Professor talks psychoanalysis and history

New York University professor Ben Kafka discussed the challenge of using psychoanalysis in the study of history on Tuesday afternoon.

Kafka delivered his lecture, titled “The Question of Evidence,” at the Whitney Humanities Center to an audience of approximately 25 members of the Yale community. Kafka, a psychoanalyst and associate professor of history and media at NYU, discussed the changing role of psychoanalysis and the way the field’s weak methodology makes it difficult for practitioners to apply it when studying history.

“Psychoanalysis and history make an odd couple,” Kafka said, adding that Sigmund Freud applied the tools of psychoanalysis to historical figures.

Kafka discussed the way psychoanalysts’ definition of repression has evolved over the years and the growth of the field — from the older notion of a shared plight to the more recent idea of individual suffering.

He said that he has found his more recent patients less inclined to admit that they are suffering from repression than his patients in the past, adding that there is something outdated about claiming to be repressed.

Kafka discussed general observations from his psychoanalysis sessions with patients and said he intends to write a book on the nature of unhappiness.

Young patients often have creative, expressive ways of relaying their problems, Kafka explained, while older patients often use clichés when they communicate during their sessions.

Turning to the subject of evidence, Kafka explained the challenge of applying the field of psychoanalysis when studying the motivations of historical figures. Citing the density of Freud’s writing in his famous work “Civilizations and its Discontents,” he said he thinks that psychoanalysts have not always been “models of theoretical or empirical rigor.”

Another aspect of the problem of applying psychoanalysis to history is that in-person psychoanalysis requires an analytic relationship between psychoanalyst and subject that is difficult to maintain with a historical figure, he said.

Kafka explained that patterns of speech — including Freudian slips and silences — are important components of the practice of psychoanalysis that are lost in the analysis of historical writing. For example, a word processor might catch and edit a Freudian slip in writing through tools such as grammar and spell checkers, while a printer might make an error of his own that lacks psychological significance.

“It’s very hard to tell which mistakes are clues into the unconscious,” Kafka said.

Despite all these challenges, Kafka said psychoanalysis can provide a useful alternative lens to historical study.

“I thought that he balanced a healthy skepticism toward psychoanalytic theory with a very deep understanding of its wisdom and usefulness as a practitioner,” Andrew Kahn ’14 said. “It’s inspiring to see someone who is a true psychoanalyst who’s also engaged with the deep theoretical questions about the practice.”

Kafka’s lecture was given as part of the Franke Program in the Sciences and the Humanities.

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