Alfred Adler (An Essay)

This essay will give an account of the main aspects of the life, work and times of Alfred Adler, the founder of Individual Psychology. It will describe how his childhood has laid the foundation for his work. Additionally, it will try to demonstrate that Adler has a place in the history of psychology that goes beyond his association with Freud.

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Alfred Adler was born in 1870 in Penzing, a suburb of Vienna. Both his parents were Hungarian. His father was a Jewish grain merchant while his mother kept busy raising seven children. By the time Adler was born, the family lived a prosperous life (Boeree, 1997; Feist and Feist, 2006).

Early on, Adler developed rickets and this kept him from walking until he was four years old. At the Age of five he got pneumonia and he overheard the doctor saying he would die of it. His feeble physical condition, alongside the death of his younger brother one year earlier, led him to want to become a doctor (Feist et al, 2006).

Adler described his childhood as unhappy. He looked at his elder brother, Sigmund, as a model and felt to always be living in his shade. This feeling was still persisting later in his life and it has been proposed that it might have influenced his relation with Freud, who he saw as a threat to his own originality (Bottome, 1957).

At the time his younger brother was born Adler was four years old. The sudden shift of attention from his parents was noticed and Adler, who had a distant relation with his mother, resented her most. He never really got attached to her (Bottome, 1957).

These initial years Adler spent out in the streets or in neighbour’s houses, trying to put aside the sadness he felt at home. Already then, Adler was very conscious of his neighbours’ humble lives. Arguably, this experience might have set the seeds for one of the core elements of the Alderian Psychology, the Law of Social Interest (Engler, 2009; Bottome, 1957).

This freedom to roam around was encouraged by Adler’s father who was himself a very free and positive person. His father did not like to talk about his own health and tended to minimize illness in his family. Adler inherited his father’s traits and from the beginning set himself to overcome his organ inferiority (Engler, 2009), a topic that would find expression in his work Study on Organ Inferiority and Its Psychical Compensation.

With his father full support, Adler went on to the University of Vienna to become a doctor, graduating in 1895. During his university degree, Adler studied history of psychology and became critic of how it had developed (Bottome, 1957).

Alder met his Russian wife, Raissa Timofejewna, when she was also a student (Boeree, 1997). She was an early feminist and had very strong socialist political opinions (Feist et al, 2006). Adler, who at that time wrote the socialist pamphlet “The Health of Tailors”, would soon give up on the idea of improvement through political change (Bottome, 1957).

The Vienna that saw Adler develop is career as general practitioner was a tolerant, international city that promoted all sorts of opinions. Adler was a frequent customer of Café Central and there he spent many hours after work, putting to test his ideas. He soon started to gather around a group of followers (Bottome, 1957).

In 1899, Freud published Dream Analysis. The book was highly criticised and Adler – who had found it to contain interesting ideas –publicly defend it. Freud was moved by this gesture (Bottome, 1957) and, in 1902, invited Adler to be a part of the discussion circle of psycho-analysis, known as the Wednesday Psychological Society (Feist et al., 2006). This marked the start of a tumultuous ten-year relationship.

The difference in their personalities can best be described under Adler’s own work on Family Constellation: Freud was the eldest and therefore the authoritative type; Adler was the second son which made him the rebel type. At a work level there were also many differences. Freud was a systematiser and directive with his patients; Adler did not like prescriptions and promoted egalitarian relations (Bottome, 1957).

Despite these differences, the conflict only became important when Adler turned the unmasking method used by psycho-analysis on psycho-analysis itself. Adler saw the value in dream analysis and the free association technique, but could not accept the Oedipus Complex (Bottome, 1957) and Freud’s untouchable position regarding the central influence of the sex instinct in driving development (Boeree, 1997).

Their definite break-up happened when Freud requested the proprietors of the Psycho-Analytical journal to remove Adler’s name from the title page (Bottome, 1957). Adler, who was at that time the co-editor of the organisation’s newsletter, promptly resigned. After some heated discussions, Adler was formally voted out of the psycho-analyst movement, taking with him nine members (Boeree, 1997).

Many authors (e.g. Bottome, 1957; Engler, 2009) effectively argue that Adler was never a Freud’s follower and was invited to participate in the psycho-analysis circle on equal terms. Bottome (1957) and Feist et al (2006) mention a postcard Freud sent to Adler inviting him to participate in the discussions as a colleague.

The year of 1910 marked the beginning of the Individual Psychology. Adler, now established as a Psychiatrist, founded a new school, meaningfully calling it The Free Psycho-analysts Society (Boeree, 1997).

Contrary to Freud, he had grown to the idea of a teleological process ruling human thought and believed current behaviour to be directed by future goals. The purpose of any human being, Adler claimed, is to attain perfection and escape the Inferiority Complex. Adler admired the philosopher Vaihinger and adopted his concept of Fictional Finalism to explain that people attempt to reach imagined goals that give direction to their behaviour (Ryckman, 2008).

Another central concept to Adler’s theory was the wholeness of the human spirit and the belief that one instinct cannot be separated from the others (Bottome, 1957) or dominates others. In latin, individuus means indivisible, the reason why Adler chose to name his psychology Individual Psychology. In 1911, the Free Analysts finally changed their name to Society of Individual Psychology (Boeree, 1997).

Adler was the proponent of the Masculine Protest. This theory supported that man may not have reasons to feel superior as human beings and this triggers their tendency to emphasize their superiority to women. Adler believed this was the cause for women underperforming and resulted in a serious problem for humanity (Bottome, 1957)

Ironically, Raissa mentioned that her husband, as a product of the petit bourgeois society, had difficulties in accepting what freedom actually meant to a woman. Even so, he was able to live to his words by providing an equalitarian education to their three daughters and one son (Bottome, 1957).

During the 1914 War, Adler had to serve as a military doctor in the Russian front and help out in Vienna’s hospitals (Bottome, 1957; Ryckman, 2008). About this period, Adler is quoted saying “It’s then that I stopped dreaming […]” (Bottome, 1957). The sufferings Adler witnessed were influential in the development of the Law of Social Interest. Adler claimed that a courageous attitude towards our sense of inferiority would put us in the way to successful life-plan; however, this plan could only become successful if it had as goal the service of mankind (Bottome, 1957, Feist et al. 1996).

The Nietzscheans who had joined Adler because of his conceptualization of the will-to-power and the progress from a minus to a plus, could not tolerate a psychology based on an imprecise idea, with an apparent religious connotation. They reacted by leaving the group (Bottome, 1957).

Adler had an influential role in education and child guidance. In 1924, as a lecturer in the Pedagogical Institute of Vienna, he trained a countless number of students in using his theory (Reynolds and Fletcher-Janzen, 2007). In particular, Adler taught that the whole personality was at the root of the problems and that the physical symptoms would disappear as soon as the change was operated at the level of the whole. Simultaneously, he got permission to attach his child guidance clinics to more than thirty state schools and initiated the practice of having parents, teachers and children in clinic sessions (Engler, 2009).

By 1925, Adler had gained international recognition and was being invited to educational conferences in other countries (Ryckman, 2008).

Adler was facing some difficulties with his marriage. Raissa was everyday more involved in her political career and in trying to make Leon Trotsky get the control of the communist party. Contrary to Adler, she believed that education, having an economic ground, should be addressed politically (Bottome, 1957).

In 1934, the fascist regime took over Austria and, as a result, the child guidance clinics were closed. By this time, Adler had been visiting the United States regularly and, in 1935, he went to live in it. There he continued in private practice and taught Medical Psychology at the Long Island College of Medicine (Journal of Special Education, 1968).

Raissa decided to live up to her political views and stay in Vienna, despite Adler’s request to join him. She was later arrested by the Nazis for her involvement in communist activities. In 1936, she finally decided to take refuge in the United States.


Adler died in 1937 of a heart attack while lecturing in Scotland. He’s theories have since then influenced the work of many famous psychologists like Abraham H. Maslow, Carl Rogers or Rollo May (Feist et al, 2006). Individual Psychology has survived its creator and is now very much alive, as it can be attested by the many organisations practicing it, including the International Association for Individual Psychology. In retrospective, it’s possible to conclude that Adler’s relative lack of success had little to do with the originality of his work, but more with his refusal to have a dogmatic approach to its teaching and to its practice.



Boeree G. (1997), Personality Theories, Psychology Department, Shippensburg University

Bottome P. (1957), Alfred Adler – A Portrait from Life, New York: The Vanguard Press

Engler B. (2009), Personality Theories, USA: Cengage Learning

Feist J., Feist G. (2006), Theories of Personality, USA: McGraw Hill

Journal of Special Education (1968), Alfred Adler (1870-1937): A Biographical Sketch, Journal of Special Education, Vol2: 234-235

Reynolds C. R., Fletcher-Janzen E. (2007) (edited by), Encyclopedia of Special Education, Vol 1, New Jersey: John Willey & Sons

Ryckman R. M. (2008), Theories of Personality, USA: Thomson Wadsworth



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