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History and the Limits of Interpretation
A Symposium

Psychoanalysis, the Self,
and Historical Interpretation

Lynn Hunt

Although it seems commonsensically true that history concerns individuals, the individual - as self - remains one of our least historicized categories. Studies of individualism abound; indeed, they are central to the definition of a Western historical trajectory. Ideas about selfhood, from Augustine to postmodernism, also have been excavated quite thoroughly. But most of these studies address the history of ideas about individualism and selfhood rather than the historical forms and practices of subjectivity or interiority. Various arguments might be advanced for the usefulness of a study of forms and practices (the psychological underpinnings of the eighteenth century democratic subject would have implications, for instance, for any theory advocating the exportability of democracy as a form of governance), but I want to focus here on how the historicity of selfhood impacts on the broader question of the limits of historical interpretation.[1]

Since historians usually assume they know what an individual is and since they usually make various assumptions about the psychological qualities of that individual, it might be argued that selfhood is a kind of a priori category of modern historical analysis. Biographies, for example, usually do not put into question the category of selfhood; they simply examine the particular self development of a given individual. Even work specifically designed to investigate the category of the self, such as Foucault's, often makes many ahistorical (or presuppositional) assumptions about what it means to be a self.[2] Perhaps it should remain an open question whether an analysis of the practices of the self can be undertaken given the foundational quality of the concept, but I will nonetheless attempt to argue for such an analysis, even if I am not in a position to offer more than an argument for its pertinence.

My main purpose in this paper is to examine the odd couple formed in the twentieth century by psychology and history (and thus to focus on the disciplinary constraints that shape historical interpretation). The discomfort that permeates the relations between psychology and history has to do with the nature of both as disciplines, especially with their disciplinary histories. I will only touch on psychology's side of this passing of ships in the night and will instead focus on history's relationship to psychology.

American psychology has remained largely resistant to any historicization of the self. The reasons for this are well known: in order to establish its scientific credentials, the discipline has emphasized the biological foundations of "psychological man," preferred quantitative methods of investigation, neglected biographical tools, and rejected social and cultural constructionism. In Germany and the Netherlands, however, the critique of these assumptions has been steadily gathering steam, in part under the influence of Norbert Elias's work. As one such proponent argues, psychological man as conceptualized in mainstream psychology is "a rather anaemic and lopsided creature, an asocial and ahistoric monad largely devoid of the characteristics of real human beings."[3]

Psychohistory has conceived the relationship between psychology (usually in the specific form of psychoanalysis) and history in largely the same terms; history provides the subject matter or raw data and psychology the timeless tools of analysis. The historical in psychohistory does not stand for historicization of the psychological, or at least has usually not. The collection Psycho/history: Readings in the Method of Psychology, Psychoanalysis, and History opens with this sentence: "In our teaching of undergraduates, we have discovered that psychohistory is an ideal vehicle for introducing the TIMELESS questions of human motivation in the past."[4] This is just where psychohistory has gone wrong, by focusing on the putatively timeless rather than asking how selfhood has changed over time. Whether the psychohistorian opts for Freudianism, object relations theory, or something else, this fundamental problem remains unaddressed, largely because psychohistorians have generally allied themselves with the scientific claims of psychology and therefore have emphasized the timlessness of both their methods and subject matter.

The ahistoricity of psychohistory is starkly apparent in the work of one of its best known proponents, Lloyd deMause, founder of the Institute for Psychohistory in New York. He argues that psychohistory is "specifically concerned with establishing laws and discovering causes in precisely the Hempelian manner. The relationship between history and psychohistory is parallel to the relationship between astrology and astronomy." Psychohistory is the real science. DeMause then describes how he gathered material from various epochs of history on the motivations that led to war and used his own self analysis to penetrate the meaning of the material; what he discovered was that psychohistory "is a process of finding out what we all already know and act upon."[5] That the self might differ over time in any significant way obviously never entered his equation.

Even in the work of a historical master such as Peter Gay the emphasis on the timeless appears repeatedly. "The argument proclaiming man's cultural nature enshrines an important truth," he admits, "but, as Freud asserted over and over, not the whole truth. Psychoanalysts have never withdrawn their attention from the individual's uniqueness." What he wants to emphasize, therefore, is the importance of the persisting traits in human nature, and he associates psychoanalysis above all else with what resists historicization and even socialization. He insists that "human nature constructs dramatic and inexhastible variety from a few elements and a handful of rules." Not surprisingly, then, in Freud for Historians, Gay never cites the work of Michel Foucault and mentions Norbert Elias only in passing.[6] As I will argue below, they offer the most promising paths for future consideration of the relationship between the historical and the psychological.

Yet psychoanalysis does not have to be inherently asocial or ahistorical. Long before deMause or Gay made their psychohistorical pronouncements, Frantz Fanon insisted that the psychoanalytic explanation of racism must also be social and cultural (and one might say, by implication, historical). "Every an Antillean is the product of his cultural situation." "My objective, once his motivations have been brought into consciousness, will be to put him in a position to choose action (or passivity) with respect to the real source of the conflict - that is, toward the social structures." "The collective unconscious is cultural, which means acquired."[7] And Fanon offers concrete, historical analysis of how this acquisition, especially of feelings of racial inferiority, takes place through education, reading, film watching, and repetitive daily experiences. Although Fanon was profoundly skeptical of efforts to create historical identities for blacks ("The discovery of the existence of a Negro civilization in the fifteenth century confers no patent of humanity on me."), his analysis of the internalization - what he called the epidermalization - of racial inferiority consistently pointed to a cultural and historical analysis.[8]

Recent rethinking of the psychohistorical project seems to indicate that the kind of analysis suggested by Fanon is again on the agenda. One of the pioneers of the effort to combine psychoanalytic and sociological approaches, Fred Weinstein, ingeniously argues that the travails of psychohistory are no more dramatic than those of the social sciences in general; if psychoanalysis has retreated from theory and even from a systematic research program, this only "reflects a broader trend of critical reappraisal of possibilities, a reining in of larger ambitions in the social sciences." He attributes the difficulties to the general problem of understanding human motivation: in brief, "the personal is the idiosyncratic" and therefore conceptualizing it requires a kind of explanation which psychoanalysis (not unlike rational choice theory) has not been able to provide. In his view, the heterogeneous composition of social movements, the phenomenon of discontinuity in daily life, and the constant process of individual construction and reconstruction of memories and social views (he sums them up as heterogeneity, discontinuity, and the active construction of reality) makes any rigorous determination of motive virtually impossible.

This list of intractibilities seems to point toward the conclusion that identity can no longer be considered unitary, cohesive, or foundational, but Weinstein does not pursue this angle of analysis. Instead, he argues that what is needed is the "right" psychological orientation, which he finds in a view of people as meaning-seeking rather than pleasure- or object-seeking. Weinstein rejects any concept of shared unconscious mental activity (including explicitly that used in my work on the family romance of the French Revolution) in favor of a focus on social location, ideology, and "authoritative leadership"; interestingly, this seems to imply that knowledge of social location will respond to the problem posed by the heterogeneity of social movements, that a focus on ideology will resolve the issues raised by the discontinuities within personal experience, and concomitantly, that an emphasis on authoritative leadership responds to the problems created by the active creation of reality (a disturbing parallel if it is intended, but Weinstein does not make his position on this clear). Hierarchies of power, ideological orientations, and authoritative leadership are, he insists, essentially "transitional phenomena," in Winnicott's terms, for they provide a space in which to develop an affective "background of safety," which provides a sense of stability, adequacy, and continuity to individual lives.

In developing this new psychological orientation, Weinstein approvingly cites Geertz for emphasizing culturally and ideologically organized relationships (which one might argue constitutes a retreat to Parsonianism). Yet he concludes by in essence throwing up his hands: "it cannot be repeated too often or emphasized too strongly that we are as far away as ever from any adequate approach to analyzing and describing how people are affected by, perceive, and respond to complex and ever changing social relationships."[9] In short, we need a social explanation or at least a social framework for psychological analysis, but we don't yet have one.

Although I agree with Weinstein's call for an understanding of the links between the social and the psychological, I do not think that he sees the roots of his own problem. The problem is the growing distance between psychological and social explanation and in particular, the lack of historicity of the former and the lack of specificity of the latter. Even Weinstein, who wants to argue for a more social and cultural understanding of human motivation, fails to examine the categories of motivation themselves.

Let me be clear on one point from the start: I do not mean to endorse the kind of mindless criticism leveled by David Stannard against psychohistory or by Frederick Crews against psychoanalysis.[10] This kind of criticism simply ignores the need for or interest of certain kinds of explanation in its haste to enjoy the marking of easy points; to argue that psychoanalysis is not strictly speaking scientific (presumably other forms of psychology are?) or that it is hopelessly undermined by the bad behavior of Freud may convince readers of the shakiness of psychoanalysis in particular but it hardly provides an alternative explanation of individual behavior. I am arguing that we need to rethink the connection between the social and the psychological even while we rethink (historicize and denaturalize) the categories of the the social and the psychological themselves. Central to this rethinking must be some attention to the historicity of the self (though my focus here is on the historicity of the historical discipline's relationship to psychological categories of analysis more generally).

The gap between social/historical and psychological forms of analysis has not always been as wide as in recent years. Psychological analysis played a relatively major role in social theory at its canonical inception in the work of Weber and Durkheim and even as late as the work of Parsons; Weinstein finds himself forced to conclude, therefore, that "Ironically, though perhaps not unexpectedly, all the familiar issues of an older, more traditional social psychology, including a psychoanalytically informed social psychology -moral obligations, identities, perceptions of transgression, and emotional responses to events - are current again."[11] They were also current in social theory from the turn of the century until about the time of World War II.

Psychological analysis also loomed relatively large in the work of the founding social historians such as Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre (not to mention Johan Huizinga). But it largely disappeared from view with the triumph of the very social history that harkened back to those founders. It was consigned, not surprisingly, almost entirely to works of biography, where it is frequently but not always prominently present. It has retained a foothold, however, in works on witchcraft and other forms of possession, ranging from the fasting of saints to fascism and fundamentalism. The effacement of the psychological thus seems paradoxically connected to the rise of social history. Although the founding fathers of social theory and social history showed great interest in psycho-social linkages, the more emphasis fell on social factors, the less the psychological seemed to figure. For historians, the psychological came to be associated with what remained of enchantment, the residues of magical thinking, and was utilized therefore, perhaps logically, in analysis of precisely those domains of human behavior. While psychoanalysis aimed at a scientific explanation of individual behavior, focussing on the timeless drives and conflicts that shaped individual motivation, social history aimed at a scientific explanation of collective behavior, focussing on the social determinants of (largely rational) action and reducing the psychological realm to the irrational residues of that action.

In a recent article in Annales, Gérard Noiriel proposes to revive some of these linkages, which he argues were overshadowed by the rise of the "objectivist" paradigm in history, itself an outcome of the growth of quantitative history in the 1950s and 1960s. He advocates the development of a "subjectivist" paradigm to complement the objectivist one, a paradigm that would focus on "lived experience," a concept that he derives from Weber and Dilthey. Lived experience, he argues, has to be understood in terms of objectification (the sedimentation or crystallization of past lived experience into material forms, rules, words, and mental structures) and internalization (their incorporation into individual personalities -the key element in Durkheimian sociology).[12] In making this argument Noiriel essentially tries to bring to history some of the moves suggested for sociology by Pierre Bourdieu. If he does not offer a very precise road map of this analytical process, he nonethless does provide some suggestive directions for future thinking.

The term "experience" is not neutral, of course. In a recent interview (which I saw in typescript, so I hope he will not mind if I cite it here) Frank Ankersmit made a surprising assertion (at least to me), given his longstanding interest in poststructuralism:

one really has to opt either for language or for experience and, if only for that reason, I am convinced that we are entering a new world with this recent [philosophical?] interest in experience and consciousness. To be more specific, it is often said that philosophy presently faces a "crisis of representation" and I do think that this notion aptly summarizes a number of problems that contemporary philosophy has got into. Experience, then, may very well prove to be the notion that will enable us to overcome this "crisis of representation."[13]

Joan Scott, in contrast, argues that "the project of making experience visible precludes critical examination of the workings of the ideological system itself, its categories of representation..., its premises about what these categories mean and how they operate, and of its notions of subjects, origin, and cause." "It is not individuals who have experience," she maintains, "but subjects who are constituted through experience." Thus, she insists, "Subjects are constituted discursively and experience is a linguistic event."[14]

It is tempting to argue that this dispute about experience (and I have barely touched on its surface) is really just another instance of the same ships passing in the night; those underlining the role of lived experience want a more individualized perspective while those underlining its discursive constitution want a more social perspective. "Experience" no doubt remains an empty category - empty at least of analytical force - if it is merely a description of what past people said about themselves; but it is just a word for something else if it is always equated with representational practices that are entirely discursively and thus collectively determined. That is, it is just another word for the social. We need to get at the collective ways of constructing past experience (to transfer this debate to historical questions), but to do so we have to navigate between a position that reduces experience to its social (or discursive) determinations and one that falls back on an equally reductive concept of individual choice of self-determination. In short, we would need a historical conception of selfhood, of that intersection between social and individual instances that is the self. Easier said than done.

Noiriel's article provides evidence for a growing dissatisfaction with the emphasis on social explanation, as it has been construed over the last few decades. The discomfiture has begun bubbling up from many quarters, only some of them identified by Noiriel with his French perspective. Feminists and postcolonialists (if I may use that shorthand) have recently criticized the hegemony of social explanation from different perspectives. Those interested in the history of religion have been the most acute in their criticisms of the secular, modernist reductionism implicit in social explanation as we know it. In her book on seventeenth century Quaker women prophets, for example, Phyllis Mack insists that

the element that most separates modern observers from seventeenth-century religious visionaries is the simple but profound fact that they believed in the soul and we, in our scholarly roles as social scientists, historians, or literary critics, do not. Having penetrated behind the false solidity of titles, personalities, mentalités, even their own biology, they felt themselves to be gazing on reality, while the modern scholar sees only a void.[15]

I would put this slightly differently: the modern scholar sees not a void but evidence for a social (and in some cases, since religion is often placed in the category of the irrational, a psychological) phenomenon. That is, the modern (Western?) scholar translates the seventeenth-century soul into other (modern, secular) terms. This translation is now very much in question. Is every experience reducible to our terms? Is it appropriate to explain the gods of an Indian worker or a Mayan peasant in our social (or psychological) terms? And, if so, how should this process of translation take place? By implication, I am arguing that better answers will come from more investigation into historical (and cross-cultural) constructions of selfhood, which would presumably tell us more about the meaning of such things as "soul" to people in the past. We might not share their meanings, but we could learn to see something other than a void in their place.

Some of this dissatisfaction with social explanation clearly stems from a growing suspicion of all explanatory claims (as Weinstein claimed), especially any claims that history might be scientific in method. But rather than dispense with the project of explanation altogether (one might argue that both postmodernists and historians who advocate a return to narrative try to do this, each from their own, very different, perspective), I would join with Noiriel in arguing for a new approach to the social that re-incorporates psychological dimensions. In a similar vein, Lyndal Roper has recently argued that gender has failed to realize its full potential as a category of historical analysis because when it has been understood as a discursive creation alone, it still lacks an account of the connections between the social and the psychic and thus cannot be used to conceptualize change.[16] Too often we assume that the psychic follows from the social/collective, as if it were just a micro-version of the social. Put another way, we too often assume that if we describe the intellectual contours of a setting, we will have automatically understood how it is individually appropriated. Clearly, I am taking the side of Noiriel and Roper.[17]

It is worth noting that the rise of cultural history has done nothing to alter the status of the psychological within social analysis. Although the "culture" in cultural history worked as a rhetorical club to break up the seeming monoliths of social scientific analysis and reductive social explanation, in practice it only shifted attention from one set of social practices to others (largely linguistic or more generally symbolic). Cultural history in its most recent incarnation included no real psychological dimension (this applies to my own recent work which is supposed to have some affiliation to psychoanalytic categories[18]). When Clifford Geertz offered his famous claim about culture and meaning -

Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning[19] -

he hoped to turn social analysis away from a social scientific model of explanation and push it toward a hermeneutic model of interpretation. He did not, however, contest the sociality, if you will, of cultural analysis or offer other than implicit models of its psychological workings (following the Parsonian view that the social determined psychological consequences).

Although cultural history has remained largely within the orbit of social history as far as psychological analysis goes, it is possible that the linguistic turn so characteristic of cultural history may bring the psychological dimension to the fore, if only inadvertently. Language, after all, is, if not the only, certainly one of the most prominent means by which the social is individualized and the individual socialized. It is the point of intersection, therefore, between the social and the psychological. Thus the linguistic turn ought to draw attention to this crucial intersection. So far, however, this has not been true. Although Fanon showed that psychoanalysis could open the way to social and cultural analysis (and by implication a historical one as well), and though Weinstein, for example, clearly appreciates the need for social framing of psychoanalytic questions, psychoanalytically-minded scholars have largely neglected the historical dimension. Amongst those influenced by the linguistic turn, this neglect follows from the influence of Jacques Lacan, whose version of psychoanalysis was even more ahistorical than Freud's.[20]

Still, it seems possible that several factors might converge to open the way to a more historicized psychology and a social history more attentive to psychological mechanisms of internalization. Some psychologists are looking for a more historical understanding of subjectivity. Some historians (and sociologists) are seeking a less "objectivist" understanding of the social.[21] Philosophically, it might be argued that it makes no sense to endlessly rehearse classical arguments about free will vs. determinism, updated as agency (or experience) vs. the prison house of language, when we know so little historically about the contours of past subjectivity. Feminists and postcolonialists, moreover, have criticized the ahistorical and universalizing assumptions made by historians and psychoanalysts alike.

Just what form the analysis of historical subjectivity will take remains much in question. The works of Norbert Elias and Michel Foucault point to the possibilities of a social history of psychic structures or a history of technologies of the self, and historians have begun to exploit those possibilities. But much remains to be done not only in constructing such histories but even in understanding how psychological categories have been naturalized in our thinking. If the "historiography of feeling" has not developed apace with the "historiography of human deeds and ideas," this is because modernity has been accompanied by the assumption that "the plasticity of human capacities is highest in the areas of making and thinking, considerably lower in the area of imagination, and virtually nil with regard to feeling." As a consequence, any historiography of feeling would have to include some reflection on the assumptions implicit in modern constructions of subjectivity, that is, on the presumed relationship between feeling, reason and moral imagination.[22]

My point here is not to offer this kind of examination but rather to argue that 1) historical interpretation inevitably includes psychological assumptions which themselves have a history worth writing; 2) historical interpretation is inevitably constrained by those assumptions; and 3) the historical discipline has a historical relationship with psychological concepts, for better or worse. If we examined all three aspects of the relationship between history and psychology, we would have a better understanding of both history and the process of historical interpretation. If as Marx said, "all history is nothing but a continuous transformation of human nature," then we have only begun to unpack the meaning of that nature.[23]


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