Psychoanalysis: Strengths Versus Weaknesses

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Psychoanalysis is a collection of ideas surrounding the deeper inner workings of the human brain. The theory was developed by Sigmund Freud and looks at the human life as a whole, in which the adult life is influenced by their earliest years. It carries the idea that humans are driven by desires which are often hidden in their ‘unconscious’ and thus may be acted out in later years of life. Freud developed psychoanalysis as a therapy to release repressed emotions and experiences to help patients overcomes traumas, for example . It aims to make the unconscious thoughts conscious as the manifest symptoms are understood to be caused by latent disturbances . Psychoanalysis soon became recognised and has since been used as a method in psychoanalytic biographies. An example of psychoanalytic biographies are: Eric Erikson, Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History (London: Faber, 1959) and Otto Pflanze, Bismarck and the Development of Germany (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963). These biographies take specific aim at the subject’s personality in an attempt to deconstruct their character, uncover their unconscious, and provide an in depth look at their personality. This essay, with specific reference to Bismarck, will look at how biographers who have undertaken psychoanalytic biographies on him have dealt with the problems at hand of using such an approach, whilst also analysing the strengths this method provides. It will argue that the strengths outweigh the weaknesses because of the opportunity it provides in critically analysing an individual whilst also being able to illuminate specific personalities with its use, which thus creates a better sense of a ‘biography’ because it provides the reader with a deconstruction of the individual’s character. Freud’s psychoanalysis created implications on psychologists, historians and biographers alike. In specific context for this essay, it led to biographers needing to consider the subject life in a holistic way; including the influence of early years, parents, family background, and traumas. Moreover, the need to consider sexual urges and behaviour, and to try to discern latent motivations as well as those which are on the surface. The consensus surrounding the notion of use of psychoanalysis in biographies follows the lines of it being a necessary tool to uncover the person’s true character. By not considering its use, one is excluding themselves from critically analysing the subject.

Otto Pflanze was the first to write a psychoanalytical biography on Bismarck in 1972 with his book entitled ‘Toward a Psychoanalytic Interpretation of Bismarck’. According to Pflanze the biggest problem for biographers, using psychoanalysis, is the fact that the individual may be dead and if they are alive, they are usually inaccessible to analysis. The material that can be used for this process will be generally be found in their writings, recorded speeches and conversations, and in the observations in others. However, he argues, “this evidence will never suffice”. This is because a key principal of psychoanalysis is analysing the individual’s primal years, which would have produced experiences that shaped their basic character traits. These traits are often hidden by the subject using different defence mechanisms such as repression. Therefore, as this information is unavailable, it can make the psychoanalysis process near impossible or at least very difficult due to having to access materials readily available such as recordings and letters. Further to this, these materials may be unreliable, as they may have been tampered with or, due to being written by the individuals themselves, contain bias or inaccurate information that can distort analysis. However, with the materials readily available on Bismarck, Pflanze did conduct some great use from them. Pflanze describes Bismarck possessing a ‘psychological moratorium’. Between 1838 and 1847 the activities Bismarck was pursuing he was successful at, but they did not satisfy him. It led him to committing some of the most common vices found in drinking, gambling, hunting, and travelling. This period of gestation corresponds to the ‘psychological moratorium’. Pflanze states that in this “restless, unhappy Junker” the many characteristics of the identity crisis of young adulthood is evident. Moreover, Pflanze argues that Bismarck’s dominant characteristic was his will power, his drive to master men and events that eventually led him to becoming a dominant statesman. The evidence for this being in Bismarck’s letter of 1838. From analysis of such material it is clear that Bismarck possessed this dominant trait because his ‘ambition strived more to command than obey’ and ‘these are facts for which he can give no explanation other than personal taste’. Reading and analysing this letter suggest that even at the tender age of twenty three, Bismarck would strive to be in a position of power due to his dissatisfaction be being commanded; he enjoyed the notion of power. With the psychoanalytic approach this enables one to closely look at the main reasons behind the individual’s personality and hence draw conclusions to how they achieved the successes they did, like Bismarck. Moreover, with this method of biography, one can analyse the motives of an individual. Pflanze identifies the phrase ‘raison d’état’ as one of the motives behind Bismarck’s policymaking as statesman. This French phrase simply meaning acting on purely political reason for action on part of the ruler or government, especially on the basis that the nation’s own interests are primary. The phrase directly translates to ‘convenience of the government’. Once again, this illuminates the strength of using such a method in biography writing, in being able to critically analyse motives and reasons behind one’s actions. Additionally, this method enables the reader to gain insight on an individual’s action. In this case, the psychoanalyst term ‘evocation of proxy’ is presented. The term either suggests that “institutional impulses that the mind’s conscience cannot tolerate are repressed (i.e. thrust back into the id) or projected (i.e. displaced into the outside world)”. Pflanze reasons that Bismarck projected his quest for power and renown onto the Prussian State. This conquest for power under Bismarck can be evidenced with the wars Prussia engaged in against the likes of Austria, France and Germany all of which suffered against the mighty Prussian forces. Without the use of psychoanalysis, other biographies are missing this key element of critical analysis and as evidenced in this biography, for example, the option to explore the inner psyche of a great figure like Bismarck is both invaluable and truly remarkable. It can offer insights to how these great minds operate and can also illuminate specific personalities into groups which Erikson discovered. This is linked to Bismarck’s period of gestation, which was also found in “several other highly creative personalties”. This sort of comparison and analysis is simply not present in a biography which excludes the use of psychoanalytic literature and methodology. Moreover, Pflanze writes away a common criticism of psychoanalytic biographies. One may argue can you accurately use these methods without being a trained psychologist? Pflanze writes in his book that he has “no special training” in such area and he still produced a fascinating piece of literature, hence this weakness associated with psychoanalytic biographies is not as detrimental as many may have thought. (however results are “speculative” so are human interpreted may be biased unreliable etc.)

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Steinberg was another historian who delved into the life of Bismarck. Steinberg conducted some of his own findings, but also pulled in some of the work of Pflanze. This biography conveys one of the key strengths of psychoanalytic biographies by providing ample opportunity to have a closer inspection on the subject’s family life. The relationship with one’s parents is a key feature of Freud’s psychoanalysis and is implemented under the framework of the oedipal triangle. Steinberg, with the aid of Pflanze, claims that “Bismarck ‘loved’ his weak father and hated his ‘strong’ mother”. The oedipal complex is a theory developed by Freud explaining the psychosexual stages of development. It occurs during the ‘phallic’ stage of development between ages three and six, in which the source of libido is concentrated in the erogenous zones of the child’s body. During this stage, children experience an unconscious feeling of desire for the parent of opposite sex and envy toward the same sex parent. In the case of Bismarck, albeit at a later age, there is the opposite reaction. However, perhaps this was because his father was “weak” meaning he did not value him as a threat. Steinberg continues commenting that “Pflanze speculates that some of Bismarck’s’ habits and attitude in later years may have stemmed from these early experiences”. The impact of family life on a person’s personality can only be labelled as profound. Learning mannerisms, attaining new traits, and building your character are all vastly impacted by a child’s experience at home and with a psychoanalytic interpretation on these events, one can uncover deeper meanings behind the subject’s personality. There is a question of evidence surrounding this notion, however, but Steinberg support Pflanze’s claims stating that the evidence he has confounded “certainly supports Pflanze’s suggestions”. Of course this is only verbal reassurance so the question of reliability still looms over these suggestions, however it is certain that a biography neglecting psychoanalytic qualities is only hampering its ability to dissect an individual’s personality to the core. Moreover, Steinberg and Pflanze use the oedipal mechanisms very effectively in explaining “Bismarck’s growing hypochondria, gluttony, rage, and despair” thus being able to explain his health conditions and even personal feelings. They argue that Bismarck began to deteriorate the “more successful” he became which Steinberg comments was “one of the most striking findings of research in his career”. The sheer magnitude of this statement conveys the true strength of psychoanalysis in biography. Declaring that these findings were some of the most “striking” completely affirms how using psychoanalysis can uncover information that was either previously unexplored, neglected, or simply unreachable without the necessary analysis, theories, and research provided by psychoanalysis.

Finally, this essay draws upon the work of A.J.P. Taylor on Bismarck to analyse the strengths and weaknesses of psychoanalysis in biography. Taylor was influenced by his time in Manchester which underwent a period of radicalism of humanism. Taylor absorbed these new ideas in his youth and it can later be seen in his work on Bismarck. In terms of evidence of “latent” hostility, there is little. This is because Taylor is perhaps lacking a more refined psychoanalysis of Bismarck which would be more useful in this biography. With this biography being published in 1955 it whittles down to the fact that evidence is shortcoming, a key problem of attempting to use psychoanalysis in biography. However, despite this problem, Taylor’s biography excels. In comparison with the other biographies of Bismarck, including the two mentioned in this essay, there are other pieces of literature on Bismarck with provide more detail. In terms of a psychological interpretation of one of the most complex figures in global history, Taylor’s work provides the reader with an unrivalled experience. He uses an excellent epigram to illuminate some of the mysteries of Bismarck’s life whilst analysing his relationship with his parents: “He was the clever sophisticated son of a clever, sophisticated mother, masquerading all his life as his heavy, earthly father”. Taylor’s use of the verb “masquerading” conveys how Bismarck engaged in a façade to act as an intimidating figure which served him well in his career of politics. Moreover, Taylor is insinuating that Bismarck learnt from his mother whilst impersonating his father. He did not spend much time with his mother and craved the love and affection. Taylor writes that it is “psychological commonplace” for a son to wish his father out of the way. However, the results are more ‘profound when a son, who takes after his mother, dislikes her character’ and ‘will seek to turn himself into the father’ and may well end up as “neurotic or a genius”. By closely analysing the relationship of his early family life, the results illuminate the character traits of Bismarck. In this case he was both a neurotic and genius. This follows a persistent theme throughout this essay, and indeed the biographies as a whole. With the use of psychoanalysis, it provides a platform to go and study these relationships closely and demonstrate results that other biographies simply cannot achieve.

To conclude, it is clear that the strengths of using psychoanalysis by far outweigh the weaknesses. The question surrounding these types of biographies regarding the fact that the authors may need to be a trained psychologist seems to be of little problem. Without being trained in the profession, the results produced are all extremely similar meaning there must be a certain level of consistency with the findings. However, it is a fair assumption that there is a question of reliability with the evidence used. As Pflanze stated, the subjects are usually unavailable for questioning and hence the only data that can be used is primary or secondary. This is not the worst case scenario as this data can still provide valuable resources as illustrated in these biographies, but it far from ideal. There is also a question of how to balance the importance of conscious and unconscious desires, but with the analysis demonstrated in this essay it can be concluded that this is not a disastrous problem. In terms of the strengths of using psychoanalysis, it is invaluable. It provides a deep insight into the subject’s persona which makes sense for a biography as it aims to deconstruct the character. Moreover, one can critically identify the individual’s motives and reasons behind how they developed and what led them to choose the course of actions they undertook throughout their livelihoods, whilst also being able to illuminate specific personalities and similarities between character types such as genius’s like Bismarck.

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Psychoanalysis: Strengths Versus Weaknesses. (2022, March 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 24, 2024, from
“Psychoanalysis: Strengths Versus Weaknesses.” Edubirdie, 17 Mar. 2022,
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