Karen Horney Introduction

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(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...

(The entire section is 1,040 words.)