The Historical Origin of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Guest Post


Patrick S. O’Donnell

Thanks to Patrick S. O’Donnell for sharing his thoughts regarding the historical origin of PTSD. He wrote in response to a recent article published on Quartz, “Palestine’s head of mental health services says PTSD is a western concept”.

Patrick S. O’Donnell is an independent researcher and writer, published primarily in Islamic Studies. O’Donnell spent more than 15 years teaching courses in comparative world religions and critical thinking at Santa Barbara City College. But, most of his working life has been outside the academic world. 

A brief historical note: Consider the origin of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in the “war neuroses” and more severe forms of trauma experienced by soldiers in “The Great War” — including the nightmares, insecurities, paranoia and fears experienced by soldiers as diagnosed by psychiatrists and psychoanalysts on the Left (including Social Democrats and Communists). These were the bases, analogical and otherwise, for trying to understand similar although often less severe mental health problems. Cases of domestic and sexual abuse, for example, were probably comparable on several dimensions to ‘war neurosis’. These mental health problems (expressed by way of physiological and behavioral symptoms) appeared among both young children and adults among the poor, unemployed (many being common soldiers home from the battlefield) and working-class in the post-War urban environments of such countries as Germany, Hungary and Austria.

For Marxist-inspired psychiatrists and psychoanalysts, diagnoses assumed or presumed that these symptomatic expressions of mental health problems were causally related to a “pathogenic context.” In other words, individual mental health issues were not seen as something intrinsic to the individual (and intimate family members or relationships) sans any larger socio-economic, political, and cultural setting or context. Pioneering radical psychoanalytic psychiatrists and psychologists did not resort to “measuring” such symptoms in biomedical terms, believing their diagnoses were not amenable to positivist measurement. This tradition of a committed and rich appreciation of “pathogenic context” continues in our time but is, alas, not the prevailing mode of psychoanalysis and “scientific psychology” in the affluent nation states in the northern hemisphere.

The fact that PTSD is a “western concept” does not necessarily preclude its generalization or universal (so to speak) application, lest we succumb to the genetic fallacy. I happen to think it has global application, although of course it does not apply to the Palestinians about whom Dr. Samah Jabr is speaking (rather, we have ‘Traumatic Stress Disorder’).

The genetic fallacy is an informal fallacy, so its identification is of course sensitive to and dependent upon history, context, and the specifics of the argument being made. Sometimes the fallacy is identified because a social scientist, historian, or other thinker has simply failed to identify the specific causal mechanisms at play, merely assuming they exist. So, they may in fact exist, but the demonstration of same has not been made. (I happen to be strongly influenced on methodological topics by the work of Jon Elster, while keeping in mind critiques made by G.A. Cohen and Harold Kincaid, among others.)

Shelley Tremain points out that she follows Ian Hacking in finding charges of the genetic fallacy to be “insubstantial name-calling.” Historical methodologies, for Tremain and Hacking, are important. I am not against “historical methodologies” and there’s much I like in Hacking’s work but I do not think the genetic fallacy is always and everywhere “insubstantial name calling.” For instance, I once wrote that blaming Judeo-Christian views found in the Hebrew Bible for the “environmental crisis” was an instance of the genetic fallacy. In any case, I share Elster’s concerns with methodological issues in Foucault’s work, however otherwise indispensable. Disagreements on such matters are to be expected.

Should anyone want to get a taste, as it were, of some of the topics broached here, one could scroll through my blog posts at Religious Left Law (often cross-posted at Ratio Juris, but it’s more difficult to access them there):

Here is a short list of scholarly literature on this topic, with titles culled from my bibliographies for “Freudian psychoanalytic psychology” (secondary literature) and “Marxism and Freudian Psychology”:

• Alford, C. Fred. Melanie Klein & Critical Social Theory. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.
• Balbus, Isaac D. Mourning and Modernity: Essays in the Psychoanalysis of Contemporary Society. New York: Other Press, 2005.
• Benjamin, Jessica. The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination. New York: Pantheon Books, 1988.
• Burston, Daniel. The Legacy of Erich Fromm. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991.
• Burston, Daniel. The Crucible of Experience: R. D. Laing and the Crisis of Psychotherapy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.
• Chodorow, Nancy J. The Power of Feelings: Personal Meaning in Psychoanalysis, Gender, and Culture. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999.
• Danto, Elizabeth Ann. Freud’s Free Clinics: Psychoanalysis and Social Justice, 1918-1938. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.
• Friedman, Lawrence J. (assisted by Anke M. Schreiber). The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.
• Fromm, Erich (Barbara Weinberger, tr. and Wolfgang Bonss, ed.) The Working Class in Weimar Germany: A Psychological and Sociological Study. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984).
• Fuechtner, Veronika. Berlin Psychoanalytic: Psychoanalysis and Culture in Weimar Republic Germany and Beyond. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011.
• Gruen, Arno. The Insanity of Normality—Realism as Sickness: Toward Understanding Human Destructiveness. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1992.
• Jacoby, Russell. The Repression of Psychoanalysis: Otto Fenichel and the Political Freudians. New York: Basic Books, 1983.
• Lichtman, Richard. The Production of Desire: The Integration of Psychoanalysis into Marxist Theory. New York: Free Press, 1982.
• Robinson, Paul. The Freudian Left: Wilhelm Reich, Geza Roheim, Herbert Marcuse. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990 ed.
• Whitebrook, Joel. Perversion and Utopia: A Study in Psychoanalysis and Critical Theory. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995.
• Wolfenstein, Eugene Victor. Psychoanalytic-Marxism: Groundwork. London: Free Association Books/New York: Guilford Press, 1993.
• Zaretsky, Eli. Political Freud: A History. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015.

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