Historians and Psychology Don't--and Shouldn't--Mix


So I recently picked up this book ("The Artist, the Philosopher, and the Warrior", in case you want to read) about the Renaissance that claimed to examine the intersection of three lives: Leonardo da Vinci, Cesare Borgia, and Niccolo Machiavelli (five imaginary points if you can figure out which one I was really looking forward to reading about!).

Okay, so this book actually did a good job of tracking their movements and using sources to create a picture of how each of these men influenced the Renaissance. Who wouldn't love the bits in Rome, following Borgia at the height of his fortune, or shake their head at the Florentine Republic for not taking Machiavelli on after he wrote 'The Prince' (oops, spoiler!)?

But...almost to spite the good historiography...there are giant islands of sheer crap. First, there's the scene reenactments--visualize something that probably maybe could've happened! (Okay, okay, I know what pandering to the audience is.)

And then it gets ridiculous.

Leonardo probably had mommy and abandonment issues? Maybe Borgia did too?! Towards the end, the phrase 'psychological block' becomes more and more persistent....

So, if you know me--I don't really have anything against the notion of psychology as much as its practice. The data tend to be either too unreliable or so circumstantially specific that they can't be applied to anything broader, and yet neuroscience is useless without any consideration of behavior and psychology does help people on an indidiual scale....

But this is really a reasonable methodology to apply to history?


The author himself states that we have only 6,000 pages out of (assumed) 13,000 of da Vinci's notebooks. Add this to the fact that there is no way of observing his behavior--or, when reading about it, of verifying a complete objectivity--and assuming things like psychological trauma...is just ludicrous. Okay, it's not completely unreasonable to make certain judgments, but really? We're talking a distance of more than 500 years, and people need less than 30 minutes and a little time with the Internet these days to misinterpret things.

One can only hope this trend dies as quickly as it seems to have arisen.


SenorDee said...

Certain conclusions about the psychology of historical persons can be reached with a fair degree of accuracy. Virgil was sexually repressed, Caligula suffered severe psychological trauma living with Tiberius, and Timur was clearly a psychopath.

PD said...

"fair degree of accuracy"...but that's the same degree of accuracy used to decide what actually happened in a large number of situations. I don't mind conjecture, but it has its place and shouldn't be repeated a number of times without having its own argument (in this book, it was basically just an unsupported narrative theme).

SenorDee said...

I've never read the book, I have no intention on ever reading it, so I should start with the caveat that I don't know what the author's treatment of the three subjects was, but I think you're going too far saying that history and psychology should never mix.

We can't know what actually happened. That's the difference between archaeology and history, and why I gave up on the former and moved to the latter. This is just an opinion, but from what I've experienced, archaeology is dry, clinical, humourless. It deals with facts. Some archaeologists, many if not most I would say, branch out into quasi-historical speculation based on those facts, and often that speculation represents the best of what was known fifty years ago. Archaeology is extremely resistant to change. History, deals with narrative. Historians, at least good ones, realize that the facts only go so far and create plausible stories to fill the gaps in our knowledge, and they acknowledge such. This is why history is so prone to change, and often the cultural narrative shifts wildly every decade or so. Neither can know what actually happened. There are only so many facts that get preserved, and there are never enough. Archaeologists often go too far in their conservativism, and historians go too far in their liberalism when dealing with those facts, but that's how it is, and has always been.

These disciplines are not like chemistry, or mathematics, where a great deal of concreteness exists, protocal developed, experiments conducted. It is a very different mindset between those who work with chemicals in a lab and those who work with the few pieces of writing preserved from someone five hundred years ago. The telos of each process is vastly different in terms of what is actually possible.

PD said...

That's reasonable. But it's the fact that history is already so uncertain that makes me hesitant to allow for even more uncertainties. I'm in psychiatry, so I see both purer neuroscience and psychology--it's a tricky business, with so many caveats even when all the facts are there. Having to fill in the blanks--not even being able to see a person's actual mannerisms--and then making decisions....

I'll mention that, in this book, all of the conjecture about da Vinci is based on what he wrote--and didn't write--in his notebooks. The mommy issues seem to stem from a vague episode when he was a child, which bothers me a lot. Archaeological evidence alone cannot be used to determine a personality (at least as far as I've seen, dealing mainly with classical stuff); historical shouldn't be used to determine psychological issues (of the vaguer, less clearly symptomatic types).

Or so I think. :D