Alfred Adler (February 7 1870 – May 28 1937) was an Austrian medical doctor, psychologist and founder of the school of Individual Psychology. In collaboration with Sigmund Freud and a small group of Freud's colleagues, Adler was among the co-founders of the psychoanalytic movement. He was the first major figure to break away from psychoanalysis to form an independent school of psychotherapy and personality theory. This was after Freud decided Adler's ideas were too threatening to his own efforts to tolerate coexistence and issued an ultimatum to all members of the psychoanalytic society (which he shepherded) to drop Adler or be expelled (Makari, 2008). Following this split, Adler would come to have an enormous, independent effect on the disciplines of counseling and psychotherapy as they developed over the course of the 20th century (Ellenberger, 1970). He influenced notable figures in subsequent schools of psychotherapy such as Rollo May, Viktor Frankl, Abraham Maslow and Albert Ellis. His writings preceded, and were at times surprisingly consistent with, later neo-Freudian insights such as those evidenced in the works of Karen Horney, Harry Stack Sullivan and Erich Fromm.
Adler emphasized the importance of social equality in preventing various forms of psychopathology, and espoused the development of social interest and democratic family structures as the ideal ethos for raising children. His most famous concept is the inferiority complex which speaks to the problem of self-esteem and its negative compensations (e.g. sometimes producing a paradoxical superiority striving). His emphasis on power dynamics is rooted in the philosophy of Nietzsche. Adler argued for holism, viewing the individual holistically rather than reductively, the latter being the dominant lens for viewing human psychology. Adler was also among the first in psychology to argue in favor of feminism making the case that power dynamics between men and women (and associations with masculinity and femininity) are crucial to understanding human psychology (Connell, 1995). Adler is considered, along with Freud and Jung, to be one of the three founding figures of depth psychology, which emphasizes the unconscious and psychodynamics (Ellenberger, 1970; Ehrenwald, 1991).
Alfred was an active, popular child and an average student who was also known for his competitive attitude toward his older brother, Sigmund.
In 1895 he received a medical degree from the University of Vienna. During his college years, he became attached to a group of socialist students, among which he found his wife-to-be, Raissa Timofeyewna Epstein, an intellectual and social activist from Russia studying in Vienna. They married in 1897 and had four children, two of whom became psychiatrists.
He began his medical career as an ophthalmologist, but he soon switched to general practice, and established his office in a lower-class part of Vienna, across from the Prater, a combination amusement park and circus. His clients included circus people, and it has been suggested that the unusual strengths and weaknesses of the performers led to his insights into "organ inferiorities" and "compensation".
In 1901 Adler received a letter from Sigmund Freud inviting him to join an informal discussion group that included Rudolf Reitler, and Wilhelm Stekel. They met regularly on Wednesday evenings at Freud's home with membership expanding over time. This group was the beginning of the psychoanalytic movement (Mittwochsgesellschaft or the "Wednesday Society"). A long serving member of the group, Adler became President of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society eight years later (1910). He remained a member of the Society until 1911 when he and a group of supporters formally disengaged, the first of the great dissenters from Freudian psychoanalysis (preceding Carl Jung's notorious split in 1914). This departure suited both Freud and Adler since they had grown to dislike each other. During his association with Freud, Adler frequently maintained his own ideas which often diverged from Freud's. It is commonly suggested that Adler was once "a pupil of Freud's", however this suggestion is a myth; they were colleagues. In 1929 Adler showed a reporter with the New York Herald a copy of the faded postcard that Freud had sent him in 1902. He wanted to prove that he had never been a disciple of Freud's but rather that Freud had sought him out to share his ideas.
Adler founded the Society of Individual Psychology in 1912 after his break from the psychoanalytic movement. Adler's group initially included some orthodox Nietzschean adherents (who believed that Adler's ideas on power and inferiority were closer to Nietzsche than were Freud's). Their enmity aside, Adler retained a lifelong admiration of Freud's ideas on dreams and credited him for creating a scientific approach to their clinical utilization (Fiebert, 1997). Nevertheless, even with dream interpretation, Adler had his own theoretical and clinical approach. The primary differences between Adler and Freud centered on Adler's contention that the social realm (exteriority) is as important to psychology as is the internal realm (interiority). The dynamics of power and compensation extend beyond sexuality and the arena of gender and politics are important considerations that go beyond libido. Moreover, Freud did not share Adler's socialist beliefs. Trotsky's biography mentions his having discussions with Alfred Adler in Vienna.
Following Adler's break from Freud, he enjoyed considerable success and celebrity in building an independent school of psychotherapy and a unique personality theory. He traveled and lectured for a period of 25 years promoting his socially oriented approach. His intent was to build a movement that would rival, even supplant, others in psychology by arguing for the holistic integrity of psychological well-being with that of social equality. Adler's efforts were halted by World War I, during which he served as a doctor with the Austrian Army. Post-war his influence increased greatly. In the 1930s, he established a number of child guidance clinics. From 1921 onwards, he was a frequent lecturer in Europe and the Unitebood States, becoming a visiting professor at Columbia University in 1927. His clinical treatment methods for adults were aimed at uncovering the hidden purpose of symptoms using the therapeutic functions of insight and meaning.
Adler was concerned with the overcoming of the superiority/inferiority dynamic and was one of the first psychotherapists to discard the analytic couch in favor of two chairs. This allows the clinician and patient to sit together more or less as equals. Clinically, Adler's methods were not limited to treatment after-the-fact but extend to the realm of prevention by preempting future problems in the child. Prevention strategies include encouraging and promoting social interest, belonging, and a cultural shift within families and communities that leads to the eradication of pampering and neglect (especially corporal punishment). Adler's popularity was related to the comparative optimism and comprehensibility of his ideas. He often wrote for the lay public compared to Freud or Jung, whose writings tended to be exclusively academic. Adler always retained a pragmatic approach that was task oriented. These "Life tasks" are occupation/work, society/friendship, and love/sexuality. Their success depends on co-operation. The tasks of life are not to be considered in isolation since, as Adler (1956) famously commented, "they all throw cross-lights on one another" (pp. 132-133).
In 1932, after most of Adler's Austrian clinics were closed due to his Jewish heritage (he had converted to Christianity) Adler left Austria for a professorship at the Long Island College of Medicine in the USA. Adler died from a heart attack in Aberdeen, Scotland during a lecture tour in 1937. At the time it was a blow to the influence of his ideas although a number of them were taken up by neo-Freudians. Through the work of Dreikurs in the United States and many other adherents worldwide, Adlerian ideas and approaches remain strong and viable more than 70 years after Adler's death.
Around the world there are various organizations promoting Adler's orientation towards mental and social well-being. These include the International Committee of Adlerian Summer Schools and Institutes (ICASSI), the North American Society for Adlerian Psychology (NASAP) and the International Association for Individual Psychology. Teaching institutes and programs exist in Austria, Canada, England, Germany, Greece, Israel, Italy, Latvia, Switzerland, the United States, Peru and Wales.
Adler was also influenced by the philosophies of Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche, Rudolf Virchow and the statesman Jan Smuts (who coined the term "holism"). Adler's School, known as "Individual Psychology"—an arcane reference to the Latin individuus meaning indivisibility, a term intended to emphasize holism—is both a social and community psychology as well as a depth psychology. Adler was an early advocate in psychology for prevention and emphasized the training of parents, teachers, social workers and so on in democratic approaches that allow a child to exercise their power through reasoned decision making whilst co-operating with others. He was a social idealist, and was known as a socialist in his early years of association with psychoanalysis (1902–1911). His allegiance to Marxism dissipated over time (he retained Marx's social idealism yet distanced himself from Marx's economic theories).
Adler (1938) was a very pragmatic man and believed that lay people could make practical use of the insights of psychology. He sought to construct a social movement united under the principles of "Gemeinschaftsgefuehl" (community feeling) and social interest (the practical actions that are exercised for the social good). Adler was also an early supporter of feminism in psychology and the social world believing that feelings of superiority and inferiority were often gendered and expressed symptomatically in characteristic masculine and feminine styles. These styles could form the basis of psychic compensation and lead to mental health difficulties. Adler also spoke of "safeguarding tendencies" and neurotic behavior long before Anna Freud wrote about the same phenomena in her book The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense.
Adlerian-based scholarly, clinical and social practices focus on the following topics:
From its inception, Adlerian psychology has always included both professional and lay adherents. Indeed, Adler felt that all people could make use of the scientific insights garnered by psychology and he welcomed everyone, from decorated academics to those with no formal education to participate in spreading the principles of Adlerian psychology.
Teleology also serves another vital function for Adlerians. Chilon's "hora telos" ("see the end, consider the consequences") provides for both healthy and maladaptive psychodynamics. Here we also find Adler's emphasis on personal responsibility in mentally healthy subjects who seek their own and the social good (Slavik & King, 2007).
As a psychodynamic system, Adlerians excavate the past of a client/patient in order to alter their future and increase integration into community in the 'here-and-now'. The 'here-and-now' aspects are especially relevant to those Adlerians who emphasize humanism and/or existentialism in their approaches.
The pragmatic and materialist aspects to contextualizing members of communities, the construction of communities and the socio-historical-political forces that shape communities matter a great deal when it comes to understanding an individual's psychological make-up and functioning. This aspect of Adlerian psychology holds a high level of synergy with the field of community psychology. However, Adlerian psychology, unlike community psychology, is holistically concerned with both prevention and clinical treatment after-the-fact. Hence, Adler cannot be considered the "first community psychologist", a discourse that formalized in the decades following Adler's death (King & Shelley, 2008).
Adlerian psychology, Carl Jung's Analytical Psychology, Gestalt Therapy and Karen Horney's psychodynamic approach are holistic schools of psychology. These discourses eschew a reductive approach to understanding human psychology and psychopathology.
These 'types' are typically formed in childhood and are expressions of the Style of Life.
Adler never produced any scientific support for his interpretations on birth order roles. Yet the value of the hypothesis was to extend the importance of siblings in marking the psychology of the individual beyond Freud's more limited emphasis on the Mother and Father. Hence, Adlerians spend time therapeutically mapping the influence that siblings (or lack thereof) had on the psychology of their clients. The idiographic approach entails an excavation of the phenomenology of one's birth order position for likely influence on the subject's Style of Life. In sum, the subjective experiences of sibling positionality and inter-relations are psychodynamically important for Adlerian therapists and personality theorists, not the cookbook predictions that may or may not have been objectively true in Adler's time.
The Dutch psychiatrist Gerard J. M. van den Aardweg underlines how Alfred Adler came to his conclusions for, in 1917, Adler believed that he had established a connection between homosexuality and an inferiority complex towards one's own gender. This point of view differed from Freud's equally problematic contention that homosexuality is rooted in narcissism or Jung's conservative views of inappropriate expressions of contrasexuality vis-a-vis the archetypes of the Anima and Animus.
In contemporary Adlerian thought gays, lesbians, and bisexuals are not considered within the problematic discourse of the "failures of life". There is evidence that Adler may have been moving towards abandoning the hypothesis. Towards the end of Adler's life, in the mid 1930s, his opinion towards homosexuality began to shift. Elizabeth H. McDowell, a New York state family social worker recalls undertaking supervision with Adler on a young man who was "living in sin" with an older man in New York city. Adler asked her, "is he happy, would you say"? "Oh yes", Elizabeth replied. Adler then stated, "Well, why don't we leave him alone" (Manaster, Painter, Deutsch, and Overholt, 1977, pp. 81-82). On reflection, Elizabeth found this comment to contain "profound wisdom". In the 1930s the common attitude and medical opinion was quite unanimous, homosexuality was considered a moral failing and a mental disease. In 1973 the American Psychiatric Association de-listed homosexuality as a mental disorder in their diagnostic nomenclature (DSM). Christopher Shelley (1998), an Adlerian psychotherapist, published a volume of essays in the 1990s that feature Freudian, (post)Jungian and Adlerian contributions that demonstrate affirmative shifts in the depth psychologies. These shifts show how depth psychology can be utilized to support rather than pathologise gay and lesbian psychotherapy clients. The Journal of Individual Psychology, the English language flagship publication of Adlerian Psychology, released a volume in the summer of 2008 that reviews and corrects Adler's previously held beliefs on the GLBT community.
Adler emphasized both treatment and prevention. As a psychodynamic psychology, Adlerians emphasize the foundational importance of childhood in developing personality and any tendency towards various forms of psychopathology. The best way to inoculate against what are now termed "personality disorders" (what Adler had called the "neurotic character"), or a tendency to various neurotic conditions (depression, anxiety, etc.), is to train a child to be and feel an equal part of the family. This entails developing a democratic character and the ability to exercise power reasonably rather than through compensation. Hence Adler proselytized against corporal punishment and cautioned parents to refrain from the twin evils of pampering and neglect. The responsibility to the optimal development of the child is not limited to the Mother or Father but to teachers and society more broadly. Adler argued therefore that teachers, nurses, social workers, and so on require training in parent education in order to complement the work of the family in fostering a democratic character. When a child does not feel equal and is enacted upon (abused through pampering or neglect) they are likely to develop inferiority or superiority complexes and various accompanying compensation strategies. These strategies exact a social toll by seeding higher divorce rates, the breakdown of the family, criminal tendencies and subjective suffering in the various guises of psychopathology. Adlerians have long promoted parent education groups especially those influenced by the famous Austrian/American Adlerian Rudolf Dreikurs (Dreikurs & Soltz, 1964).
"I see no reason to be afraid of metaphysics; it has had a great influence on human life and development. We are not blessed with the possession of absolute truth; on that account we are compelled to form theories for ourselves about our future, about the results of our actions, etc. Our idea of social feeling as the final form of humanity - of an imagined state in which all the problems of life are solved and all our relations to the external world rightly adjusted - is a regulative ideal, a goal that gives our direction. This goal of perfection must bear within it the goal of an ideal community, because all that we value in life, all that endures and continues to endure, is eternally the product of this social feeling." (Adler, 1938, pp. 275-276).
This social feeling for Adler is Gemeinschaftsgefühl, a community feeling whereby one feels they belong with others and have also developed an ecological connection with nature (plants, animals, the crust of this earth) and the cosmos as a whole, sub specie aeternitatus. Clearly, Adler himself had little problem with adopting a metaphysical and spiritual point of view to support his theories. Yet his overall theoretical yield provides ample room for the dialectical humanist (modernist) and separately the postmodernist to explain the significance of community and ecology through differing lenses (even if Adlerians have not fully considered how deeply divisive and contradictory these three threads of metaphysics, modernism, and post modernism are).
Alfred Adler's key publications were The Practice and Theory of Individual Psychology (1927), Understanding Human Nature (1927) and What Life Could Mean to You (1931). In his lifetime, Adler published more than 300 books and articles.
The Alfred Adler Institute of Northwestern Washington has recently published the first ten of the twelve-volume set of The Collected Clinical Works of Alfred Adler, covering his writings from 1898-1937. An entirely new translation of Adler's magnum opus, The Neurotic Character, is featured in Volume 1.