Overview | Definitions

How Do You Define Psychohistory?

-Paul H. Elovitz, Ramapo College

In Psychohistory: Theory and Practice (1999), Jacques Szaluta defines psychohistory as “the application of psychology, in its broadest sense, or psychoanalysis in a specific sense, to the study of the past.” (p. 1) Henry Lawton in The Psychohistorian’s Handbook (1988) describes it as “the interdisciplinary study of why man has acted as he has in history, prominently utilizing psychoanalytic principles.” (p.5) He adds that psychohistory “is essentially interpretive” rather than narrative.

I define psychohistory as an amalgam of psychology, history, and related social sciences. It examines the “why” of history, especially the difference between stated intention and actual behavior. Psychobiography, childhood, group dynamics, mechanisms of psychic defense, dreams, and creativity are primary areas of research.

How do you define psychohistory? What is your theoretical framework for psychohistory? How do you relate psychohistory to history and other disciplines? Send in your definitions and we may print them. What psychohistorical methods of inquiry do you use? Let me give my answer to several of these questions.

I consider myself to be a historian and a psychohistorian. Psychohistory enables me to probe more deeply into the past by providing psychological insights and tools that were not originally available to me as a historian. But in most research I try to avoid the use of theory until the later stages of research so as to be as open-minded as possible in examining the evidence. In writing, wherever possible I let the materials speak for themselves by quoting them directly.

I find that other disciplines are increasingly open to the same concerns as psychohistorians. For example, the Western Civilization textbook I used in my first full-time teaching position at Temple University ignored or barely mentioned childhood, family life, women, emotions, personality, and sexuality. The books that my colleagues and I now use for the same course at Ramapo College covers all of these areas. The pioneering research of psychohistorians as well as women’s and social historians has much to do with this change.

To me, methods of inquiry are like lenses in a telescope that eable me to see more clearly. Thus, to the lenses of economics, sociology, anthropology, intellectual history, and geopolitics that I was taught in college, I have added the special insights of psychology. I find it to be the most powerful lens of all. Socrates’ dictum that one should first “know thyself” is a central method of inquiry. For example, in the Psychohistory Forum’s war research group I start by examining my own feelings towards war and encourage all involved to do the same. [See profile of the author on page 35. Reprinted from June 1994. Updated 1999]

Some Definitions of Psychohistory

Rudolph Binion, Leff Families Professor of History at Brandeis University, writes, “Psychohistory studies the motives, conscious and unconscious alike, of human doings whether individual or collective.”

Peter Loewenberg (UCLA), a pioneer psychohistorian, in Decoding the Past: The Psychohistorical Approach (1985) writes: Psychohistory, one of the newest methods of historical research, combines historical analysis with social science models, humanistic sensibility, and psychodynamic theory and clinical insights to create a fuller, more rounded view of life in the past…. (p. 14) [and] it is the only model of research that includes in its method a countertransference phenomenon — the emotional and subjective sensibility of the observer…. (p. 3). In his interview with us, Loewenberg elaborated: I’d like to get away from the idea of applying psychoanalysis to history because I think the integration of psychodynamic perceptions with historical conceptualization should take place at the moment that the historian contacts the data or the archives. Both history and psychoanalysis are fundamentally historical enterprises — they’re models of explanation. We want to know what caused the Civil War, what caused the patient’s pain. So we construct complex narratives. But they’re also both hermeneutic — they’re sciences of meaning — not random. The patient makes a slip, or presents a dream, and together we explore its meaning. The same thing is true in history. Most of the exciting reinterpretations are less from new discoveries of data and more from the restructuring of the meaning that we give it in the nineties — of an event such as slavery, or hysteria, or miscegenation in American history. [Reprinted from September 1994.]

The late George Kren (Kansas State University) believed that: Psychohistory brings psychological studies to history. It’s a recognition that major motives and therefore major actions are determined by the subconscious and are not immediately accessible to direct observation.  I do not think psychohistory is or ought to be a separate discipline.  Rather, it has the potential of significantly increasing our range of understanding history generally.  [Reprinted from March 1995.]

Vamik Volkan (University of Virginia Medical School) says, “For me, psychohistory is a comprehensive way to find out how historical events have become mental representations for a person or group. [Reprinted from September 1995.]

Paul Roazen (York University-Emeritus) declares that: Psychohistory is an approach concentrating on those motivational aspects of human behavior which might be taken for granted by practitioners of history and not adequately explored — the exploration of assumptions and preconceptions about motives that need to be highlighted and, in some cases, made less unspoken and more controversial. [Reprinted from March 1996].

J. Donald Hughes (University of Denver) says this about psychohistory: It’s the endeavor to understand history with the insights that come from psychology.  There are some who would say that in studying psychology you’re moving inward, and in studying history, outward.  But I see it the other way around.  Psychology helps me to think about the problem of motivation in history, and history helps me understand who I am.  [Reprinted from March 1996.]

Lloyd deMause (the Journal of Psychohistory) holds that: Psychohistory is the study of historical motivations.  If psychology is the study of individual motivation, psychohistory is the study of large groups of people, particularly of those that are important to history.  There are three kinds of psychohistory: the history (or evolution) of childhood, the study of large groups (or group-fantasies), and psychobiography, which connects the first two.  [Reprinted from June 1996.]

Bruce Mazlish (MIT) defines psychohistory as “the application of psychoanalytic concepts and theories to historical data and the re-examination of the psychoanalytic concepts and data in the light of historical methods.” [Reprinted from December 1996.]

Charles Strozier (CUNY – John Jay College) sees psychohistory as “the exploration of history from the psychological point of view.  It remains history but is systematically psychological in the kinds of questions it asks. However, those questions have to get answered within a historical frame, following the criteria of historical methodology and abiding by the rigor of historical methodology.  It is an interdiscipline — the point on the bridge where the two approaches meet.  By defining it this way, you distinguish it sharply from psychological questioning per se or from historical questioning per se. It combines the psychological quest for the universal with the historian’s appreciation for the unique….  I do not at all accept the idea that there are laws of history, but certainly there are patterns. It is one of the prime tasks of historians to uncover and describe those patterns.”  [The Best of Clio’s Psyche – 1994-2005, pp. 4-6]