spiritual autonomy was that of his whole age writ large (see Erikson, Erik Homburger (1902–94) ). Unlike biography in relation to historiography as a whole, psychobiography remains to this day the basic as well as the leading form of psychohistory. At the same time, it was as quick as psychoanalysis itself to move beyond its initial Freudian orthodoxy (see Freud, Sigmund (1856–1939) ). Post-Freudian concepts utilized in psychobiography when this is practiced as applied psychoanalysis have notably included C. G. Jung’s ‘individuation,’ Alfred Adler’s ‘inferiority complex,’ Erik H. Erikson’s ‘identity crisis,’ Heinz Kohut’s ‘narcissistic rage,’ and Jacques Lacan’s ‘language of the id.’

Psychohistory long continued to show its derivation from psychoanalysis even where it broadened its scope beyond psychobiography. As late as the 1970s psychohistorians who explored social groups, whole cultures, or long-range collective developments, did so as a rule only in terms of the individual psychodynamics thought to have determined them, tracing their salient characteristics to formative experiences widely shared by the individuals involved, and most often to pathogenic childrearing practices on the order of abrupt weaning or intrusive parenting. Correspondingly, the preferred subjects under the head of group behavior were instances of social pathology such as witchcraft, or of political pathology such as Nazism. The most systematic psychohistorical approach to group behavior to emerge on these individualistic premises is prosopography duly slanted: the profiling of the likes of saints or witches or Nazis in terms of variables of psychoanalytical significance in their individual family histories—ages of parents and siblings, for instance, or again early parent or sibling losses.

A prominent early alternative to the individual personality as the basic unit even of large-scale, broadgaged psychohistorical accounts or analyses was the study of a mass leader whose following interacted with him like a single composite being. Freud himself pioneered this departure from the classic individualistic model that underlay his own science of psychoanalysis. In his Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (Massenpsychologie und Ichanalyse) of 1922 he treated mass phenomena for the most part as simultaneous, parallel regression by individuals, but in a couple of highly suggestive passages he speculated on human consciousness as originally shared by a Darwinian primal horde from which a leader eventually emerged with a mind and will of his own; such shared group consciousness, he considered, might revive at critical historic junctures under the spell of a charismatic leader who threw back to that aboriginal tribal chief. Freud (1939) worked this speculative construction into a highly imaginative reading of the Moses story, with Moses reincarnating the tribal father supposedly slain and later exalted by his sons acting in concert. Given the very nature of this concept of group consciousness as a reversion to a tribal leader and following, subsequent psychohistorical treatments of leader and led have mostly dealt with political collectivities such as Lincoln’s or Nixon’s America, or again William II’s and especially Hitler’s Germany.

On the Freudian model of group process, then, group identity constitutes a regressive throwback to an original shared consciousness in the face of a strong leader. But a rival conception of shared mental life, one that makes it out as permanent and leaderless, came into psychohistory independently. Its locus classicus lies outside of psychohistory: in the ‘collective consciousness’ (conscience collecti e) that Emile Durkheim in his Suicide of 1897 inferred from the patterned regularity of suicide rates over and beyond the particular subjective causation of each individual suicide. An early specimen of such a leaderless group model in psychohistory was Caroline E. Playne’s The Neuroses of the Nations of 1925, which owed nothing to psychoanalysis and indeed wholly ignored it. When William L. Langer, in a resounding presidential address to the American Historical Association in 1957, called the mastery and use of depth psychology the historian’s ‘next assignment,’ he expressly meant its application to leaderless group phenomena, which he exemplified by the epidemic of religious and cultural pathology that followed in the wake of the Black Death of 1348. (Oddly, Langer made no reference to a pioneering work in this mold just then published by his Harvard University colleague Walter Abell (1957) about how the waxing and waning insecurities of medieval European life were projected into Europe’s public art of the time.) By the 1970s the dynamics of ‘group process,’ as it came to be called, topped the psychohistorical agenda, with collective fantasy as its privileged medium of analysis. An exemplary early product of this approach to group process was Paul Monaco’s (1976) work, which teased the deep-lying national anxieties of France and Germany in the 1920s out of the recurrent motifs and techniques of each country’s most popular movies of those years. Another choice area, still under exploited, for ferreting out the unconscious underpinnings of group activity is historical demography, especially the adjustments of aggregate birth rates to the felt needs of a population with regard to its overall numbers.

As the term ‘group process’ itself implies, explanation in psychohistory gradually has shifted from unconscious motives and meanings to unconscious mechanisms governing thought and conduct, while conscious purposes have been even more marginalized in the process. This shift reflects the continuing self-distancing of psychohistory from its parent discipline of psychoanalysis, focused as the latter is on latent impulses originating in childhood. Nowhere is this shift more evident than in the concept of traumatic reliving, which matured within psychohistory well before it was taken up in psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis had first confronted adult psychic trauma during World War One in the form of battle shock for which, as for other emotional ailments, it sought a childhood referent that in this case was not forthcoming. Comparative psychobiography established two patterned, alternative reactions to emotional trauma: either a continual recall accompanied by the full, tormenting original affect, or a repression of the traumatic affect, and sometimes even of the traumatic memory itself, followed by a contrived, controlled, disguised reexperience or reliving of the trauma to the apparent end, never attained, of mastering the attendant affect that could not be mastered at the time of the experience itself. These same mechanisms have subsequently been shown to operate as well on the collective level in instances of group trauma, and to operate independently of the widely varying reactions of the individuals composing the traumatized group. Precursively, William L. Langer in handing out his ‘next assignment’ conceived of the after effects of the Black Death, notably its morbid reenactments such as the Dance of Death, as just such a case of group traumatic reliving.

3. The Problematic of Psychohistory

Psychohistorical research is uniquely demanding of its practitioners because of its concern with subjective phenomena that are rarely if ever directly recorded. To understand a piece of the human past psychohistorically, researchers must first master the relevant facts at least as thoroughly as the practitioners of any other mode of inquiry. But much more, they must become immersed in those facts, make them vicariously their own, and feel out their inner determinants by dint of this imaginative identification with their original experience. The method is strikingly like the one promoted by Henri Bergson under the name of ‘intuition’: to study a subject intellectually from the outside until one enters into it subjectively through a core insight around which everything known about it will then fall into place. Such intimate, personal self-projection into a historic subject is trebly problematic. For one thing, it presupposes a basic equivalence of mental and emotional constitution as between researchers and their human subjects, however remote those subjects may be from them historically, and even if they are groups rather than individuals like themselves. For another, researchers’ identification with their subject must be thoroughgoing, yet unless they can also sustain some critical awareness outside of that identification the insights gained through it will be lost. And for a third, pieces of the researchers’ own mental underworld may slip unnoticed into their reading of a subject. This danger, often called ‘countertransference’ by loose analogy with psychoanalysts projecting into their patients, is the risk most cautioned against by psychohistorians themselves. Actually, an affinity in researchers for their subject’s inner experience can, on the positive side, sensitize or alert them to connections and meanings they might otherwise miss. Besides, a purely projective finding will not stand up in any case inasmuch as it will fail to fit all the evidence, let alone satisfy anyone apart from the researchers themselves.

Researchers will feel the rightness of their inner grasp of a subject when it not only pulls together all the relevant facts at their disposal, but points the way to unsuspected additional corroborative evidence. Yet the discovery of such new evidence, however suggestive, is in itself no proof that their inner grasp of their subject is universally valid. Because of the very nature of psychohistorical explanation, to validate a psychohistorical thesis takes more than just a wealth of corroborative material, even if the thesis itself is what turned up key pieces of that material. To pass muster, a psychohistorical thesis must also carry subjective conviction, beyond the researchers themselves, with others willing and able to put themselves in the subject’s place in their turn and see whether the proposed unconscious source of the thought or action at issue checks out subjectively with them too.

This second, subjective criterion of verification means in brief that a psychohistorical thesis must be emotionally as well as intellectually compelling. Consequently it can rely on no pregiven theory for support. Yet however direct its appeal, its need for subjective on top of objective verification demands too much effort, not to add goodwill, of critics accustomed instead to merely material and logical criteria of validation. As a substitute test of validity I therefore propose that, in psychohistory as in any science, a thesis is confirmed if, first of all, the known evidence all runs its way, if moreover it could potentially be refuted by new evidence, and if finally any piece of what it purports to explain cannot very well be explained otherwise. To take a simple example of this last stipulation from my own thesis that Hitler was traumatized by his mother’s iodoform poisoning during her terminal cancer treatment: why else did he put it to his generals in late 1944 that his Ardennes offensive had caught the Allies off guard because they believed he was dead already ‘or at all odds am down with cancer somewhere and can’t live any more or drink any more’ except that deadly iodoform poisoning induces a burning thirst together with an inability to drink? (Binion 1976, p. 143).

4. Psychohistory Crisis Years

As a historical school in its own right, psychohistory flourished above all in the US during the 1960s and 1970s. Even then, like all new departures, it was highly controversial, especially within the historical professions, because of its constitutive tendency to undercut all other modes of historical explanation. It has since suffered considerably from the decline of psychoanalysis, with which it is rightly associated in that the two still share at least the premise of unconscious motives and meanings. Experimental graduate programs in the field have all folded, while course offerings on college campuses have dwindled to the vanishing point. The ranks of researchers in the field are fast thinning even as the stringent standards of verification invoked for it by critics and adepts alike are discouraging prospective practitioners. Fewer psychohistorical books and articles are appearing year by year. Of the two major specialized journals, The Psychohistory Review ceased publication in 1998 while The Journal of Psychohistory has lost most of its initial circulation. Perhaps worst of all for the discipline, the consensus of outsiders is that its scholarly output is falling off qualitatively as well.

On the other hand, psychohistory has left its impress on most other kinds of historical inquiry, especially those that emerged or developed later than psychohistory itself. Biographies and even general histories now routinely incorporate psychohistorical materials and interpretations. The study of mentalities often verges on psychohistory. So does that of historic memory, especially in the concern with memory gaps or distortions that has dominated the field. Gender history and gay history, as well as the history of emotions, lean heavily on psychohistorical concepts and findings. Many a term launched in psychohistory, such as Erikson’s ‘identity crisis,’ has become common coinage elsewhere, while the mechanism of traumatic reliving by individuals and groups alike has found its way into a broad variety of scholarly contexts, including even a quantitative history of testation in late medieval Tuscany (Cohn 1992).

The fact that psychohistory has lost much of its vitality of the 1960s and 1970s, or again that it is being put to subordinate uses by historians of other orientations, does not affect its constitutive claim to provide a privileged access to causality in history. Given this inherently persuasive claim, neither the recent loss of momentum by psychohistory as a method in its own right nor its present auxiliary status in historical research can very well be regarded as permanent.


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