Karen Horney Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Karen Horney 1885-1952

(Born Karen Clementine Theodore Danielsen) German-born American psychiatrist and nonfiction writer.

Horney is best known as a trenchant critic of orthodox Freudian psychoanalysis and as a founding theorist of humanistic psychology. Countering the biological determinism she found integral to Sigmund Freud's theories, she emphasized the importance of social, cultural, and interpersonal factors in the formation of personality. Horney argued that the underlying causes of neurosis and anxiety are the same for men and women, and thus corrected what she saw as Freud's overemphasis on instinctual drives and his "male bias" in regard to feminine psychology.

Biographical Information

Horney was born near Hamburg, Germany. Her father, a naturalized German citizen from Norway, was a sea captain and, by her own accounts, an intimidating and emotionally repressive figure. Her mother, who had ancestors in the German and Dutch nobility, was roughly twenty years younger than Horney's father and a much more nurturing presence in her life. While she excelled in school and was encouraged in intellectual pursuits by her mother, Horney attended college only after promising her father—who did not believe in education for women—that she would never again ask him for anything else. She graduated in 1906 and entered the University of Freiburg Medical School; she was one of fifty-eight women enrolled with well over two thousand men. In 1909 she married Oskar Horney, a lawyer. Two years later, after having studied at Freiburg, Göttingen, and Berlin, she was graduated from medical school. She was awarded her medical degree in 1915 after completing her dissertation entitled "A Casuistic [Clinical] Contribution to the Question of Traumatic Psychoses." While working at various hospitals and institutions in Germany, Horney met and received psychoanalytic therapy from Karl Abraham, a well-known psychiatrist and colleague of Freud. In 1917 she presented her first professional paper, "The Technique of Psychoanalytic Therapy," in which she argued for the individual's potential for lifelong emotional growth. This view was at odds with Freud's, who soon after pointedly ridiculed and refuted her work. Horney entered into private practice in 1919, which she continued—along with teaching at the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute—until 1932, when the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party impelled her to emigrate to the United States. First at the Chicago Institute of Psychoanalysis, then in New York at the New School for Social Research and the New York Psychoanalytic Institute, Horney practiced psychiatry, taught, and wrote many influential papers, essays, and books.

Major Works

Critics note that Horney's first important works were fourteen papers she delivered at conferences between 1922 and 1937. In these works, collected posthumously in Feminine Psychology (1967), she laid out her primary objections to Freudian psychoanalysis and outlined the ways in which she felt women should be treated in psychiatric theory and practice. In "On the Genesis of the Castration Complex in Women" and "The Flight from Womanhood," for example, Horney took issue with, among other things, Freud's concept of "penis envy." Freud argued that early in their development girls regard their genital difference from boys as a "lack," as castration. Consequently, their "envy" of boys is manifested in feelings of inferiority and subservience. For Horney, this represented Freud's chauvinistic tendency to view the male as the measure of the female. She proposed that there are social, cultural, and ideological factors responsible for women's anxieties regarding their adequacy and potency, and that, as Agnes N. O'Connell summarized, "what women envy is not the penis but the superior position of men in society." Freud also held that, because of the "castration complex," women are inherently masochistic, or given to seeking situations—not necessarily sexual in nature—in which they assume roles of dependence and victimization. In "The Problem of Feminine Masochism" Horney again argued that there are compelling social, cultural, and economic factors to which one should attribute women's reliance upon men for love, security, etc. Arguing against Freud's "instinct-based metapsychology," Horney's works from this period and after increasingly view the causes of neurosis and anxiety—for both men and women—as stemming from social forces and damaged personal relationships. In her fullest examination of these causes, The Neurotic Personality of Our Time (1937), she concluded that basic anxiety is not the result of unavoidable and gender-specific psycho-sexual traumas, but rather is the manifestation of repressed hostility generated in a disturbed relationship with one or both parents. Furthermore, as R. N. Iyer noted, for Horney "neuroses have a power of continuous growth that cannot be explained exclusively in terms of past experiences.…" Elaborating on these ideas in Our Inner Conflicts (1945) and Neuroses and Human Growth (1950), she posited that there are three predominant "neurotic trends," or ways in which individuals cope with potentially overwhelming anxiety. She described the first as "moving toward others"; through this process, the neurotic individual ingratiates him- or herself with others seeking affection and acceptance. In the second, "moving against others," the individual tries to dominate and manipulate people in order to express aggression and experience a sense of control. "Moving away from others," the third major "neurotic trend," involves both a protective attempt to isolate oneself and an obsessive concern with one's own perfection. Horney believed that an individual could manifest elements of all three tendencies, the mutual incompatibility of which could itself produce further neurosis. In the neurotic or "alienated" personality, Horney argued, there is a discrepancy between what she called the "Real Self and the idealized self the individual constructs in order to deal with inner conflicts. As she conceived it, the goal of psychiatric therapy is to reconcile this discrepancy, to bring about integration and "self-realization." Iyer noted that in Horney's approach, "[g]enerating spontaneity of feeling is requisite for authentic expression.… The most comprehensive therapeutic goal is wholeheartedness, living without pretence, wholly sincere and fully engaged." In his eulogy for her, the existential theologian Paul Tillich said of Horney: "She knew the darkness of the human soul, and the darkness of the world, but believed that what giveth light to any one suffering human being will finally give light to the world. The light she gave was not a cold light of passionless intellect, it was the light of passion and love. She wrote books but loved human beings. She helped them by insights into themselves which had healing power."