What happened why is the historian’s
Agenda.  What potentially extends
To every action of the common man’s,
So that the controversy never ends
Concerning which bits of the human past
To privilege. The stakes are high because
The what can shape the why.  Why empires last,
Or birth rates fall, or tools emerge, or laws,
Are loaded questions that construe the what
As empires, birth rates, tools, or laws—that float
These as the active entities and not
The people doing what those terms denote.
All whats come down to human doings.  See:
All whys thus end in psychohistory.

— Rudolph Binion —
(Written for the annual compendium of Clio’s Psyche)

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. [Reprinted from Clio’s Psyche, June 1994. Updated 1999.]*(See below for my longer 2023 definition)

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 Clio’s Psyche, 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 Clio’s Psyche, 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 Clio’s Psyche, 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 Clio’s Psyche, 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 Clio’s Psyche, 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 Clio’s Psyche, 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 Clio’s Psyche, 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.”  [Reprinted from The Best of Clio’s Psyche – 1994-2005, pp. 4-6.]

*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 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.)

© Copyright 2023, Paul H. Elovitz [Reprinted from Clio’s Psyche, Spring 2023.]