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Psychohistory may be defined as the application of formal psychological models in historical research. The modern field known as psychohistory is usually dated from the appearance of Freud's book on Leonardo (1910), although the term psychohistory did not come into use until the 1960s. Although scattered attempts at the application of psychoanalytic theories to history were made between 1910 and 1940, the rise of Hitler and National Socialism led to a renewed interest in understanding irrational motivation. This was particularly true in the United States, where William L. Langer became president of the American Historical Association in 1958 and called for psychoanalytic methods to replace amateur psychologizing in historical research. That same year Erik Erikson published his widely read Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History. As a result of Langer's and Erikson's influence many younger scholars turned to psychohistory, as the new field was soon nicknamed.

Although the fields of psychohistory and psycho-biography are closely related, psychohistory limits itself to important historical figures like Richelieu, Hitler, or Wilson, and attempts to go beyond individual psychology to group behavior. Many historians regard the real test of the utility of psychoanalysis for history to be its success in explaining group behavior. A number of recent psychoanalytic studies, such as Robert Jay Lifton's The Nazi Doctors, have attempted to explain group behavior in extreme historical situations. The witchcraft trials of the seventeenth century have also provided a fruitful subject for the study of group behavior, as in John Demos's Entertaining Satan (1982) on New England or Lindal Roper's Oedipus and the Devil (1993) on southern Germany.

Psychohistory has been controversial within the history profession from its beginnings, but particularly after it became a prominent sub-field within academic history in the United States. Attacks on psychohistory have been of two kinds. One kind assails the careless research methods and hasty conclusions reached by some authors, particularly by clinicians not trained in historical method or by historians who misunderstand and misapply psychoanalytic concepts. The second kind of objection to psychohistory involves specific problems such as the role of individuals in history compared to larger social and economic forces, the charge of reductionism and the importance of acknowledging possible alternative explanations, the difficulty of "analyzing" the dead from scant evidence of childhood experiences, and, finally, questions concerning the validity of psychoanalytic theory itself. Although there are reasonable answers to each of these problems, some academic historians remain hostile to psychohistory.

Perhaps the most important reply to the general antagonism toward psychohistory is that since history has accepted models and theories drawn from the other social sciences (sociology, anthropology, economics), historians should not continue to use amateur psychology but draw on explicit psychological models. Of course, there can be a non-psychoanalytic psychohistory and even among those historians sympathetic to psychoanalysis there are many differences in approach, some following traditional instinctual models, others some form of object relations, and an increasing number pursing ego psychology models like that of Heinz Kohut.

Some have suggested that methodological problems could more easily be avoided if psychohistorians received professional training in both history and psychoanalysis and there are a number of present-day historians who not only have doctoral degrees in history but are certified by one of the psychoanalytic institutes. In the United States a number of psychohistorians hold teaching and research positions in universities and offer doctoral training to younger scholars. Two journals exist, The Journal of Psychohistory, which primarily publishes the work of practicing clinicians, and The Psychohistory Review which publishes the work of historians and clinicians concerned to meet the standards of academic history. Despite some continuing resistance, psychohistory in the broadest sense is an established part of academic history in the United States and to a lesser degree in Germany and Israel. It has made its way more slowly in Britain and France.

Larry Shiner

See also: Collège de psychanalystes; Erikson, Erik Homburger; Politics and psychoanalysis; Psychobiography.


Friedländer, Saul (1975), Histoire et Psychanalyse. Essai sur les possibilités et les limites de la pyschohistoire. Paris: Le Seuil; translated by Susan Suleiman as History and psychoanalysis: An inquiry into the possibilities and limits of psychohistory. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1978.

Gay, Peter (1985). Freud for historians. New York: Oxford University Press.

Loewenberg, Peter (1985). Decoding the past: The psychohistorical approach. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

Marvick, Elizabeth (1985). The "Annales" and the unconscious: Continuity and contrast within an historical school. Psychohistory Review, 13, 42-52.

Runyan, William McKinley (1988). Psychology and historical interpretation. New York: Oxford University Press.

Further Reading

Mijolla, Alain de. (1996). Psychoanalysts and their history. International Psychoanalysis: The Newsletters of the IPA, 5 (1), 25-28.

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psychohistory The psychoanalytic study of historical figures, or of the Weltanschauung of a particular historical period, based on the attempt to relate Sigmund Freud's theory of psychological development to prevailing social conditions and institutions; or, in the case of specific individuals, to significant life-events. A noted practitioner is the American psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, whose Childhood and Society (1950) and Life History and the Historical Moment (1975) are typical of the genre. Max Weber's life and work were analysed in this way by Arthur Mitzman in The Iron Cage (1969).

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