The term psychobiography in its broadest sense designates any approach to biography that emphasizes inner life and psychological development, but in the more specific sense, it means the use of a formalized psychological theory and concepts in writing biography, and it received its decisive impetus from psychoanalysis. Psychobiography in the broad sense goes back at least to Plutarch, but Freud's book on Leonardo's childhood (1910) is often seen as one of the first to apply a formalized metapsychology.
Although many biographies in the past had dealt with psychological development, the arrival of psychoanalysis in the twentieth century has offered a comprehensive psychological theory of early human development that explains the shaping of the life course. Psychobiography generally focuses on the formative early years of life in an effort to uncover the relational dynamics, traumas, or complexes that might explain later behavior.
Psychobiography is a major instrument of psycho-history for the study of leading historical figures. But the two are not identical since psychohistory is especially concerned with group behavior.
The focus of psychoanalysis on the first few years of life has led to the sharpest criticisms of psychoanalytic psychobiography. The most often heard objections center around the charge of reductionism. First, psychobiography is criticized for its focus on psychological factors to the exclusion of cultural, social, economic, and other external factors. Psychoanalytic psychobiography in particular is often accused of reducing the subject's life to determination by complexes established in the first few years of childhood, e.g., fixation on the oral or anal stage or to a failure to successfully pass the oedipal period. Critics also point out that reliable evidence on early childhood is often almost impossible to obtain. As a result of the absence of data, many psychoanalytic biographers have used theory to project an image of what the subject's infancy must have been like. This practice has brought especial discredit on the psychoanalytic approach since it is accused of inventing facts. A fourth objection holds that psychoanalytic biography lacks the central tool of psychoanalysis in the clinical setting—free association. Finally, there is the moral objection that psychoanalytic approaches have often denigrated the memory of great men and women by portraying them in terms of pathology or unresolved infantile conflicts.
Obviously, the more sensible and cautious psycho-biographers have avoided reductionistic claims. The best psychobiographies also avoid over-confident assertions about the existence of childhood events based only on the evidence of adult behavior. The absence of a living subject's "free association," however, is viewed as less of a handicap than critics assert because the psychoanalytic biographer can often draw upon an abundance of diaries, letters, and other writings as well as sound recordings, photographs, and films for more recent subjects. Finally, to the objection that psychobiography maligns the reputation of exemplary figures, one may reply that the same objection can be made to any critical biography which explores the determination of character.
Many of the standard objections to psychoanalytic biography are also mitigated by the application of those psychoanalytic theories which place greater emphasis on ego development. In some versions of ego psychology the personality is said to continue to develop across the life span with the possibility that later experiences can modify processes rooted in early childhood. According to such perspectives there are important psychological stages and tasks to be accomplished beyond the oedipal period, as illustrated in Erik Erikson's Gandhi's Truth, which deals with a crisis in Gandhi's mature years. In the early twenty-first century, psychoanalytic theories provide a variety of perspectives that can illuminate all stages of the life span, accounting for psychological health and triumph as well as the persistence of destructive traits fixed in infancy.
See also: "Claims of Psycho-Analysis to Scientific Interest"; History and psychoanalysis; Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood ; Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe: A Psychoanalytic Interpretation ; Psychohistory; Psychopathologie de l'échec (Psychopathology of Failure); Thomas Woodrow Wilson, Twenty-eighth President of the United States. A Psychological Study ; Visual arts and psychoanalysis.
Erikson, Erik H. (1969). Gandhi's truth. New York: W. W. Norton.
Freud, Sigmund (1910). Leonardo da Vinci and a memory of his childhood. SE, 11: 57-137.
Strozier, Charles B. (1982). Lincoln's quest for union. Public and private meanings. New York: Basic.
Tucker, Robert C. (1973). Stalin as revolutionary, 1879-1929. A study in history and personality. New York: W. W. Norton.
Mijolla, Alain de. (1996). Psychoanalysts and their History. International Psychoanalysis: The Newsletter of the IPA, 5 (1), 25-28.
——. (1998). Freud, biography, his autobiography, and his biographers. Psychoanalysis and History, 1 (1), 41.