Egbert Klautke, of University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies, has written a book on the history of Völkerpsychologie. The Mind of the Nation: Völkerpsychologie in Germany, 1851-1955 recounts how Völkerpsychologie struggled to find a foothold in the German university system and its demise by the mid-twentieth century. As described on the publisher’s website,
Völkerpsychologie played an important role in establishing the social sciences, in Germany and abroad, via the works of such scholars as Georg Simmel, Emile Durkheim, Ernest Renan, Franz Boas, and Werner Sombart. In Germany, the intellectual history of “folk psychology” in Germany was represented by Moritz Lazarus, Heymann Steinthal, Wilhelm Wundt and Willy Hellpach. This book follows the invention of the discipline in the nineteenth century, its rise around the turn of the century, and its ultimate demise after the Second World War. In addition, it shows that despite the repudiation of “folk psychology” and its failed institutionalization, the discipline remains relevant as a precursor of contemporary studies of “national identity.”
The publisher’s website also includes an interview with Klauptke about the volume,
Berghahn Books: How would you define “Folk Psychology” and what drew you to the study of it?
Egbert Klautke: “Folk Psychology” is an awkward translation of the German term Völkerpsychologie. Originally, it referred to attempts to study the psychological make-up of nations, and as such is a forerunner of today’s social psychology. However, in today’s common understanding, Völkerpsychologie equals national prejudice: it is seen as a pseudo-science not worth considering seriously.
My first book dealt with perceptions of the U.S.A. in Germany and France, and much of these views could be described as Völkerpsychologie: clichés and stereotypes about a foreign nation, which were of a surprisingly coherent nature. Back then, my rather naïve idea was that there must be a general theory behind these perceptions, and I embarked on a study of Völkerpsychologie.
BB: Did any perceptions on the subject change from the time you started your research to the time you completed the book?
EK: When I started my research, I shared the general view of Völkerpsychologie as a flawed attempt to present national stereotypes as academic research, and was suspicious of its nationalist agenda and racist undertones. I also considered it typically German. Having completed the book, I have a much more sympathetic view of “folk psychology,” at least of the early attempts by (Moritz) Lazarus, (Heymann) Steinthal and (Wilhelm) Wundt. Despite its flaws and shortcomings, Völkerpsychologie was a serious and honorable attempt to introduce a social science to the university curriculum. As such, it influenced pioneers of the social sciences not only in Germany, but also around the world.