Hannah Blythe is a PhD student in the Cambridge History Faculty and co-convenor of the ‘Talking as Cure? Contemporary Understandings of Mental Health and its Treatment‘ Research Network at CRASSH.

The history of psychotherapy is an emerging field. [1] While psychoanalysis and Freud have attracted swathes of attention, the community of professional historians looking at the wider topic of psychotherapeutics is strikingly small.

The work that has been produced tackles some tantalising questions. What was the role of hypnosis in the rise of psycho-therapeutics?  What is the relationship between hypnosis and the talking cure?[2] How did cognitive behavioural therapy become ubiquitous?[3] Given also the cultural and political significance of psychotherapy, it seems all the more surprising that the field is only just burgeoning.

I doubt that the delayed production of professional histories of psychotherapy is due to a lack of interest. Psychiatry and madness in general have long attracted scholarship. Some of the reason lies in our academic structures. Indeed, in a 2018 special issue of History of Psychology, Rachael Rosner reflected on how her chosen field has fallen through the cracks of history departments. She notes that the small number of books that are dedicated to the history of psychotherapy might appear on reading lists for modules on the History of Science, American Studies or the History of Medicine. Equally, these books might be deemed too peripheral for any of these courses. [4] Such works might be seen to aid interpretation of other subject matter, remaining complementary to the main attraction. The subject of psychotherapy doesn’t quite seem to fit into our established sub-disciplines.

The inherent need for interdisciplinarity when thinking about psychotherapy has led to difficulties in pursuing the research in many history departments. The task requires an engagement with, for example, philosophical and ethical questions. We can’t really understand the aims of certain therapies without considering the messy business of psychiatric categorisation. What was hysteria and why can’t we translate it into present-day diagnoses? Or, is there a difference between cure and symptom management? If we want to query long-standing narratives of ‘social control’, do we need to clarify our thoughts on patient agency? We need to think about such issues while bearing in mind that we are mediating between past and present.

The field of professional histories of psychotherapy is small. But, as Rosner notes, many histories of psychotherapy do exist. These have mostly been written by those who do not identify primarily as historians: practitioners, psychologists, philosophers, medical researchers and more. [5] Of course, historians must engage with this extant scholarship, and we need to read it on its own terms, thinking about how historical methods can be used to tackle wider questions. This need raises difficulties. It would not be feasible for historians to master all of the disciplines before commenting. However, it is possible to reject formulaic disciplinary boundaries and pursue quality interdisciplinary study while remaining aware of the risks of epistemic trespassing and anachronism. It’s a tricky balancing act, but it is achievable. In her own article, The ‘Splendid Isolation’ of Aaron T. Beck, on the rise of cognitive behavioural therapy, Rosner uses the historical methodology of biography to engage with practitioners’ histories of psychotherapy, and to critique approaches of historians and practitioners regarding the distinctions between psychiatry, psychology, psychoanalysis and psychotherapeutics.[6]

Talking as Cure? is an interdisciplinary research network, and one of its aims is to find new ways of addressing these challenges and grasping opportunities. We aim to facilitate collaboration between historians, philosophers, anthropologists, sociologists and practitioners whose research converges on the subject of psychotherapy. By naming the interpretative challenges that arise from our documents; by looking for new methods to tackle these difficulties, and by critiquing our epistemological approaches with scholars trained in related disciplines, we hope to broaden the rich seem of historical research into psychotherapy that has begun to open.



[1] Sarah Marks (ed.)  History of the Human Sciences 30 (2) (2017).

Rachael Rosner (ed) History of Psychology 18 (3) (2018).

Sonu Shamdasani and Del Loewenthal (eds.), Exploring Transcultural Histories of Psychotherapies (Abingdon, 2020).

[2] Sonu Shamdasani, ‘”Psychotherapy”’: the invention of a word’ in History of the Human Sciences 18 (1) (2005), pp. 1-22.

Sarah Chaney, ‘The action of the imagination: Daniel Hack-Tuke and late Victorian Psychotherapeutics’ in The History of the Human Sciences, 20 (2) (2017), pp. 17-33.

[3] Sarah Marks, ‘CBT in Britain: Historical Development and Contemporary Situation’ in Windy Dryden (ed.) Cognitive Behaviour Therapies (London, 2012), pp. 1-24.

Rachael Rosner, ‘The splendid isolation of Aaron T. Beck’ in Isis 105 (4) (2014), pp. 734-758.

[4] Rachael Rosner, ‘Introduction: History and the topsy turvy world of psychotherapy’, in History of Psychology 18 (3) (2018), pp. 177-186.

[5] Ibid., p. 178.

[6] Rosner, ‘The “Splendid Isolation” of Aaron T. Beck’, p. 758.



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