Pfister, Oskar Robert (1873-1956)

views updated


Pfister was a Swiss pastor, teacher and psychoanalyst, he was born on February 23, 1873 in Zürich , where he died on August 6, 1956.

Born in his father's Zürich suburban parish (Wiedikon), young Oskar was strongly influenced by his father's liberal Christianity and his mother's Pietism. In the course of his early education Pfister was impressed by classroom group dynamics and the erotic power of sadism. After university studies in philosophy, theology, history, and psychology at Basel and Zürich (1891-1895), Pfister completed his education with a series of courses in psychiatry, psychology, and philosophy in Berlin (1896).

Pfister was pastor of Zürich's Predigerkirche (1902-1939), secondary school teacher (1906-1936), instructor at the Cantonal Teaching Academy (1908-1918), and lay psychoanalyst. He specialized in the application of psychoanalytic thought to theology, education, and the humanities and social sciences; he is also known for his passionate popularization of Freudian analysis. Pfister's life and work are intimately bound up with the city of his birth and death: Zürich.

Pfister's first documented encounter with Freud's work came via Carl Jung in early 1908. Freud's psychology fulfilled Pfister's decade-long search for a coherent and meaningful synthesis of psychological and theological thought. He devoured Freud's works and immediately set to work applying analytic insights to problems of pastoral counseling and teaching. Pfister authored the first popular exposition of Freud's ideas and pioneered psychoanalytic interpretations of history, religion, pedagogy, political science, art, and biography.

During the early years of psychoanalysis (1908-1914) Pfister worked closely with the psychoanalytic leadership (Eugen Bleuler, Carl Jung) and its most important early adherents. In January 1909 Pfister, possibly prompted by Jung, sent one of his first psychoanalytic papers to Freud and began their remarkable thirty-year correspondence. The Freud-Jung-Pfister triad became a leitmotif within Pfister's correspondence with Vienna, laden with political and theoretical implications. Jung collaborated with Pfister on at least two of the latter's publications, a 1909 paper detailing Pfister's first full-length analytic case study, and Pfister's comprehensive 1913 textbook Die psychanalytische Methode, prefaced by Freud himself. Jung contributed a section on child psychology to the first edition of Pfister's tome. It seems likely that the two collaborated on several other projects, such as Pfister's 1910 psychopathology of Count Zinzendorf. Pfister is mentioned no less than half a dozen times in Jung's 1912 Wandlungen und Symbole der Libido.

During the Freud-Jung schism Pfister's loyalties were sorely tested. Though Freud expressed to his closest colleagues Ernest Jones and Sándor Ferenczi his fears that Pfister would side with Jung against him, once the Zürichers officially withdrew from the International Psychoanalytical Association on July 10, 1913, Pfister took only five days before writing to Freud that he was prepared to join the Vienna Society. Pfister then became Switzerland's leading proponent of Freudian psychology, establishing in March 1919 the Schweizerische Gesellschaft für Psychoanalyse, jointly with Drs. Emil and Mira Oberholzer.

From 1908 until his death in 1956 Oskar Pfister authored hundreds of articles and books on psychoanalytic therapeutic technique, the advantages of analytic pedagogy, and his psychoanalytic theology. His most important works are the first psychoanalytic textbook for lay audiences, Die psychanalytische Methode (1913), his potent reply to Freud's 1927 attack on religious belief "'Die Illusion einer Zukunft" (The illusion of a future; 1928), and the collection of essays in Zum Kampf um die Psychoanalyse (Some applications of psychoanalysis; 1920). Pfister's psychoanalytic pastoral care is detailed in Analytische Seelsorge (Analytic soul-searching; 1927). His magnum opus, Das Christentum und die Angst (Christianity and fear; 1944), systematically analyzed the concept and historical use of fear in order to expose what he perceived to be Christianity's fatal flaw and, if analytically mastered, perhaps its saving grace. The 1963 publication of the Freud-Pfister correspondence remains an important source of information on these men, though very few of Pfister's letters appear in the volume.

In addition to his written work, Pfister frequently toured Europe (particularly Scandinavia) giving dozens of lectures to large audiences of teachers, pastors, and laymen. Among his closest colleagues, were found Hermann Rorschach, Ernst Schneider, Hans Zulliger, and (before 1913) Carl Jung, Alphonse Maeder, and Franz Riklin. Under his tutelage Jean Piaget, among many students after 1909, first learned psychoanalytic technique. One of the first lay practitioners, among Pfister's many analysands were Henri Ellenberger, Emil Oberholzer, and Harold and Kristin Schjelderup.

Oskar Pfister's impact has been recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, which awards the annual Oskar Pfister Prize, for the finest work in religious psychology. The 1973 centennial celebration of his birth in Zürich produced a series of excellent monographs on his contributions to analysis, pastoral psychology, and education. Pfister did not establish a school, though Zulliger and Schneider in analytic pedagogy, and a small group of pastors in Zürich continued his work long after his death. Pfister's importance derives mainly from his thirty-year friendship with and impact upon Sigmund Freud. From his defiant choice to remain a Freudian when the body of the Zürich group left the IPA in 1913, to his role as anonymous interlocutor in Freud's Die Zukunft einer Illusion, Pfister served Freud and the psychoanalytic movement with total devotion and great skill.

David D. Lee

See also: Denmark; Future of an Illusion, The ; Religion and psychoanalysis; SchweizerischeÄrztegesellschaft für Psychoanalyse; Splits in psychoanalysis; Switzerland (French-speaking); Switzerland (German-speaking).


Freud, Sigmund. (1927c). The future of an illusion. SE, 21: 1-56.

. 1965a [1907-1926]). Psycho-analysis and faith; the letters of Sigmund Freud and Oskar Pfister. (Heinrich Meng and Ernst L. Freud, Eds.; Eric Mosbacher, Trans). London: Hogarth Press, 1963.

Pfister, Oskar. (1917). The psychoanalytic method. (Charles Rockwell, Trans.). New York: Moffat. (Original work published 1913)

. (1920). J. Piaget, La psychanalyse et la pédagogie [Piaget, 1920]. Imago, 6, 3, 294-295; trad. J. Moll, Bloc-notes de la psychanalyse, 1981, 1, p. 89-92.

. (1923). Some applications of psycho-analysis. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company; London: G. Allen and Unwin.

. (1927). Analytische seelsorge. Einführung in die praktische psychanalyse für Pfarrer und Laien. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht.

. (1993). The illusion of a future. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 74, 557-579. (Original work published 1928)

. (1948). Christianity and fear. London: G. Allen and Unwin.