essays

Jun 1, 1982

Mentalities as Cultural History

“Paradoxically, man as creator creates structures which limit his capacity for free expression.”

Patrick H. Hutton
University of Vermont

“The History of Mentalities: The New Map of Cultural History.” History and Theory 20, no. 3 (1981): 237–259.

The “history of mentalities,” a field of intellectual history, considers the attitudes of ordinary people towards everyday life, including ideas concerning childhood, sexuality, family, time, and death. This approach is closely identified with the French Annales school. But whereas the Annales historians concentrate on the material factors conditioning man (economic, social, and environmental influences), the historians who investigate mentalities examine the psychological realities underpinning human conceptions of intimate relationships and basic habits of mind.

The history of mentalities has parallels with the history of ideas and culture. Idealist cultural historians, such as Burckhardt and Huizinga, saw problems of culture as problems of world-views and their interpretation within the social and political contexts. This idealist approach to cultural history lost its appeal since its methodology arbitrarily limited it to studying high culture, and tended to view the common man as a passive recipient of ideals forged elsewhere. By contrast, the history of mentalities went beyond the idealist historians to consider the culture of the common man. This newer approach shifted the focus from world-views to the “structures” through which such conceptions are conveyed (such forms that regularize mental activities: customs, rituals, linguistic codes, aesthetic images). Describing these structures of ideas helps to map the mental universe which characterizes a particular culture. This new focus is on the history of mind rather than the history of ideas.

Historians who first developed guidelines for the history of mentalities were Lucien Febre and Marc Bloch (founders of the Annales School in the 1920s) who were concerned with collective systems of belief. Later, Philippe Ariès and Norbert Elias identified and developed theories on early childhood. Finally, Michel Foucault, who was most thoroughgoing in applying structuralist methods, considered the psychology of social deviants and nonconformists.

This mode of interpretation provides a way of examining those aspects of life and cultural history which the linear approach cannot address, such as the pressure of conformity, the sense of accelerating time, and the preoccupation with self. It provides a perspective on the civilizing process. What is called progress might, from the mentalities perspective, be easily labeled control. Thus political liberty was won at the price of a pronounced psycho-social discipline. Paradoxically, man as creator creates structures which limit his capacity for free expression.