Historical Context: Adler in his Time
NOTE: Page numbers enclosed in parentheses are citations from The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler: A systematic presentation in selections from his writings. (H. L. and R. R. Ansbacher, Eds.).© 1964. Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. Used by permission of Perseus Books Group.
Adler, as anyone, must be considered in the context of his time. Adler’s time began in 1870 when he was born, the second son of a Jewish merchant in Vienna, the imperial city of Austro-Hungary, in the reign of Emperor Franz Josef. It was a time when Jews were tolerated but not yet citizens. Goods imported from the East were delivered by camel train. In the same year, Lenin, Jan Smuts (see Smuts, 1961), and Maria Montessori were born, Robert E. Lee died, and the Vatican Council proclaimed the infallibility of the Pope. Electric lights, telephones, automobiles, and airplanes were yet to come. In The Story of Psychology Hunt (1993) notes that, according to most historians, psychology was born in 1879, when Wilhelm Wundt conducted an apperception experiment at the University of Leipzig. Adler was nine years old, to grow up in the era of the new field, which he later entered with many of his peers. He became a pioneer in efforts to employ scientific method and the discipline of medical study to understand human behavior. They mystery of sexuality, an important part of the study, was being conducted by men in an era of virtually unchallenged male domination, and all that this implies for cooperation (and its failures) between the sexes.
Royal families ruled almost all the people on earth. The ruling class had ruthlessly crushed the revolutions of 1848 and maintained their positions with increasing force and oppression. Many looked back to a “quieter” time when subject peoples knew who their betters were and accepted their positions of inferiority. Others looked forward, including many women of the nascent feminist movement, and pressed for social justice. Adler joined the reformers of the Socialist Party. He graduated from medical school, married, opened a practice, began his family of four children, and in 1902 joined Freud’s famous “Wednesdays”. In 1904 he was baptized, together with two of his children. His first book, on psychosomatics, was published in 1907; in 1912 he published The Neurotic Character, an exposition establishing the independence of his psychological theory (Stein, 2002). After his departure from Freud’s circle in 1911, he and those sympathetic to his new approach developed the theory and practice of Individual Psychology.
World War I challenged the idea of progress across Europe amidst the horrors of poison gas, trench warfare, and machine-gun fire. Adler, drafted to serve as a physician, not only worked to preserve lives but also maneuvered to keep damaged men from being returned to the Front. Post-war saw the collapse of the Hapsburgs in Austro-Hungary, the Hohenzollerns in Germany (with the abdication of the Kaiser), the Romanoff dynasty in Russia, and the Osmanlis in Turkey and its former dominions in the Middle East, and the domestication of the remaining European monarchs. The ensuing turbulence and social change, led to despair among many who mourned the loss of the old order; among others there was an awareness of new and better possibility.
Individual Psychology thrived from the post-World War I period until Adler’s death. He practiced, organized the Vienna child guidance centers, lectured, taught, wrote, traveled to France, the United Kingdom, the United States and elsewhere, and by these means made himself and the theory known. In 1929 he began a lectureship at Columbia University, New York, after which he spent parts of each year in the United States, planning to emigrate when it would be possible financially and convenient for the family.
But the world intervened. Austrian fascists following the lead of the rising Nazis in Germany, closed the child guidance clinics, and Jews were fired and harassed. By 1934 Adler determined to move his family to the safety of New York; his cherished first-born daughter Valentina, with her husband, fled to Russia, her mother’s homeland. Their hope — not uncommon then among idealists — was to contribute to democracy and the making of the “New Man” there. Only three months before a lecture tour in Holland and the United Kingdom began, Adler’s letters and wires to Valentina were returned marked: “Not At this Address.” Efforts to reach her were of no avail. In May of 1937, at 67, Adler died of heart failure in Aberdeen, Scotland after completing four days of lectures at the Medical College. After the war his family learned that Valentina had perished in Stalin’s gulag.
In this context, Adler’s concepts of Individual Psychology arose. It was a world of man above and woman below, inferiority feelings and superiority striving, a world craving understanding of human error, of personal responsibility in the creation of lifestyle, and, above all else, of courage and the compensatory solace and hope inherent in community feeling.
© Griffith, J., & Powers, R. L. (2007). The Lexicon of Adlerian Psychology: 106 terms Associated with the Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler (2nd ed.). Port Townsend, WA: Adlerian Psychology Associates (p. 54).
Definitions of concepts are used by permission of Jane Griffith. A comprehensive list of concepts and definitions can be found in The Lexicon of Adlerian Psychology: 106 Terms Associated with the Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler by Jane Griffith and Robert L. Powers, available for purchase on Amazon.com.
Hunt, M. (1993). The story of psychology. New York: Bantam.
Smuts, J. (1961). Holism and evolution. New York: Viking. (Original work published 1926)
Sonstegard, M.A., & Bitter, J. R. (with Pelonis, P.). (2004). Adlerian group counseling and therapy: Step-by-step. New York: Brunner-Routledge.
Stein, H. (2002). (Series Ed.). The collected clinical works of Alfred Adler, Vol. 1. (C. Koen, Trans.). San Francisco: Alfred Adler Institute of San Francisco (Original work published 1912).