The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   53

Shrinking History

On Freud and the Failure of Psychohistory

by David E. Stannard

Oxford University Press, 1980

A Strange Illusion of the Recent Past

Psychohistory --- the application of psychoanalysis to individuals on the basis of historical records --- was always one of the more dubious-looking wings of the house that Freud built, and now (though The Psychohistory Review continues publication) it is surely nearing extinction; those who would in the past have been tempted by it now psychoanalyze the historians, or the historical records themselves. Still, at one time it was quite widespread (the used bookstores in any American city above a certain size will easily provide more copies of Young Man Luther than anyone could possibly want), and it's far from obvious that its been ushered into obscurity by anything like a realization of its intellectual inadequacies.

Stannard opens with an examination of the original psychohistorical study, Freud's own work on Leonardo, and with full academic gentility proceeds to rip it to shreds. Key facts are simply wrong; others were spun out of whole cloth. Even if they had been right, the explanatory force of the theory is minimal. It reads well; but so do good historical novels. (In one of the alternate universes, surely, Freud led a happy and productive life as a sort of Viennese Gore Vidal, much admired for the wit, erudition, and cynical psychological insight of his novels, and from time to time people wonder what he might have achieved if he hadn't abandoned neuropathology for literature.) Almost nothing of significance in it is right, but Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood hasn't successors so much as epigones, sharing all its faults but few or none of its virtues. It is Stannard's contention that psychohistory simply cannot be good history, and the bulk of the book is devoted to skewering psychohistorians, like shrimp on a cocktail fork, on the twin prongs of having a bad theory and being in no position to apply it. (The chapter presenting a selection from the embarrassingly rich trove of factual errors committed by psychohistorians does not argue against the possibility of good psychohistory, but does suggest we've never seen it.)

The arguments against psychoanalysis as a reliable theory of human mental function are pretty standard --- the sample on which it is based is minute and certainly not representative; the contamination of its data with the biases, expectations and interpretations of researchers is extreme; etc. A great deal of space is devoted to discussing the therapeutic inefficacy of psychoanalysis: even confined to carefully screened neurotics, as for the most part it is, it is no more effective than any rival scheme of therapy, including the much-despised behavioral therapies; indeed, it may well do no better than simply waiting for time to heal. All this is true, though it ought to be, and I rather hope is, much more familiar now than it was in 1980. One exceedingly peculiar aspect of Stannard's critique of psychoanalysis is his reliance on behaviorism. News travels slowly from one part of the campus to another, sometimes, but it's still quite remarkable to see, more than a quarter century after the cognitive revolution was launched, someone who assumes that the only possible psychologies are Freud's and Skinner's, or perhaps Freud's and G. Ryle's. Stannard castigates Freud's unconscious for not meeting proper behaviorist standards, but it is in fact easy to give a behaviorist account of the beast which does almost everything Freud's original did. Here, as he does from time to time elsewhere, Stannard displays a somewhat worrying poverty of logical imagination.

Stannard's attempt to show that psychoanalysis cannot be honestly applied to historical individuals is less successful than his demonstration that it can't be applied at all. His first line of attack is that, if we are to believe the analysts, everything important happens in the first few years, about which we never know much, and concerns such things as the details of potty-training and weaning, about which we often know nothing. Consequently, the psychohistorian is forced to look at what someone was like as an adult, work backwards to how they learned to chew, go to the bathroom, play doctor, etc., and then claim that those early experiences explain their adult personality. Stannard finds this an entirely unacceptable procedure; and so it is, but only because psychoanalysis does not establish reliable connections between early childhood experiences and adult personality. If it did, the procedure would be no more logically vicious than reasoning back from a bullet-hole in a road-sign to an unobserved gun which fired the bullet, and a sloshed young man who pulled the trigger of the gun. So this part of the attack on psychohistory is parasitic on the attack on psychoanalysis. Since the latter attack succeeds, however, the end is achieved just the same.

The other part of the attack on psychohistory depends on claiming that they didn't just think different things in the past, they thought differently, so there's no warrant for applying psychoanalysis. Here Stannard over-reaches himself; if his argument did go through, there would be no warrant for applying any contemporary psychology, even the folk psychology or interpretive stance we use to scope each other out daily, to people sufficiently far in the past (how far, he doesn't indicate --- when does ``the past'' begin?). Fortunately, his evidence for this consists essentially of (1) some studies on visual perception indicating that susceptibility to certain visual illusions is learned and correlated with culture (more specifically, with material culture) and (2) some exceedingly dubious pieces of historical research, like Aries's Centuries of Childhood and Foucault. The first is clearly insufficient: even if our unconscious emotional lives are as labile as our visual perception (evidence?), why think that the essentials of psychoanalysis are more like susceptibility to Stannard's illusions than like stereo vision or reading facial emotions, which are universals? The second argument, which would be the over-reaching one if it succeeded, fortunately does not; the authorities Stannard cites are subject to all the problems he (correctly) finds in psychohistory, if not more --- leaps (to put it kindly) of logic, unconfirmed and nebulous theory, and a terribly cavalier approach to the facts. To invoke them against psychohistory is for Ruritania, menaced by the Habsburgs, to invite occupation by Russia. They can be safely discounted at an arbitrarily high rate, and we can go on finding the motives in The Tale of Genji or Tacitus comprehensible.

To recapitulate the acceptable part of the argument: We have no reason to believe that psychoanalysis says anything worthwhile about living human beings, and much reason to doubt it. We have, therefore, even less reason to trust its application to the dead, a distrust which can only be amplified by the horrid quality of the histories resulting from this application. Let us then consign psychohistory to the flames, and for its epitaph read out Stannard's peroration:

It is part of the very nature of scholarly endeavor, in the humanities as well as the sciences, to evolve new understanding of phenomena by maintaining a vibrant tension between the processes of hypothesis and critique. On occasion, however, hypothesizing can become so shoddy, extravagant, and woolly-minded that the essential tension between creativity and responsibility is broken --- and the possibility of genuine new understanding disappears. What emerges instead, floating free of the restraints of logical and empirical rigor, are quirky, dogmatic, often oracular and wholly unverified --- indeed, illusory --- pronouncements. In the sciences, prominent and relatively recent examples of such pronouncements range from Immanuel Velikovsky... to Erich von Däniken.... In the humanities the best recent examples of such excess belong to the world of psychohistory....
Traditional criticisms concerning vulgarity, reductionism, trivialization, and the like all remain valid observations on the psychohistorical enterprise. But the most important and fundamental reason for the rejection of that enterprise is now clear: psychohistory does not work and cannot work. The time has come to face the fact that, behind all its rhetorical posturing, the psychoanalytic approach to history is --- irremediably --- one of logical perversity, scientific unsoundness, and cultural naïveté. The time has come, in short, to move on. [pp. 154--6]

Formerly, when religious dissenters were burned, their remains were sometimes scattered, to forestall uncaught and unrepentant heretics venerating them as relics; the Soviets are supposed to have done as much to the corpse of Hitler. I do not know if a partially charred copy of Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood resides in a reliquary at the editorial offices of Routledge or the University of Minnesota Press; but it would be terribly fitting. The world has moved on; but to this extent, that historians who would once have ``turn[ed] to Grinstein's Psychoanalytic Index for the ever-available key to unlock the mysteries of [their] craft'' (p. 152), now embrace approaches which, while no less logically perverse or scientifically unsound than their ancestor, are culturally cynical rather than culturally naïve. It would be pleasant to say that Stannard's book has the merely antiquarian and there-but-for-the-grace-of-the-gods-go-I interest which belongs to any skillful examination of the learned, serious and (especially) respected follies of the past; but I fear it retains all too much value as a prophylactic.

xx + 187 pp., illustrations of some visual illusions, footnotes (no bibliography), index of subjects and persons
Out of print. Paperback ISBN 0-19-503044-3.
24--25 August 1998