It was in the pages of The Journal of Psychological Anthropology (1978-1980) and its continuation The Journal of Psychoanalytic Anthropology (1981-1987), published in New York by The Association for Psychohistory, that I initially came across Howard F. Stein’s articles, in connection with other writers, such as Lloyd deMause, Weston La Barre, Arthur E. Hippler, and Georges Devereux. Thus, I first identified Dr. Stein as an anthropologist who applied psychological and psychoanalytic theories to cultural issues. Gradually, I found that Stein’s amazingly large literary production was truly interdisciplinary, creatively combining several fields of research and enlarging the perspectives not only of anthropology (cultural and social), psychology (clinical, cultural, organizational, work), and psychoanalysis (Freudian, Kleinian, ego-psychology, relational) but also those of psychohistory, family theories and therapies, the study of religion, philosophy, etc.

However, there are more dimensions that can be detected in Stein’s writings. Even in the middle of highly theoretical discussion, scientific argumentation, and exacting definitions, I have sensed in Stein’s writings a very personal style, allowing verve, a traversing verse, a flow of awe to enhance his poetic-experiential inquiry and to embrace the borderlands between knowledge and emotion, the conscious and the unconscious, reality and fantasy. Stein does not categorize or edify truths, and neither does he claim to master reality; rather, he wanders and wonders through the mind- and dreamscapes of human history, culture, and their various expressions.

Page 272

In this quest, human cultural, religious, mythical, and ideological realms are not depicted as reality-oriented. On the contrary, reality is distorted to support the sense of history in line with the “unreality principle.” At the beginning of history, religion, myth, culture, and even science, was (both a group and individual) fantasy. The unknown in our inner selves and in our external world is something to be defended against through the cultural and social processes of mythologizing, sacralizing, ritualizing, or even sacrificing the vulnerable, dependent, and helpless child.

From the wealth of subjects and themes that Stein has approached, I have chosen his ideas about culture as a system using symbols, cults, and rituals as therapies and problem-solving strategies, in healing the traumas of a culture in trouble. This symbolic and psychoanalytically oriented cultural anthropological approach is presented, for example, in Stein’s works The Dream of Culture: Essays on Culture’s Elusiveness (1994) and Beneath the Crust of Culture: Psychoanalytic Anthropology and Cultural Unconscious in American Life (2004), and separate articles. Here, I contextualize Stein’s approach by relating it to Weston La Barre’s anthropology that has served as a cornerstone to Stein’s research between the visible “crust” and the elusive “core” of cultural and social life. Stein’s concept of history and his poetic inquiry are also discussed.

Elusive Culture

Stein’s––as well as all––efforts of defining the concepts confront the limits of any delimiting language. In his poetic endeavors, Stein wanders across porous realities and open textures, facing the desert, the sand, and the wind invading human cultures. The lesson of the mirage is miraculous: we cannot define the exact meaning––even more curious, there is no definition for the concept of “definition” (“meaning,” “explanation,” “precise”), as Friedrich Waismann (1951, p. 49) already proposed. Our concepts are traveling indeterminately; all interpretations of meanings are approximations; all systems twist into the horizons of open-ended possibilities, into the unforeseen vistas of understanding. Frozen metaphors, when touched, can be enlivened to new transient forms and constellations. No notion can be pinned down for good.

All human organizations are in the process of de-organizing and reorganizing. Stiffness of the human mind is an obstacle to, and challenge for, liberating our conceptual, ideological, and scientific/artistic mindsets. The explorative processes of our emotional mind-brain include, according to Jaak Panksepp (1998)

Page 273

in Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions, seeking, rage/anger, fear, lust, care, panic/sadness, and play. Human development is only initial, unless abruptly ended by a disaster, destroying a tiny particle, called the Earth, in the cosmic web. Our “core” concepts (e.g., culture, society, money) are elusive labels used for the guidelines of action, but at the same time they manifest and condense our culture’s “crust”: the illusions, even delusions, of mastery and management, when facing the Other, the unknown multiverse and polyphony.

Stein’s analysis of culture’s elusiveness and his view of history as the universal group-shared field of unconscious fantasy locate both culture and history in the psychological processes of replacing time with screen memories, and of defensively masking childhood wishes, fears, and dependencies. From this point of view, cultures are constructed from, or underpinned by, what Devereux, La Barre, and Stein call “crisis cults,” needing protective in-group actions against the out-groups. History compulsively repeats itself in endless vicious circles, unless conflict resolutions steer the antagonistic groups to reciprocal meaning negotiations. Recently, Stein (with Seth Allcorn) has depicted how bureaucracies based on hierarchic power and control keep up “righteous” and “correct” ideological constraints that inevitably lead to dysfunction and toxicity in the whole organization. See this in his book with Allcorn titled The Dysfunctional Workplace: Theory, Stories, and Practice (2015) and his article in The Journal of Psychohistory, “Ideology, Bureaucracy, Hierarchy, and Human Nature in Psychohistory” (2020).

Conscious projects and rational plans are encapsulated and protected in cultural agendas and social organizations, but they have a different face in cultural myths, rituals, and fantasies. Neither culture nor history can offer therapy for the discontents without organizing them into regulated units that obey the right standards and behave according to the pre-ordered rules. History is essentially resisting change. Stein has revived the concept “screen action” and proposed, in the analytic context, that screen action, like screen memory, includes “all the emotional intensity of the unconscious phantasies” (Gadpaille, p. 166) but displacing and attenuating the unconscious phantasy content, which can be seen in Stein’s (1983a) The Psychoanalytic Review article, “Historical Understanding as Sense of History: A Psychoanalytic Inquiry.”

When analyzing a group’s cultural psychology, Stein has remarked that it is an extension of ethnocentrism, providing the

Page 274

group with interpretations of how and why things happened. In American popular cultural psychology, the explanations of violence are more often projected into individuals (or a small group) than into larger groups or society––unless a target or a victim is a culture-hero when conspiracy theories start to flourish. Such explanations affirm the “us” group’s shared fantasies and conventional defenses, splitting the “us” group from the core knowledge concerning itself and its symptomatic labeling and stigmatizing of “them.” Rage-driven violence, as a thrilling and compelling but misplaced “curative” act, is used to protect against self-contempt and despair, killing self-shame and humiliation by eliminating the “enemy” and restaging self-dignity. This happens also in war and terror massacres as well as in workplace symbolic massacres, routine corporate downsizing, and reengineering.

In mourning and adaptation to loss, Stein sees an ever-recurring process that binds all realms of human culture and history. Mourning is necessary for transcending trauma and enabling creative renewal, but it is most often inevitably ritualized and symbolized in not so creative ways. According to Stein’s (2004) innovative expression, mourning is a “labyrinthine emotional process, together with the individual, family, workplace, religious, and societal bulwarks against it,” thus forming the “core” to culture’s “crust.” “Crisis cults” are, to a large extent, erected on our inability to mourn (p. 107).

The Legacy of Weston La Barre

When characterizing Weston La Barre, who “neither indulges nor rationalizes the irrational in man; he simply, and relentlessly analyzes it,” Stein (1983b, p. 250) also touches upon his own stance as “never self-protectively detached from, but profoundly attached to, his subject,” combining “the analyst’s perspicuity and empathy with the reformer’s deception-shattering wrath” (p. 250). Stein has also approvingly quoted La Barre’s (1962) idea of “group fantasy” that “confines and delimits our private psychoses” (p. 67). Although the concept “group fantasy” was already in use before WWII in psychology, anthropology, and sociology, La Barre’s version of group fantasy was also embraced by Lloyd deMause and became an important precursor of psychohistorical group-fantasy analysis.

The psychotic and suicidal cultures or subcultures of the group, under the destructive “furor” of the leader, are finally anti-therapeutic and anti-adaptive. Such failed cultures and (hero-/leader-) cults, first designed as solutions for the problems of the

Page 275

childhood-based dependencies, and the fears of separation, loss, and punishment, are not successful problem-solving therapies, which is established in La Barre’s The Ghost Dance: The Origins of Religion (1970). On the contrary, they increase the reliving of traumas and push the addictions to ever more regressive, obedient, and submissive forms of cultish fusion and confusion among the leader and the led.

Stein has accurately captured La Barre’s (1962) vision of a human being as “an existential spider” whose net of symbolism, as an extension of one’s unconscious, is spread out over the void but who is incapable of eliminating separation, loss, and death (p. 67). A cult, in Stein’s (1994) formulation in The Dream of Culture, “arises to offer therapy to declining culture,” and the most “successful” cult is “the one which best quells uncertainties sown in childhood and reawakened by culture changes” (p. 128). In Stein’s formulation, the function of group fantasy is to “freeze history” into a timeless inner space that is sacred in comparison with the profane outer space. Group fantasy coerces reality into “a recurrent projective scheme” and avoids the traumatic traces of personal history, thus hindering the development of the autonomous and responsible self (p. 128).

Like La Barre, Stein has detected symptoms, compulsions, and delusions in myths, magic, rituals, and dogmas. All kinds of revelations, be they vision, illumination, dream, or trance, contain hallucinatory dimensions, to be mastered and delivered by magic/religious charismatic powers. Stein himself is a very thorough commentator and interpreter of the ancient Jewish beliefs and the foundational Scriptures in Judaism, even radically recontextualizing and reassessing their psychological backgrounds and unconscious subtexts.

Concerning any research, Stein (1983b) has stated that “we do not know what we need to know; we only know what we seek (wish) to know” (p. 252). Knowledge and thought are not enough as such. Cognitive research is ahistorical, not related to the developmental history of the multi- and over-determined motives and desires to know and not to know. Stein (1983b) demands us to gain more autobiographical insight of the emotionally and counter-transferentially motivated ways of knowing what we think we know––and what we wish not to know as well (p. 253). This disenchantment from all-knowing and omnipotent thinking opens the way to understand more about the effects of our fantasies in our clinging to

Page 276

defensive and defended worldviews.

In this regard, Stein has anticipated current affective neuroscience and neuropsychoanalysts (e.g., Panksepp, Solms) who maintain that we become aware of our biological (and ensuing psychological) needs through our affects: the subjects must feel their ways to perceptions, judgments, interpretations, and other cognitions that are first and foremost unconscious, fantasy- and dream-like. In cultural contexts, according to Stein (2004), we mostly “know” through imposing “cultural formulas and fictions, idealizations to defend us against more frightening realizations” (p. 48). These personal and interpersonal experiential realizations are attached to psychohistorical, developmental, and emotional precursors that need to be analyzed beneath the crust of cultural, and even scholarly, accounts. According to Stein (1990) in American Medicine as Culture, no science is free from the defensive functions of the group fantasy of objectivity and rationality.

Stein (2004) has explicitly formulated that “psychodynamic processes are often the underpinnings (the ‘core’) of what we observe on the surface as the ’whole’ culture (the ‘crust’)” (p. 121). His cultural therapy demands that we recognize our unconsciously motivated inclination to try to solve the wrong problems. By recognizing and having greater access to the unconscious core of culture that drives us to personal and cultural self-made blind alleys we may start the liberating and healing steps to become more whole.

Poetic Dialogues

The ancient Greek word dialogos etymologically includes a reference to hearing through (dia) the speech or word (logos), to the sharing of a moving speech or word in a conversation between two or more people. A speech or a word both separates and connects speakers at the gates––also the boundaries––of the possible. In a genuine dialogue, all participants allow meanings to flow between and through the speakers so that those involved in the dialogue are willing to give up their own absolute views and open up their beliefs, judgments, and assumptions to emerging and shared meanings.

To understand the meanings of the others, their speeches and words must be listened to (or read) thoroughly. With the sharing of meanings and the exchange of perspectives, the wonder of existence in poetic encounters continues to flow through the speeches without any speaker trying to win the debate and to seal

Page 277

their own best truth.

How to openly receive the other without projecting one’s unconscious split-off selves on the other and provoking aggression, that is the crucial question, demanding empathic attention. This questioning goes through Stein’s explorations into the complex entanglements of human actions, fantasies, and beliefs, rational and irrational.

Dialogical discussion is not without defenses or transferences, but the attitude toward human life and its contradictions is more conscious and acceptable, and transferences from the past are more creative in such discussion than in monological reflection. If the training of the therapists––and researchers as well––were further promoted in poetry and other arts, empathy, playful imagination, mentalization, and awareness skills could also play a more decisive role in the professional and personal development of the therapists and the researchers. Then, the therapists’ and researchers’ involvement in, and witnessing of, the human predicament would lead to attending and valuing all kinds of life stories and their interpretations. In this vein, Stein has also explicitly spoken in favor of applied (workplace, organization) poetry to improve the mentalization and empathy skills––to advance the responsible emotional work for each other.

As a personal memory, I recall a short episode during a lunch break of the 37th Annual Conference of the International Psychohistorical Association in New York in 2014. Howard Stein kindly gave me his collection of poetry Theme and Variations (2008), and I gave him my collection of poetry On the Road to Narva the Kabbalist (2014), somewhat hesitating because it contains partly ironical, partly humorous lines on Jewish folklore (customs and habits). Later, after having read my work, Stein, to my great surprise and joy, found it “inspiring” and even dedicated one of his poems, “Black Sparks,” to me. Such generosity is a rare gift.

I also cherish Stein’s emblematic words after we had exchanged the books. He told me, in a kind of performance, while slowly moving ahead, “Here I go as a wandering Jew, not knowing where I go.” This reminded me of the Egyptian-Jewish writer Edmond Jabès and his view of the desert as a place where the word and the book, the spiritual and the human discourse can arise. The words of a wanderer are refugees in a desert, their traces of steps vanishing and uniting into transient whirls and sand waves under

Page 278

the sky. In his poem “The Wanderer,” in memory of Lloyd deMause, Stein expressed it in other words:

Now without The Wanderer
As our living guide, it is now
Ours to Wander
Through the Valleys of Moloch,
Those now and long ago,
To say the unsayable,
To tell stories of what we have witnessed
With our eyes, our ears, our hearts––
Stories you could not make up
And scarcely anyone would believe. (Stein, 2021 p. 252)

Stein, in writing, with his wandering and wondering words, marks an enigmatic passage in not-knowing where we go. Poetic inquiry does not mean closure, totalistic projects, or totalitarian ideologies but enthusiastically entering the books through the gate, the title page (shaar), questioning the truths, enacting the possible by traveling inside the word. We will meet on the white page, in the infinity of the desert, undecipherably metamorphizing the known, recombining the letters by rereading and rewriting, and passing by, as wondrous fragments and mirages.

Page 279


  • Gadpaille, Warren J. (1967). The analyst as an auxiliary ego in the treatment of action-inhibited patients. In Jules H. Masserman (Ed.), Science and Psychoanalysis, 11, pp. 161-181.
  • Stein, Howard (1962). Transference cures in religious cults and social groups. The Journal of Psychoanalysis in Groups, 1(1).
  • Stein, Howard (1983a). Historical understanding as sense of history: A psychoanalytic inquiry. The Psychoanalytic Review, 70(4).
  • Stein, Howard (1983b). Toward a psychoanalytic bioanthropology: A retrospective study of the contribution of Weston La Barre. Journal of Social and Biological Structures, 6(3).
  • Stein, Howard (1994). The dream of culture. Psyche Press.
  • Stein, Howard (2004). Beneath the crust of culture: Psychoanalytic anthropology and the cultural unconscious in American life. Brill/Rodopi. (Original work published 2003).
  • Stein, Howard (2021). The wanderer. Journal of Psychohistory, 48(3).
  • Waismann, Friedrich (1951). Analytic-synthetic III. Analysis, 11(3).


Juhani Ihanus

Juhani Ihanus, PhD, is Associate Professor of Cultural Psychology at the University of Helsinki, and Associate Professor of the History of Science and Ideas at the University of Oulu. He is also an international member of the Psychohistory Forum who has published books and articles on psychohistory, cultural and clinical psychology, and the history of psychology. Dr. Ihanus may be reached at

How to Cite This:

Ihanus, J. (2022). Cultures and cults: Howard F. Stein’s contribution to the analysis of culture and its discontents. In D. R. Beisel, P. H. Elovitz, & N. D’Andria (Eds.), Howard Stein Festschrift. Clio’s Psyche, 28(3), 272-280.

PDF downloads:

Download this Article PDF
Download full Issue PDF