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The Emotions of Family Life

The Wish to Be Free: Society, Psyche, and Value Change

by Fred Weinstein, by Gerald M. Platt
University of California Press, 330 pp., $3.85 (paper)

In the first of these articles (NYR, Nov. 13, 1975), I reviewed a number of studies that attempt to establish the size of the average household at various periods in history and to trace changes in household size and family structure. The controversy about the emergence of the nuclear family, which has inspired most of these researches, remains inconclusive in spite of them. Even if we accept the finding that the nuclear family prevailed in many areas of Western Europe, long before the industrial revolution, it is still not clear what we should make of this information. It is not even clear that the information is of any importance. If the structure of the family persisted essentially unchanged, through centuries of economic and political upheaval, changes in family structure can no longer be regarded as an accurate reflection of other social changes. The more we learn about the size and composition of the household of the past, the more the significance of these statistical studies recedes.

The study of family structure is of no importance unless it can be shown that an extended family—a household containing two or more conjugal units—“creates…a radically different set of emotional arrangements” from the ones fostered by a nuclear family.1 The attempt to quantify the history of the family by fastening on the most easily quantifiable part of its history, changes in the size of the household, reveals the limitations of a purely statistical approach. Without giving it up, scholars need to turn to more interesting issues, the ones that presumably drew them to the study of the family in the first place. In particular they need to study changes in emotional life and character structure, the contribution of the family to those changes, and their relation to changes in the organization of political and economic activity.

Recent studies have begun, however tentatively, to address these issues. Investigations of childhood and child-rearing, although based on psychological theories that are themselves open to question, have examined shifting patters of socialization. Some of the recent contributions to the history of women have shed light on changes in modes of thought and feeling and the family’s role in bringing them about. These issues are most directly addressed, however, in the synthetic works by Edward Shorter2 and by Fred Weinstein and Gerald Platt. Without these ambitious interpretations of the history of personal life, the field of family history would be even more of a shambles than it is. Whatever can be said against them—and a great deal will be said against them here—they raise the central questions with which historians of the family must henceforth contend.

The Wish to Be Free, the product of a collaboration between a historian and a sociologist, is a more elegant and probing work than any of the others under consideration. It does not come out of the “new social history” but out of Parsonian sociology, and it has all the virtues as well as the defects of the tradition of Talcott Parsons—theoretical inventiveness struggling unsuccessfully to escape the confines of a crudely linear and undialectical view of history, a sense of the interconnections between society and culture struggling to escape the prison of functionalism.

Weinstein and Platt analyze the writings of the French Enlightenment, the theories of the French Revolution, and certain products of what they call the “introspective revolution”—notably works by Freud and Kafka—in order to trace “the movement toward autonomy and inclusion.” On the assumption that changes in family structure underlay these essential elements of “modernization,” they have a good deal to say about the history of the family. Unfortunately they have not consulted either the documents that might illuminate this history or the secondary literature on the subject. They have simply extrapolated Parsonian theory into the past. This procedure is bound to lead to serious mistakes, but at least it raises important questions. Indeed the mistakes of Weinstein and Platt are far more illuminating than the accomplishments of demographic and quantitative historians.

The preindustrial family, they argue, performed a variety of functions, whereas the modern family specializes in childrearing. As the basic unit of production, the “traditional” family required women as well as men to engage in productive labor, while men as well as women took part in childrearing. Both sexes performed “expressive” as well as “instrumental roles,” in Parsonian terminology. Only when industrialism removed work from the household did a clearly marked differentiation of masculine and feminine roles develop; this “separation of emotional from abstract factors” is one of the outstanding characteristics of the modern family. “Business generally became the special province of men, while women were confined to the household.” The father, as exclusive provider for the family, played the instrumental or “abstract” role, while the mother became the exclusive source of emotional support.

According to Weinstein and Platt, the specialization of the family’s functions and the resulting differentiation between men’s and women’s activities encouraged the growth of personal “autonomy.” In the premodern family, “child-rearing was a family project and not related to specific, sexually differentiated roles.” The child internalized his parents “as a collective unit” and “developed a less complex and less differentiated superego structure” than his modern counterpart. Since the father provided no model of “abstract” authority, the child’s superego could not “achieve the abstract quality that allows for the implementation of personal morality and the relaxation of external controls.” Oedipal authority, which is based on internalizing the father in the form of conscience, “did not exist in traditional systems.” Authority both inside the family and elsewhere took the form of external demands, and obedience meant not submission to an inner moral authority but “passive compliance with dictates.” Not only children but all subordinate members of society bowed to these dictates because those who imposed them also provided nurture and protection.

When fathers and father-figures lost their “nurturant” role, the legitimacy of paternal authority—both in the state and later in the family—collapsed. Fathers could no longer love, they could only punish, and their demands came to appear unjustified and oppressive. The sons rebelled. Their demands for autonomy, which began to be heard in the eighteenth century with the decay of royal paternalism, became irresistible in the nineteenth century, when those demands came to rest on changes in family structure brought about by the industrial revolution. Enlightenment thinkers, followed by the French revolutionaries, expressed the individual’s “wish to be free” in a rudimentary form, but their fear of its consequences made them shrink back into various forms of authoritarianism. The eighteenth-century program of political freedom lacked an adequate psychological basis, either in fact or in theory.

Since neither Helvétius nor Holbach conceived of a conscience, the mode of control over human activity,” Weinstein and Platt argue, “had to take the form of psychic manipulation.” Rousseau wanted the individual to be “wholly sufficient to himself” but failed to conceive of a society “not profoundly dependent on the binding character of affect.” He and Robespierre proposed to substitute nationalism, a civic religion, for paternalism. In effect they wished to withdraw libidinal energies from individuals and to redirect them to the state. Sade and Helvétius went so far as to propose the abolition of marriage and kinship as impediments to the consolidation of state power.

The eighteenth-century demand for autonomy was premature: only the changes in family structure brought about by the industrial revolution could provide a solid foundation for the rebellion against paternal authority. Without this foundation, rebellion raised so many feelings of guilt and ambivalence in the rebels that they quickly drew back from the struggle they themselves had begun.

The struggle between fathers and sons became fully conscious only in the nineteenth century. As the rebellion against paternalism shifted from the state to the family, men discovered the inner life and abandoned the crude psychology of interests, the pleasure-pain calculus that had prevented the eighteenth century from understanding the dynamics of internalized obedience. The nineteenth-century “introspective revolution,” as Weinstein and Platt call it, culminated in the work of Freud, who “codified the demands of the individual for autonomy on the personal and familial levels.” Psycho-analysis gave expression to the longdeferred demand for “the rights of the individual in the family [and] the rights of the ego within the individual”—the “psychological equivalent” of the struggle for equal political rights and unfettered competition in the economic arena. As the son’s dependence on the father decreased, it became possible to articulate the hitherto repressed conflict between them.

Nevertheless the “introspective revolution” remains incomplete, according to Weinstein and Platt. The discovery of the child’s psychic dependence on the mother—intensified by the father’s withdrawal into industry—had to wait for post-Freudian ego psychology. Freud himself, writing at a time when the struggle against the father monopolized the attention of all observers of the family, “repressed” the pre-Oedipal mother. He took a “masculine, paternal view of the world,” colored by his “middle-class background.” In attempting to explain why the psychic development of women differed from that of men, he resorted to an “anatomical interpretation,” whereas in fact the little girl’s identification with her mother, in a world where mothers play the expressive rather than the instrumental role in the family, deprives her of a model “for autonomous ego behavior.”

The little girl’s position in the modern family resembles the position of both sexes in the traditional family, where both parents, not just the mother, performed expressive as well as instrumental roles—where the father himself was “maternal” and therefore provided no model of autonomy. For modern women, if no longer for men, “the family is the dominant institution in the West that still imposes several dependency relationships.” For that reason, Weinstein and Platt hint in footnotes, the struggle for autonomy may “one day” require its destruction and the substitution of more “fraternal” and “collegial” forms of authority.

The Wish to Be Free has many admirable qualities. By focusing on the psychic repercussions of family structure, it lifts discussions of the family out of the realm of the trivial and helps to reveal their underlying significance. It grasps the connection between the development of democracy and the emergence of an autonomous, internally regulated character structure. It points up the importance of these themes in the work of the philosophes and their successors, the makers of the “introspective revolution.” Instead of dismissing the history of ideas as superficial and unimportant—the fashion among social historians today—Weinstein and Platt use intellectual history to illuminate changes in social structure. They know that certain problems in thought can arise only when social changes make their solution imperative or, as Marx put it, that men set themselves only such problems as they can solve. Although they too eagerly pronounce on the “limitations” of past thinkers and too readily assume the superior wisdom of our own times, their understanding of the interplay between ideas and material life distinguishes them at once from the “new” social historians. So does their respect for theory—the most valuable part of their Parsonian inheritance.

  1. 1

    John Demos, “Demography and Psychology in the Historical Study of Family Life,” in Household and Family in Past Time, edited by Peter Laslett and Richard Wall (Cambridge University Press, 1972).

  2. 2

    The Making of the Modern Family (Basic Books, 1973).

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