Freud and Historians

All in all, despite the rhetoric in the last years, most historians, just like most scholars in the humanities, are rather wary of genuinely interdisciplinary work. And there are some very good reasons for that, after all Leibniz was the last person to know everything. Franco Moretti put it brutally honest: such a project is often “chancy and random. You have to be lucky as hell because you move blindly.”  Having said that, there seem to be a remarkable exception to aversion to use works from outside of the humanities, namely works of Sigmund Freud. When one takes works on collective memory(ies), social identity and such topics, 8 out of 10 works will have reference to concepts of the Austrian psychoanalyst within the first few pages. This applies to many other scholars from the humanities, not just historians.

Of course there is nothing wrong with using Freud’s work, on the contrary, I totally suppor drawing from various fields and enriching our understanding by including multiple points of view. Where I do have a problem with use of Freud is the selectivity of how it is done. I am confident that, if one would write about nationalism without using literature written after Deutsch, then it would not be deemed as academically sound work. Or if you want to write history of the Wilhelmian period, you can’t just ignore the debate on the Sonderweg. If that is the case, why on Earth do we accept that one can simply ignore everything written in psychology on memory after 1939?!

Yes, getting into psychological research on memory is not easy. One needs guidance, not least to know how psychological article are constructed or what the terminology mean. In practice it means that you need help from a psychologist or a PhD student in psychology. And yes it takes time, a lot of time, but if we expect others to acknowledge research in our field, why should we not be doing the same thing?

It is however more than “just” a matter of professional standards or an ethical question, scholars in humanities would genuinely benefit a lot if they dared to venture into the realm of psychology. Reading Wang, Pennebaker and PáezBarber et al. and others one would for instance know that memory don’t exist “out there”, things don’t remember or do stuff, nor is memory a thing. Being aware of those issues would help so much memory studies, which unfortunately too often are way too fuzzy and lack solid foundations (Hirst and Mannier). That does not mean that one have to or even should discard Freud’s conclusions, rather that one should know at least what is the state of the arts and where the possible weaknesses of one’s approach are. And last but not least, how can one be a social scholar if one discards the knowledge about an individual who makes the said collective?

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