Historiography: Psychohistory

All history at some stage discusses personal motivations among the actors in time. The problem comes when this is systematic to the historical account, that there is a theory or more of human motivation to be uncovered by doing history. Psychohistory is specific to psychoanalysis (Green, Troup, 1999, 59) and so its use depends upon what one thinks about Freud and all that.
To put it bluntly: is all the talk about ego, super ego and id a lot of mumbo jumbo? What is the grounding for an analysis where, for example, penis envy leads to a woman having low self esteem? Is there any evidence for these, and for the contention that what we do can be worked backwards to childhood? Do any of these labels add to understanding? Is psychoanalysis on a par with astrology, possibly useful as a kind of religions-like set of markers but parading a pseudo science? Given the bad reputation for doctored evidence on Freud's patients, and lots of talk with little evidence, why should history which deals with evidence go on to explain it in terms of considerably less?
Psychoanalysis has these contentions:
  • Infancy is the key to understanding what adults do, through its oral, anal and genital sex drives which get repressed into the unconscious.
  • We all develop through stages, but some not as well or completely as others which leaves a legacy of problems.
  • What we do comes from unconscious determination: this unconscious is both inaccessible but makes itself known in adulthood through dreams, spontaneous choices of words, neuroses and odd behaviours. Psychoanalysis can investigate and reveal these.

(See Green, Troup, 1999, 60)
There is an inner dialectical process, then, which derives from upbringing, and is rather like the Philip Larkin line: "They fuck you up, your mum and dad."
Historians (and others) who use Freudianism have often moderated it. They have added culture into the personal to family upbringing mix. They may prefer to look at normal people (Green, Troup, 1999, 61). Some connect personal development that continues past childhood into the social situation.
Psychohistory can be used when a historian knows a social and cultural setting for tracking against an infant's stages of reducing and changing dependency. This includes when a brother or sister is born. This is called object-relations theory: the environment of development. (Green, Troup, 1999, 61-62).
A development of use to historians is that of Lacan's psychological postmodernism in that an infant is said to gain an unconscious and sexuality through language-mediated social interaction. Language-mediated social interaction must have a way in for historians. The key is the structure and workings of language, the crucible and trap of all there is, and leads on to postmodern history. (Green, Troup, 1999, 66)
There are several recurring areas of interest:
  • The human mind was the same in the past as it is now
  • Little about normality and much about psychopathology
  • Infantile issues
  • Sex and parental influence
  • Women and men within and between generations
  • Religion, especially Roman Catholic (Virgin, saints, love, desire, authority, images, visitations)
  • Myth and inner belief affecting historical outcomes
  • Relationship to food and diet
  • From individual anxieties to the group, especially in politically charged situations
  • Menstrual cycle
  • Hysteria and mass hysteria
  • Language as place of objective and subjective and means of social-individual interaction
A question is whether historians are able to be as psychotherapists and their clients. Are they able to "listen" to primary or secondary sources using empathy and response in a way to reveal deeper insights? Can they carry out this counter-transference as in the analyst-client between historian and sources? Obviously there is no way from the historian to the text to move the text on to its own inner clashes. Oral interviews about someone's past can work like the analyst listening and prompting. Historical characters might have left diaries that demonstrate inner turmoils. Whatever, the subjectivity of the method leads to varied outcomes from historians.
However, a historian must look for evidence and context. Psychological states are subjective in both experience and analysis. They should only be included as illustrative of historical context using a range of sources. Use of psychoanalysis has to be rooted in the history and the question must be whether it explains anything at all. Does the psychoanalysis add some colour to the account or is it a diversion? Does it usefully illustrate (explain...) human behaviour away from the rational that is too often implied?
Still, just as many question the scientific basis of psychoanalysis, so its usefulness to history in the face of alternatives is doubtful.

Some Personalities:

Dates in brackets are some times of impact just in areas mentioned.

Adrian Worsfold



Green, A., Troup, K. (eds) (1999), The Houses of History: A Critical Reader in Twentieth-Century History and Theory, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 59-70.