The Austrian psychiatrist Alfred Adler (1870-1937) founded the school of individual psychology, a comprehensive "science of living." His system emphasizes the uniqueness of the individual and his relationships with society.
Although the psychiatrists Alfred Adler and Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) lived at the same time and in the same place, their views could hardly have been more opposite. Freud's theory of psychoanalysis was rapidly accepted and overshadowed Adler's individual psychology during their lifetimes. However, Freud's position has since been modified, largely by his own followers, and numerous new schools of psychology have emerged whose tenets are increasingly compatible with Adler's original position.
Alfred Adler was born in a suburb of Vienna, the second of seven children of a Hungarian-born grain merchant. In his childhood he suffered some illnesses and the death of a younger brother; these experiences contributed to his early decision to become a physician.
He attended classical secondary school and received a degree from the University of Vienna Medical School in 1895. He married Raissa Epstein, a Russian student.
Adler's early career was marked by a zeal for social reform, often expressed in articles in socialist newspapers. His first professional publication was a social-medicine monograph on the health of tailors.
In 1902 Freud invited Adler to join a small discussion group, which became the illustrious Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. Adler was an active member but did not consider himself a pupil or disciple of Freud. He could not agree with Freud's basic assumption that sex was the main determinant of personality, and all that this implied: the dominance of biological factors over the psychological; the push of drives, making for identical, predictable patterns; the part commanding the whole; pleasure-seeking as man's prime motivation. Whereas Freud tried to explain man in terms of his similarity to machines and animals, Adler sought to understand and influence man precisely in terms of what makes him different from machines and animals (concepts and values). This humanistic view characterized all the principles of his theory. Adler's views diverged ever more from those of Freud, and in 1911 he resigned from Freud's circle to formulate and found his own school.
Adler spent 3 years of World War I in military-hospital service. In 1919 he organized a child-guidance clinic in Vienna and also became a lecturer at the Pedagogical Institute. He was perhaps the first psychiatrist to apply mental hygiene in the schools. Working with teachers in child-guidance clinics, he carried out his innovative counseling before a restricted audience and dealt with the family and teacher as well as the child. This was probably the first "family therapy" and "community psychiatry" on record.
Beginning in 1926, Adler spent much time in the United States lecturing and teaching. When he saw the Nazi threat to Austria in 1932, he emigrated with his wife to New York. On May 28, 1937, he died suddenly while on a lecture tour in Aberdeen, Scotland. Two of his four children, Alexandra and Kurt, took up the practice of psychiatry in their father's tradition in New York City.
Adler had piercing eyes, a soft voice, and a friendly manner. He spoke slowly, with occasional silences, in a conciliatory, persuading tone. He was unusually open to people and was very sociable and hospitable. He loved the arts, especially music, and had a fine voice and enjoyed singing. He was a tireless worker, leaving little time for sleep. In therapeutic relationships he had a gift for disarming gentleness, acceptance, and encouragement.
Individual psychology, though not easy to master, has the kind of simplicity which comes with concreteness, dealing as much as possible with what can be observed and as little as possible with what must be taken on faith. Thus it can be explained in everyday language and can readily be demonstrated on actual cases. It probably covers more aspects of the personality than any other theory in that it deals with the healthy as well as the abnormal, individual and group relations, and the physical and the psychological. Yet it hangs together with a marked self consistency because all the principles are interrelated. This cohesiveness reflects Adler's view of the person as an organism: a unit in which all the parts function cooperatively, even when differently, in subordination to an overall plan for the whole.
Adler saw man imbued with a unitary dynamic force, a striving from below to above. Since this striving is an "intrinsic necessity of life itself, like physical growth," there is no need to infer a further source of energy for it. Adler described it as directed toward superiority, overcoming, perfection, success, significance—always as these are variously envisioned by each individual. In the goal is "the root of the personality." To understand the personality or any behavior, one must seek its purpose.
Adler found that an individual might respond to a perceived inferiority with greater or lesser inferiority feelings and with discouragement, compensation, or over-compensation. Thus the individual is not completely determined by objective factors. Within certain limitations, such subjective factors as interpretation and opinion are always decisive. Adler called this degree of self-determination man's creative power. It includes not only the ability to choose between several ways of regarding or reacting but also, more importantly, man's potential for spontaneity. Through it the individual arrives at his style of life.
In spite of a certain unpredictability thus lent to all humans, there is a self-consistency in a person's actions which characterizes him uniquely. This "coherence and unity of the individual in all his expressions," as Adler expressed it, is his life style. From the beginning, the young child checks his impressions, successes, and failures against one another. Soon practical requirements of the environment are learned, perceptions become selective, practiced responses become habitual, value guidelines are set up, and "the child arrives at a style of life, in accordance with which we see him thinking, feeling, and acting throughout his whole life."
Adler's psychology has been judged the first in a social-science direction. "In addition to regarding an individual's life as a unity, we must also take it together with its context of social relations … [it] is not capable of doing just as it likes but is constantly confronted with tasks … inseparably tied up with the logic of man's communal life." Adler specified three main tasks of life: occupation, association with others, and love and marriage. He also referred to them as social ties, for they all require cooperation for their solution. Man's very uniqueness is influenced by his relations to others: "The style of the child's life cannot be understood without reference to the persons who look after him."
Adler also assumed an innate potentiality for coping with society, termed social interest. Unlike an instinct, it must be evoked and developed. Its subjective development is based in man's native empathy; the objective "development of the innate potentiality for cooperation occurs first in the relationship of the child and the mother." Social interest represents a transcendence of the self, an absence of self-centeredness. It is a trait, like intelligence, and as such influences the direction of the striving, but it is the most important trait in the life style.
Adler stated unequivocally that social interest is the criterion of mental health. He based this finding solely on his observations as a psychiatrist that mentally healthy persons "feel at home on this earth with all its advantages and disadvantages, and act as true fellowmen"; that is, they demonstrate a developed social interest.
The "failures in life"—the neurotics, psychotics, and offenders—on the other hand, are characterized by intense inferiority feelings that keep them continuously concerned with themselves, or self-bound. They may become convinced of their inability to cope with life (the much-cited inferiority complex) or may strive for a personal goal of superiority, useful or meaningful to themselves only, in accordance with their private sense rather than common sense. They have most often developed a pampered life style in that they expect to receive without giving. Normality in these terms is tantamount to maturity, which involves growing away from helplessness toward taking responsibility for others, becoming an asset rather than a burden.
Therapist and Patient
The therapist's function, according to Adler, is not to treat "mental disease" but to divine the error in the patient's way of life and lead him to greater maturity. To this end Adler introduced a number of diagnostic approaches. Among these, his theory of dreams, the meaning of early childhood recollections, and the role of birth order in the family have become widely known and adopted. The understanding of the patient achieved in this way is not one of depth but of context in the larger whole of his total transactions. This is the basis for changing the patient's picture of himself and the world. In addition to this reorganization, Adler wished the patient to appreciate his own power of self-determination and have the courage to exercise it. To encourage the patient, the therapist must express a disinterested concern that evokes and fosters feelings of trust and fellowship—fulfilling a function at which the mother had failed.
Further Reading on Alfred Adler
The comprehensive source book for Adler is The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler, edited by H.L. and Rowena R. Ansbacher (1956), which is a selection of Adler's own writings and is intended as a textbook on individual psychology. Alfred Adler: Superiority and Social Interest: A Collection of Later Writings, also edited by the Ansbachers (1964), includes a paper on religion and several case studies. Two standard biographies of Adler are Phyllis Bottome, Alfred Adler: Apostle of Freedom (1939; rev. ed. 1957), and Hertha Orgler, Alfred Adler, the Man and His Work: Triumph over the Inferiority Complex (1939; 3d ed. 1963). Ruth L. Munroe, Schools of Psychoanalytic Thought: An Exposition, Critique and Attempt at Integration (1955), is a general consideration of psychoanalytic theory.
Additional Biography Sources
Alfred Adler, as we remember him, Chicago: North American Society of Adlerian Psychology, 1977.
Hoffman, Edward, The drive for self: Alfred Adler and the founding of individual psychology, Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co., 1994.
We knew Alfred Adler, London: Adlerian Society of Great Britain, 1977.