U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Tim’s Light Reading (12-15-2011): The Non-Western Mind, Politics And Intellectuals, The Psychology Of Terrorism, And The 1992 Affect

1. The Mind In The History Of Psychology: Contingency And Psychohistory

Josh Rothman of the Boston Globe‘s Brainiac blog considers (or rather ponders what two psychologists have considered on) the limitations and possibilities of theories of the mind contingent on whether psychology had developed outside of Western culture. Rothman’s piece focuses on the various terms for mind around the world: maum, kokoro, dusa, etc.

This pointer drags up a thought that has been hovering on the edges of my consciousness in relation to USIH historiography. Are intellectual historians afraid of psychology? Except for Lasch and Hofstadter, who among recent intellectual historians has embraced, or embraces, a philosophy of history that deeply engages psychology? Is psychohistory a cultish swamp of historiography, like cliometrics? Or has psychological theory been banished to biography? If so, then I would think that USIH folks, with their penchant for biography, would be embracing psychological theory in trying to capture the essence of their particular persons.

2. The Moral Psychology of Terrorism

Speaking of psychology in recent history, the East Carolina University plans to hold a conference on the “Moral Psychology of Terrorism: Implications for Security” in April 2012. Here are the first few paragraphs from the CFP:

The terrorism of the past decade has been driven by the interface of psychology, morality, faith, religion, and politics. This modern terrorism reflects terrorists’ pursuit of their beliefs and even aggressive promotion of the exclusivity of their world-views at the expense of the lives of those who do not share them. In this sense, the act of terrorism is fueled by arguments of morality and views that are rooted in the psyches and beliefs of terrorists.

Recent terrorism, wherever it spreads, under the banner of major monotheistic religious traditions or Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism, brings into the forefront the need to better understand the moral psychology of terrorism. This need is more critical in the areas where youths might be recruited and socialized or ‘brain-washed’ by terrorist leaders. The heinous events committed by terrorists and sympathizers against the citizens of New York, London, Madrid, Bombay, and various cities of Pakistan and Afghanistan further emphasize the need to understand terrorists’ moral psychology.

3. Intellectuals And–Or In—Politics

The NYT’s Stone weblog, which covers philosophy, recently featured a post by Gary Cutting, a philosophy professor at the University of Notre Dame, titled “Intellectuals and Politics.” Cutting says he’s going to discuss “the role of intellectuals in American politics,” but I think he’s really discussing the politics of real or purported intellectual lives among practicing, active politicians. Historians will typically wish, as I did, that the post had a few more concrete examples from a usable past—of traits, situations, and politicians whose work has gone wrong, or well, due to intellectual associations. Some of us appreciate the nuggets of truth in the maxim uttered by Henry St. John, Lord Viscount Bolingbroke: “History is philosophy teaching by examples.” [In his Letters on the Study and Use of History, 1770, p. 14–or 15, depending on your version.]

4. The 1992 Affect

Writing for Vanity Fair, Kurt Andersen argues that the cultural landscape of 2011 is really just a sorry echo of the affections of 1992. We’re consuming and recycling the past rather than creating anew (a consequence of hip-hop sampling?*). You might say that we’re more Kurt Cobain than Kurt Vile, Kurt Busch, or Kurt Angle. …Yes, these are my lame attempts at present-day pop culture obscurity. Anyway, here are the first two paragraphs of Andersen’s intriguing analysis:

The past is a foreign country. Only 20 years ago the World Wide Web was an obscure academic thingamajig. All personal computers were fancy stand-alone typewriters and calculators that showed only text (but no newspapers or magazines), played no video or music, offered no products to buy. E-mail (a new coinage) and cell phones were still novelties. Personal music players required cassettes or CDs. Nobody had seen a computer-animated feature film or computer-generated scenes with live actors, and DVDs didn’t exist. The human genome hadn’t been decoded, genetically modified food didn’t exist, and functional M.R.I. was a brand-new experimental research technique. Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden had never been mentioned in The New York Times. China’s economy was less than one-eighth of its current size. CNN was the only general-interest cable news channel. Moderate Republicans occupied the White House and ran the Senate’s G.O.P. caucus.

Since 1992, as the technological miracles and wonders have propagated and the political economy has transformed, the world has become radically and profoundly new. (And then there’s the miraculous drop in violent crime in the United States, by half.) Here is what’s odd: during these same 20 years, the appearance of the world (computers, TVs, telephones, and music players aside) has changed hardly at all, less than it did during any 20-year period for at least a century. The past is a foreign country, but the recent past—the 00s, the 90s, even a lot of the 80s—looks almost identical to the present. This is the First Great Paradox of Contemporary Cultural History.

And here’s Andersen’s explanation behind the phenomenon:

Why is this happening? In some large measure, I think, it’s an unconscious collective reaction to all the profound nonstop newness we’re experiencing on the tech and geopolitical and economic fronts. People have a limited capacity to embrace flux and strangeness and dissatisfaction, and right now we’re maxed out. So as the Web and artificially intelligent smartphones and the rise of China and 9/11 and the winners-take-all American economy and the Great Recession disrupt and transform our lives and hopes and dreams, we are clinging as never before to the familiar in matters of style and culture.

Fun. Let me know what you think. – TL

* Andersen covers this: “And in pop music, thanks to sampling, even the last genuinely new form, hip-hop, made an explicit and unapologetic point of recycling earlier songs.” …Yes, indeed, I posted this article for your consumption before having read every word of it—I liked it that much.

21 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Mind is not an artifact.

    Have you read Peter Gay’s Freud for Historians> I did, and was quite underwhelmed. I don’t think it’s an accident that historians for the most part abandoned psychohistory as quickly as they embraced it. Too much of it is mumbo jumbo, an iteration of the scientism that perennially besets the humanities. That said, you’re right, Tim, to identify psychology’s connection with biographical approaches. Anyone who studies Rousseau runs into psychology sooner or later. Much work on him starts from the premise that his personality holds the key to understanding him. It helps that he wrote so much about himself, and that he had what was by all accounts an unusual personality. I am made like no one else I have seen, he said, and his interpreters have agreed.

    So it depends on the subject, I guess. But for the most part, yeah, it’s bunk. Pseudoscientific mumbo jumbo that can never be amenable to the canons of evidence and logic that historians adhere to. Nor can one ignore the challenges to Freudian psychoanalysis, which have done much to call it into question. If it is dubious when applied to the living, it must be even more so when applied to the past. That would be true regardless, because, of course, mind is not an artifact. That debility I’d say is insuperable. So much for psychohistory.

  2. Varad, you just had to lead with “Mind is not an artifact.” I can’t tell if this is a slogan taken from yet another well-known intellectual/philosophic/historical/epistemic debate about which I have lived in blinkered ignorance up to this point — and they are legion — or if you are just resorting to obscurantism in the hopes that someone will ask you to enlighten us all. But I will say this much: as it stands, “Mind is not an artifact” is not an argument. So I’m not going to argue with you either way on that.

    I am going to suggest, though, that there’s probably a perfectly good historical — or historicist — reason that intellectual historians tend to not turn to psychology to understand past actors. The idea of invoking “the human mind” or “human psychology” as some sort of transhistorical constant seems antithetical to a historicist approach. Psychology is not some thing outside of history that can be used to explain history. Psychology is part of the contemporary conception of selfhood. But as I understand it, what intellectual historians / historians of ideas are about is not explaining the past in the terms of the present, but understanding how the past explained itself.

    The conceptual framework of modern psychology is not meaningful for explaining the thinking of Enlightenment philosophers. We have to interpret them in the context of their own conceptual framework. The texts that set forth their own theories of personhood — humoral theory, the body politic, whatever — have to be what we look to in order to understand their motives, their meaning, their minds.

  3. Varad and others: If psychohistory is off pseudo-history, is the unconscious off limits as a realm worthy of historical examination? I ask this in all seriousness. I don’t practice any form of psychohistory, but I do sometimes wish to explain human behavior that seems to emerge from below the surface of consciousness.

  4. @Varad: I have not read Peter Gay’s Freud for Historians. The problem with turning to psychology for theoretical constructs is the fact that psychology has been a developing/moving-target over the course of the twentieth-century. Think about the DSM-IV and after debates about normality (e.g. sexuality). Surely that alone is a sufficient complication for the exploration of “effete intellectuals” (I jest—but you take my larger point). And this seems to me to be sufficient reason to discredit past “mind of” USIH studies (i.e. what is the mind?). That said, I’d like to avoid the terms “bunk” and “pseudohistory” in relation to applications of psychohistory because one can develop a psychological-historical theory of the mind _if_ the historical actor her/himself believed in a theory to the point of acting it out (think Freudianism, or behaviorism). So the use of psychology is highly dependent on the twentieth-century actors buy-in to a particular set of boundaries.

    @LD: I do think that Varad’s “Mind is not an artifact” line is obscure. The only reference to it I could find came from here—to do with mind-v-brain-as-computer-metaphor discussions. Otherwise, several of my responses to Varad above go to your points about the ahistorical use of psychological theory.

    @Andrew: If the unconscious is a product _only_ of psychology (particularly Fredianism), then I think the strictures I outlined above apply. In other words, do your historical actors use the term and, better yet, act on the belief? If so, then it’s fair game for you, methinks.

    I say this because I know M.J. Adler was in counseling for a fair amount of his life. My problem is that I don’t know exactly when he ended (though I roughly know, from his correspondence, that began in the mid/late 1920s). I have not yet formed a psychological-historical theory for dealing with Adler, but in the current version of my Adler work (tying him closely to the great books idea) I’m not exploring his emotions in any way beyond the superficial. Otherwise, I think I’d have to form an id-ego-superego working theory in relation to his hyper-rational/logic-based way of dealing with colleagues. – TL

  5. @Andrew (again): Actually, I thought you’d be most interesting in the Vanity Fair article about cultural styles being frozen in the 1992 period. Seems to have some Culture Wars valence. – TL

  6. The Anderson article represents the fulfillment of the Hegelian inner logic of trend journalism. The attempt to diagnosis some novel practice as indicative of the way “we” are responding to some broad social change, a diagnosis that normally lacks any truly historical frame, reaches its apotheosis. The latest “trend” is no trend at all! Kids today are into style stability as a way to deal with all that change! But hasn’t anti-fashion been a fashion choice like forever? Trend journalists have to have something to talk about. What appeared in Fukuyama (speaking of 1992) as tragedy is repeated in Vanity Fair as farce.

    Tim, I have never heard of any of those Kurts, but is Kurt Vile just a riff on Kurt Weill?

  7. “What appeared in Fukuyama (speaking of 1992) as tragedy is repeated in Vanity Fair as farce.”

    Having only recently read Marx’s “18th Brumaire,” I actually get this joke now.

  8. Andrew, where is the unconscious in history? How do you get at it? That’s what I mean about mind not being an artifact. It’s an epistemological statement. Historians can study books, texts, letters, financial records, diaries, paintings, sculptures, all sorts of artifacts. But they can’t study a “mind,” which is what psychoanalysis tries to get at. When a person is alive, it’s still at least theoretically possible to get at a person’s mind. But when they’re not, I think the logical chain backward from the expressions of that mind to the mind itself simply falls apart. That’s not to say we can’t know how people think, what they think, etc. But the sort of things psychoanalysis is supposed to reveal, that you just can’t do with the past, or anything that exists of the past.

    I agree that we can’t use the precepts of modern psychology to study those who lived before there was such a thing as modern psychology, as they would not have understood themselves in such terms. Diggins makes that argument in Lost Soul of American Politics about the Founding Fathers. The stricture is often just. At the same time, if we applied it with inflexible rigor, we would I think be handicapping ourselves. There’s a reason that the phrase avant la lettre exists; sometimes the idea enters the world before the name does. I’m not one to subscribe rigidly to the Cambridge School paradigm that the limits of what can be said circumscribe the limits of what can be thought. If we were strict, we wouldn’t be able to say that Wealth of Nations is about capitalism, or laying the foundations for an economic system that would be identified as capitalism, because the term didn’t come into use until a half-century after Adam Smith’s death. And where would that leave us?

    “Mind is not an artifact” is, as far as I know, my coinage. I’m not sure when I came up with it, but my first use in print is in the paper I wrote about that Peter Gay book, which was in 1998. I am certain, however, I had already come up with it beforehand. Its origin I don’t think is of any relevance to our discussion. It’s not the issue.

  9. @Dan: Of course I agree with you that this is trend journalism—pretending to be a cultural history of the last 20 years. Even if it’s not exactly profound (and I hope I didn’t sell it that way), I thought it contained a few nuggets of truth—particularly the second quote I excerpted about the (information-intellectual) flux of the period engendering a sort of new conformity, or cultural conservatism. – TL

  10. @Dan (again): I think our own Philadelphian Kurt Vile is indeed trying to be someone different from Kurt Weill. At the very least their musical tastes trend in different directions. But I don’t what the difference in these “Viles” says about the last 20 years. 🙂 – TL

  11. Tim – You included a link to Professor Wiki’s article on psychohistory, but I don’t think it’s reliable, or at the very least, that it well represents psychohistory as a “movement” in the discipline of history. It reads as if written by Lloyd de Mause or one of his students, or patients. De Mause was founder of the Association for Psychohistory in 1977, headquartered in New York, which publishes The Psychohistorical Forum, has its own press and publishes The Journal of Psychohistory. De Mause’s books include The New Psychohistory [1975], Jimmy Carter and American Fantasy: Psychohistorical Explorations [1977], Foundations of Psychohistory [1982], Reagan’s America [1984] and The Emotional Life of Nations [2002].

    An admittedly cursory glance at some of his writings available online led to one gem that simply must be quoted. In Foundations of Psychohistory, de Mause asks, “What caused America? What was it that changed a group of totalitarian, bigoted, head-hunting and witch-hunting Englishmen into a nation of fiercely independent Yankees in but one century?…. Historians over the past 200 years have answered this question with a single theme: trees caused America. Trees, and all that open space, giving the American colonists the freedom to start anew, substituting an institutionless American simplicity for the hierarchical European complexity they left behind.” [105]

    The term “psychohistory” is of course somewhat misleading, since it can refer to any approach that draws on some theories and/or methods of psychology to inform, or perform, some sort of historical study; but also to a particular movement in recent historiography that drew mostly on some version of psychoanalytic theory. This is the context you cite — the lives and times of people like Lasch and Hofstadter. Except at the most general level, this has little to do with the orientations of the bloggers whose interesting discussion you mention, not to mention other currently favored approaches in psychology, or, say, behavioral economics.

    Hofstadter of course drew on the work of Harold Lasswell, William Langer and others who early on dabbled at the intersections of psychoanalysis and history, and appears to have had a close familiarity with the work of Erik Erikson. It might be worthwhile to re-visit such publications as Harold Lasswell, “The Contribution of Freud’s Insight Interview to the Social Sciences” [AJS 1939], William L. Langer’s Presidential address to the AHA, published as “The Next Assignment” [AHR 1958], or early work by Peter Loewenberg, such as “The Psychohistorical Origins of the Nazi Youth Cohort” [AHR 1971] Other early discussions include Philip Rieff, “History, Psychoanalysis, and the Social Sciences” [Ethics, 1953] and Bruce Mazlish, ed, Psychoanalysis and History, 1963.

  12. continued –

    As far as I know — and I’m asking for help here — there is little recent work that traces these intersections of history and psychoanalysis, or history and psychology generally, much less examines the ways in which historians have informally theorized individual behavior and its role in history.

    Thomas A. Kohut got it partly right in his “Psychohistory as History” [AHR,1986] in claiming that, “because it is not possible to comprehend people without dealing with the psychological, historians, including those critical of psychohistory, have always written about it, even if they have rarely acknowledged the fact.” [352] What he missed was that the concept of the psychological should be critically examined as itself historically constituted, or so I would claim.

    In a recent review article, Mike Savage, “Psychology and Contemporary Society” [Modern Intellectual History, 2009] makes a couple of important points. First, complementing Kohut’s point, he notes that broadly psychological concepts such as “national character” do not always indicate the influence of the discipline of psychology, but draw on general cultural notions, which implies less of a distinctively psychological turn than is often seen.

    Second, he points out that the referent of much psychologizing was not individuals, but nations, ethnic groups, and that these were seen as manifestations of individuals subjective states.

    It seems intuitively right that psychology would be appropriated by intellectual historians most often due to what Tim called their “penchant for biography,” which itself manifests a broadly psychological bias, if it can be called that. But psychology in some form is influential not only in attention to the individual, the biographical.

    Along these lines, it strikes me that a vast and neglected topic is the long-standing inclination to conceptualize groups or even social categories – nations, races, ethnicities, genders, etc – as individuals writ large, to describe them in psychological terms. Ala Rodgers, we might describe this as a “contagion of metaphors.”

    Sometimes these analogies, or metonymies, are taken literally, as in Westphalian sovereignty in which states are granted rights as individual agents. One might recall Mike O’Connor’s recent blog post on corporations as persons, or think of countless discussions in which individual and “collective identity,” or “collective memory,” are treated in virtually interchangeable terms.

    Varad traced some of history back to medieval England, and suggests that the concept of corporate personhood came to America through the British common law tradition. He mentions Rousseau, but we shouldn’t forget the personified Leviathan.

    Sometimes these metaphors leads to thinking in terms of a “kind-of” relation, in which individuals and groups are taken as sub-categories of “agents,” alike possessing identity, character, personality, will, choice, etc – or, as a recent blog post put it, “soul.” Put differently, we often commit the fallacy of composition, in which it is assumed that what is true of the parts is true of the whole.

    In any case, it seems that much of this is understudied by historians.

  13. @Bill: Of course I didn’t mean to imply that “Professor Wiki” should be our end-all-be-all. “He” is just a quick-and-dirty for those in need of, or wanting, a super-brief refresher. On your two long comments, thanks—as always—for the plethora of citations and for nudging me/us in a more fruitful direction. And I agree with your point about individualizing groups, if I may put it that way. – TL

  14. Tim – I didn’t mean to suggest you were insufficiently critical about the dear professor, only to provide a heads-up for the one or two people who might be interested in historicizing psychohistory.

    And thanks – I’m satisfied to be a nudger. I hope someone takes up the task[s] of tracing the “individualizing [of] groups,” which seems to be fundamental in our economic, political-legal, cultural and, indeed, subjective life.

  15. Re: “Nor can one ignore the challenges to Freudian psychoanalysis, which have done much to call it into question.”

    The challenges are hardly fatal. I recommend, first, looking at the literature here (the link to the bibliography is in the fourth para.): http://ratiojuris.blogspot.com/2008/11/directed-reading-freudian-and-post.html

    Second, see here: http://ratiojuris.blogspot.com/2011/11/freud-among-philosophers.html

    and here: http://ratiojuris.blogspot.com/2011/12/freud-and-philosophers.html

    Freudian psychology is an extension, deepening, and contextualization of folk psychology (Richard Wollheim) and, as such, has much to offer us.

  16. Tim,

    No, strictly speaking, folk psychology refers to our common or everyday use of mental predicates (beliefs, desires, hopes, fears, etc.) and terms. It’s the sort of psychology that those of a strongly scientistic or reductionist (where the mind is reduced to the brain) bent (or even ‘eliminativist’ a la the Churchlands) hope to someday transcend or replace with a purely scientific terminology. More technically, “folk psychology is a philosopher’s label for the practice of making sense of intentional actions, minimally, by appealing to an agent’s beliefs and desires.” Minimally, it’s the everyday practice of making sense of intentional actions (ours and those of others) in terms of reasons, “where this implies having a capacity for the competent invocation of propositional attitude talk.” (Daniel D. Hutto) Sebastian Gardner and Richard Wollheim are two philosophers who have explained precisely how “depth psychology” (at least the psychoanalytic variety) is an extension of folk psychology (a fact ill-understood by not a few critics of Freudian psychology).

    To the extent that we’ve incorporated Freudian language into our everyday conversations (e.g., libido, repression, projection, sublimation, and so on) I suppose one could say that folk psychology and depth psychology overlap, but as philosophers use the term in a normative sense, it remains an open question, as philosophers understand folk psychology in different ways, some of which, as I said above, imagine some day being able to do without its basic concepts! Of course Freud at times appears himself to be a scientific reductionist, but in the end mental talk on the order of intentionality and propositional attitudes is fundamental to his enterprise and therefore ineliminable.

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