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Psyche-History

In response to:

Shrinking History—Part One from the February 22, 1973 issue

To the Editors:

Robert Coles has exposed the absurdities of “shrinking history,” but his two review essays on the psychoanalytic turn in biographic and historical studies [NYR, February 22 and March 8] leave no hint that there is another way to do psychohistory. Unfortunately, Coles restricts the concept of psychohistory to the “harnessing” of “psychology to an understanding of certain people who have taken a significant part in history” (NYR, March 8, p. 25). Although he is less than explicit about the issue of significance, it seems he means the “great men” of history.

Actually, we need to stretch our awareness of history, not shrink it. That means not to delude ourselves with any schematic or fabricated “history,” but to grasp the real histories of real people in all their dimensions and complexities on all levels of societal, cultural, and personal experience in all their settings, in communities, cities, and civilizations—East and West. For this purpose, psychohistorians must turn from Freud’s Three Essays on Sexuality—the key to the books reviewed by Coles—to The Interpretation of Dreams—a much better foundation. That work offers an empirical and historical analysis of the constitution of the mind, and it lays bare some of the central moral dilemmas of Western civilization. Revealing the psyche as an intricate compound of cultural, societal, and personal elements, and also as a precipitate of historical experiences, Freud pointed the way for future psychohistorians. This path, rarely taken, leads to a depth-historical phenomenology of the mind in its socio-cultural settings.

Beginning with Freud’s unraveling of dreams as symbolic structures of consciousness and conscience, psychohistorians would have to go further by introducing comparative historical perspectives, as offered by sociologists such as Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, Marcel Mauss, and Louis Dumont. Psyches, selves, and persons require a comparative perspective that reveals their generation within historical processes. They are constituted differently in different horizons of awareness and different perceptual frames. There are serious limitations to a psychosexual model of stages for personal development proposed as an invariant, universal conceptual instrument. What we need, in order to understand the structures of human relationships and their transformations, is a psychohistory that looks at critical shifts in structures of consciousness through depth probes into spiritual histories. The task is not to psychologize history, but to reveal, through comparative studies, the histories of the psyche.

Benjamin Nelson

E. V. Walter

Jerome Gittleman

Donald A. Nielsen

Toby Huff

Robert Coles replies:

Many historians have been doing what the authors suggest, though perhaps less self-consciously. I mentioned C. Vann Woodward; and certainly Christopher Hill is pursuing his sensitive studies of seventeenth-century England along lines suggested in this letter. Both men have tried to show how a given place, a given time, a given social and cultural tradition, a given historical situation, a given political and economic crisis affects the development of one or another person’s character: Tom Watson’s, for instance. Isn’t that what good historians have always wanted to do? Freud himself, unfortunately, did not pursue the approach suggested in the above jointly signed letter—not when he wrote about Leonardo, not when he wrote about Dostoevsky, and certainly not when he became involved (to exactly what extent, we still don’t know) in Bullitt’s vindictive effort against President Wilson.

If I read these authors right, they’re suggesting that we try to know all sorts of people, the ordinary and the poor as well as the prominent and gifted, and that we continually keep in mind these “others” as we zero in on someone, anyone; and I agree. I would add to their list, since they mention phenomenology, Mounier, Marcel, Jaspers, all of whom have been interested in the mind’s structure as it comes into being in response to the world’s presence: Heidegger’s “everydayness.” Incidentally, I love the suggestion of “depth probes into spiritual histories.” St. Augustine tried it rather successfully on himself a number of years before the Interpretation of Dreams was published. So did St. Theresa in Interior Castle and Exclamations of the Soul to God, not to mention her magnificent autobiography. How many of us in psychiatry think of ourselves or of others as having “spiritual histories”?

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