Folk Psychology: more than nationalist pseudo-science?

By Blog Admin, on 23 September 2013

KlautkeMindEgbert Klautke talks about his new book, which re-evaluates the historical discipline of  ‘Folk Pyschology’ in Germany. It was, he argues, more than nationalist pseudo-science.

 BB: How would you define ‘Folk Psychology’ and what drew you to the study of it?

Egbert Klautke: ‘Folk Psychology’ is an awkward translation of the German term Völkerpsychologie. Originally, it referred to attempts to study the psychological make-up of nations, and as such is a forerunner of today’s social psychology. However, in today’s common understanding, Völkerpsychologie equals national prejudice: it is seen as a pseudo-science not worth considering seriously.

My first book dealt with perceptions of the U.S.A. in Germany and France, and much of these views could be described as Völkerpsychologie: clichés and stereotypes about a foreign nation, which were of a surprisingly coherent nature. Back then, my rather naïve idea was that there must be a general theory behind these perceptions, and I embarked on a study of Völkerpsychologie.

 BB: Did any perceptions on the subject change from the time you started your research to the time you completed the book?

EK: When I started my research, I shared the general view of Völkerpsychologie as a flawed attempt to present national stereotypes as academic research, and was suspicious of its nationalist agenda and racist undertones. I also considered it typically German. Having completed the book, I have a much more sympathetic view of ‘folk psychology,’ at least of the early attempts by [Moritz] Lazarus, [Heymann] Steinthal and [Wilhelm] Wundt. Despite its flaws and shortcomings, Völkerpsychologie was a serious and honourable attempt to introduce a social science to the university curriculum. As such, it influenced pioneers of the social sciences not only in Germany, but also around the world.

 BB: What are some of the factors that led to the demise of this kind of psychology?

 EK: Most importantly: the Third Reich. Even though the Nazis were not particularly interested in ‘folk psychology’ after 1945 this approach was quickly associated with Nazi theories and race ideologies. The genuine weaknesses of ‘folk psychology’ contributed to its demise, but it was mainly the assumption that Völkerpsychologie was part of Nazi thinking that contributed to this process. By the 1960s, the very term had become a taboo in the social sciences.

  BB: What aspect of writing the book did you find most challenging?

 EK: Personally, the biggest challenge was writing the book in English: I’m a native of Germany, but have lived in the United Kingdom for more than ten years now. Still, writing in a language other than my mother tongue posed a particular challenge to me, and I hope the final result doesn’t show it too much.

 BB: To what extent do you think the book will contribute to debates among current and future academics within the field?

 EK: The book forces us to rethink the origins not only of the history of psychology, but of the social sciences and humanities more generally. It should also raise doubts about the convenient assumption of German exceptionalism: in the field of intellectual history, Völkerpsychologie might have been a German invention, but it was not part of a national Sonderweg. It was firmly anchored in international discussions and debates, and left its mark on the intellectual landscapes of countries outside Germany, from France to the U.S., and from Russia to Japan.

 BB: Do you think there are aspects of this work that will be controversial to other scholars working in the field?

 EK: I’m not sure if my rather sympathetic reading of Völkerpsychologie will be shared by many: its reputation has been damaged beyond repair. However, scholars interested in ‘collective identities’ and ‘national mentalities’ might be surprised to find out that what they doing today differs little from the ‘folk psychology’ of the nineteenth century. Very often, only the terminology employed by contemporary scholars has been changed, but the underlying questions and problems have remained the same.

 BB: Who is one iconic figure featured in one way or another in your field of research, living or dead, for whom you have particular admiration and why?

 EK: I wouldn’t want to single out an ‘iconic figure’ that featured in the study of ‘folk psychology.’ I deliberately chose to study lesser-known academics, who do not feature in the ‘grand narrative’ of the history of the sciences. My aim was to show that, from a historical perspective, such figures who tend to be forgotten very quickly, can provide more insight than an exhaustive study of the intellectual giants of the day, whose originality and influence can very easily get exaggerated in hindsight.

For the ‘full picture,’ you need to know the ‘dwarfs’ as much as the ‘giants.’ To give some names from The Mind of the Nation: to genuinely appreciate Georg Simmel, Franz Boas or Emile Durkheim, you need to know something about Moritz Lazarus, Heymann Steinthal and Wilhelm Wundt.

Egbert Klautke is Lecturer in the Cultural History of Central Europe at UCL-SSEES.  His new book The Mind of the Nation: Völkerpsychologie in Germany, 1851-1955 was published by Berghahn Books in August.

This interview was first published on the Berghahn Books blog and is reproduced with permission. The cover image is also reproduced courtesy of Berghahn Books.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL.