Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Historical Method Versus Psychoanalysis

Founded in the nineteenth century, psychoanalysis has proven to be one of the most dominant fields in modern life. Far beyond a means of treating mentally troubled individuals, psychoanalysis today is critical for modern philosophy, literature and even law. Put broadly psychoanalysis is the belief that human beings are dominated by an irrational subconscious and that by becoming aware of this subconscious, usually by engaging in a dialogue with a professional psychoanalytical therapist, one can put a stop to much of the undesirable results of this subconscious. In the public mind, psychoanalysis will forever be associated with the specific theories of Sigmund Freud such as the subconscious Oedipus complex, the ego and and the id, even if in practice the field has moved on to other theories of the subconscious.

This may sound radical but I reject psychoanalysis. If people feel they benefit from it they are certainly free to spend their own money on therapy. If there is historical evidence that a writer made use of psychoanalysis then a literary analysis should take that into account. But under no circumstance should psychoanalysis be used to form the basis of any public policy or law. Now what basis do I have for taking such a stance? I have no formal training in psychology. What I do have is my training as a historian. History like psychoanalysis is a theory of human motivation. As a historian, I try to figure out the who, what, when and where of human events, but most importantly I consider why people do things. That being said, the historical method is quite different from psychoanalysis both in its methodology and in the sorts of conclusions it is liable to come to. 

The historical method starts with the assumption of rationality in the sense that it is assumed that people act at a given moment according to set rules. This is not to say that all or even most people act rationally, just that the only type of motivation that can be explored is the rational. Everything else quickly descends into a laundry list of actions that can only be explained by capricious whim. (If historians and psychoanalysts agree on anything it is that anyone who says they did something "just because" is not being honest and is hiding something.) At its heart, psychoanalysis comes from the assumption that human beings are fundamentally irrational and that rational action is a pretense to cover up the irrational desires, which, through the controlling power of the subconscious, are the true driving force behind the person. Sticking to reason would not in of itself eliminate psychoanalysis. In a sense psychoanalysis does in the end bind itself to a form of rationality in the sense that we can expect the person to act consistently according to the parameters set by the subconscious.

This brings us to a second major difference in methodology, the attitude toward the subconscious. The historian, unlike the psychoanalyst, focuses his attention on the conscious. We assume that people, as rational beings, have clearly thought out rational motives and will consciously act to carry out their goals in the best way their reason can conceive for them. To be clear, being rational does not mean being moral. People may very well steal out of greed or murder to gain revenge (a demonstration to others that it is not in their rational interest to wrong them). This approach to human behavior is funded upon Occam's Razor, that we look for the simplest explanation and do not bring assumptions into play unless they solve something specific that cannot be solved with the assumptions at hand. Psychoanalysis, on the other hand, is based on a willingness to ignore Occam's Razor. Instead of starting with the conscious rational motives openly at hand and only turning to consider the possibility that something else might be at play when a conscious rational motive cannot be discovered, the psychoanalyst starts with the assumption that the motivation in question is irrational and subconscious. He then seeks, much in the same way as the religious fundamentalist, to support his conclusions by lining up only the evidence that works in his favor and insist that there can be no other interpretation. 

Now the supporter of psychoanalysis might respond to this that it is all well and good for the historian to talk about rational motivation when it comes to leading statesmen, but the psychoanalyst, almost by definition, with people who are not well and who clearly are not behaving rationally. My response is that if reason is a good enough causal explanation for people who are heads of states then it is good enough for people whose only claim to insanity is to seek help from a psychoanalyst.

If I believe in the validity of the historical method as a means of analyzing human behavior then I need to support it all the way. If this method is valid for understanding early modern European heads of state then it must be valid for stressed out depressed graduate students. If I would not accept psychoanalysis as a means of analyzing historical figures (and historians above any group involved in the humanities are resistant to psychoanalysis) then I must reject psychoanalysis as well when it comes to people living today.                  


Clarissa said...

There is a glaring contradiction in what you are saying here, Izgad. On the one hand, you recognize that psychoanalysis has come to define the way we see the world. Then, you suggest that at the pont of creating policy people somehow disengage from this crucial part of their ideology.

Your belief in people being guided by reason and their inherenet rationality is also deeply suspect. We are currently in the midst of a deep economic crisis caused by people who didn't act extremely rationally, to put it mildly.

Expecting that people would act in their own best interests is, I be;ieve, very naive.

"At its heart, psychoanalysis comes from the assumption that human beings are fundamentally irrational"

-Not really. The central idea is that we tend to concel our motivations from ourselves for a variety of reasons.

Clarissa said...

I agree completely that neither historical figures nor writers nor literary characters should be psychoanalyzed. All attempts to construct this kind of studies have failed most signally for the obvious reasons.

Still, I wonder at which point in history you find moments when "people, as rational beings, have clearly thought out rational motives and will consciously act to carry out their goals in the best way their reason can conceive for them." Once again, I don't suggest that you try to psychoanalyze people or societies you study. I'm just wondering how it is possible to study history without recognizing that it has been very easy historically to make people act against their own self-interest.

Sorry for multiple comments. Blogger is resistant to longer comments, so I have to break my response up in two parts.

Clarissa said...

Sorry, it seems like I'll keep bugging you today.

" If I would not accept psychoanalysis as a means of analyzing historical figures (and historians above any group involved in the humanities are resistant to psychoanalysis) then I must reject psychoanalysis as well when it comes to people living today."

-I don't see any logic here at all. It's like saying that since we can't apply any given medical procedure to a historical figure to cure them from a disease they had when they were living, it means that we shouldn't apply the same medical procedure to actual patients who are sick today.

Psychoanalysis doesn't work without a live subject who is actively engaged in being psychoanalyzed. This is why psychoanalyzing a dead person (or an unwilling one) is akin to applying radiation therapy to a corpse in hopes of curing their cancer.

I don't get this at all.

Izgad said...


I recognize that the psychoanalysis has been tremendously influential on modern thought and life. I think this is a bad thing. It has played a major role in leading our society away from classical liberal principles and this needs to change. I recognize that I have no say in whether people believe in psychoanalysis in their own personal lives, but to put it into the legal system is no different from sticking religion in.
You are correct in that people do not always behave rationality. I do not assume that they do. That being said, by definition, I can only calculate based on their rationality. Also I can only negotiate and form a society with people who are rational. This leaves me no choice but to act as if everyone was rational and cut out and abandon everyone who fails to live up to this standard.
Do historical figures act from rational motives? Philip II of Spain sent the Armada to conquer England because he had a temporary peace with the Ottomans in the Mediterranean and believed that English Catholics would rise up and overthrow Elizabeth. We do not need to consider whether Philip had a subconscious desire to rape Elizabeth, his former sister in law, as a replacement for Mary. I operate on the assumption that if we historians could have Philip on our couch we should treat him the same way we already do as a historical figure we know from documents. It would also seem therefore that we should treat the living people on the couch also the same way we treat historical figures.

Clarissa said...

But that's the thing, Izgad. There is no way of getting Philip onto anybody's couch. He can't be psychoanalyzed because he is not participating. An active willingness to participate is the sine qua non of psychoanalysis.

I agree completely that psychoanalyzing historic figures is a silly waste of time. Under no conditions will it work. No documents can tell us the kind of things that a person discusses during analysis. An analysis also cannot be done over the phone or the Internet. Do you know why? Because a person's immediate reactions are crucial.

I have a feeling that your familiarity with psychoanalysis is extremely tenuous and you end up condemning something without really knowing what it is.

Izgad said...

It does not matter that we cannot get Philip on the couch. We have his documents and they tell us everything we need to know about his actions and why he took them. It would be nice to hear Philip’s reaction to our reading of his documents, but completely unnecessary.

Yes I do have experience with psychoanalysts in my personal life and am related to people heavily involved in the whole process.

Clarissa said...

If we can't get him on the couch, we can't psychoanalyze him, right? :-)