DECODING THE PAST: The Psychohistorical Approach by Peter Loewenberg

DECODING THE PAST: The Psychohistorical Approach

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One of the most serious charges made against psychohistory, in the view of UCLA psychohistorian Loewenberg, is that many practitioners make unwarranted leaps from adult behavior back to childhood behavior. There's some truth to that charge, he says; but there's also a measure of defensiveness involved on the part of critics: ""Often one of the unconscious motives of the study of history is to displace conflict to the past. Therefore attempts to confront and deal with conflict in the immediacy of current research are met with hostility."" That kind of reductionism--an even bigger problem--runs through this collection of essays originally published in a professional journal. Four of the 15 are on the world of the academy; they include such topics as the transference of attitudes toward the father that takes place in graduate study, the sources of envy in scholarly activity, and the absence of maternal appreciation that caused the eminent historian William Langer to cite rave reviews of his work in public. Loewenberg, however, doesn't manage to make these subjects seem worthy of analysis. The essays on historical figures like Austrian socialists Victor and Friedrich Adler and Otto Bauer, and Zionist Theodor Herzl, suffer a different problem. In discussing the psychological origins of Bauer's ambivalent political behavior, for example, Loewenberg never addresses the question of why this man was able to develop a following. Loewenberg looks to the childhood of Bauer for the causes of his belief in passivity, in the apparent hope that things will work out, locating it specifically in his identification of high theoretical ideals as a substitute for the ""shattered ideal"" of his father. The evidence here comes from Bauer's sister, who was Freud's patient known as ""Dora."" Loewenberg is satisfied that Bauer's ambivalence ""fitted the tragic ambivalence of Austro-Marxism,"" but the concentration on an individual falls short of explaining an entire historical phenomenon. Similarly, a firm historical context is missing in the attempts at unearthing the psychological origins of Herzl's fantasies. At the other extreme, Loewenberg seeks insight on the Nazis by focusing on the impact of war (in this case World War I) on childhood, which would implicate all the children of Germany. (See rather Alice Miller's For Your Own Good, below.) Unlike Carl E. Schorske, Loewenberg is never able to make a convincing case for the interpretive relevance of his examples by bridging the gap between individual and society. An essay on method and an uncritical survey of the fruits of psychohistory round out the volume. It all adds up to a combination for only undemanding devotees of psychohistory.

Pub Date: April 26th, 1983
Publisher: Knopf