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The Australian National University


‘Psychology, Biography and History’ workshop

National Centre of Biography/Australian Dictionary of Biography
School of History, ANU

Venue: Seminar Room D, Coombs Building, ANU
Date: 17-18 November 2016
Cost: Free

As Barbara Taylor noted at the 2009 American Historical Association Conference which included a round table discussion on the academic status of biography:

The role of personal psychology in history is possibly the most poorly developed field of modern historical discussion, plagued by “commonsense” prejudices, on the one hand, and hardline theoretical diktats, on the other. All historians use psychology—it is impossible to write human history without it—but the psychology that most historians deploy is of the pick-and-mix variety, blending commonplace assumptions about human motivation with bits of pop psychology, often Freudian in flavor. The exceptions to this are those historians who embrace postmodernist anti-humanism, and thus assign no causal role whatsoever to individual psychology. For these historians, the “death of the subject” decreed by Foucault and his epigones has swept subjectivity off the historical stage. The 'individual coherent self”—that is, the biographical subject as traditionally conceived—has been deconstructed and dismissed as a 'bourgeois fiction'. This is a development that calls for closer scrutiny (p. 641)

Barbara Taylor, AHR Roundtable ‘Separations of Soul: Solitude, Biography, History’, American Historical Review (June 2009), pp. 640-651.

Workshop leaders

  1. Dr Alastair MacLachlan will lead a discussion on historians' discovery of psychology, ‘Lytton Strachey, Virginia Woolf, Sigmund Freud and Melanie Klein’
  2. Prof. Melanie Nolan will lead a discussion on ‘Should the historian study psychology? Have historians studied psychology?’
  3. Prof. John Sutton will lead a discussion on ‘Integrating philosophical, psychological, and historical ideas and methods?’

Partipants, funding and preparation

This event is being funded by the School of History, ANU.

Alastair MacLachlan is a historian and an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Humanities Research Centre, ANU. He taught for many years at Sydney University and also at Cambridge University, the UNSW and Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand. He has written on a range of topics from The British Civil Wars of the 17th century and Queen Anne’s England through the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and European Nationalism to the English ‘history wars’ of the 1930s and the British Marxist Historians. He is currently completing a dual biography of G. M. Trevelyan and Lytton Strachey entitled ‘The Pedestal and the Keyhole’. His most recent publication is Becoming National? G. M. Trevelyan: The Dilemmas of a Liberal (Inter)nationalist 1900–1945 (ANU e-Press, 2013).

Melanie Nolan is Professor of History, Director of the National Centre of Biography and General Editor of the Australian Dictionary of National Biography. She specialises in biographical, labour and social history. She chairs the Editorial Committee of ANU Press’ series in biography, ANU.Lives. She was on the judging panel of the Magarey Medal for Biography (2008) the Australian Prime Ministers Centre research and scholarship program (2008-2011); and the National Biography Awards (2013-2015). Her own biographical publications include Kin (2005), a collective biography of a working-class family and general editorship of the Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 18 (2012).

John Sutton is Professor of Psychology, Department of Cognitive Science Macquarie University, Sydney, and co-editor of Memory Studies (Palgrave Macmillan book series). His research covers memory, skill, and distributed cognition, seeking to integrate philosophical, psychological, and historical ideas and methods, across five broad areas:

  1. distributed cognition in the traditions of anthropologist Edwin Hutchins and philosopher Andy Clark;
  2. links between autobiographical and social memory, and collaborative cognition more generally;
  3. 'Point of View in Personal Memory: a philosophical study of perspective in remembering and imagining'. Remembering the personal past is a key part of mental life: but why do we sometimes remember past events from an external or 'observer' perspective, seeing ourselves in the remembered scene?;
  4. ‘Mindful Bodies in Action or applying intelligence to the reflexes: embodied skills and kinesthetic memory’;
  5. 'Distributed cognition and ecologies of skill in early modern England', working with Lyn Tribble from the University of Otago.

Participants will be a mix of National Centre of Biography/Australian Dictionary of Biography and School of History, ANU, staff together with HDR students. There are limited funds available to assist HDR students to attend. Interested students should contact Prof. Melanie Nolan by 1 November with a paragraph description about their thesis topic and another paragraph about their interest in psychology and biographical writing.

Readings and programme will be distributed a week before the workshop. The workshop will commence 2.30pm on Thursday 17 November and finish at midday Friday 18 November.

Updated: 5 May 2017/ Responsible Officer:  Director, NCB / Page Contact:  Web Publisher