• info@euasu.org
  • +16465832920
The Concept of Mentality in Historiographical Context

The Concept of Mentality in Historiographical Context

Prof. Patrick Hutton
is professor of history emeritus at the University of Vermont,
where he taught European intellectual history and historiography 

As scholars in our conference have shown, mentality is a concept with many applications and can be appreciated in a variety of contexts. My interest is from the perspective of the historiographer, for the European Academy of Sciences in the Ukraine has resuscitated a concept that had been popular in historical scholarship in the mid-twentieth century.  Today the term mentalities has largely disappeared from the historians’ discourse, but the idea it represents lives on, hidden in other vocabularies.  My reflection on the rise and fall of the use of that concept brought to mind the approach to intellectual history by the American historian Arthur Lovejoy during the 1930s. He was a pioneer in designing the field of the history of ideas. Some key ideas, he argued, have a long, often meandering history as they are remodeled to adapt to new cultural contexts.  Lovejoy’s example was the idea of the great chain of being, a medieval notion that resurfaced in modern times in other formulations.[1] Recently, the historian Francesco Benigno has taken up a variation on this approach, one especially useful for understanding the dynamics of scholarly research.  Concepts, he suggests, have a working life in intellectual history.  They are born, live a useful life, then fade away. He argues that historians tend to be drawn to what they believe to be a cutting-edge idea that generates time-specific clusters of scholarly activity, as if it were a magnet.  They explore its possibilities, then move on when it is no longer a useful research tool.[2]  Sometimes concepts are reborn. Mentalities would appear to be such a concept, though I would argue that the approach to historical psychology that it signifies has lived on under other titles, notably in the history of collective memory, a field of scholarship that has dominated the study of cultural history since the turn of the twenty-first century.

My own acquaintance with the term mentalities stems from my research in French historiography.  Mentalities in its initial historiographical formulation was a manifestation of the broad shift of interest from socioeconomic to sociocultural history during the middle of the twentieth century.[3]  My own scholarship followed that historiographical sea change.  I discovered the use of the concept among historians identified with the Annales school of historical writing, conceived as a fresh approach to the history of social psychology. Their work flourished in the cultural history of the 1960s and 1970s in Europe and North America, then faded away in the face of alternative titles that were becoming more fashionable, such as the history of popular culture, the history of private life, and the history of collective memory.  The history of mentalities (or alternately collective mentalities) concerned changes in the attitudes of ordinary people toward their everyday lives over long periods of time. In its initial formulations, research and writing on this topic signified a departure from concentration on the accomplishments of cultural elites — writers, authors, philosophers, and artists — the stuff of cultural history before that date.  Historians of mentalities, by contrast, took up such topics as changing conceptions of life’s passages, the dynamics of family life, childhood, marriage, death, normal vs. abnormal behavior, private vs. public life, the disciplining of emotions in codes of manners, festivals and popular religious devotions.[4]  Early studies in the field tended to emphasize the weight of the past in the habits of mind and cultural customs of ordinary people living during the early modern era (seventeenth and eighteenth centuries), with particular attention to resistance to innovation and risk.[5]

A key and controversial figure in the popularization of scholarship in mentalities was the French historian Philippe Ariès, who is best known for his history about changing attitudes toward childhood within family life over several centuries.  Ariès is generally understood to have been an old-fashioned conservative, who cherished the traditional values of old-regime society.  But his history actually traces the invention of the idea of the stages of life as a developmental process, as these came to be elaborated over several centuries.[6] It is worth pointing out that his early work focused on historical demography, and he pioneered studies on the emergence of family planning during the seventeenth century.  Conscious practices of contraception saved women from fatalism about endless child-bearing, and signaled that humankind was beginning to take responsibility for decisions about procreation.[7]  This changing mentality was crucial for the emergence of self-reliant individual autonomy, a hallmark of modern identity.  By the 1980s, work on mentalities had been synthesized into a broadly-conceived History of Private Life, culminating in a comprehensive, multi-authored study of the field, edited by Ariès and his colleague Georges Duby, and published simultaneously in both French and English editions between 1984 and 1990.[8]

A closely related line of inquiry in historical psychology, initially labeled “psychohistory,” emerged at roughly the same time.  It too captured scholarly attention during the 1960s, especially in the United States. Psychoanalytic in its methods, the field drew upon the theory of Sigmund Freud, but expanded on his insights into the unconscious psychology of infancy in order to analyze psychological growth and transformation as a lifelong process.[9]  The key figure who gained intellectual prominence in this field during the 1960s was the German born American émigré psychologist Erik Erikson, who developed a theory of the individual’s life-long psychological growth through some eight stages of development. Erikson was especially popular among therapists and the helping professions generally during that era.  He also gained scholarly attention for his psychoanalytic biographies of historically famous individuals, notably in his study of Young Man Luther (1958) as one who mastered the identity crisis of coming of age to become an adult of great power and understanding. In some measure corresponding to Aries’s work on the historical elaboration of the stages of the life cycle, Erikson as psychohistorian focused on Freud’s notion of the ego-ideal.[10]

Each approach has had its legacy, leading into historiographical traditions.  One immediate follow-up on Erikson’s work was a turn from personal psychological growth toward the historical sources of crises within families.  The most famous among these studies were those by the American historian Christopher Lasch, notably his Culture of Narcissism (1979), which unleased the term into popular culture.[11]  The historian Peter Gay, too, was sympathetic to Freudian psychology, and gave it subtle and refined expression in his elegantly written history of the emotional life and sensibilities of the European middle-class during the nineteenth-century.[12]  Most imposing, however, has been the prominence of Holocaust studies during the late twentieth century.  These emerged out of the “Historians Dispute” during the 1980s to become a genre of its own.[13]  Since the turn of the twenty-first century, methods developed for the study of trauma from the Freudian root have been employed to explore a number of other historically significant psychological crises, such as the terror in the French Revolution.[14]  The interest in the traumas of the wars of the twentieth century has led historian Henry Rousso to rewrite the grand narrative of modern history as a genealogy of disruptive traumatic events.[15]

The more direct line of historical inquiry to emerge from the matrix of studies of collective mentalities has been that concerning collective memory, which coalesced during the 1990s and by the turn of the twenty-first century had become the interdisciplinary venture of memory studies.  Its centers of research are in western Europe.  The pioneering work was Pierre Nora’s Les Lieux de mémoire (1984-1992), a collaborative study of the French national memory. It inspired a host of histories of commemorative practices, but also an interest in historiography itself.[16]  Mentality in the guise of memory has proceeded along three pathways, each of which investigates its nature from a different perspective.

Prominent initially were studies in the politics of commemoration, resurrecting the early twentieth-century work of the sociologist Maurice Halbwachs on social power as the foundation of collective memory.[17]  The most widely read and cited study in this strand of scholarship was Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger’s highly influential study The Invention of Tradition (1984), which argued that tradition is usually a present-minded re-construction of the past, calculated to serve political ends.[18]

A second line of inquiry apart provided studies of the epistemological and cultural consequences of the development of new technologies of communication from antiquity to the present, initiated by the move from orality into literacy in ancient times.  The studies by Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong were important works of synthesis.  Interest in this topic was certainly triggered by the move in our time from typographic to electronic culture.[19]

Memory studies germane to historiography itself turned to the topic of the history of nostalgia, with its implications for the breakup of the grand narrative of history, the waning appeal of the idea of progress, and our contemporary understanding of historical time.  Nostalgia fostered a present-minded, and retrospective conception of history.[20]  Particularly original in discriminating among types of nostalgia was the Russian literary critic Svetlana Boym’s The Future of Nostalgia (2002), which introduced the concept of reflective nostalgia — longing for what might have been.[21]

The interest in collective memory has raised the historiographical issue of its relationship to history.  When we make claims about the distortions of history we usually mean those of collective memory rather than of historical scholarship. History as a scholarly discipline, of course, may be regarded as a sub-set of collective memory. While they share common ground in seeking to make sense of the past for the present, history aspires to be rational and analytical, while memory thrives on the emotional and inspirational.  Bias is inescapable in historical interpretation, but far more so in collective memory, which is wildly protean and subject to distortion.  The long range trend of collective memory in its perceptions of events and personalities out of the past is toward idealization.  Distortions are inherent in the human way of remembering.  Historical interpretation aspires to minimize these in its quest for factual accuracy and judicious interpretation.[22]

Recent Interest in the workings of collective memory has therefore led to a scholarly interest in the remembered afterlife of legendary personalities or events, a subfield characterized at the turn of the twenty-first century as mnemohistory.[23] Conventional historians have always taken pride in exploding myths about the past so that they may expose the historical realities.   But myths and legends are realities that shape our culture, and mnemohistorians contend that the afterlife of collective memory has a logic of its own as it plays out over time, and that its record may be accurately retrieved and interpreted.  The remodeling of memory proceeds through several stages over decades, and historians today are reconstructing this cultural heritage. [24] They plot the logic of the evolution of the collective memory of memorable events and persons sequentially.  They begin with the living testimony of witnesses.  They show how these reminiscences are enlarged by contextualizing them in stories, which are mythologized and become legendary.  In time, they explain, historians intervene to test legends against the realities of evidence in a process of de-mythologizing.  But collective memory so chastened does not end there, for the legends are often ennobling or at least politically useful.   Artists re-mythologize, and in their creations persons and event are reimagined in the search for larger aesthetic meanings.  Politicians, in turn, idealize them in their commemorations.

I note several examples of this genre of mnemohistory, from across the ages.  Consider the way in which the haphazard quips and repartee of Socrates in his dialogues with students in ancient Athens were transformed by Plato into a coherent dialectical philosophy.  In the late twentieth century, scholars  participating in the Jesus seminar explain how the ethical teachings of Jesus were transformed into theological novels by the Evangelists in gospels composed some half-century after his death.[25]  A model for studies of the remembered afterlife of modern events was written by the French military historian Jean-Marc Largeaud about the battle of Waterloo (1815).  He shows how the collective memory of Napoleon’s final capitulation was over the course of the nineteenth century transformed into a “glorious defeat.”[26]  Finally, I would mention my own study of the evolving legend of the nineteenth-century French revolutionary Auguste Blanqui from dangerous insurgent into elder statesman of the European revolutionary tradition.[27]  All of this work in memory studies has enabled scholars to discriminate between collective memory and documented history.  For philosopher Paul Ricoeur, the respective resources of memory and history serve different cultural needs.  Each has its role and so maintains its autonomy.  History analyzes, but memory inspires.[28]

In these ways, the concept of mentalities has survived in subterranean forms as disguised expressions of a shared approach to historical psychology that passed out of the mid-twentieth into the twenty-first century.  In my view, the most promising approach for future studies of mentalities will explore further the psychological effects of the revolution in the technologies of communication, from typographic into digital age culture.  In this historical transition, perception, understanding of knowledge, and modes of communication are being radically altered, leading toward a new mentality.  One notes the frequent reference to the difference between the old and the young as digital-age immigrants and digital age natives in the mentality of the contemporary age.  Digital age culture has penetrated deeply into our psyches and is transforming all of us.  Much more can be said about the process.


[1] Arthur O. Lovejoy, “Reflections on the History of Ideas,” in The History of Ideas: Canon and Variations, ed. Donald R. Kelley (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 1990), 1-21.

[2] Francesco Benigno, Words in Time; A Plea for Historical Re-thinking (Abingdon UK: Routledge, 2017), 1-14.

[3] Patrick H. Hutton, The Memory Phenomenon in Contemporary Historical Writing (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 9-11.

[4] Patrick H. Hutton, “The History of Mentalities; The New Map of Cultural History,” History and Theory 20/3 (1981): 237-59.

[5] Robert Mandrou, Introduction to Modern France, 1500-1640; An Essay in Historical Psychology (New York: Harper & Row, 1975).

[6] Philippe Ariès: Centuries of Childhood (New York: Random House, 1962); see also Patrick H. Hutton, Philippe Ariès and the Politics of French Cultural History (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press), 92-112.

[7] Philippe Ariès, “Interprétation pour une histoire des mentalités,” in La Prévention des naissances dans la famille, ed. Hélène Bergues (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1960), 311-27.

[8] Philippe Ariès and Geoges Duby, eds., A History of Private Life, 5 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984-90).

[9] Patrick H. Hutton, “The Psychohistory of Erik Erikson from the Perspective of Collective Mentalities,” Psychohistory Review 12/1 (1983), 18-25; see also Saul Friedländer, History and Psychoanalysis; An Inquiry into the Possibilities and Limits of Psychohistory (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1980), 112-9.

[10] Erik H. Erikson: Young Man Luther; A Study in Psychoanalysis and History (New York: Norton, 1958); Childhood and Society, 2d ed. (New York: Norton [1950] 1963), 247-74.

[11] Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism (New York: Norton, 1979); see also his Haven in a Heartless World; The Family Besieged (New York: Basic Books, 1977).

[12] Peter Gay, The Bourgeois Experience, Victoria to Freud, 5 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press: 1984-1998).

[13] Saul Friedlander, Memory, History, and the Extermination of the Jews of Europe (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1993); Daniel Levy and Natan Sznaider, The Holocaust and Memory in the Global Age (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006.

[14] David Andress, The Terror; The Merciless War for Freedom in Revolutionary France (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005); Ronen Steinberg, The Afterlives of the Terror (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2019).

[15] Henry Rousso, The Latest Catastrophe; History, the Present, the Contemporary (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 143-85.

[16] Pierre Nora, ed., Les Lieux de mémoire, 3 vols. (Paris: Gallimard, 1984-1992); see also Patrick H. Hutton, “Pierre Nora’s Les Lieux de mémoire Thirty Years After,” in the Routledge International Handbook of Memory Studies, ed. Anna Lisa Tota and Trever Hagen (London: Routledge, 2015), 28-40.

[17] Maurice Halbwachs, La Topographie légendaire des évangiles en Terre Sainte (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, [1941] 1971).

[18] Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, ed., The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 2-14.

[19] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media; The Evolution of Man (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1994), 3-21; Walter J. Ong: Orality and Literacy; The Technologizing of the Word (London: Methuen, 1982), 174-9; Language as Hermeneutic; A Primer on the Word and Digitization, ed. Thomas D. Ziatic and Sara van den Berg (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2017), 183-94.

[20] Hutton: The Memory Phenomenon in Contemporary Historical Writing, 129-47; “The New History of Nostalgia,” European Journal of Cultural and Political Sociology 7/1 (spring 2020): 98-106.

[21] Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2002), 351.

[22] Hutton, Memory Phenomenon in Contemporary Historical Writing, 1-2.

[23] Jan Assmann, Moses the Egyptian; The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 8-17.

[24] Aleida Assmann, Cultural Memory and Western Civilization (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

[25] Robert Funk and Roy Hoover, eds., The Five Gospels; What did Jesus really say (New York: Harper Collins, 1993), 1-34.

[26] Jean-Marc Largeaud, Napoléon and Waterloo; la défaite glorieuse de 1815 à nos jours (Paris: Boutique de l’Histoire, 2006).

[27] Patrick H. Hutton, “Legends of a Revolutionary: The Idea of Nostalgia in the Imagined Lives of Auguste Blanqui,” Historical Reflections 39/3 (winter 2013): 41-54.

[28] Paul Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 497-500.