Freud for Historians. By Peter Gay. (Oxford University Press, 1985. Pp. vii + 252. Preface, bibliography, acknowledgments, index.)
Freud for Historians is an argument, presented by Peter Gay, which deals with psychoanalysis in historical writing. This topic of interest is a heated debate among historians. The argument is a final book in a trilogy Gay did not intend to write. Freud for Historians follows two historiographical books, Style in History and its sequel about causation, Art and Act (p. viii). In his book, Gay presents a strong defense against misunderstandings of psychoanalytic theory.
He is developing his discussion on a principle he had discussed in Art and Act. Peter Gay, being a professional on Freud, is attacking the critics of psychohistory, and even more in depth the psychoanalytic historian. The main point of the text is to emphasize to its critics that psychoanalysis can help historians not only learn what happened in history, but why events happened. “Psychoanalysis…is not a miracle drug or a magic password; it is an informed style of inquiry, supplying answers no one had thought were available before or – even more important- suggesting questions no one had thought to ask” (p. 32, 33).
As a graduate student, Peter Gay was a beginning instructor in political science. He always had an interest in Freud, which led him “to pursue a course of reading in Freud, unsystematically and informally” (p. xii). He soon became interested in social history and ultimately became a historian. After writing Art and Act, the second book in this trilogy, he wanted to learn even more on Freud and psychoanalysis. He “entered the Western New England Institute for Psychoanalysis as a research candidate, to…
…ed Freud many of these books would have been a lot different.
Gay claims that it is the historian’s obligation to understand the “interweaving of motives and constraints, conscious wishes and unconscious obstruction, objective realities and mental representations” (p. 176). Psychoanalysis is a field that can be used to enhance social, economic, and literary studies. The goal of psychoanalysis in historical writing simply gives a grasp on the total human experience and allows historians, instead of a concentration on dates and dynasties, to become total historians. Both history and psychoanalysis are sciences of memory…and…thus seem destined to collaborate in fraternal search for the truth about the past” (p. 211, 212). Biographies, psychology, sociology, and history are four viewpoints which work together to unravel the total historical experience.