Alfred Adler

gigatos | July 2, 2023


Alfred Adler († May 28, 1937 in Aberdeen) was an Austrian physician and psychotherapist. He came from a Jewish family and converted to Protestantism in 1904. Adler is the founder of individual psychology.

Adler’s teaching had a major, independent impact on the development of psychology and psychotherapy in the 20th century. It influenced the psychotherapeutic schools of Rollo May, Viktor Frankl, Abraham Maslow, and Albert Ellis. His writings anticipated many of the insights of neopsychoanalysis, which can be found in harmony with individual psychology in the works of Karen Horney, Harry Stack Sullivan, and Erich Fromm. Adherents of this direction are called Adlerians.

Childhood and youth

Alfred Adler was the second of seven children of the Jewish grain merchant Leopold Adler (died 1922 in Vienna) and Pauline Beer (died 1906 in Vienna). He was born at Mariahilfer Strasse 208 in Rudolfsheim. As a child he tried to emulate his older brother Sigmund Adler (born 1868 Fünfhaus near Vienna), who later became a successful merchant. He was the favorite child of his industrious and courageous father, while his relationship with his mother was less intense. Adler suffered from rickets and a laryngospasm when crying. At the age of four, he had pneumonia, which almost cost him his life. This experience and the death of his younger brother are said to have determined his later choice of profession. Adler attended the Hernalser Gymnasium Kalvarienberggasse (today: Hernalser Gymnasium Geblergasse), where he passed his school-leaving examination in 1888.

Study of medicine – medical practice – Freud

Adler studied medicine at the University of Vienna and received his doctorate in 1895. While studying, he met Raissa Timofeyevna Epstein, a Russian woman who was studying in Zurich and Vienna, in a socialist student group. They married in Moscow in 1897. From this marriage came the four children Valentina (1898-1942), Alexandra (1901-2001), Kurt (1905-1997), Dr. phil. (physics) and Dr. med., psychiatrist, since 1963 president of the “International Association for Psychoanalysis”.

He first worked as an ophthalmologist and opened his practice at the turn of the century in the 9th district (Alsergrund) at Wilhelm-Exner-Gasse 22. Soon after, he opened a general practice at Czerningasse 7 in the 2nd district, Leopoldstadt, near the Vienna Prater – in an area where some of his patients lived in poor conditions, which strengthened his views on the need for social medical care for the Viennese population. Beginning in 1902, Adler participated in the discussion groups of Sigmund Freud’s Wednesday Evening Society, but soon developed an independent doctrine that differed from Freud’s psychoanalysis. He saw man not as determined by drives, but as a free being who must solve the cultural tasks that life presents him with in conscious creative engagement. These opposing views led to a break with Freud in 1911. In the same year he moved his practice to Dominikanerbastei 10 in the 1st district.

Coffee house as a meeting place

Making coffee houses a meeting place was Viennese. Adler was a passionate coffeehouse-goer. As a student he went to the Café Griensteidl, after graduation to the Dom Café on Stephansplatz and to the Café Central. During this time, from 1906 until he was covered in 1910, he was a member of the frontier lodge Pionier.

After the war, Adler chose the Café Tabakspfeife as the meeting place for his circle and, from 1923, the Café Siller at Kaiser-Ferdinands-Platz 3 (now Schwedenplatz 3) as the “Meeting Place of Individual Psychology.” Here, psychology, literature or philosophy were debated and scientists were invited to give lectures.

Structure of Individual Psychology – Theoretical Foundations

In his study on organ inferiority, published in 1907, Adler presented his point of view and new ideas, founding the school of individual psychology. He pointed out the connection between organ inferiority and its physical and psychological compensation and overcompensation. After breaking with Freud, Adler founded his own society for free psychoanalysis in 1912, the Verein für Freie Psychoanalytische Forschung, renamed Verein für Individualpsychologie in 1913. He called his teaching individual psychology because in his medical practice he came to the conclusion that each patient was to be treated physically and understood psychologically as an unrepeatable uniqueness, as an individual and as a wholeness.

Adler formulated the main features of his teaching in his main theoretical work On the Nervous Character (1912), in which he united normal psychology and psychopathology in one concept. With this book, individual psychology made a breakthrough in the professional literature as an alternative to psychoanalysis. In the book Heilen und Bilden – Ein Buch der Erziehungskunst für Ärzte und Pädagogen (Healing and Educating – A Book of the Art of Education for Doctors and Educators), published in 1913, Adler and his students presented the development of individual psychology in educational work. In 1914, the “International Journal of Individual Psychology” was founded.

The First World War brought an interruption in the development of individual psychology. Adler worked as a military doctor in Krakow, Brno and Vienna from 1914 to 1916.

Flowering of Individual Psychology – Practical Application

The period between the two world wars was a heyday of individual psychology. As part of the Viennese school reform, Adler and his associates were able to open about thirty educational counseling centers in Vienna. “Parent training” was understood as “neurosis prophylaxis.” Psychoanalytically oriented kindergartens for workers’ children were also established. In 1920 Adler became director of the first clinic for child psychology in Vienna and from 1920 to 1929 lecturer at the Pedagogical Institute of the City of Vienna. His lectures and demonstrations there appeared in the writings Individualpsychologie in der Schule – Vorlesungen für Lehrer und Schüler (1929) and Die Technik der Individualpsychologie. Second part: The soul of the difficult-to-educate school child (1930).

With the publication Praxis und Theorie der Individualpsychologie (1920), which included lectures introducing psychotherapy to physicians, psychologists, and teachers, Adler began to present his theory in more detail. His views, explained in numerous lectures at adult education centers, exerted great influence on Otto Glöckel’s school reform, the educational work of the Kinderfreunde, and the municipal child and youth care in “Red Vienna.

Adler wanted to create a psychology that was close to life and that enabled people to understand their fellow human beings from their individual life stories. His books, which were deliberately written in a simple style from 1920 on, and his lectures were intended to make his psychology accessible to everyone and common knowledge. In the 1920s he gave a series of lectures at the Ottakring Adult Education Center in Vienna, which he published in 1927 under the title Menschenkenntnis.

Pursuit of depth psychology in Europe – relocation to the USA

From 1926 onward, Adler regularly visited the United States, where his optimistic doctrine of man as a social being gained extraordinary popularity. By the early 1930s, Adler was one of the best-known psychologists in the Western world. The fifth major and at the same time last International Congress of Individual Psychology organized by Arthur Kronfeld in Berlin is said to have been attended by over 2,000 people.

To strengthen and better understand educational prophylaxis, Adler published Individual Psychology in the School in 1929 and The Soul of the Difficult-to-Educate Schoolchild in 1930. In 1933, Adler laid out his basic philosophical position in his late work, The Meaning of Life. The meaning of life was a developed sense of community for the solution of life’s questions, a striving for perfection towards an ideal society.

Emigration and death

In view of the threatening conditions in Europe, Adler moved to the USA in 1934. He had already held a visiting professorship at Columbia University since 1926 and at Long Island College since 1932. In 1935, the International Journal of Individual Psychology, written in English, appeared for the first time. He still made lecture tours to Europe. On one such trip, Adler died of heart failure in Aberdeen, Scotland, on May 28, 1937, at the age of 67.

Adler’s body was cremated in Edinburgh, a common form of burial in the family. The family traveled to the funeral service, but the urn remained in Scotland. A project group from the Association for Individual Psychology began searching in 2009. The urn was found in 2011 with the help of the Austrian Honorary Consul John Clifford at Warriston Crematorium in Edinburgh and brought to Vienna in April 2011. A few days before the 25th International Congress of Individual Psychology, which took place at the University of Vienna (July 14-17, 2011), the burial took place in a grave of honor at the Central Cemetery (Group 33 G) on July 12, 2011.

Alfred Adler’s sudden death dealt a severe blow to individual psychology, especially in Germany and Austria in the 1930s. Adler’s students were persecuted by the new rulers. The burgeoning depth psychology had to leave its center in German-speaking Europe and continue its psychological enlightenment work in other parts of the world. Even after the Second World War, the fascist and Stalinist dictatorships in Europe, with their ideologies, permanently disrupted the development of psychological science as a whole.


In 2009, in Vienna-Favoriten (10th district) near the main station, the traffic route between Quartier Belvedere and Sonnwendviertel was named Alfred-Adler-Strasse.

On May 23, 2000, the asteroid (11519) Eagle was named after him.

In 1985, a memorial plaque was placed on the house at Czerningasse 7 in Vienna, commemorating Alfred Adler’s medical practice in this building.

At Adler’s birthplace at Mariahilferstraße 208 in Vienna, the Association for Individual Psychology placed a commemorative plaque.

On May 28, 1957, a memorial plaque was placed on the house at Dominikanerbastei 10 in Vienna, where Adler practiced.

In 1930 Adler was honored as a “Citizen of the City of Vienna”.

People skills

As a practicing physician and as an active participant in Sigmund Freud’s novel psychoanalytic discussion groups, Adler discovered that in every expression of human life, physical and mental processes are always operative together and form an indivisible unity (individual). This discovery forms the basis of psychosomatics today.

Observing organ inferiorities, Adler found that the body and psyche have a tendency to compensate for them in some way. Adler found this situation of inferiority or inferiority in the psychic realm especially in the three life tasks of work – love – community (infant, sibling series, school, job, marriage, exam situations, etc.). It triggers a state of feeling in humans, which Adler called the feeling of inferiority. Similar to the compensation of an organ inferiority, the human psyche strives to overcome this state of inferiority by what Adler called striving for validity. According to Adler, how well a person is able to overcome such challenges in life depends primarily on how he was able to overcome his first inferiority situation, his helplessness as an infant. Adler stated that this positive drive in the process of growth and development forms the basis for the educability of the human being, because in this situation he is absolutely dependent on the help of his relationship persons. In this early interaction between mother and child a feeling of being lifted up among people is formed, which Adler called Gemeinschaftsgefühl and which becomes an unconscious part of the personality. The sense of community is at the center of Adler’s teaching because it is the measure of the mental health of the individual and the community.


In addition to describing the normal psychology for understanding the human personality – or, as Adler called it, for acquiring knowledge of human nature – Adler the physician also examined the deviant and pathological psychic phenomena. According to his principle of the unity of mental processes, he saw these as erroneous responses to the demands of life. An intensified experienced feeling of inferiority, to which Adler gave the term inferiority complex, could lead to overcompensation in the form of an exaggerated striving for recognition or the so-called will to power. Adler described the nervous character as a transition between normal and neurosis psychology. He understood psychosis as merely a sharper manifestation of neurosis, which is why, in his view, both are amenable to psychological analysis.

By focusing on compensation and distinction strategies that arise on the basis of inappropriate self-images, Adler can be considered a precursor of cognitive behavioral therapy. In this, self-image correction also plays a decisive role.

Doctrine of Healing and Educating – Educational Art for Doctors and Educators

From his neurosis theory, which presents the pathogenic causes of unfortunate childhood influences, Adler developed his doctrine of healing and forming, individual psychological psychotherapy and educational prophylaxis. According to the motto “prevention is better than cure,” Adler placed the emphasis of the practical application of individual psychology on educational prophylaxis and psychological education, which is reflected in his publications and terms coined by him, such as spoiling education. In the case of children and adolescents, corrections for errors in lifestyle could still be made relatively easily, and educational counseling enabled psychological knowledge of human nature to have a broad impact. The successes of the individual psychological educational counseling centers and school experiments within the framework of the Viennese school reform soon became internationally known and imitated.

Philosophical claim

In his late work The Meaning of Life (1933), Adler summarized his underlying philosophical tenor of individual psychology. The expression “meaning of life” has two different meanings in Adler’s work: On the one hand, it describes the meaning that a particular person seeks and finds in his life and that is most closely related to the opinion he has of himself, his fellow human beings, and the world. On the other hand, it is understood as the “true” meaning of life, that meaning which lies outside our experience and which can be missed even by someone who is firmly convinced that he knows what is important in life. “To ask for a meaning of life has value and meaning only if one has in mind the reference system man-cosmos”. The constant demand from the cosmos is called “development”, which urges from the native sense of inferiority for self-preservation, multiplication, contact with the outside world and striving for an “ideal community of the future” in the sense of Immanuel Kant. For this goal of the developmental movement, Adler uses terms such as “completion” and “perfection”; he believes that the striving for perfection is an “innate fact present in every human being.” Adler invokes Charles Darwin, Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck’s theory of descent, and Jan Christiaan Smuts’ holistic theory. An often used term for coming closer to this perfection is with Adler the “Überwindun

Because of his goal to make psychological knowledge of human nature a common property as a prophylactic, Adler’s association was open to everyone. His goal was to integrate everyone, if only they had the same basic tendency. For this reason, he demanded political neutrality for the association. But already at the Berlin Congress of 1925 political movements tried to seize the ideas of individual psychology. Adler’s goal failed because of the economic crisis, ideological bias, and National Socialism. The communist Die Rote Fahne wrote in a gloss on the day that Adler’s attempt to replace socialism with his psychology had failed. After the invasion of Austria by the National Socialists, the association was dissolved ex officio on January 26, 1939.


  1. Alfred Adler
  2. Alfred Adler
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