Angyal, Andras

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Angyal, Andras


Andras Angyal (1902–1960) is one of the major representatives of the holistic point of view in psychology and psychiatry. Born in Hungary, he spent his childhood in a rural Transylvanian community. He received a PH.D. in psychology from the University of Vienna in 1927 and an M.D. from the University of Turin in 1932. No one of Angyal’s teachers seems to have had a decisive influence on his intellectual development, which was determined largely by his own interests and experiences.

His early research in perception, in which he combined painstaking observation with ingenious theorizing, was centered on the role of spatial schemata, or systems of spatial coordinates, in orientation and perception (1930). In 1932 Angyal came to the United States as a Rockefeller fellow and participated in the cross-disciplinary seminar on the impact of culture on personality held at Yale University under the direction of Edward Sapir, with whom Angyal formed a lasting friendship. For the next 12 years he worked at the state hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts, where research on schizophrenia was being conducted. He held successive positions there as psychiatrist of the research service and as resident director of research. Angyal carried out a number of studies of schizophrenia, both psychological and physiological, including intensive investigation of a number of individual patients. He discovered a particular syndrome marked by bizarre “somatic delusions” and demonstrated that these and other symptoms, although seemingly disparate, had a common root in the loss of ego-reference of the patient’s conscious experiences; the bizarre complaints were exact descriptions of perceptual alterations caused by mistaken attribution of tactile and kinesthetic sensations to purely environmental sources, instead of to the interaction of bodily and external events (1936, pp. 1029–1053).

Angyal’s theoretical book, Foundations for a Science of Personality, appeared in 1941. In presenting this comprehensive view of total human functioning, he did not merely pay lip service to the concept of “the organism as a whole” but developed conceptual means for approaching each problem from a consistently organismic standpoint. The book was very favorably received by the dynamically and holistically oriented psychologists and psychiatrists, who praised it for its breadth of vision, its conceptual originality and clarity, and the wide range of the material integrated.

Angyal’s growing interest in the dynamics of mental illness and its cure, furthered also by an intensive study of psychoanalysis, eventually led to a major change of activity. From 1945 until his death in 1960, Angyal was engaged in private psychiatric practice in Boston. Although he was also active as lecturer, consultant, and training psychiatrist in various guidance centers and schools, including Harvard and Brandeis universities, most of his time was devoted to therapeutic work with neurotics. A talented and devoted therapist, Angyal remained an eager explorer, bent on acquiring a better understanding of human phenomena. He developed a comprehensive theory of neurosis and treatment, which he considered a complement of his theoretical book and indeed his main contribution to knowledge. Neurosis and Treatment: A Holistic Theory appeared posthumously in 1965.

Personality theory. Like William Stern, Angyal advocated the use of “psychophysically neutral” concepts (such as system, set, shift of set), equally applicable to all aspects and levels of personality functioning. He viewed mental states as symbolic elaborations that reflect, sometimes in a distorted manner, only parts of the total life process, so that the realm of the “unsymbolized” is much larger than that of the repressed, and the self contains more than does the conscious self; the symbolic elaborations, in turn, potentiate and influence the organismic processes they reflect. Neither the mindbody division nor the subject-object dichotomy should be absolutized or reified: life is a continuous interplay of organismic trends and the “foreign” influences of the environment.

The basic human trends can be inferred from the most general patterns of these person-world interactions. Two such patterns, or trends, are observable. Angyal called them the “trend toward increased autonomy” and the “trend toward homonomy”; he also referred to them as “mastery” and “love.” In the one attitude, the human being strives to impose his control on the environment; in the other, he seeks harmonious participation in something larger than himself—a relationship, a social group, a cause, an ordered universe. The specific diversified ramifications of this double dynamic pattern form the blueprint of the personality structure. The double pattern of life operates also on the physiological level, where processes serving the continuation of the species can be distinguished from those serving the individual. In accord with the holistic approach, Angyal saw no reason to ascribe greater reality to the physiological than to any other abstracted aspect of the organism; in this he differed with psychoanalysis, even though he respected its clinical findings and incorporated them into his scheme.

Both autonomy and homonomy are present in most behavior, but one usually predominates. A person can strive, for example, to influence nature to serve his needs, or he can “resonate” to it in an aesthetic experience. Social and cultural realities function in part as forces foreign to the person, but also as uniquely human opportunities for homonomous integration. Values and norms of behavior, despite their cultural relativity, are adopted by the individual not only for fear of ostracism; they may also function as genuine expressions of his homonomous trend. Real guilt, as distinct from neurotic guilt, is felt by the person when he has acted against, or betrayed, somebody or something with which he is genuinely identified; it is an expression of homonomy. The two basic trends, although seeming opposites, presuppose each other and are but two directions of one organizing process: while the individual fits environmental items into his own life as its parts, he also extends his life by becoming a part of a larger meaningful whole.

To provide conceptual tools for dealing with wholes whose functioning does not derive from that of their parts, Angyal outlined the logical properties of systems, as distinct from relationships. He defined “systems” as distributions of members in a dimensional domain governed by a single principle: the system principle of the circle is that all points are equidistant from the center; the system principle of human life, the double pattern described above. Members or parts of a system function as such only through those qualities that are relevant to the system principle and are connected only through their common participation in the system. According to Angyal, causal thinking, which looks for direct connections between antecedent and subsequent events, has only a limited value in exploring personality. In system thinking one connects two parts, or two events, by finding the superordinate system to which both belong. System dynamics, as distinct from atomistic causality, are governed by the trend toward a more complete realization of the system principle, of which trend the gestalt laws of “tendency to closure” and “tendency to Praegnanz” are partial expressions. In the temporal gestalt of an individual life, not only does the past determine the present, but the reverse is also true. Past events are immutable only when viewed in isolation from the system; a change in the system principle of the individual life will cause these past events to gain a different meaning, a different position within the new system. Since both health and neurosis are organized systems, a shift from one to the other changes the past.

Neurosis. Neurosis is not a focal disturbance, a “bad” part in a healthy organism: it is a complete way of life, an organization perpetuated by system dynamics. This complex structure is built to cope with the person’s persisting isolation from the world, which is reflected in awareness as anxiety. Isolation is experienced by every child in the process of individuation, of growth and change, but normally the child overcomes it by relating himself to his environment through mastery and through affection. If opportunities for this are inadequate during the crucial early period, the world remains alien and threatening; the child starts diverting much of his energy into self-protection and thus perpetuates his isolation. Although the neurotic continues to pursue the basic human goals, his half-hearted, tortuous efforts result in a life both strenuous and impoverished.

Central to Angyal’s theory of neurosis is the thesis of the dual organization of personality, or universal ambiguity. Every childhood contains both healthy and traumatic features; the child’s early attempts to relate himself to the world succeed in part and in part fail. As a result, personality develops around two nuclei and forms two patterns, one of which may be underdeveloped but never absent. Confidence and diffidence, conviction and doubt that life is livable, mark the “great divide,” the point at which the human life course acquires its dual organization and its basic existential conflict. Health and neurosis are two dynamic gestalten organizing the same material, each according to its own system principle, and competing for dominance. The person’s state depends on which system is dominant: he is healthy when he lives in an atmosphere of realistic confidence and hope; he is neurotic when his thoughts and actions are organized by diffidence and anxiety. Potentially, each personality process has a position within these two patterns and, like a part of an ambiguous visual gestalt, changes its character when a shift occurs in which figure and background change places. Every personal event has a double meaning depending on whether it occurs within the framework of health or of neurosis; hence universal ambiguity.

The conception of personality as a dualistic organization led Angyal to review and reformulate many major principles of dynamics and therapy. Defense mechanisms, for example, he viewed as organizational devices serving either health or neurosis; each system uses them to complete and maintain itself and thereby prevents the alter system from gaining dominance. Thus, both the neurotic and the healthy trends can be repressed by the opposite organization. Therapy aims at reinstating to dominance the latent system of health, thus reversing an earlier shift from health to neurosis, but the self-perpetuating neurotic pattern is not easily overcome. Angyal advocated the use of holistic interpretations that uncover the patient’s persisting broad attitudes, but he emphatically stated that neurosis is not overcome by mere insight. If the patient is to take a chance on a new unfamiliar way of life, he must have experienced in a vital way, even to the point of despair, the destructive effects of his neurotic attitudes; he must also have obtained at least a glimpse of his “real self,” i.e., his individual pattern of health. Successful therapy requires a careful unearthing and fostering of this repressed healthy pattern; this reconstructive aspect of therapy is too often neglected.

Angyal supplemented his general theory of neurosis with an elaboration of its main dimensions, or patterns. Of particular interest to social scientists is his conception of the hysterical pattern as based on a near-suicidal obliteration of the person’s genuine self and the substitution of an artificial personality fashioned largely from the reactions of others. This method of “vicarious living” results in emptiness and, at its extreme, in feelings of non-existence; some patients struggle against this state by fighting the agents of external suppression. Angyal believed this condition to be the “neurosis of our time”; he felt that the hysterical pattern, in both its conformist and its rebellious variants, was much better understood and more effectively treated than the obsessive-compulsive type of character neurosis. The latter he viewed as originating in inconsistent treatment of the child; this results in lasting confusion and in ambivalence toward the “good-bad” world. A careful analysis of the paradoxical inner maneuvers of persons who develop the life-style of “noncommitment” shows that these behavior patterns and symptoms express both the patient’s abiding confusion and his persistent, if ineffective, search for clarity and for an unambiguous emotional orientation.

As a European, Angyal shared in the phenomenological tradition, and some of his thinking on the nature of man, on illness and health, resembles the views of existential writers. He was also keenly interested in the perspectives on human existence revealed by various religions. Yet his concepts and his methods were firmly anchored in the empirical scientific tradition.

Eugenia Hanfmann

[For the context of Angyal’s work, seeGestalt theory; Phenomenology; Psychology, article onexistential psychology; and the biographies ofKoffka; Köhler; Stern; Wertheimer.]


1930 Über die Raumlage vorgestellter örter. Archiv für die gesamte Psychologic 78:47–94.

1936 The Experience of the Body-self in Schizophrenia. Archives of Neurology and Psychiatry 35:1029–2053. 1941 Foundations for a Science of Personality. New York: The Commonwealth Fund.

1965 Neurosis and Treatment: A Holistic Theory. New York: Wiley. → Published posthumously.