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Chapter 8: Alfred Adler and Individual Psychology (The Discovery of the Unconscious)

Alfred Adler and Carl Jung both had independent ideas and were not psychoanalytic deviants, as is commonly believed. They collaborated with Freud, but maintained their independence, and after their break, they developed their own systems of psychoanalysis.

Freud’s goal was to incorporate into scientific psychology the insights alluded to by Shakespeare, the Greek tragedians, Goethe, and others, while Adler wanted practical, human knowledge to inform his scientific psychology.

Freud and Adler had different social and family backgrounds, and this is relevant to their differences as psychoanalysts. Freud always considered himself a member of a minority group, and since he was always under the watchful eyes of his parents and teachers, he emphasized his childhood relationships with his parents far more than his relationships to his peers and siblings. Freud was the firstborn and cherished child of his mother, he felt antagonistic to his father, and this made the Oedipus situation seem natural to him.

Adler did not experience this kind of parental supervision as a child. Instead, he reported having many fights with non-Jewish children who belonged to the lower classes. Thus, to him, peer relationships were more important and impactful than parental relationships.

Adler was the second born, and he felt protected by the father, while rejected by the mother. He experienced the opposite situation of Freud, and this led him to reject the Oedipus complex.

In university, he had a deep interest for socialism. In 1904, he converted to Protestantism.

Adler’s book Studies on Organ Inferiority was accepted by Freud as a supplement to his own system.  

His next book The Nervous Character was both considered a work of genius but highly unscientific by Wagner-Jauregg.

Adler eventually left the Social Democratic Party and determined to devote the rest of his attention to the flourishing of Individual psychology.

In terms of his abilities, he was not a gifted conversationalist and his writing suffered from lack of style and organization.

Many people thought that Adler was gifted in his intuition for human psychology, he could often decipher much about a patient’s life with a brief encounter.

His disdain for Judaism may have stemmed from two things, the first is the neurotic desire to escape one’s life tasks by turning to religion, and the other is that Judaism only gave importance to one ethnic group, while Adler wanted to belong to a universal group. He may have converted to Protestantism for this reason.

Freud was like Schopenhauer; he had a pessimistic view of man. He saw the neurotic as someone who was the victim of a grandiose and tragic self-deception of mankind. Whereas Adler was more like Leibniz, he thought of the neurotic as someone who used transparent tricks to escape his life task.

Adler thought that anxiety was the result of the reaction of the life instinct against the death instinct – what Freud called “Eros” and “Thanatos.” He also thought that neurosis came from the repression of religion or morality.

Theory of Organ Inferiority

Adler credited both Nietzsche and Marx for their moral insights.

An organ inferiority can either be undetectable, insufficient or bad functioning. An organ inferiority can be relative or absolute and may take a favorable course through compensation. Compensation can either occur through the organ itself, other organs, or through the nervous centers. And compensation happens because the person focuses on the functioning of the inferior organ. This leads to training which leads to satisfactory or superior functioning of the organ.

Adler quotes musicians who were inflicted with ear diseases, and painters who came from families with eye diseases.

The inferiority complex does not contradict psychoanalysis but seems to be a physiological complement to it.

Adler thought that there was a strong link between sexual inferiority and organ inferiority, and that neurosis could result from the stimulation of an erogenous surface that is adjacent to the inferior organ. Freud thought that the inferiority complex was a valuable addition to the study of neurosis.

In 1908, Adler disagreed with Freud’s belief that the libido was the main dynamic source of psychic life. Adler thought that the aggressive drive was not a result of a frustrated libido and that it is equally influential to the libido in life and in neurosis.

Two years later, Adler laid the foundation of psychological hermaphroditism. Experience had taught him that neurotic patients displayed secondary sexual characteristics of the opposite sex. This makes the patient feel inferior and strive towards compensation in the form of masculine protest.

If the patient was a young boy, he would equate aggression with masculinity and passivity with femininity. Masculine protest is the root of fetishism and exhibitionism, and the same masculine protest will lead the individual to surpass his father and secondarily direct his wishful representations towards his mother – this is how Adler explains the Oedipus Complex.

In women, masculine protest can be seen when they strive for positions that are typically male, in order to subvert the unfair distribution of power by the male hierarchy.

In man, masculine protest is the result of doubts about his sexual role or fear of not being capable of living up to it, and at the same times this reinforces prejudice against woman.

The inferiority complex thus can also take forms outside of physiology, it can come from feelings of inferiority themselves.

Theory of Neurosis

Adler thought of each action as a representation of the individual, a whole being that is moving towards a fictitious goal. Abnormity is the extent to which this goal is different from the crowd. Neuroses are a result of this deviation.

Not only does organ inferiority lead to physiological compensation, but also triggers a form of complex psychological compensation in self-assertion. Feelings of inferiority can be completely socially caused such as birth order. And even when there is organ inferiority, the psychological reaction is the main component.

The neurotic lives in a fictional world that is organized around opposing ides. The main opposition is the feeling of inferiority and the feeling of exaltation. This opposition is equated with the ideas of “high” and “low,” “masculine” and “feminine,” “triumph” and “defeat.”

Unlike Freud, Adler stressed the importance of social factor in neuroses. Some neurotics restrict their social circle to only their family and prefer their parental family to their own.

Individual Psychology

Adlerian psychology is neither clinical nor academic psychology.

This kind of pragmatic psychology, sometimes called concrete psychology, does not pretend to go into matters very deeply, but to provide principles and methods that enable one to acquire a practical knowledge of oneself and of others. This was also what Kant attempted in his Anthropology from the Pragmatic Point of View.

Everything that happens in life occurs as if certain principles were true:

1) The Principle of Unity: A human being is indivisible with respect to his mind-body relationship, and his activities and mental functions. This is very different from what Freud believed, which was the idea of man’s ambivalence and conflicts between the unconscious and conscious.

2) The Principle of Dynamism; Life can’t be conceived without movement. No one can think, feel, or dream anything without a goal, but his behavior is determined insofar as he conforms to his self-imposed goal. Each man finds himself in a position of inferiority, he can either overcome it or not, but it is not enough to have insight, he needs courage. An act of courage can enable a man to change his life by changing his goal.

3) The Principle of Cosmic Influence: This is community feeling, man’s sense that he belongs to a group that is larger than himself, governed by laws and norms.

4) The Principle of Spontaneous Structuration of the Parts in a Whole: The idea that all the aspects of the mind spontaneously organize to realize the goal that the individual has set for himself.

5) The Principle of Action and Inaction between the individual and his environment: A person must adjust and readjust to their environment. When he is in an inferior position, he acts to overcome it directly or indirectly. This is true for the individual and for the species. Like Marx, Adler thought that man’s ability to change his environment was his distinguishing feature. But trying to change things will be met with social forces that will tend to check his expansion. The individual never acts in an isolated way.

6) The Law of Absolute Truth: The balance that the individual finds between self-assertion and the feelings of his community.

Adler thought that man’s attitude of superiority over woman is a reaction to an ancient period of matriarchy.

Birth Order

Adler thought that each child in a family has a different perspective according to the position they have in relation to their siblings. The oldest is by default considered better than his siblings, he is made to feel he is stronger, wiser, and more responsible. That is why he values authority and tradition and is conservative in his thinking.

The youngest brother is in danger of remaining the spoiled and cowardly family babe. While the oldest may take the fathers profession, the youngest may become an artist, or as a result of overcompensation, will develop tremendous ambition and strive to be the savior of the entire family.

The second child faces pressure both his older and younger brother, while the only child is the most exposed to being spoiled and pampered, even more so than the youngest one.

Life Tasks

The adult stage of life is a time to fulfill the three life tasks: love and family, profession, and in relationships with the community. How the individual fulfills these describe how well adjusted he is.

Later Works

In Adler’s later writings, he no longer sees superiority as antagonistic to community feeling, and views creativity as an essential component in constructing the individual’s life plan.

And when inferiority feelings were no longer considered primary, but secondary to the striving for superiority.

The Discovery of the Unconscious: The History and Evolution of Dynamic PsychiatryChapter 8: Alfred Adler and Individual Psychology (The Discovery of the Unconscious) 1

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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