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Mazlish, B. Demos, J. (1978). Psychoanalytic Theory and History: Groups and Events. Ann. Psychoanal., 6:41-64.

(1978). Annual of Psychoanalysis, 6:41-64

Psychoanalytic Theory and History: Groups and Events

Bruce Mazlish, Ph.D. and John Demos

Psychoanalysis, as conceived by Freud, is both a therapy and a general psychology. In the latter guise, it has given rise to a subfield, psychohistory, wherein psychoanalysis is applied in a nontherapeutic setting to historical figures, themes, and events. From the point of view of history, however, psychohistory is merely one branch of general history. As such, it is defined most simply as the application of psychology, especially psychoanalysis, to historical materials. The definition has a second part, though it is honored more in the ideal than in practice; psychohistory is also the re-examination of psychological concepts and theories in the light of the historical materials.

It is no surprise that Freud, that great conquistador and humanist, pioneered in an early form of psychohistory: his famous study of Leonardo. Here, Freud boldly moved out from the office and the clinic and into the historical world, interpreting the dream of a long-dead figure. Even the dead, so to speak, were made to talk, and although no “talk cure” was possible, self revelation was present and preserved in decipherable texts, and analysis at a distance, therefore, could be attempted.

Freud's work, with all its errors and limitations, was a model for most of what followed. His approach was expanded into what today we call life history.

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