Federn, Paul (1871-1950)

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FEDERN, PAUL (1871-1950)

Paul Federn, an Austrian physician and psychoanalyst, was born in Vienna on October 13, 1871, and died in New York on May 4, 1950.

The son of a famous Viennese doctor and nephew of a celebrated Prague rabbi, Federn was raised in a family with a longstanding liberal tradition. After receiving his medical diploma in 1895, he interned in general medicine with Hermann Nothnagel, who introduced him to the works of Sigmund Freud. Deeply influenced by Freud's Interpretation of Dreams, in 1904 he devoted himself to psychoanalysis and, with Alfred Adler, Wilhelm Stekel, and Rudolf Reitler, became one of Freud's early disciples.

Federn was as interested in the analysis of social phenomena as he was in prevention and treatment of disease. In Zur Psychologie der Revolution: die Vaterlose Gesellschaft (On the psychology of revolution: the fatherless society; 1919), he analyzed the challenge to authority by the postwar generation as unconscious parricide aimed at creating a "fatherless society." In line with his interest in applying psychoanalysis to public health, in 1926 he published, together with Heinrich Meng, Das psychoanalytische Volksbuch (Popular psychoanalysis).

Of the Viennese disciples, Federn worked longest with Freud and was highly esteemed by him. He was such a loyal supporter of Freud that he was referred to as the "Apostle Paul" of the psychoanalytic movement. His position within the Psychoanalytic Society continued to grow over the years. In 1922 he helped Eduard Hitschmann and Helene Deutsch establish the Vienna Ambulatorium, and during the 1930s he was one of the coeditors of the Internationale Zeitschrift für Psychoanalyse and editor of Zeitschrift für Psychoanalyse und Pädagogik. But the most important source of official recognition came from Freud himself, who, in 1924, made him, along with Anna Freud, his official representative and vice president of the Vienna Society, a position he held until 1938.

After emigrating to America in 1938, Federn settled in New York. Though he got recognition for his medical diploma (which he received before 1914), it was not until 1946 that he was officially recognized as a training analyst at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute. He committed suicide after the recurrence of what he felt was an incurable cancer.

In addition to ego psychology, Federn was interested in the therapy of psychosis. Even his earliest writings, devoted to the sources of sadism and masochism and typical dream sensations (1914), manifest his interest in the nature and function of the ego, along with considerations of narcissism.

The results of Federn's research took time to come to fruition, since his ideas about the ego required a long period of gestation. In 1926 his important essay "Some Variations in Ego-Feeling" appeared, followed in 1928 by "Narcissism in the Structure of the Ego," and in 1929 by "Das Ich als Subjekt und Objekt im Narzissmus" (The ego as subject and object in narcissism). His phenomenological description of the ego as experience coinciding with "ego feeling" diverged considerably from Freud's structural approach. Although his conclusions were far removed from Freud's, out of loyalty Federn preferred to downplay his own theoretical contributions, such as "ego feeling," the "sense of reality," the "limits" and "states" of the ego, "ego cathexis," the "median" nature of narcissism, and the death drive. For although Freud had a great deal of respect for Federn, he did not value Federn's theoretical proposals very highly.

In his studies of schizophrenic patients, Federn came to the conclusion that, far from being excessively cathected with libido, their egos possessed inadequate cathectic energy. On Federn's hypothesis, contrary to the hypotheses of Freud and Karl Abraham, it was an absence rather than an excess of narcissistic libido that determined the psychotic's problems with the object. As a result, Federn's approach to treating psychotics, described in "The Analysis of Psychotics" (1934) and other important texts he wrote while in America, involved supporting the patient's efforts at integration by trying to prevent the emergence of the repressed and by strengthening the patient's defenses. According to Federn, transference in psychosis should not be interpreted. He felt that it was important to avoid negative transference and to help the psychotic confront problems by means of female support figures.

Although the response to Federn's ego psychology was limited, he had several illustrious followers, including Edoardo Weiss and Hermann Nunberg, along with a small group of American analysts such as Bertram D. Lewin, I. Peter Glauber, and Martin Bergmann. In psychiatry the influence of his ideas is obvious. His ideas also served as a foundation for the transactional analysis of Eric Berne, who refers to the theory of "ego states." Weiss was responsible for the posthumous publication of Federn's writings, Ego Psychology and the Psychoses (1952), a book that contributed greatly to spreading the ideas of one of the earliest and most faithful pioneers of psychoanalysis.

Anna Maria Accerboni

Work discussed: Ego Psychology and the Psychoses.

Notions developed: Ego boundaries; Ego, damage inflicted on the; Ego feeling; Ego stages.

See also: Ego (ego psychology); Lehrinstitut der Wiener psychoanalytischen Vereinigung; Marxism and psychoanalysis; Wiener psychoanalytischen Vereinigung.


Federn, Ernst. (1972). Thirty-five years with Freud. Journal of Clinical Psychology, suppl. 32, 18-34.

Federn, Paul. (1914). On dreams of flying. In Hendrik M. Ruitenbeek (Ed.), The first freudians (pp. 121-128). New York: Jason Aronson.

. (1919). Zur psychologie der revolution: die vaterlose gesellschaft. Vienna: Anzengruber-Verlag.

. (1926). Some variations in ego-feeling. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 7, 434-444.

. (1928). Narcissism in the structure of the ego. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 9, 401-419.

. (1934). The analysis of psychotics. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 15, 209-214.

. (1952). Ego-psychology and the psychoses (Edoardo Weiss, Ed.). New York: Basic Books.

Federn, Paul, and Meng, Heinrich. (1926). Das psychoanalytische volksbuch (2 vols.). Stuttgart: Hippocrates.

Pao, Ping-Nie. (1975). The place of Federn's ego psychology in a contemporary theory of schizophrenia. International Review of Psychoanalysis, 2, 467-480.

Weiss, Edoardo. (1951). Paul Federn's scientific contributions: in commemoration. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 32 (4), 1-8.

. (1966). Paul Federn: The theory of the psychoses. In Franz Alexander, Samuel Eisenstein, and Martin Grotjahn (Eds.), Psychoanalytic pioneers (pp. 142-159). New York: Basic Books.