The Unconscious Mind in America, 1880-1917

Elizabeth Searcy studies at Brown University and was a Research Fellow in summer 2014. Here is report of her work on psychology in America before Freud. My project examines theories of the pre-Freudian subconscious in the turn-of-the-century United States. In particular, I analyze the way lay healers, medical doctors, psychologists, political activists, mystics, performers, and social scientists used new theories of a suggestible and depersonalized subconscious to create new concepts of social selfhood for a modernizing age. Unlike the Freudian unconscious, with its atavistic and irrational impulses, the turn-of-the-century subconscious was largely defined by its lack of qualities. Passive, plastic, and impersonal, the subconscious undermined older concepts of autonomous selfhood while providing a versatile explanatory mechanism for a wide variety of social phenomena, from class relations to urban crime. Going beyond the psychotherapeutic interpretations that have dominated historical discussions of the unconscious, I examine how diverse groups of Americans used theories of the subconscious to reconceive social relationships in a period of massive structural and cultural change. In the summer of 2014, with the support of a PACHS research fellowship, I visited the College of Physicians of Philadelphia and Princeton University, where I conducted research on medical theories of hypnosis and examined the papers of pioneering social psychologist James Mark Baldwin. At the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, I consulted English and American books and pamphlets on hypnosis and suggestion at the Historical Medical Library. As it turned out, the library’s extensive collection of hypnotic literature was not confined to medical treatises, but included popular works by professional hypnotists and lecturers as well, including a rare hypnotic novel by hypnotherapist Sydney Flower. These documents, many of which would otherwise have been inaccessible to me, helped broaden my understanding of how actors both within and outside the medical community conceived of hypnosis and its implications for human personality. At Princeton University, I consulted the papers of psychologist James Mark Baldwin, who used the phenomena of hypnosis and suggestion to develop new theories of mental development and human society at the turn of the century. Princeton’s collection of Baldwin’s papers offered particular insight into Baldwin’s expatriate career in Mexico and France, as well as the interrelation between Baldwin’s theories of human sociality and the development of his political ideology. This research provided me with a clearer understanding of Baldwin’s later career, particularly how his psychological theories and politics continued to evolve after he left the United States in the early twentieth century. I am sincerely grateful to the Philadelphia Area Center for the History of Science for generously supporting this research and enriching my project.

Elizabeth Searcy