Only a layman: Psychoanalysis and history

The author examines the methodological challenges that are encountered in the relationship between history and psychoanalysis

By Ben Kafka

Psychoanalysis has always struggled with the subject of history. This might be one reason that so many psychoanalysts, from Wilhelm Reich on, have looked with such envy to Marxism. With the dialectic, even the surliest Marxist can explain how a specific instance of human suffering is part of a grander historical narrative. Your victimization is never yours alone, but the victimization of an entire class; your struggle is never yours alone, but part of a multimillennial conflict between freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, bourgeois and proletarian—in a word, oppressor and oppressed.

Meanwhile psychoanalysis has had to keep searching for concepts and techniques that would allow it to make sense of the forces of history within and beyond the consulting room. As we know, Freud experimented with a number of these concepts without ever finding one that quite worked for him. Or rather, he found one that he thought worked—ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny—but even the most orthodox among us have a hard time following him down that particular path. The texts written under the influence of recapitulation theory are often illuminating and always entertaining, but not exactly models of theoretical or empirical rigor.

As a result, psychoanalysis has been cursed to wander the hallways of the human sciences in search of theories that would help it think more clearly about history and its subjects. Not only Marxism, but phenomenology, existentialism, structuralism, post structuralism, feminist theory, and queer theory—at one time or another psychoanalysis has entered into conversation with all of them. Consider, for example, how “repression” in its analytic sense was conflated with “repression” in its political sense right up until the early 1980s, when Foucault finally persuaded (most of ) us to stop.

If psychoanalysis has trouble with the subject of history, history has even more trouble with the subject of psychoanalysis. The historian Frank Manuel (1971) once remarked that “the dead do not ask to be cured, only understood.” To which we must reply: they don’t even ask for that. If they did, we would have something to work with, a demand, a desire, maybe even the beginnings of a transference—in other words, something that would help us to establish a rigorously analytic relationship to historical subjects. No such luck. All we have are the textual and material artifacts gathered from our expeditions through libraries, archives, museums. And no matter how intimate our sources—letters, diaries, memoirs—they will never substitute for the analytic scene itself, where we learn not only from our analysands’ speech but even more from their misspeech: lapses, hesitations, silences.

Surely there are lapses, hesitations, silences in written sources as well? Yes and no. “In a spoken or written sentence something stumbles,” Lacan (1978) tells us. “Freud is attracted by these phenomena, and it is there that he seeks the unconscious.” The problem with this observation is that it implies that both speech and writing stumble on the same something, or that the same something stumbles through them. Even a cursory glance at the journal you’re holding in your hands—or reading on your screen— should convince you that this is not the case. Writing has its own materiality. The “something” that stumbles in writing could just as easily be a broken pencil or sticky keyboard as a para praxis proper. It’s very hard to tell what sorts of mistakes are clues into the unconscious and what sorts of mistakes are simply that—mistakes. How many of your own par praxes have been automatically corrected by your word processor or email program? Or to put it another way, how many par praxes has your word processor automatically committed? Even in its rawest form—the manuscript—we have no way of knowing how long authors paused over a word, what other words they considered in its place, what their posture or affect were as they wrote it. For better or worse, writing is missing something. We can neither ignore this lack nor disavow it.

Weak methodology, insufficient evidence— what’s a historically minded psychoanalyst, or a psychoanalytically minded historian, to do? In a letter to Lytton Strachey from 1928, Freud shared his pessimism about the psychohistorical endeavor. “Our psychological analysis does not suffice even with those who are near us in space and time unless we can make them the object of years of the closest investigation,” he writes. “With regard to the people of past times we are in the same position as with dreams to which we have been given no associations—and only a layman could expect us to interpret dreams such as those” (Meisel and Kendrick, 1985).

Of course, by the time he wrote this letter, Freud had already interpreted the lives of such “people of past times” as Leonardo da Vinci, Daniel Paul Schreber, and Christopher Haitzmann, not to mention those primitive hordes. Indeed, he and Hanns Sachs had even established an entire journal devoted to “applying” psychoanalysis to historical subjects. Odd to see him casting doubt on the whole endeavor. Odder still to note that there was still more to come.

Then again, perhaps this oddness is precisely the point. Psychoanalysis and history make an odd couple—even odder than psychoanalysis and philosophy, psychoanalysis and literature, psychoanalysis and any of the other human sciences. In a recent lecture at Columbia University, the historian Joan W. Scott insisted on the “incommensurability” of my two disciplines: psychoanalysis and history. Building on the work of the theorist Elizabeth Wilson (2011), Scott argued that, far from discouraging us, this incommensurability forces us to rethink what historians do, and how we do it. This seems about right, all the more so because Scott’s forthcoming book Fantasies of Feminist History is one of the deftest examples of what I’m tempted to call the “new psychohistory.” This new psychohistory will have to recognize that the archive is like a dream without associations; when it comes time to interpret it, we are only ever laymen. In other words, the new psychohistory will be at its most persuasive when it is most unsure of itself.


Meisel, P. & Kendrick, W. (Eds.). (1985). Bloomsbury/Freud: The letters of James and Alix Strachey. New York: Basic Books.

Lacan, J. (1978). The four fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis. (Alan Sheridan, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton.

Fassin, D. & Rechtman, R. (2009). The empire of trauma: An inquiry into the condition of victimhood. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Manuel, F. (1971). The use and abuse of psychology in history. Daedalus, 100(1), 187–213.

Scott, J. W. (forthcoming). Fantasies of feminist history. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Wilson, E. A. (2011). Another neurological scene. History of the Present,1(2).