Karen Horney Essay - Critical Essays

Horney, Karen


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."

Principal Works

The Neurotic Personality of Our Time (nonfiction) 1937

New Ways in Psychoanalysis (nonfiction) 1939

Self-Analysis (nonfiction) 1942

Our Inner Conflicts: A Constructive Theory of Neurosis (nonfiction) 1945

Are You Considering Psychoanalysis? (nonfiction) 1946

Neurosis and Human Growth: The Struggle Toward Self-Realization (nonfiction) 1950

*Feminine Psychology (nonfiction) 1967; also published as Feminine Papers, 1967

The Adolescent Diaries of Karen Horney (diaries) 1980

Final Lectures (lectures) 1987

*This work was edited by Harold Kelman.

†This work was edited by Douglas H. Ingram.


Cyril Connolly (essay date 1940)

SOURCE: "Psycho-analysis," in The Condemned Play-ground: Essays, 1927-1944, New York: Macmillan, 1946, pp. 227-30.

[Connolly was a very influential English critic, nonfiction writer, and literary jounal editor. In the following review, originally published in 1940, he praises the accessibility of Horney's prose in New Ways in Psychoanalysis and the humanity of her approach to psychotherapy.]

Psycho-analysis leads to the most profound discoveries man has made about himself. Yet most people would agree that its results have been disappointing. The cures are few, and seem confined to certain extreme cases, while the neurotic infirmities of human beings increase out...

(The entire section is 1306 words.)

Lionel Trilling (essay date 1942)

SOURCE: "The Progressive Psyche," in The Nation (New York), Vol. 155, No. 11, September 12, 1942, pp. 215-17.

[Trilling was one of the most respected literary critics in the United States. Among his most significant works are The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society (1950) and Freud and the Crisis of Our Culture (1956). In the following largely negative review of Self-Analysis, he argues that Horney's criticisms of Sigmund Freud's theories represent a politically and ideologically liberal desire to view the psyche in hopeful and flattering terms. Trilling states that while Freud's view is darker than Horney's, it more adequately addresses "the savage...

(The entire section is 1824 words.)

Francis Bartlett (essay date 1945)

SOURCE: "Recent Trends in Psychoanalysis," in Science and Society, Vol. IX, No. 3, Summer, 1945, pp. 214-31.

[In the following essay, Bartlett discusses Horney's revisions and criticisms of Freudian psychoanalysis, discussing in particular her focus on the importance of social influences on the psyche.]

In recent years, the writings of Dr. Karen Homey have become very popular. Socially minded psychoanalysts and social workers who previously relied on Freudian theories which they could never quite believe, are exceedingly enthusiastic about Horney's work. They find in it a useful theory of neuroses which includes Freud's valid observations but eliminates the fantastic...

(The entire section is 6986 words.)

Joseph Wortis, M. D. (essay date 1946)

SOURCE: "Freud, Horney, Fromm and Others," in Science and Society, Vol. X, No. 2, 1946, pp. 176-85.

[In the following essay, written in response to Francis Bartlett's essay "Recent Trends in Psychoanalysis" (Science and Society, Vol. IX, No. 3, Summer, 1945), Wortis examines Horney's theories in relation to both the Freudian tradition she rejects and to more contemporary trends, of which she claimed to be part. Wortis argues that Horney's conception of psychiatry is not as "progressive" as she claimed it was.]

Bartlett's critique of Horney in this magazine [Science and Society] (Summer, 1945) seems to me to be basically correct and very welcome. It is...

(The entire section is 3777 words.)

D. Ewen Cameron (essay date 1953)

SOURCE: "Karen Horney: A Pioneer in the Science of Human Relations," American Journal of Psychoanalysis, Vol. 14, No. 1, 1954, pp. 19-29.

[In the following essay, which was originally presented at a psychiatric conference on 22 April 1953, Cameron addresses the main aspects of Horney's thought and lauds her ability to incorporate into her work the social and historical issues of her time.]

Karen Horney was one of the children of her times. She walked among us distinguished by her originality of mind and by her leadership. Her life fell within a period of unusual turbulence and ferment in the world of thought. The long upward climb of humanism, which had started as far...

(The entire section is 7050 words.)

Frederick A. Weiss (essay date 1954)

SOURCE: "Karen Horney: Her Early Papers," in American Journal of Psychoanalysis, Vol. 14, No. 1, 1954, pp. 55-64.

[In the following essay, Weiss examines some of the central ideas in Horney's thought, focusing on their expression in some of her early writings and comparing these with her later works.]

"Science has often found it fruitful to look at long-familiar facts from a fresh point of view. Otherwise there is a danger that we shall involuntarily continue to classify all new observations amongst the same clearly defined group of ideas" ["The Flight From Womanhood: The Masculinity Complex in Women, as Viewed by Men and by Women," International Journal of...

(The entire section is 5169 words.)

Jack L. Rubins (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: "XXI: Neurosis and Human Growth," in Karen Horney: Gentle Rebel of Psychoanalysis, New York: The Dial Press, 1978, pp. 304-17.

[In the following excerpt from his biography of Horney, Rubins discusses Neurosis and Human Growth, examining the ways in which this articulation of her psychiatric approach differs from earlier ones. Rubins also briefly addresses the extent of Horney's influence on world psychiatry.]

Neurosis and Human Growth constituted the fourth and final version of Karen's psychoanalytic theory. It showed many changes from her earlier writings: in the style of writing, in emphasis and details of the theoretical structure...

(The entire section is 5257 words.)

Patricia Meyer Spacks (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "Fiery Giants and Icy Queens," in The New Republic, Vol. 183, No. 19, November 8, 1980, pp. 30-3.

[In the following review of The Adolescent Diaries of Karen Horney, Spacks discusses Horney's early life and the ways in which her diaries shed light on her professional writings.]

As an adolescent, Karen Horney argued with her parents, and condescended to them, worried whether anyone would ever love her, expressed her contempt for the older generation, had crushes on her teachers, overvalued the opinions of her peers, felt a horrified fascination with the idea of sexual activity: just like everyone else. Nevertheless, her diaries are remarkable.


(The entire section is 2420 words.)

Bernard J. Paris (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Bargains with Fate: The Case of Macbeth" in The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, Vol. 42, No. 1, Spring, 1982, pp. 7-20.

[In the following essay, which was originally presented at a conference held in February of 1981, Paris offers an interpretation of William Shakespeare's drama Macbeth (1606) utilizing some key concepts from Horney's psychoanalytic theory.]

According to Horney, each of the interpersonal strategies of defense involves a "bargain with fate" in which if a person lives up to his shoulds, his claims are supposed to be honored. The bargain of the self-effacing individual is that if he is a good, loving, noble person who shuns...

(The entire section is 6330 words.)

Harry Keyishian (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Karen Horney on 'The Value of Vindictiveness,'" in The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, Vol. 42, No. 1, Spring, 1982, pp. 21-6.

[In the following essay, which was originally presented at a conference held in February of 1981, Keyishian discusses the ways in which Horney's essay "The Value of Vindictiveness" can be used to illuminate the natures of various literary characters.]

I first came to appreciate the special value of Karen Horney's work while doing research for a study of revenge as a literary theme. Through an exploration of writings on power and punishment I progressed a certain distance with a general theory of revenge. I came to see that the main...

(The entire section is 2434 words.)

Karen Ann Butery (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "The Contributions of Horneyan Psychology to the Study of Literature," in The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, Vol. 42, No. 1, Spring, 1982, pp. 39-50.

[In the following essay, which was originally presented at a conference held in February of 1981, Butery demonstrates some of the ways in which applying Horney's theories to the study of literary characters reveals a fuller sense of their often self-contradictory natures.]

When accepting the Nobel Prize for literature, William Faulkner said that the "only" things "worth writing about" are the "problems of the human heart in conflict with itself." He laments that too many young writers "labo[r] under a curse"...

(The entire section is 5323 words.)

Marcia Westkott (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "A Social Psychology of Women," in The Feminist Legacy of Karen Horney, Yale University Press, 1986, pp. 66-87.

[In the following excerpt, Westkott offers a detailed examination of Horney's theory of neurosis, concluding that her "universalizing" of childhood experiencethat is, Horney's view that the sources of neurosis are not gender-specificis in fact a description of female psychology.]

In her later work Horney built on her critique of Freud to create an alternative explanation of character development and conflict. This was her theory of neurosis, which substituted experience for instinct in explaining psychology. But with this...

(The entire section is 6799 words.)

Marjorie B. Haselswerdt (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "'Keep Your Muck': A Horneyan Analysis of Joe Christmas and Light in August," in Third Force Psychology and the Study of Literature, edited by Bernard J. Paris, Associated University Presses, 1986, pp. 206-24.

[In the following essay, Haselswerdt presents a detailed discussion of the character Joe Christmas from William Faulkner's novel Light in August (1932), analyzing his "arrogant-vindictive" personality based primarily on Horney's theories as she presented them in Neurosis and Human Growth.]


When Alfred Kazin describes the "pinched rotted look" of Faulkner's Light in August, he is referring to the influence of...

(The entire section is 9592 words.)

Further Reading


Quinn, Susan. A Mind of Her Own: The Life of Karen Horney. New York: Addison-Wesley, 1988, 479 p.

Overview of Horney's life and career, with particular emphasis on her role in various debates and controversies within the psychoanalytic community.

Rubins, Jack L. Karen Horney: Gentle Rebel of Psycho-analysis. New York: The Dial Press, 1978, 362 p.

Examines Horney's life and career.


The American Journal of Psychoanalysis: Special Issue on Interdisciplinary Applications of Horney 49, No. 3 (September 1989): 181-341.

Includes several essays...

(The entire section is 416 words.)