What do you think of giving historical figures psychological assessments?

VHS

Ad Honorem
Dec 2015
4,679
Florania
We seem to have the odd habit of giving psychological assessment to historical figures:
For example, some believe that Albert Einstein might have Asperger's Syndrome.
Or, upon speculation, some tyrants or very efficient rulers might have antisocial personality disorder.
Henry VI might have autistic characteristics.
Since we did not meet them in person, would it be just to give them such evaluations?
Some may shout "slander" if I consider Mother Teresa a candidate for antisocial personality disorder; from what I learn of Mother Teresa: The Untold Story by Aroup Chatterjee, this is potentially the case.
How reliable are our psychological assessments of historical figures?
Why do we enjoy this "game" so much?
 
Dec 2011
1,304
Making psychological judgements on historical figures is, I guess, the bread and butter of a lot of history. Historians make such assessments as to, say, the motivation of a person. What you are talking about seems to be more like making an actual diagnosis, i.e. psychiatry or certified therapeutic psychology. The boundaries between general psychology and psychiatry/therapeutic psychology are somewhat fuzzy, but in regard to history I would say the difference between them is the former makes judgements based on very general aspects of the human psyche, while the latter would be more akin to apply concepts describing actual pathologist. There also is a sub-discipline of history called psycho-history which applies the tools of Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysis to historical figures. One of the most critically acclaimed books out of this tradition is "Young Man Luther" by German-American development psychologist Erik Erikson. However, most works thereof are generally not taking all too serious in professional historian circles; the source-base for in-depth analysis is just not available in many cases.

Another psychological approach to history were the "psychologisms" of the late 20th century which came in to variants: a natural science variant that tried to reduce all history to human psychology and psychology, in turn, to the physical foundations of human biology. Another variant was the philosophical psychologism usually associated with Dilthey whose "psychology" is less individual and more one of groups, especially nations. As so it happens, the first approach was based on what would latter develop into modern psychology i.e. the study of the human psyche based on methodological individualism, experiments and quantitative analysis. The latter was based on the ore humanities oriented schools of psychology as that of Wundt. Nowadays, this kind of psychology has been almost completely crowded out and is practised in anthropology and history departments, the "history of mentalities" or "generational studies" approaches to history are examples of this.
 
Mar 2016
1,222
Australia
I think it's certainly worthwhile to critically evaluate their actions and decisions and behaviours in less of a straight-forward narrative-focused way and in other ways instead, but as someone that studies psychology I would never diagnose a historical figure (or anyone for that matter) without having personally met them and talked with them. There's just too much that you can't pick up on or understand sufficiently without a one-on-one interaction. So while it can be fun and interesting to discuss hypothetical diagnoses of famous historical figures, I don't think we should take it too seriously or attempt to claim we have a definitive answer, because that could mislead people and give them the wrong impression.
 

Rodger

Ad Honorem
Jun 2014
6,171
US
It should be a daunting task, if done. For one, we don't have the opportunity to assess the person first hand. To complicate things even more, we don't often know how accurate the historical depiction is to the real person. Finally, we tend to judge based upon our standards, values and mores today. I don't see how we can judge somebody who lived under different rules by ours today.
 

Matthew Amt

Ad Honorem
Jan 2015
2,989
MD, USA
The "analyses" that I've seen, especially those that hit the popular press, are generally gross insults to several fields of learning. They are always based on whatever is current and trendy, and the actual evidence is blatantly cherry-picked, warped, or ignored. So Alexander the Great gets labeled as having PTSD, Abraham Lincoln had some disorder that made him hugely tall and gaunt, Goliath had various ailments that gave him bad vision and a soft skull, etc. It's idiotic, of course, and basically spreads lies and misconceptions where we could really use some decent history. It's also a disservice to people who actually suffer from whatever disorder is in the limelight this week.

There are a few exceptions! Though I honestly can't think of a useful one at the moment. But the vast majority of that crap should be left in the tabloids.

Matthew
 

Tulius

Ad Honorem
May 2016
6,024
Portugal
The "analyses" that I've seen, especially those that hit the popular press, are generally gross insults to several fields of learning. They are always based on whatever is current and trendy, and the actual evidence is blatantly cherry-picked, warped, or ignored. So Alexander the Great gets labeled as having PTSD, Abraham Lincoln had some disorder that made him hugely tall and gaunt, Goliath had various ailments that gave him bad vision and a soft skull, etc. It's idiotic, of course, and basically spreads lies and misconceptions where we could really use some decent history. It's also a disservice to people who actually suffer from whatever disorder is in the limelight this week.

There are a few exceptions! Though I honestly can't think of a useful one at the moment. But the vast majority of that crap should be left in the tabloids.

Matthew
Agreed. Underlining the word “trendy”.
 
Aug 2014
481
Crete
Add Leonardo Da Vinci, I pissed off when I saw a documentary where they said that he was dyslexic, he had some kind of dysfunction of the brain... because of some spelling mistakes he did on his notes...

I think people likes the idea of humans to be all made the same, same intelligence same capability, all the same capable for everything... (but we are not) So some people likes to bring eminent individuals ''down to earth'' by finding them some blemish, so afterwords they can think ''I could do that but the sirulstances prevented me.'' or ''I can write better then Davinci! i must worth a damn...''
 

AlpinLuke

Forum Staff
Oct 2011
27,221
Italy, Lago Maggiore
We seem to have the odd habit of giving psychological assessment to historical figures:
For example, some believe that Albert Einstein might have Asperger's Syndrome.
Or, upon speculation, some tyrants or very efficient rulers might have antisocial personality disorder.
Henry VI might have autistic characteristics.
Since we did not meet them in person, would it be just to give them such evaluations?
Some may shout "slander" if I consider Mother Teresa a candidate for antisocial personality disorder; from what I learn of Mother Teresa: The Untold Story by Aroup Chatterjee, this is potentially the case.
How reliable are our psychological assessments of historical figures?
Why do we enjoy this "game" so much?
The problem about this approach is that it's theoretical. Without a period of analysis [and it takes some months with a professional to obtain something serious] we can rely just on observation, tales, rumors ... impressions ...

It's not that correct to make a psychological profile on the base of tales and rumors.

Then there is the professional expertise of who makes the profile. I had personal experience with a not so effective therapist and actually I wouldn't trust profiles written by her ...

So ... also psychological profiles, from a historical perspective, are matter of discussion.

Trust me: ask to 4 different therapists or psychologists or analysts to make a profile of a historical personage ... you will have four different profiles.
 

AlpinLuke

Forum Staff
Oct 2011
27,221
Italy, Lago Maggiore
Why?

Semiotics ... the reader adds a meaning to the original text. So that a psychologist making a profile adds a meaning to the original person. In other word a psychologist creates a personality which is different from the original real one.

The problem is that psychologists don't study semiotics. Personally I consider this a great limit for psychology.