Adler, Alfred (1870–1937)

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Alfred Adler, the medical psychologist and founder of Individual Psychology, was born in Vienna of Hungarian-Jewish parents. He received his MD from the University of Vienna in 1895 and practiced general medicine before turning to psychiatry. His soundest scientific works were written before World War I and largely prepared during his ambivalent association with the early Freudian group. After serving in the Austrian army he became concerned with child guidance as a method of preventive medical psychology, and gaining favor with the new Austrian government, opened child-guidance centers in Vienna, Berlin, and Munich schools. Family-guidance interviews in public, with general discussion periods, disseminated his methods and theories, particularly among educators. He became an international lecturer in Europe and the United States and was America's first professor of medical psychology, at Long Island Medical School. In the 1930s his efforts to spread his doctrine of "social interest" in the face of Europe's totalitarian nationalisms marked him as preacher rather than scientist, and his later published work served to promulgate a faith rather than to report scientific work. He died in Aberdeen, Scotland, during a lecture tour.

Adler's first psychologically important work, the Study in Organ Inferiority and Its Psychical Compensation (1907), was "a contribution to clinical medicine" in constitutional pathology. In it Adler explored constitutional defects of structure and function and their physiopathological compensation and also described "psychical" compensatory changes in disposition and way of life; overcompensation could produce not only "genius," like the deaf Ludwig van Beethoven, but also neurotic or psychotic responses, like hysteria or paranoia. Adler gave a causal-deterministic exposition of development as dependent upon constitutional endowments, innate biological drives, and environmental pressures. His papers of 1908 described as innate an "aggression drive" (to subdue the environment) and a "need for affection." Both concepts were then rejected by Sigmund Freud's group but reappeared in later psychoanalytic theories.

Adler himself modified both concepts and reformulated his whole psychology in The Neurotic Constitution (1912). He repudiated drive psychology and causal determinism. He viewed inferiority (vis-à-vis adults) and consequent "inferiority feeling" as experiences common to every child. The child responds as a whole individual with a "striving for superiority" (the former "aggression drive") directed toward a "fictive goal" of manly strength and dominance, which is pursued through a "guiding fiction," or life plan, modified by the "antifiction" of social demands. Goal and fiction are subjective creations of the individual's making, but unrealistic, rigid, neurotic patterns may be favored by organ inferiority, pampering, or neglect in childhood, or the child's age-ranking in the family. To Adler the Nietzschean "will to power" was this kind of neurotic pattern, not a universal human trait. He also described an opposite but equally effective response to increased insecurity:

It is one of the triumphs of human wit to put through the guiding fiction by adapting it to the anti-fiction, to conquer by humility and submissiveness to cause pain to others by one's own suffering, to strive to attain the goal of manly force by effeminate means, to make oneself small in order to appear great. Of such sort are often the expedients of neurotics.

In contrast to the neurotic, the psychotic character attempts to shape reality to the fiction, while the normal character adapts itself to the environment.

Adler's later works reiterated, renamed, elaborated, and finally, simplified and broadened the concepts on which he had founded Individual Psychology in 1912 after breaking with Freud. The basis of character was the response of the whole individual to a universal infantile inferiority feeling. Accentuated inferiority feeling became the celebrated "inferiority complex," and a pathological striving for superiority was a "superiority complex." The guiding fiction was renamed the "life style," usually unconscious or "not understood," which Adlerian analysis endeavored to illuminate with insight. The antifiction and the early "need for affection" fused in the important concept of social interest. Adler first diverged from psychoanalysis over Freud's emphasis on sexual instincts. Ultimately, where Freud saw animal instincts humanized through repression, Adler described inborn trendssocial interest and striving for superioritywhose full development perfected the personality. In summary, "Heredity only endows [the individual] with certain abilities. Environment only gives him certain impressions it is his individual way of using these bricks, his attitude toward life, which determines [his] relationship to the outside world."

Despite their differences, Adler always acknowledged his debt to Freud's psychogenetic theory of neurosis. He acknowledged Pierre Janet's sentiment d'incomplétitude, a predecessor of the inferiority feeling. Adler's formulation of personality somewhat resembled the "psychic structure" and "attitudes" of Wilhelm Dilthey's psychology, but direct influence is unlikely: Adler never mentioned Dilthey, although he did cite a work of Dilthey's contemporary Hans Vaihinger, the Philosophy of "As If" (New York, 1924), for the theory of fictions. Individual psychology had a brushfire success in continental Europe and the United States, rather less in Britain; everywhere it found more acceptance among educators, psychologists, even writers than among physicians and psychiatrists.

Adler's work has been largely absorbed into practice and thought without retaining a separate identity despite the familiar phrases"overcompensation," "inferiority complex," "organ jargon"which enrich a conversational rather than a psychological vocabulary. Individual Psychology still has its own centers, schools, and work groups, but Adler's influence has permeated other psychologies. His "aggression drive" reappeared in the ego psychology of orthodox psychoanalysis; other Adlerian echoes are found in Karen Horney, Harry Stack Sullivan, and Franz Alexander, and in Ian Suttie's mother-relationship theories, which surely influenced the contemporary mother-need ethological school. Child-guidance practice is non-Adlerian, and his name is not now invoked in progressive pedagogy, but those who try to see the backward child, the delinquent, the psychopath, or the psychiatric patient as a whole person are sharing Adler's viewpoint.

Adler's approach to psychology, normal and abnormal, was speculative rather than scientific. From 1912 on, he sought the elegantly economical theory rather than the proven fact. At first he recognized his theory as a fiction in Vaihinger's nonpejorative sense; a person behaves "as if" compensating for inferiority feeling. Later this step was omittedthese things were so. Adler often illustrated his theory with case material, but this was invariably anecdotal and in excerpts, never statistically organized. He openly despised statistics. It is uncertain how many patients Adler treated in continuity, apart from single consultations to advise physicians or teachers. The same case histories appear as examples through many books over many years, with no systematic follow-up. He made no use of normal "controls," an omission he justified by his insistence upon the uniqueness of the individual, but this left unsolved the problem of why one creative self chose neurosis, another not. Adler never experimented, never firmly predicted, never attempted systematically to verify a hypothesis. He had great intuitive insight, the greater, perhaps, for having grown up as a second son and a sickly rachitic child of a Hungarian-Jewish family in the Austrian imperial capital. His intuitions and their formulations, if not so close to reality as he believed, remain as valuable guiding fictions.

See also Dilthey, Wilhelm; Freud, Sigmund; Psychoanalysis; Psychology; Unconscious; Vaihinger, Hans.


works by adler

Studie über die Minderwertigkeit von Organen. Vienna: Urban and Schwarzenberg, 1907. Translated by Smith Ely Jelliffe as Inferiority and Its Psychical Compensation. New York: Nervous and Mental Diseases Publishing, 1917.

Über den nervösen Charakter. Wiesbaden: Bergmann, 1912. Translated by Bernard Glueck and John E. Lind as The Neurotic Constitution. New York, 1926.

Praxis und Theorie der Individualpsychologie. Munich: Bergmann, 1920. Translated by P. Radin as Practice and Theory of Individual Psychology. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1924.

Menschenkenntnis. Leipzig: Hirzel, 1927. Translated by W. Béran Wolfe as Understanding Human Nature. London: Allen and Unwin, 1927.

Understanding Life: An Introduction to the Psychology of Alfred Adler (1927). Edited by Colin Brett.Oxford; Rockport, MA: Oneworld, 1997.

The Education of Children (1930). Chicago: Regnery, 1970.

Der Sinn des Lebens. Vienna: Rolf Passer, 1933. Translated by John Winton and Richard Vaughan as Social Interest; a Challenge to Mankind. London: Faber, 1938.

Superiority and Social Interest: A Collection of Letter Writings. Routledge & K. Paul, 1965.

With Ernst Jahn. Religion und Individualpsychologie: Eine prinzipielle Auseinandersetzung über Menschenführung. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer-Taschenbuch-Verlag, 1975,

Kindererziehung. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch, 1976.

Das Problem der homosexualitat und sexueller Pervessionen: Erotisches Training und erotischer Rückzug. Edited by Wolfgang Metzger. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1977.

Co-operation between the Sexes: Writings on Women, Love and Marriage, Sexuality, and Its Disorders. Edited and translated by Heinz Ludwig Ansbacher and Rowena R. Ansbacher. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1978.

Journal Articles:, 19101913: Elaborating on the Basic Principles of Individual Psychology. Edited by Gerald L. Liebenau, and Henry T. Stein. San Francisco: Classical Adlerian Translation Project, Alfred Adler Institute of San Francisco, 2003.

works on adler

Ansbacher, Heinz, and Rowena Ansbacher, eds. The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler. New York: Basic, 1956. Extracts, full bibliography, and critical annotations, including evaluation of Adler's proclaimed finalistic subjectivism as approximating William James's "soft determinism."

Orgler, Hertha. Alfred Adler, the Man and His Work. London: Daniel, 1939; 3rd ed., London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1963.

J. D. Uytman (1967)

Bibliography updated by Michael J. Farmer (2005)