Psychohistory - An Australian Perspective

'Australia is a nation of immigrants' In the belief that manifestations of the unconscious can no longer be exempt from the attentions of the historian, John Rickard argues that psychohistory can illuminate this vital theme of Australian history.

Can historians afford to ignore the insights offered by psychology? Is it possible for any historian to write meaningful history without resorting to some brand of implicit commonsense psychology? And if this is the case might it not be preferable to use the conceptual resources of systematic psychology? These are the kind of questions raised by psychohistory, questions that go back to Freud, who was himself always interested in the implications of his work for the study of history.

Psychohistory starts, however, with one disadvantage - its title. The term suggests a history obsessed with neurosis and pathology, while ‘psychohistorian’ is even worse, ambiguously conjuring up a demented academic escaping from a Hitch-cock film. It is possible that much of the hostility directed towards psychohistory by some historians stems from an understandable suspicion of the pretentiousness of the title. Such suspicion is reinforced by the example offered by some of the more outlandish American practitioners, who proclaim psychohistory as a kind of super-discipline.

There are all sorts of reasons, theoretical and practical, why historians should be cautious in approaching psychology. However if the claim of psychohistory is pitched at the modest level of the deepening of our historical understanding through exploitation of the concepts and findings of modern psychology' (to draw on the words of William Langer) it is difficult to see how any reasonable historian could fail to acknowledge it. That many in fact persist in so doing I shall not discuss here: rather, by looking at some particular problems thrown up by Australian history, I hope to suggest some of the ways in which a psychological dimension can enrich the study of history.

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