Friday, February 11, 2011
If You Hired a Historian as Your Therapist
As I argued in the previous post, historians have a far superior method of analyzing human motivation than psychoanalysts do. The obvious conclusion from this is that historians should step in and offer themselves as professional psychologists. There are millions of people out there not achieving their personal goals in life, whether in business, love or in just being happy. Many of these people are at present spending thousands of dollars lying on the couches of psychoanalytic therapists, as they try to pierce the veil of their own subconscious to explain their failings. Considering the poor job market for historians, I am sure many of my fellow graduate students would jump at the chance to apply their skills in dealing with historical figures to helping real live present day people with their problems. Of course the psychiatric board would object, demand that we receive licenses from them and refuse to give them to us, but that is just a matter of them being a special interest group.
So what might it be like to have a historian as one's personal therapist? The goals of such therapy would be different from traditional psychoanalysis. For our historian therapist, the purpose in treating his patient would be to rationally examine their goals in life, the actions they have taken to achieve them, the rational reasons why such actions might have failed and how better to rationally pursue their goals in the future. Since we are applying the historical method, there would be a radical de-emphasis on talking to the patient. As historians we value written documents over personal memory. So, after an initial consultation with the patient to discuss their specific goals in therapy, the patient would turn over all relevant documents such as letters, e-mails and text messages (living in the twenty-first century is going to be a big help with this) over to the historian therapist for study. Our historian therapist would then proceed by himself to analyze these documents to get a sense of the patient and their motivation, while keeping in contact with the patient to receive biographic info to help place everything in its right context. Once our historian therapist is satisfied with the information he has he can bring in the patient for the actual therapy. Proceeding on the assumption that the patient has acted from consistent rational motivations, our historian therapist will discuss the logical possibilities over with his patient. The starting point is going to be the patent's motives as he understands them, considering that he is the one with the best knowledge of his own mind. Our historian therapist will challenge his patient by pointing out contradictions between what the patient claims and his actions as they appear from the documentary evidence and suggest other possible motives more consistent with the evidence at hand.
It is here that our historian therapist is likely to get into trouble. Therapists, as employees of their own patients, are dependent upon the good will of their patients and therefore need to create "safe" environments and offer flattering explanations that will appeal to the patient so that the patient will continue to employ them. This is one more reason why this whole psychoanalytic field is invalid as a means of gaining actual knowledge. Historians usually have the advantage of dealing with dead people and therefore we have the luxury to be as critical as we wish. Like psychoanalysts, we do not judge our subjects, but to attack and demonstrate that the subject was not as virtuous as they claimed is a basic part of the historian's task. You identify your source's agenda and ignore anything it tells you that supports this agenda; on the flip side you accept as absolute truth anything that goes against the agenda. This creates a relationship between historians and their sources more akin to that of police interrogating a subject than a therapist with a patient.
Sigmund Freud argued that, since there is much in psychoanalysis that a patient would be loathe to accept, it is necessary to create a process in which the patient comes to the proper conclusions on their own and not as the opinion of the therapist. Our historian therapist might be able to do something similar. He can teach the patient about the historical method and invite him to apply it to the events of his own life through the analysis of documents that he wrote. If nothing else, a commitment to reason and using it as a tool of self analysis should do wonders for any patient's mental well being.