Why I... believe psychohistory shouldacknowledge its founding father

March 16, 2001

Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson's work on psychohistory began in 1939, with the redrafting of an essay on the rise of Adolf Hitler. For Erikson, a Danish-German-American-Jewish-Protestant-agnostic yet deeply spiritual emigre from Vienna (talk about an identity crisis), Hitler had appealed to troubled German youth as an adolescent gang leader. He had called on juveniles to embrace a delinquent-like sense of moral virtue by assaulting the traditional values of their parents and the bodies of Jews, homosexuals and other "aliens".

By 1958, Erikson had published Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History , which talked of Martin Luther's adolescent "identity crisis" and did much to launch the psychohistory movement. Erikson's adolescent Luther had struggled against his father and the church fathers to discover his own distinctive and authentic voice amid the crisis of late medieval European Christianity. For Erikson, this crisis and its resolution demonstrated how the inner psyche interacted with external historically rooted social circumstances.

A series of papers and books followed in the next two decades emulating Erikson's approach, but he had mixed feelings about the movement. Lacking self-confidence, he appreciated the favourable attention his work received. But, unlike Sigmund Freud, he never wanted to direct an intellectual-scholarly professional movement and was uncomfortable with his role as founder.

Indeed, he privately hoped the term psychohistory would fall into disuse. He also saw no benefit in psychohistory becoming an academic subfield and was especially distressed when historians treated public statements of prominent figures as if they had originated in a therapeutic, clinical setting. Erikson felt that the subjective language of a therapeutic encounter was often less than accessible to historians. This was one of the main reasons he did not attend psychohistory conferences or write for psychohistory journals. Those he did glance at seemed to suffer from reductionism and stylistic rigidity.

He was even more distressed by the second phase of the psychohistory movement that began in the 1980s. He was upset by attacks on him by those who agreed with Anna Freud's views. She called him a sociologist for undergraduates and said he had not understood her father's work. Insecure and suffering from his own identity crisis, Erikson wanted to be considered a member of the psychoanalyst club, but he was a deviant and Anna Freud knew it. Erikson was also upset by historians who elevated the work of psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut, who, he felt, said nothing new. And he was distressed by British academics' embrace of Melanie Klein's object-relations theory. The term object applied to humans appalled him and he rejected the idea that identity was set in early infancy.

Old, sickly and under-utilised during this period, Erikson never read what, by the early 1990s, were becoming perhaps the cutting-edge works of the movement. These were profoundly psychological and deeply sensitive historical writings with precious little reference to psychological theory of any sort, such as Enlightenment and the French Revolution by Lynn Hunt. By 2001, this sort of psychological history, with minimal theory or recourse to the literature of the psychohistorical movement, had become mainline scholarship within the broad historical profession.

Is psychohistory thriving more than ever, albeit with little reference to its theories and its founder? More fundamentally, are Erikson -now eight years in the grave -and his concerns with identity and psychohistorical development so pervasive in Anglo-American culture that we do not trouble ourselves to acknowledge from whence such ideas came?

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