Ashley Montagu, Freuds `Fruitful Theories¿, and the Place of Psychoanalysis in the American Human Sciences, 1920-1960

Project Details


The Anglo-American anthropologist Ashley Montagu was never the most passionate advocate of psychoanalysis.

At a time when the work of Sigmund Freud and his acolytes excited significant numbers of US anthropologists, as well as cultural and intellectual commentators, the mental sciences occupied only a slight position in Montagu’s prodigious output of lectures, essays, and books.

Yet closer scrutiny of these works, and particular attention to the intellectual sources from which Montagu drew his ideas, suggests a more serious and sustained engagement with psychoanalysis than scholars have previously recognised. During these years, Montagu told colleagues that he was "a very ardent supporter of psychoanalysis," and occasionally boasted that he had "been brought up in the teachings of Freud." But to what extent these claims were accurate, what works by Freud and other psychoanalysts he had read, and what he thought of those texts have largely escaped scholarly attention.
At its most synoptic, this project is an attempt to consider the influence that the mental sciences had on Anglo-American anthropology in the years between roughly 1920 and 1965.

This is a vital tributary of investigation for the history of anthropology, for understanding the place of psychoanalysis in American public life, and for scholars more narrowly interested in the thought and life of Ashley Montagu.

My research is driven by two overarching questions: firstly, how did methodological innovation work in the human sciences at mid-century (what did anthropology think it could take from Freud?)? In the context of this project, the question narrowly figures as my attempt to recover what the social sciences thought they could take from Freud.

But this line of inquiry of course has wider implications for thinking about how a field borrows analytical concepts, insights, and findings from those around it, and how practitioners 'operationalize' what they find in neighbouring disciplines.
The second question that drives this research along is: how is it possible to illuminate those intellectual influences that leave only the faintest traces?

Montagu's published works hardly convey the deep imprint that his engagement with psychoanalysis left on this thinking about the human sciences, and requires us to turn to his teaching interests, the research and bibliographic projects that he dabbled with but did not publish, as well as the itinerant positions he held in Philadelphia's vast medical institutions, including the evening course he taught to Veterans Administration psychiatry residents in the mid-1940s.

Recovering the broader context of Montagu's life during these years is useful as a stage from which to contemplate how Freudian psychoanalysis was received in and refitted for the US around mid-century.

The research has been funded by the American Philosophical Society, and the Wellcome Trust.
Short titleR: Fearnley Wellcome Nov14
Effective start/end date1/03/1531/08/15


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