The Foundations of Psychiatry

By Silvano Arieti | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 48

PSYCHIATRY AND HISTORY

Bruce Mazlish

PSYCHIATRY per se has been defined as the medical study, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of mental illness. Since most of the individuals and groups studied by historians cannot be classified as "mentally ill," and are certainly not amenable to treatment, psychiatry would appear to have little applicability to history, even as a diagnostic aid. Only when psychiatry itself is broadened beyond mental illness into a kind of general psychology can it, even in principle, become available for significant use by historians and social scientists.

Presumably such broadening has taken place in the development of psychoanalysis by Freud and his followers. As one standard history of psychiatry has put it, "In our century a scientific revolution has taken place: psychiatry has come of age.... This advancement ... became possible only after Freudian discoveries transformed psychiatry and penetrated general medical thought."3

Freudian psychoanalysis has two outstanding features that make it highly attractive for the historian who attempts to use it in his own work. First, although originating in psychiatry, it claims to be a general psychology whose observations apply as much to normal as to abnormal people, to mentally healthy as well as to ill personalities. Discovering unconscious mental processes, and the "laws" that hold good in that realm, in the course of offering treatment and therapy to patients, Freud extended his findings to nonpatients: in short, to all humanity. Historians can feel comfortable with such a conclusion.

Second, Freudian psychoanalysis is itself an "historical" science. That is, many of its procedures and methodological assumptions are similar to historical ones. In fact, it has often been noted that psychoanalysis deals with personal history. In any case, as Hans Meyerhoff40 has so well illustrated, both psycho‐ analysis and history deal with materials from the past, seek to "reconstruct" a pattern of events from fragmentary data, offer an "explanation" based on the totality of this reconstruction rather than on general laws, and are essentially retrodictive rather than predictive disciplines.

Nevertheless, with all their similarities psychoanalysis differs from history in one essen. tial aspect: it does claim to be a generalizing science. Although its explanations are not

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