Readers should think about and share on Clio’s Google Listserv and with me their visions and definitions of psychohistory. Psychohistory is a rich field that extends from the Freud Circle in the first decade of the 20th century to the present. For over a quarter century I have been asking colleagues to provide their definitions of psychohistory. Henry Lawton called psychohistory “the interdisciplinary study of why man has acted as he has in history, prominently utilizing psychoanalytic principles” (The Psychohistorian’s Handbook, 1988, p. 5). William “Bill” Gilmore described it as “the study of human personality, individual and collective, in the past” (Psychohistorical Inquiry: A Comprehensive Research Bibliography, 1984, p. xi). Peter Loewenberg, amidst his incisive discussions of its advantages, reports psychohistory to be “the most powerful of interpretative approaches in history because (1) it is the only model of research that includes in its method the countertransference phenomenon… and (2) it enriches the historical account of political, social, and cultural-intellectual events with a perception of latent or unconscious themes” (Decoding the Past: The Psychohistorical Approach, 1969/85, p. 3). Initially, I defined our field “as an amalgam of psychology, history, and related social sciences [that] examines the ’why’ of history, especially the difference between stated intention and actual behavior” (The Best of Clio’s Psyche, 1999, p. 4).

Since 1994, Clio’s Psyche has put into print definitions of psychohistory by Rudolph Binion, Lloyd deMause, J. Donald Hughes, George Kren, Bruce Mazlish, Paul Roazen, Charles Strozier, Vamık Volkan, and dozens of other colleagues, especially in the over 60 Featured Scholar and Editor Interviews. Presently, I am thinking of visions of psychohistory, as well as of definitions. My vision is that psychohistory enriches humanity by providing an in-depth study of the conscious and unconscious motivations of individuals and groups. While I focus on those who contribute or contributed to various fields of knowledge and human endeavors, my underlying concern has always been the greater understanding of all humanity. My interest is not simply to research and understand

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the greatest contributors to the growth of civilization but to also probe the toxic forces within our cultures, politics, and psyche. While I prefer to investigate the most creative and innovative within humankind, I also probe regressive behavior and the lives of genocidal leaders. My vision is to explore childhood, creativity, psychobiography, dreams, group dynamics and fantasies, intergenerational transmission of trauma and resilience, mechanisms of psychic defense, parapraxis, and the overcoming of trauma.

What I would like most is for the readers to send me their visions and definitions of psychohistory. While all of the distinguished colleagues mentioned above have published scholarly books and articles in the field, it would be good to get your visions of psychohistory even if you have just discovered our field. Colleagues come to psychohistory from many different perspectives and few have had backgrounds in both psychoanalysis and history. They often come from academic psychology, clinical work, independent scholarship, and journalism. Diverse backgrounds make for varied viewpoints and insights. My approach is but one of many and is reflected in my definition below.

Paul Elovitz’ 2023 Definition of Psychohistory

Psychohistory probes the unconscious and conscious motives of individuals and groups in history and society. Among other things, it is: One, an approach to knowledge based on individual and societal history, reliant on the approaches and methodologies of the historian and the psychoanalyst. Two, a mode of perceiving human interactions, data, events, and behaviors, which started with psychoanalysis and history and then extended to all the arts, humanities, and social sciences. Three, an offshoot of the psychoanalytic theory of individual motivation, human culture, history, and nature that changes the consciousness and perceptions of the practitioner, as well as their view of history and society. Four, like psychoanalysis, a unique way of understanding one’s self and others through the intensive exploration of childhood history, the study of family dynamics and family systems, parapraxis, personal dreams, projections (and other mechanisms of defense), transference, and countertransference. Five, a humane worldview based on empathy, human individuality, the Age of Enlightenment’s belief in reason, a commitment to freedom, and individual privacy, choice, as well as responsibilities toward other individuals. Six, a psychoanalytic approach to the collective or mass psychology that helps historians to conceptualize the relationship between leader and led as well as the

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bonds that make group processes so powerful and often regressive and violent. Seven, a manner of thinking and methodology based on observations, the discovery of patterns, the making of interpretations, and to a limited extent, the making of predictions based on observed patterns, unconsciously determined patterns and meanings, including research into the irrational and unreason as factors in human and historical motivations. (Humans do not always act or make choices that are rational, self-interested, healthy, or that promote their welfare and the welfare of the community or government or a particular constituency.) Psychohistorians recognize the critical importance and motive force of fantasy and imagination. Eight, optimally an experiential methodology using what is learned as a result of the change in consciousness based on the unique long-term encounter between an analyst and the analysand, leading the analyzed historian/scholar to view source materials, particularly primary documents, letters, diaries, autobiographical writings, and intimate records with an attunement to latencies and emotional echoes in the writing. Nine, a gateway to connecting the heart and the head in the search for insight, thus helping to heal the Cartesian split between emotion and cognition that has plagued Western civilization since Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” approach to knowledge. Lastly, ten, initially interdisciplinary compatibility between psychoanalysis and history, psychohistory became transdisciplinary, drawing on many fields such as anthropology, literature, political science, psychotherapy generally, psychiatry, and social work. It finally became a discipline with its own publications, professional organizations, history, and extensive literature that has been taught at colleges and universities since at least the 1970s. (There is an impressively large political psychology, psychobiographical, and general psychohistorical literature that dates back to Freud’s study of Leonardo da Vinci and the Freud Circle.)

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Authors:

Paul H Elovitz

Dr. Paul H. Elovitz, PhD, began organizing scholarly meetings when he started as a faculty member at Ramapo College and then as convener of the Institute for Psychohistory Saturday Workshops (1975-1982). In 1982 he founded the Psychohistory Forum to nurture psychohistorical research and continues to lead its Executive Council. In 1994 he created Clio’s Psyche (cliospsyche.org) to publish its scholarship, of which he is Editor-in-Chief. Prof. Elovitz is a historian, psychoanalytic researcher, and author of about 400 publications, covering presidential psychobiography, teaching, documenting the field of psychohistory, and much more. After taking his doctoral degree in history, he trained and practiced as a psychoanalyst, and in 2019 was made the first Research Psychoanalyst by the New Jersey Institute for Psychoanalysis. Elovitz is the author of The Making of Psychohistory, editor of The Many Roads of the Builders of Psychohistory, and edited or wrote eight other books. He is a founding member and past president of the International Psychohistorical Association (1978-) who serves on its leadership council and presents at all meetings. Prof. Elovitz is a founding faculty member at Ramapo College who previously taught at Temple, Rutgers, and Fairleigh Dickinson universities. He may be contacted at .

How to Cite This:

Elovitz, P. H. (2023). Visions and definitions of psychohistory. Clio’s Psyche, 29(3), 257-259.

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