Psychology of Utopias Agnes Balint The concept of Utopia

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Psychology of Utopias

Agnes Balint

The concept of Utopia

Utopias have primarily been studied within the fields of philosophy, literary history and history, up till now. These fields investigate questions concerning content and genre. Studying the psychology of the authors of utopias, however, falls within the competency of psychology. As far as I know, psychologists have not dealt with this problem.

The concept of utopias derives from the Greek “ou” (a prefix meaning “no”), and “topos” (“place”) expressions meaning “nowhere”, or a “place that does not exist”. To this non-existent place the author dreams the world where the naïve traveler (who gets there by some chance) finds a pluperfect society instead of the incomplete one he knows so well from reality. The term utopia comes from the title of Thomas More's work, though we have been acquainted with earlier utopias as well, such as Plato's Republic. Concerning content, we distinguish between positive and negative utopias. The former depicts a society that seems ideal for its author, while the latter (often called “dystopia”) handles the term “ideal” ironically and provides a misshapen and grotesque caricature of the society. We also make a distinction between the utopias of order and the utopias of liberty, and there are combined forms as well.

As a genre the utopian literature is fairly multifarious, and that is why literary history does not consider utopia a distinct genre. It can appear as a state novel or a fantastic travelogue, or it can be science fiction or a piece of fantasy literature. The correct classification is irrelevant to the present paper so I will not make such distinctions. I will speak about utopias in general – not as a literary but as a “psychological genre”.

Concerning the psychological approach to the problem of utopia, I do not have an easy task due to the unprecedented nature of this exploration. Invoking psychohistory1 the question should be asked in the following way: “why do people write utopias”? That is, what psychological situation motivates people to quit reality and speculate on alternative and ideal realities? The question implies that this time I concentrate on positive utopias.

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