Why Did Alfred Adler Really Break with Freud?

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Why Did Alfred Adler Really Break with Freud?
Why did Alfred Adler really break with Freud? Over the years, scholars have mostly emphasized the theoretical differences between the two men. However, a closer look at the evidence reveals that the primary reason was a difference in personality, and that this difference was more important than theoretical or scientific disagreements.

Freud himself seemed to have recognized this. In 1935, Joseph Wortis (1954), who at that time was receiving a training analysis with Freud, remarked that it was disturbing to find that Freud had gotten along so poorly with some of his disciples and "to see so much animosity among scientists" Freud responded that "it is not the scientific differences that are so important, it is usually some other kind of animosity, jealousy or revenge, that gives the impulse to enmity. The scientific differences come later" (p. 163).

Personality differences between Freud and Adler were enormous and would have made a lasting harmonious relationship extremely unlikely. Freud was personally very ambitious. He jealously guarded the sacrosanct doctrines of psychoanalysis and had a history of severing relations with people who held views different from his own. On the other hand, Adler had a combative side to his personality that led him to challenge authority. While still a member of the Wednesday Psychological Society, Adler often questioned some of the orthodox psychoanalytic views, and this quarrelsome attitude was not designed to please Freud. Adler's combative stance coupled with Freud's keen sensitivity to criticism undoubtedly contributed to the unpleasant ending of their relationship.

Adler's competitive nature can be traced to his childhood. A second-born child, he developed a fierce rivalry with his older brother Sigmund. This prototypical rivalry was fueled by the obvious health differences between the two Adler boys. Sigmund enjoyed robust health while Alfred suffered from poor health throughout his early childhood. At age 5, Alfred nearly died after developing pneumonia. He had gone ice-skating with an older boy who left young Alfred stranded and shivering on the ice. The young boy managed to find his way home, where he fell asleep on the living-room couch. When he awoke, he heard a doctor tell his parents, "Give yourself no more trouble. The boy is lost" (Hoffman, 1994, p. 8). Despite this pessimistic diagnosis, Alfred recovered from this bout of pneumonia and decided then to surmount all obstacles and to become a doctor. Overcoming obstacles became a strong personal characteristic for Adler and led him to develop a fierce boyhood rivalry with his older brother Sigmund, a rivalry that carried over in his dealings with the older Freud, also named Sigmund.

Adler found competition with his older brother very difficult. Sigmund Adler was the oldest child in a Jewish family that favored first-born boys. Two years older than Alfred, Sigmund was physically stronger and much healthier. In addition, he was intelligent, competent, and domineering, and he "habitually made Alfred feel embattled in an intense struggle for the parents' attention" (Hoffman, 1994, p. 6). In contrast, Alfred, who suffered from rickets as a child, was physically slow and awkward. Some of his earliest recollections were of the great contrast between his brother's good health and his own sickly condition. As an adult, Adler reported that

One of my earliest recollections is of sitting on a beach . . . bandaged up on account of rickets, with my healthier elder brother sitting opposite me. He could run, jump, and move about quite effortlessly, while for me movement of any sort was a strain. . . . Everyone went to great pains to help me. (Bottome, 1957, p. 30)

If Adler's assumption that early recollections are a valid indicator of a person's style of life, then this memory should yield clues about Adler's adult style of life. First, it tells us that he must have seen himself as an underdog, competing valiantly against a powerful foe. However, this early recollection also indicates that he believed he had the help of others. Receiving aid from other people would have given Adler the confidence to compete against such a powerful rival. This confidence coupled with a competitive attitude likely carried over to his relationship with Sigmund Freud, making that association tenuous from the beginning.

Adler's intense rivalry with the two Sigmunds continued throughout his lifetime. During adolescence, Adler felt "eclipsed by his 'model brother' and resented his favored status in the family" (Hoffman, 1994, p. 11). In latter years, Sigmund Adler became a wealthy and highly respected businessperson who financially helped his siblings, including Alfred. This support prompted the world-famous, middle-aged Alfred Adler to refer to his older brother as "a good industrious fellow [who] was always ahead of me—is still ahead of me" (Bottome, 1957, p. 27).

If Adler retained a life-long rivalry with his brother Sigmund, he harbored even greater animosity toward Sigmund Freud. After his break with Freud, and for the remainder of his life, Adler carried the postcard that Freud had written in November of 1902 inviting him to join with three other men to meet in Freud's home and discuss psychology and neuropathology. This group soon became the Wednesday Psychology Society (even though its first meeting was held on a Thursday).

In later years, whenever reporters wrote that he was an early disciple of Freud, Adler would become annoyed and produce the faded postcard as proof that "Freud, fourteen years his senior, had initially sought his intellectual companionship, and not the other way around" (Hoffman, 1994, p. 42).

Not long before his death in 1937, Adler was having dinner in a New York restaurant with a young colleague named Abraham Maslow. When Maslow (1962) casually asked Adler about being a disciple of Freud, Adler

became very angry. He said that this was a lie and a swindle for which he blamed Freud entirely, whom he then called names like swindler, sly, schemer, as nearly as I can recall. He said that he had never been a student of Freud or a disciple or a follower. He made it clear from the beginning that he didn't agree with Freud and that he had his own opinions. (p. 125)

Maslow, who had known Adler as an even-tempered, congenial person, was stunned by his outburst.

To react so violently at the suggestion that he was at one time a student of Freud and to carry a postcard stating otherwise would seem to attest to Adler's lifelong striving for superiority over Sigmund—first Sigmund Adler, then Sigmund Freud.

The rivalry between Adler and Freud was definitely two-sided, with both men making caustic remarks about the other. After World War I, when Freud elevated aggression to a basic human drive, Adler, who had long since abandoned the concept, commented sarcastically: "I enriched psychoanalysis by the aggressive drive. I gladly make them a present of it" (Bottome, 1939, p. 64). If anything, Freud probably made more nasty remarks about Adler than Adler did about Freud. During the bitter breakup between the two men, Freud accused Adler of having paranoid delusions and of using terrorist tactics. He told his friend Ernest Jones that the revolt by Adler was that of "an abnormal individual driven mad by ambition" (quoted in Gay, 1988, p. 223).

However, Freud saved his most scathing remarks for the end. When told of Adler's death on the streets of Aberdeen, Scotland, Freud (as quoted in Jones, 1957) caustically remarked "For a Jew boy out of a Viennese suburb a death in Aberdeen is an unheard-of career in itself and a proof of how far he had got on. The world really rewarded him richly for his service in having contradicted psychoanalysis" (p. 208).

Besides not liking each other very much, Freud and Adler were temperamentally quite different. Freud was aloof, almost cold with people he did not know well, whereas Adler was gregarious, warm, and friendly with nearly everyone. Freud's personality was more suited for research than for therapy, and he used psychoanalysis more as a learning tool than as a means of curing the neuroses of his patients, most of whom were from the upper-middle or upper classes. In contrast, Adler enjoyed the clinical aspects of his profession and delighted in conducting therapy with patients from the working classes

Differences between Freud and Adler extended to their attitude toward women. Near the end of his life, Freud was still asking what women wanted and was still clinging to his basic assumption that anatomy was destiny and that men and women were not only anatomically disparate but also psychologically different. At that time Alfred Adler already had a long history of advocating equality of the sexes and was assuming that women and men wanted more or less the same thing because they had the same physiological and psychological needs.

Their opposing views on femininity were accentuated in the women Freud and Adler chose to marry. Martha Bernays Freud was a subservient housewife dedicated to her children and husband, but she had no interest in her husband's professional work. In contrast, Raissa Epstein Adler was an intensely independent woman who abhorred the traditional domestic role, preferring a politically active career. Edward Hoffman (1994) recounted one example of Raissa's independence. Shortly before World War I, Raissa took their four children on an extended vacation to her native Russia. When war threatened Europe, Adler send a telegram asking her to return to Austria immediately. Raissa, however, refused saying she would wait. Her hesitation showed her independence, but as a result, she and her children came dangerously close to being trapped in Russia. She managed to escape with her children only after gaining an audience with the Czar and falsely declaring herself a loyal Russian citizen. Such independence pleased Adler, who was as much a feminist as his strong-willed wife.

As her husband gained world fame, Raissa Adler continued an independent lifestyle. She pursued her political career, actively trying to help her friend Leon Trotsky out maneuver Joseph Stalin for control of the Communist Party. During the early years of their marriage, Raissa and Alfred Adler had somewhat compatible political views, but in time, these views diverged. Alfred became more of a capitalist, advocating personal responsibility, while Raissa continued as a Marxist-Leninist, promoting state control of wealth. When asked her opinion of her husband's views, Raissa once replied: "I do not agree with all that Adler teaches. Not that I am against his main principles of Individual Psychology, but I think these matters have an economic basis and should be dealt with politically, and my husband does not" (Bottome, 1962, p. 182). One would be hard-pressed to imagine Martha Freud making such a statement about her husband's views.

Raissa also showed her independence after Alfred moved to New York. Despite several requests by her husband to join him in the United States, Raissa refused and continued to live in Europe where she could advance her own political and economic views. After the Nazis took control of Austria, Raissa was arrested for her involvement in Communist Party activities and spent several days in jail. Undeterred, she still chose to live in Austria and to pursue her political activities. Finally, in 1936 and after becoming a political refugee, she decided to move to New York and live with her husband and her son Kurt. Unfortunately, the next year Alfred was dead. Ironically, Raissa, who did not share her husband's fondness for the United States and its people, continued to live in New York until her own death, nearly 25 years later.

Why did the Freud/Adler union dissolve? It now seems likely that even if Freud and Adler had held compatible professional and scientific views, their personality differences would have inevitably driven them apart.


Bottome, P. (1939). Alfred Adler: Apostle of freedom. London: Faber & Faber.

Bottome, P. (1957). Alfred Adler: A portrait from life. New York: Vanguard.

Bottome, P. (1962). Frau Dr. Adler. (Mrs. Raissa Adler). Journal of Individual Psychology, 18, 182-183.

Gay, P. (1988). Freud: A life for our time. New York: Norton.

Hoffman, E. (1994). The drive for self: Alfred Adler and the founding of individual psychology. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Jones, E. (1957). The life and work of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 3). New York: Basic Books.

Maslow, A. H. (1962). Was Adler a disciple of Freud? A note. Journal of Individual Psychology, 18, 125.

Wortis, J. (1954). Fragments of an analysis with Freud. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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