It was the eighth inning. The batter had struck out for the fourth consecutive time and Howard Cosell was explaining how this merely proved that the batter had lost his confidence, his concentration and, worst of all, the psychological momentum. Besides, he stood little chance against a pitcher who, recently married, was displaying his newly acquired stability and maturity.
Now, why didn't he just say that it was a wicked curve that dropped three feet as it creased the outside corner of the plate? Why the lecture about confidence, momentum and stability?
Because, like many commentators nowadays, he was assuming that psychological abstraction yields deep understanding and shows great sophistication. A description of the trajectory of the pitch would have been visible, accessible, and therefore shallow; commentary must demonstrate that what happens is the inevitable manifestation, the inexorable result, of underlying psychic causes. The viewer is mired in epiphenomena, chained to the mere appearance of things. The role of the commentator is to correct that epistemological error by revealing the underlying currents of mood, motive and all things similarly imperceptible and suitably psychological.
This bit of Freud illustrates our growing obsession with abstraction -- in particular, with psychological abstraction -- for processing and making sense of the world.
Consider a more serious case: a terrorist attack rather blandly described in a recent news report as "an expression of frustration and resentment" on the part of terrorists. Since this particular attack had no discernible military or propaganda value, the correspondent was left without the more traditional explanations. Feeling perhaps that leaving any act unexplained borders on journalistic irresponsibility, the writer resorted to a hydraulic theory of action, where murder results from an overflow of intrapsychic tensions and terrorism is a form of emotional incontinence. Of course, even as psychology this will not do. For why do some people respond to "frustration and resentment" with depression and suicide, others with drugs and alcohol, others with silence and acceptance, and still others with rocket-launched grenades aimed at innocents?
These two tiny pieces of reportage are minor triumphs for psychohistory. This discipline usually has been devoted to exposing the psychic springs of great and troubled historical actors and restricted to a small audience of literati. But it has increasingly become the common currency of sportscasters, political commentators and all kinds of interpreters of the world. President Carter's declaration that we are suffering from a national malaise is just one prominent recent example of attempts to psychoanalyze the whole country. Newspaper reporters and columnists conduct daily readings of the national mood. The entire view of the national body politic as some hugh neurotic psyche with headlines for symptoms testifies to the ascendancy of psychological determinism as our favorite explanatory principle.
Cynics say that there is no national malaise, just a shortage of gasoline; that there is no national mood, just the very personal moods of very many people, none of whom has a compartment within his emotive structures labeled "national." They go on to assert that psychology itself should have remained in the rat laboratory and never have been allowed to explain individual human behavior, let alone history or politics. But there is an obvious utility to psychologizing politics. If the problem is a shortage of gasoline or a decline in disposable income, then the solution is to provide more gas or reduce inflation. If the problem is a crisis of confidence, the solution is reassurance. And since psychic soothing is easier than gasoline rationing, it becomes the solution.
The technique -- perfected by physicians in the pre-scientific age when they had no remedies -- is to tailor the diagnosis to fit the available cure. Its use is not restricted to presidents. Congressional campaigns use slogans like "he cares" and "he listens." They offer group psychotherapy with all its trappings: unconditional regard for the patient/voter (" . . . the wisdom, decency, goodness of the American people . . . "), total accessibility ("Your congressman is there when you need him"), equal partnership ("I pledge to work with you . . ."). Most important, they offer a firm avoidance of any promise to act. Meanwhile, the media have begun offering their own therapeutic services, promising, for example, to "be your friend." In one particularly ludicrous version of this theme, a Boston radio station appropriated the most popular current cliche, "We hear you," as its own advertising slogan. Psychologists, perhaps sensing an invasion of their own turf, have launched a determined offensive of their own, inundating bookstores with self-help tomes masquerading as science and demonstrating that the only obstacle on the road to joy, fortune, power and perfect sex is a deficient understanding and underdeveloped control of mind . . . .
As Willard Gaylin of the Hastings Institute of Life Sciences points out, the vogue for facile psychohistory produces a dangerous confusion between the "inner" and "outer" man. The inner man, all but invisible until the 20th century, is the good boy inside of every killer. He was battered by father, repressed by mother, tortured, suppressed, and never got out. We now see him as the real person. The outer man is the one who acts in the world. Saint, sinner, or in between, he is now seen as a shadow of the real person -- transformed, often beyond recognition, by fate, society and the awesome forces of the unconscious. The inner-outer man paradox not only implies attenuated responsibility; it also trivializes human action. It exculpates the vicious and, in a curiously egalitarian way, debunks the virtuous. How much, we must now ask, of Gladstone's zeal for reform and rectitude was merely pathetic defense against powerfully repressed and peculiar inner desires? Was the Reformation merely Luther's way of resolving his anal conflicts? Was Stalin acting for some reasons of Oedipal striving, emotional incontinence, or perhaps a deficiency of maternal reinforcement?
This type of explanation is appropriate to the psychiatrist's couch, but is dangerous when it infects moral and political discourse. Psychiatrists have a unique task and must make unique assumptions. Their task is to heal by unraveling the more uncontrollable forces in a patient's life. They assume that the important phenomena are unconscious; and, for the purpose of therapy, they focus primarily on these unconscious forces. These are appropriate assumptions for one with no mandate other than psychological understanding and healing and for whom moral judgment is inappropriate, if not irrelevant . . . .
Not everybody is fooled. Last year when a murder defendant in Florida claimed he had been made insane by watching violence on television, the defense never got past the jury; it found the accused guilty. Perhaps the recognition is growing that psychology simply provides one of many possible perspectives. Human events, like physical events, can be viewed at many levels of abstraction, each providing a window on the world. To restrict our view to a single window is to invite partial truths. And psychological half-truths can be particularly dangerous because they are attended by a demonology that frightens and subdues the uninitiated while legitimizing a priesthood of diviners who interpret the obvious and exorcise the invisible. At the same time, the psychologized view of the world carries with it a pernicious reductionism that debases and deforms moral discourse.
A century ago, somewhere between classical history and traditional philosophy, was born, with modest claims, psychology. It now waits to be annointed queen of the sciences. The rush to honor that fraudulent claim is a form of intellectual idolatry that seriously threatens our thinking and sensibilities.