Abraham, Karl

views updated May 29 2018

Abraham, Karl

Contributions to psychoanalysis



Karl Abraham (1877–1925) was a psychoanalyst who made important theoretical contributions to the psychology of sexuality, character development, manic–depressive disorders, and symbolism. He was born into a Jewish family in Bremen, Germany. From 1896 to 1901 he pursued a medical curriculum at Würzburg, Berlin, and Freiburg. His major interest was biology and his dissertation topic was the anatomical development of parrots. This early biological orientation was reflected later in his absorption in the infantile development of the sexual instincts and its effects on the adult organism. After completing his medical studies he became deeply interested in philology and linguistics. He spoke five languages, read several others, and even psychoanalyzed some patients in English. His interests in philology were mirrored in his writings on symbolism and myths and in a paper that related psychoanalytic concepts to the rise of monotheism in Egypt.

From 1901 to 1904 Abraham was an assistant at the Berlin Municipal Asylum, where he investigated various aspects of aphasia, apraxia, paresis, and drug-induced deliria. His psychiatric interests changed completely when he became an assistant to the famous Eugen Bleuler at the Burghölzli Mental Hospital in Zurich in 1904. Here Abraham met Jung and became acquainted with Freud’s writings. His first psychoanalytic paper, presented in 1907, was entitled “Über die Bedeutung sexueller Jugendträumen für die Symptomatologie der Dementia Praecox” (“On the Significance of Sexual Trauma in Childhood for the Symptomatology of Dementia Praecox”) and began with the phrase, “According to Freud. …” The beginning was prophetic: Abraham, uniquely among Freud’s disciples, never deviated from either personal loyalty to Freud or the classical principles of psychoanalysis. A deep friendship with Freud began in 1907 and lasted until Abraham’s death.

In 1907 Abraham left Zurich to start the first psychoanalytic practice in Berlin; except for the war years this practice occupied him for the rest of his life. He presented his views at medical gatherings in Germany and met with much opposition, as did Freud in Vienna. By 1909 he had one colleague, Max Eitingon, and by 1910 there were eight others, with whom he formed the Berlin Psychoanalytic Society, the first branch of the International Psychoanalytic Association. Abraham was president of the Berlin Society for the rest of his life and of the International Association in 1924 and 1925. Among his pupils in training analyses were Edward and James Glover, Helene Deutsch, Melanie Klein, Sandor Rado, and Theodor Reik.

During World War i he was chief psychiatrist at a German army hospital in East Prussia. His experiences led to a joint publication on war neuroses with Freud, Ferenczi, Ernst Simmel, and Jones. During the war years Abraham contracted dysentery and never fully recovered. In 1925 he became ill with pneumonia and attendant complications and died seven months later.

Those who knew Abraham during his early years as a psychoanalyst repeatedly commented on the tenacity, courage, and cheerfulness with which he faced opposition. He was dedicated to his work, self-confident, and seemed completely free from ambivalence and hatred. Ernest Jones described him as “cheerfully reasoning with someone who was glowering with anger and resentment, apparently blandly ignoring the emotion and full of hope that a quiet exposition would change the situation” (Jones [1926] 1953, p. 39).

Abraham was an organizer, a practitioner who pioneered in treating psychoses psychoanalytically, and a theorist who kept closer to clinical observations than did most of his colleagues. He was one of the less prolific writers among the psychoanalysts of his generation: he wrote 49 papers, many very brief, and 4 quite short books, a total output of less than 700 pages. All but the first 8 papers dealt with psychoanalytic problems. Three of the books were on dreams and myths (1909), the libido and manic–depressive disorders (1924), and character formation (1925). The second of these is usually considered his most important contribution. His fourth book was a collection of clinical papers originally written between 1907 and 1920.

Contributions to psychoanalysis

Abraham’s analysis of the libido and its relation to character formation was based on the hypothesis that the libido develops through six stages: the first two are oral, the next two anal, and the last two genital. In the earlier oral stage, that of sucking, the infant does not distinguish between himself and the objects he incorporates. He is objectless and free of ambivalence. The later oral stage is one of biting, or sadistic “cannibalism,” in which the infant incorporates objects in order to destroy them. He becomes ambivalent and remains so throughout the ensuing anal and phallic stages. The anal periods include a hostile, anal-expulsive stage followed by a more controlled, analretentive stage. The phallic stage, or first stage of genitality, is marked by the emergence of objectlove in a clearer form than in the anal phases. Finally, the adult genital stage, reached only by individuals who are able to avoid psychotic or neurotic fixations in earlier stages, is distinguished by postambivalent object-love. This schema of development was not completely original, for Freud’s “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality” had hinted at the basic ideas in 1905. Abraham worked out the stages more fully than Freud, and he also tied the oral and anal stages closer to later character development.

At any stage of development the infant may be either gratified and move on to the next developmental stage, or frustrated or deprived and remain in the one stage developmentally. In the latter case, he may manifest a fixation, the defensive persistence of a pattern of behavior or stage of development, or a reaction formation, the defensive reinforcement of a repression by behavior directly opposed to the unconscious trend (for example, the display of outward kindness in place of the unconsciously felt cruelty).

Thus, depending on the events that occur during the oral period—indulgent gratification of the infant by the mother, frustration by the mother or by infantile intestinal difficulties, or deprivation during weaning—the individual may develop such traits as lasting optimism, a leechlike dependency, an impatient restlessness, a compulsive loquacity, or a sarcastic, “biting” envy. Gratification in the earlier stage of orality leads to sociability, curiosity, and accessibility to new ideas. Fixation at the oral-sadistic stage is indicated by maliciousness and hostility.

Anal fixations are represented in the traits of moroseness, reticence, inaccessibility to new ideas, conservative resistance to innovation, perseverance, procrastination, and hesitation—in short, the reverse of many of the oral traits. Anal expulsiveness is present in sadism; anal retentiveness in stinginess, orderliness, pleasure in material possessions, stubborn defiance (or a reaction formation resulting in submissiveness), inability to delegate responsibilities to others or share activities with them, and underestimation of others. The pleasure that an anal individual takes in contemplating his own mental products, e.g., letters and manuscripts, has as its prototype the infantile pleasure of looking at one’s own feces. The anal individual may collect useless bits and pieces of objects and then on some occasion get rid of the lot in one expulsive gesture. Anal eroticism of the retentive type provides the characterological basis for neurotic obsessions and compulsions.

Abraham’s theory of manic–depressive disorders centered on the twin concepts of libidinal fixation and ambivalence to a love object. In a paper written in 1911 and published in 1912 he asserted that depression or melancholia (the terms are interchangeable in the present context) is a reaction comparable to grief at the loss of a love object. Depression is to grief as anxiety is to fear. Just as anxiety occurs when the individual strives for impulse gratification but is prevented from reaching it by repression, so depression occurs when a sexual aim must be renounced. The depressive’s libido is narcissistically withdrawn from the external world. He loses the ability to love and therefore feels hated in return. His self-abasement gives him a masochistic gratification and a hostile revenge on those who care for him.

As Freud developed this formulation by Abraham, in publications between 1911 and 1923, in melancholia the lost or renounced object is again set up in the ego, so that the melancholic’s selfreproaches are really aggressive attacks on the incorporated object. The individual is unconsciously ambivalent, hating as well as loving the lost object. Abraham in turn went further than Freud in his 1924 book on the libido and manic–depressive disorders and theorized that orality was the basis of both incorporation and ambivalence. The incorporation of the lost love object is an unconscious, cannibalistic fantasy that arouses guilt, and guilt in turn leads to depression. As always, Abraham cited a number of cases in support of his views. For example, the depression of a patient who delusively accused herself of being a thief had been precipitated by the arrest of her father for theft. She had loved her father, but on his arrest she was estranged from him psychologically as well as physically. She then introjected his image and began to experience delusional reproaches against herself.

Abraham hypothesized that an adult depression is preceded by a primal depression in the phallic stage. The primal depression is a response to repeated disappointments of love for a parent, the predecessor of the love object lost at a later time. The primal depression is itself a regression to orality, and the later depression is a repetition of this regression. Abraham believed that for constitutional reasons orality is particularly strong in depressives. In summary, his theory viewed depression as a reenactment of past conflicts between oralreceptive and aggressive impulses. There are two types of depression: either the introjected image of the object is the recipient of reproaches (the type stressed by Freud), or the introjected image directs reproaches against the self. Abraham considered that manic–depressive patients exhibit, during their lucid intervals, the same characteristics as patients with obsessional neuroses that are under control. These character traits were evidence, to him, that the two pathological conditions have a common psychological relation to the anal-sadistic organization of the libido. The obsessive regresses to the anal-retentive stage and the depressive to an earlier one, a combination of orality and anal expulsiveness; the latter is indicated by the depressive’s “expulsion” of the external world.

Although Abraham worked more with depression than with schizophrenia, or dementia praecox as it was then called, he believed that the concept of a withdrawal of libido from external reality and a concomitant turning back of the libido upon the ego was as applicable to schizophrenia as to depression. In A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis Freud stated that Abraham’s concept of libido withdrawal was the basis of the psychoanalytic position regarding all the psychoses.

The psychology of myths and symbols was enriched by two contributions from Abraham. First, he attributed to various objects symbolic meanings that have since been widely accepted in analytic circles. A house represents the mother, a spider a feared mother, and so forth. Second, he tied myths to dreams by considering both to be wish-fulfilling fantasies that result from processes of repression, condensation, displacement, and secondary elaboration. “Thus the myth,” he wrote, “is a surviving fragment of the psychic life of the infancy of the race whilst the dream is the myth of the individual” ([1909] 1955, p. 208). This conclusion would be accepted by some, but by no means all, anthropologists and other persons concerned with myths. The originality of Abraham’s analysis of myths may be disputed, for its basis was Freud’s discussion of the Oedipus myth in The Interpretation of Dreams. However, the details of Abraham’s exposition were quite original.

Abraham also made a number of minor contributions to a variety of topics. In a paper entitled “Manifestations of the Female Castration Complex” (1921), he presented material to justify the application of the term “castration complex” to women as well as men, and he elaborated its manifestations in women’s ideas, fantasies, and wishes. He was the first analyst to call much attention to the now familiar concept of the castrating female. He described her as a “revenge type” and hypothesized that her attempts to dominate males, reduce their potency, and then blame them for her own sexual disappointments were a cover for her unconscious masochistic tendencies. The self-destructive behavior of various other types of individuals was also explained as due to unconscious masochism. Finally, he had some original comments to make on ejaculatio praecox. It resulted from a dread of hurting women, he believed, which originated in repressed sadism; this in turn was due to disappointment in love for the mother and consequent hostility to her. The parallel to the explanation offered for depression is noticeable.

Although Abraham’s original work had a relatively restricted scope, it continues to arouse considerable interest many years after his death. There are several reasons for this interest. In recent decades there has been an apparent increase in the number of psychiatric patients without a clear-cut neurotic or psychotic symptomatology, who suffer from instability of personality and unsatisfying interpersonal relationships. Abraham’s discussions of character as it is influenced by early development are helpful in understanding these patients. Second, his developmental theories are relevant to longitudinal studies of human and animal behavior. In the past two decades, there have been many objective investigations of the effects on later behavior of infantile oral deprivation, early discipline, toilet-training practices, isolation, and other variables; in future years, more and more research of this type may be expected. Third, his theory of the genesis of depression has been widely accepted and also developed further, for example, by Sandor Rado. Last, his writings on infantile sexuality and other highly controversial topics have a levelheaded reasonableness, cautiousness, and respect for clinical data that make him more acceptable to skeptical readers than some of his psychoanalytic contemporaries.

Ephraim Rosen

[For the historical context of Abraham’s work, see the biographiesBleuler; Ferenczi; Freud; Jones. For discussion of the subsequent development of his ideas, seeDepressive disorders.]


(1907) 1955 On the Significance of Sexual Trauma in Childhood for the Symptomatology of Dementia Praecox. Pages 13–20 in Karl Abraham, Selected Papers. Volume 2: Clinical Papers and Essays on Psychoanalysis. New York: Basic Books. → First published in German.

(1907–1925) 1953–1955 Selected Papers. 2 vols. New York: Basic Books. → Volume I: Selected Papers on Psychoanalysis. Volume 2: Clinical Papers and Essays on Psychoanalysis.

(1907–1926) 1966 Freud, Sigmund; and Abraham, Karl. A Psycho-analytic Dialogue: The Letters of Sigmund Freud and Karl Abraham, 1907–1926. Edited by Hilda C. Abraham and Ernst L. Freud. New York: Basic Books.

(1909) 1955 Dreams and Myths: A Study in Folk-psychology. Pages 151–209 in Karl Abraham, Selected Papers. Volume 2: Clinical Papers and Essays on Psychoanalysis. New York: Basic Books. → First published in German.

(1912) 1953 Notes on the Psychoanalytical Investigation and Treatment of Manic–Depressive Insanity and Allied Conditions. Pages 137–156 in Karl Abraham, Selected Papers. Volume 1: Selected Papers on Psychoanalysis. New York: Basic Books. → First published in German.

(1921) 1953 Manifestations of the Female Castration Complex. Pages 338–369 in Karl Abraham, Selected Papers. Volume 1: Selected Papers on Psychoanalysis. New York: Basic Books. → First published as “Äusserungsformen des weiblichen Kastrationskomplexes.”

(1924) 1953 A Short Study of the Development of the Libido, Viewed in the Light of Mental Disorders. Pages 418–501 in Karl Abraham, Selected Papers. Volume 1: Selected Papers on Psychoanalysis. New York: Basic Books. → First published as Versuch einer Entwicklungsgeschichte der Libido auf Grund der Psychoanalyse seeliscḥer Störungen.

(1925) 1953 Character-formation on the Genital Level of Libido-development. Pages 407–417 in Karl Abraham, Selected Papers. Volume 1: Selected Papers on Psychoanalysis. New York: Basic Books. → First published in German in Volume 7 of the International Journal of Psychoanalysis.


Jones, Ernest (1926) 1953 Introductory Memoir. Pages 9–41 in Karl Abraham, Selected Papers. Volume 1: Selected Papers on Psychoanalysis. New York: Basic Books.

Abraham, Karl (1877-1925)

views updated May 17 2018

ABRAHAM, KARL (1877-1925)

Karl Abraham, a German psychoanalyst and doctor, was born May 3, 1877, and died December 25, 1925, in Berlin. The son of Nathan Abraham, a businessman, and Ida Oppenheim, he was the youngest of two sons in an Orthodox Jewish family. After studying medicine in Würzburg, Berlin, and Freiburg-im-Breisgau, he married his cousin Hedwig Bürgner in 1906. They had two children; his daughter was the well-known psychoanalyst Hilda Abraham.

Abraham began his training in psychiatry in Berlin, then in Zurich with Eugen Bleuler, where the physician-in-chief was Carl Gustav Jung. It was here that he became familiar with Freud's writings. In 1907 he opened an office in Berlin and, in 1910, founded the Berlin Institute of Psychoanalysis. From 1914 to 1918 he was mobilized as chief physician in a psychiatric unit. It was during this time that he grew interested in studying war neuroses. He was president of the International Psychoanalytic Association (IPA) from 1918 to 1925.

A student and friend of Freud, he was a member of the secret "Committee" from its inception. In 1918, he received an award in recognition of his work in analysis. Co-editor of the Jahrbuch für Psychoanalyse, Internationale Zeitschrift für Psychoanalyse, and Zentralblatt für Psychoanalyse, he was the analyst and teacher of Felix Boehm, Helene Deutsch, Edward and James Glover, Karen Horney, Melanie Klein, Carl Müller-Braunschweig, Sándor Radó, Theodor Reik, and Ernst Simmel.

In addition to his research on collective psychology ("Dreams and Myths," 1909/1949), Abraham made important original contributions to the study of the development of the libido, including Versuch einer Entwicklungsgeschichte der Libido auf Frund der Psychoanalyse seelischer Störungen (1924) (A Short Study of the Development of the Libido Viewed in the Light ofMental Disorders, 1929). Abraham's starting point was Freud's theory of the stages of pregenital organization (1916-1917). He introduced a differentiation in the phase of libido development designated by Freud as oral-cannibalistic by proposing the existence of two aspects of oral activitysucking and biting. Based on this hypothesis, he inferred two different modes of infantile object relation, incorporation by sucking and destruction by biting. This last relation was said to introduce the conflict of ambivalence into the infant's life. Starting with this conflict, Abraham interpreted the ego disturbances of the melancholic adult: the ambivalence of the instinctual life causes a withdrawal of libidinal cathexis from the object; the liberated libido then turns toward the ego, which introjects the object. Abraham links the psychogenesis of melancholy with the disappointing mother during the early infantile phase of libido development. If it occurs before the successful mastery of oedipal wishes, that is, during the phase preceding the triumph of the narcissistic stage, then an associative link is made between the Oedipus complex and the cannibalistic stage of libido development. This would make possible the consecutive introjection of the two love objects, the father and mother.

Even before Abraham had begun to study manic-depressive psychosis (from 1916 to 1924), he had made an important discovery in the research on schizophrenia in Die psychosexuelle Differenz der Hysterie und der Dementia Präcox (1908) (Psychosexual Differences between Hysteria and Dementia Praecox, 1949): Disturbances of ego functions are secondary with respect to the disturbances in the libidinal area. Thus Abraham could make use of libido theory to understand dementia praecox. In this same work Abraham introduced the concept of "autism," which was later taken up by Eugen Bleuler (1911).

Abraham is one of the founders of psychoanalytic research on psychoses, on collective psychoanalytic psychology and, with Sándor Ferenczi and Ernst Simmel, on the psychoanalysis of war neuroses. His principal work, "Examination of the Earliest Pregenital Stage of Libido Development," has continued to stimulate research in the field down to the present day. The Psychoanalytic Training Institute he created in Berlin has become a model for other institutes throughout the world and the current Institute of Psychoanalysis in Berlin bears his name. Abraham published five books and 115 articles and made numerous presentations at IPA congresses. His complete works have been collected and translated into several languages.

Johannes Cremerius

Work discussed: "Dreams and Myths."

See also: Depression; Germany; Libidinal stage; Libido; Mania; Melancholia; Visual and psychoanalysis; Secret Committee; Work of mourning.


Abraham, Karl. (1949). Dreams and myths: A study in race psychology. In Selected papers of Karl Abraham, M.D. (Douglas Bryan and Alix Strachey, Trans.). London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis. (Original work published 1909)

. (1949). A short study of the development of the libido viewed in the light of mental disorders. In Selected papers of Karl Abraham, M.D. (Douglas Bryan and Alix Strachey, Trans.). London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis. (Original work published 1924)

Cremerius, Johannes. (1969-1971). Karl Abraham: psycho-analytische Studien. Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer.

Freud, Sigmund. (1926). Karl Abraham. SE, 20: 277-278.

Grinstein, Alexander. (1968). On Sigmund Freud's dreams. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Abraham, Karl

views updated Jun 11 2018


ABRAHAM, KARL (1877–1925), German psychoanalyst. Born in Bremen to religious parents, Abraham was Germany's first psychoanalyst and a major figure in both the organizational and scientific development of psychoanalysis. Abraham received his early clinical experience at a mental hospital in Dalldorf. He became acquainted with Freud's work through Bleuler and Jung in Zurich, and first met Freud in 1907. A deep friendship and professional alliance bound the two men until Abraham's death. Abraham's work covered almost every field of psychoanalysis, but his most significant contributions through pioneering studies were in the fields of libidinal development, character formation, the psychoses, and addiction. He investigated the effects of infantile sexuality and family relationships on the child's mental development, and drew a correlation between characteristic mental disorders and the problems at different stages of the child's mental development. Toward the end of his life, Abraham concentrated almost exclusively on manic-depressive psychosis, where he paralleled and deepened Freud's work. This work is written up in his paper of 1911 translated in 1927 as "Notes on the Psychoanalytic Investigation and Treatment of Manic-Depressive Insanity and Allied Conditions." Abraham related melancholia to regression to the oral level and to the loss of love and its patterning after mourning. Schizophrenia, too, is a regression from a traumatic situation to an early infantile level of development. Abraham was president of the Berlin Psychoanalytical Society from its founding until his death. He was also secretary (1922–24), and then president (1924–25), of the International Psychoanalytical Association. Most of his research work appears in his Clinical Papers and Essays on Psychoanalysis (1955) and his published correspondence with Freud in A Psychoanalytic Dialogue (1965).


E. Jones, in: International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 7 (1926), 155–81 (includes bibliography); E. Glover, in: L. Eidelberg (ed.), Encyclopedia of Psychoanalysis (1968), 1–8 and index; M. Grotjahn, in: F. Alexander et al. (eds.), Psychoanalytic Pioneers (1966), 142–59. add. bibliography: H. Abraham, Karl Abraham. Sein Leben fuer die Psychoanalyse (1976).