Alfred Adler Essay - Critical Essays

Adler, Alfred


Alfred Adler 1870-1937

Austrian psychologist.

Adler is remembered both for his role in the early development of psychoanalysis and for his theories relating to "individual psychology," which stresses the essential unity and uniqueness of every individual and his or her "life-pattern." Many of the tenets of Adler's individual psychology, such as the importance of the "inferiority feeling" in character development, have become conventional psychological principles.

Biographical Information

Adler was born in a suburb of Vienna, Austria, to a prosperous middle-class Jewish family. As a young child he suffered from rickets and pneumonia, which spurred both his interest in the medical profession and his psychological insights into "organ inferiority" and the "inferiority feeling." After graduating from the Medical School of the University of Vienna in 1895, Adler began his career as a private practitioner, developing from the start a conception of the relationship of medical to psychological dysfunction, and in turn of psychological to social problems. In 1902 Adler joined and became a prominent member of Sigmund Freud's Vienna circle of psychoanalysts. Adler, however, was never a patient or a disciple of Freud, and fundamentally disagreed with him about the centrality of sexual trauma in the development of mental illness. In 1911, Adler broke away from Freud and founded the "Society for Free Psychoanalysis." He also began advocating his own system of "individual psychology." Adler's Über den nervösen Charakter (The Neurotic Constitution) was rejected as a post-doctoral dissertation by the medical faculty at the University of Vienna, which left Adler to lecture on psychology at continuing-education institutions for adults. Such appointments, however, were consistent with Adler's lifelong concern over social issues, as was his founding in 1919 of a pioneering "child-guidance" clinic in Vienna. In 1926 Adler accepted a visiting professorship at Columbia University in New York, thereby beginning an international career as a popular teacher, lecturer, and writer. In 1935, due to the rise of nazism, Adler moved his family to the United States. He died in 1937, during the course of a European lecture tour.

Major Works

Adler's first major work was Studie über die Minderwertigkeit von Organen (Study of Organ Inferiority and Its Psychical Compensation), which stressed the role that real and perceived physical inferiority played in spurring the child, as a form of compensation, to self-assertion and a quest for superiority. Adler's subsequent The Neurotic Constitution defines neurosis as the unsatisfactory, anti-social, or delusional enactment of this psychic self-assertion. In 1912 Adler founded the Zeitschrift für Individualpsychologie (Journal for Individual Psychology), which has continued publication under various forms. In Menschenkenntnis (Understanding Human Nature), which was written for a more popular audience, Adler focused on work, community, and sex as the primary components of human experience. Adler's concern with child-rearing and early education—the stages, according to Adlerian theory, in which individual psychology is molded—was reflected in publications such as The Education of Children. In later writings such as What Life Should Mean to You and Der Sinn des Lebens (Social Interest), Adler increasingly stressed the role that social and communal instincts play in tempering self-assertion and securing mental health.

Principal Works

Studie über die Minderwertigkeit von Organen [Study of Organ Inferiority and Its Psychical Compensation] (nonfiction) 1907

Über den nervösen Charakter: Grundzuge einer vergleichenden Individual-Psychologie und Psychotherapie [The Neurotic Constitution: Outline of a Comparative Individualistic Psychology and Psychotherapy] (nonfiction) 1912

Die andere Seite: Eine massenpsychologische Studie über die Schuld des Volkes 1919

Praxis und Theorie der Individualpsychologie [The Practice and Theory of Individual Psychology] (nonfiction) 1920

Menschenkenntnis [Understanding Human Nature] (nonfiction) 1927

Die Technik der Individualpsychologie: Volume 1, Die Kunst eine Krankengeschichte zu lesen; Volume 2, Die Seele schwererziehbaren Schulkinder [The Problem Child: The Life Style of the Difficult Child Analyzed in Specific Cases] (nonfiction) 1928-29

The Case of Miss R. (nonfiction) 1929

Individualpsychologie in der Schule: Vorlesungen fur Lehrer und Erzieher [Individual Psychology in the School: Lectures for Teachers and Educators] (nonfiction) 1929

Problems of Neurosis: A Book of Case-Histories (nonfiction) 1929

The Science of Living (nonfiction) 1929

The Education of Children (nonfiction) 1930

The Pattern of Life (nonfiction) 1930

Das Problem des Homosexualitat [The Problem of Homosexuality] (nonfiction) 1930

The Case of Mrs. A. (nonfiction) 1931

What Life Should Mean to You (nonfiction) 1931

Religion und Individualpsychologie [Religion and Individual Psychology] (with Ernst Jahn) (nonfiction) 1933

Der Sinn des Lebens [Social Interest: A Challenge to Mankind] (nonfiction) 1933

The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler: A Systematic

Presentation in Selections from His Writings (nonfiction) 1956

Superiority and Social Interest: A Collection of Later Writings (nonfiction) 1965

Cooperation Between the Sexes (nonfiction) 1978


H. M. Kallen (essay date 1925)

SOURCE: "Psychology without Compromise," in The Dial, Vol. LXXVIII, March, 1925, pp. 236-39.

[In the following review, Kallen offers a skeptical summary of Adler's system of individual psychology.]

Nowadays, when people talk of the "new psychology," they mean prevailingly the ideas about the human mind deriving from the work of Freud and his associates. Although the custom is to lump this work in a single, solid, homogeneous mass, it is, in fact, still nebular, with three definite heads distinguishable in it. At the centre is the system of human nature constructed and stated, more or less architecturally, by Freud himself and accepted as the incontrovertible orthodoxy by the congregation of the faithful. To the right and to the left are the heterodoxies of Jung, the Swiss, and Adler, the Austrian. Both heterodoxies consist primarily in a rejection or deprecation of the cardinal orthodox dogma regarding the supreme role of sexuality in the life of man from birth to death. Jung absorbs this sexuality in a prior and wider stream of activity which turns his speculations regarding human nature into a metaphysical sentimentalism of the type of Eucken or Bergson. Adler subordinates this sexuality to a prior and wider "will-to-power" which allies his speculations concerning human nature with a metaphysical voluntarism of the type of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Vaihinger. Both philosophers of mind differ from their metaphysical relatives in that they generate their speculative dogmas out of the material provided by means of the technique of psychoanalysis, of which both are practitioners. This technique is the common denominator of the three sects. The rest may be considered what Alder would call "arrangements" of the material drawn out by the technique.

[The Practice and Theory of Individual Psychology] is a redundant compilation of Adlerian "arrangements." It consists of a collection of twenty-eight occasional pieces, the earliest dating from 1911. Their sequence has been made, as nearly as it could be, logical rather than temporal, and the themes mount in technicality and range as the essays proceed. There are subjects as varied as the psychic treatment of trigeminal neuralgia and Dostoevsky; myelodysplasia and the individual-psychology of prostitution. Nevertheless, the essays do not avoid being boresomely repetitious. Dr Radin, in his work of translation, seems not to have succeeded so well as he might have in reducing the unnecessarily technical, involved, and pontificating style of the originals to a direct and readable English. Those who are familiar with Dr Adler's German will, however, not too greatly blame him. They will remember how much worse that is than even the bad German most of the German-speaking psychoanalysts seem to have fallen into.

Adler calls his system of human nature the system of "individual psychology." He intends by this phrase that the psyche of each man is always to be considered an organic and indissoluble unity. It is a...

(The entire section is 1249 words.)

Wayland F. Vaughan (essay date 1927)

SOURCE: "The Psychology of Alfred Adler," in Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, Vol. XXI, No. 4, January-March, 1927, pp. 358-71.

[In the following essay, Vaughan provides a survey of the tenets of Adler's psychological system.]

The heterodox nature of the Freudian psychology and the authoritative, dogmatic manner of its presentation, both favored the rise of spirited opposition in its train. Prominent among the secessionists are Jung and Adler. Jung has gained a wide audience for his theories through the attractive literary form in which they have been advanced. Adler has been less fortunate in a literary way, for his heavy, involved style has obscured a...

(The entire section is 5128 words.)

Herbert Blumer (essay date 1928)

SOURCE: A review of Understanding Human Nature, in American Journal of Sociology, Vol. XXXIV, No. 2, September, 1928, pp. 391-93.

[In the following review, Blumer provides an assessment of three Adlerian themes: the inferiority feeling, the life-pattern, and the nature of character.]

Of all psychiatrists Dr. Adler seems to be most akin to sociologists in spirit and perspective. In earlier works he has shown a keen appreciation of the rôle of social relations in personal development; in [Understanding Human Nature], which is constructed out of a series of popular lectures, we have the simplest and clearest picture of these views.

Amid a...

(The entire section is 798 words.)

E. L. Grant Watson (essay date 1932)

SOURCE: A review of What Life Should Mean to You, in The Criterion, Vol. XI, No. XLV, July, 1932, pp. 733-35.

[In the following review, Watson contrasts Adler's stress on social cooperation to the sexual theories of Freud and the metaphysics of Jung.]

No statement on the meaning of life from Dr. Adler can avoid comparison with the statements of Freud and Jung, yet it seems strange that these writers should so consistently neglect each other's conclusions, and should follow exclusively, with what seems an almost compulsive energy, their own lines of thought. Dr. Jung has more than either of the others made allowance for his rivals, and, in relegating them to...

(The entire section is 915 words.)

Oliver Brachfeld (essay date 1936)

SOURCE: "Alfred Adler and His Comparative Psychology of Individuals," in Inferiority Feelings in the Individual and the Group, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1951, pp. 73-93.

[In the following excerpt, which was originally published in Spanish in 1936, Brachfeld situates Adler's conception of human nature within the context of a social and philosophical debate over degeneracy.]

In Levin D. Schucking's work The Sociology of Literary Taste we possess an able, if incomplete, study of the changes of fashion in the domain of literature. But no one so far has attempted to give an account of the formation and development of taste in psychological matters. And yet...

(The entire section is 7784 words.)

The Times Literary Supplement (essay date 1958)

SOURCE: "Individual Psychologist," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 2960, November 21, 1958, pp. 665-66.

[In the following review, the critic provides an overview of Adler's life, career, and writings.]

Since Freud's death in 1939 psycho-analysis has certainly not remained stationary. Although the basic method has changed little, several of the major Freudian ideas have undergone considerable revision. In particular, serious attempts have been made to shake off the doctrine of instinct and to replace it by new conceptions of inter-personal relationship. There has also been a shift of interest from the unconscious mechanisms supposed to underlie neurosis to the...

(The entire section is 2678 words.)

Clarence J. Karier (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Alfred Adler: Social Interest as Religion," in Scientists of the Mind: Intellectual Founders of Modern Psychology, University of Illinois Press, 1986, pp. 226-54.

[In the following excerpt, Karier offers a study of Adler's life and intellectual legacy.]

In the early morning hours of a day in late May 1937, Alfred Adler lay prostrate on a cobblestone street in Aberdeen, Scotland, stricken by a fatal heart attack. When, very much moved by the news, Arnold Zweig reported Adler's death to Sigmund Freud, the latter is said to have replied: "I don't understand your sympathy for Adler. For a Jew boy out of a Viennese suburb a death in Aberdeen is an unheard-of career...

(The entire section is 10586 words.)

Edward Hoffman (essay date 1994)

SOURCE:" 'Books Like Firecrackers' and Mass Politics" and "The Trap of Personality," in The Drive for Self: Alfred Adler and the Founding of Individual Psychology, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1994, pp. 248-70, 325-30.

[In the following excerpt, Hoffman discusses a number of Adler's later publications in terms of their political context.]

The spring of 1930 saw the release of [Adler's] three new books, all aimed at a relatively popular audience. These were The Pattern of Life, Guiding the Child, and The Education of Children. Their nearly simultaneous publication in the United States clearly reflected Adler's own shift in professional emphasis from...

(The entire section is 3729 words.)

Further Reading


Bottome, Phyllis. Alfred Adler: A Biography. New York: Putnam, 1939, 324 p.

Popular biography written by a novelist who became a student and patient of Adler.

Dennis, Nigel. "Alfred Adler and the Style of Life." Encounter 35, No. 2 (August 1970): 5-11.

Includes personal reminiscences of Adler by the author and an evaluation of his psychological theories.

Hoffman, Edward. The Drive for Self. Alfred Adler and the Founding of Individual Psychology. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1994, 390 p.

A complete account of Adler's life, including his later career in the United States....

(The entire section is 471 words.)