Written 1993, subsequently shortened
Alfred Adler (1870-1937), the first heretic of psychoanalysis, barely scraped through childhood. The second of six children of a Viennese grain merchant, he suffered from rickets and spasms of the glottis. He almost died on several occasions from pneumonia and street accidents. In the cot alongside him when he was three, his nearest younger brother did actually die of diphtheria. Undaunted, however, by his diminutive stature (5' 2") or by his maths' teacher's pessimistic forecasts, he succeeded in medical school, in ophthalmology, in family life and eventually, despite Freud's preferring to advance the established Gentile psychiatrist, Carl Jung, in popularising a form of psychoanalysis. True to his own history, Adler would see competition between peers for resources as much more important than incestuous infantile sexuality. Now there is a pleasant yet authentic, new, and of course 'non-sexist' translation of one of his best-known works.
Today, some of Adler's proposals are admittedly a little creaky. Adler tended to maintain that 'lifestyle' crystallizes by one's first birthday. He held intelligence testing (even of the 'g' factor) to be "unreliable"; and genetic inheritance of intelligence (or of anything else psychological) was a "superstition". Adler feared 'labelling' effects by which he believed he himself had almost been retarded. Homosexuality involved a rift with the *opposite*-sex parent. Educational streaming was unhelpful. Smaller classes would improve educational standards. And full employment would reduce the crime problem until teachers trained in Adlerian theory solved it in perpetuity.
More alarming to likely readers of the present volume will be several deviations from Adler's general utopian idealism and political correctness. Adler favours free society's notorious 'division of labour' and the provision of relevant specialist education: he is even content to educate girls differently from boys, in view of girls' forthcoming life-tasks. Monogamy-plus-children is the only marital arrangement worth considering, and wicked old European psychiatrists were wrong to recommend that their patients take lovers. Pre-marital intercourse is discouraged. And 'pampering' is ceaselessly denounced by Adler as yielding later 'whingeing' and 'whining' "neurotics, criminals, drunkards and perverts."
Nevertheless, there are three main propositions of Adler's that are, with qualification, especially consonant with modern understandings and researches.
(1) Individuality. Twin and adoption studies of the 1980's showed people are indeed 'radically individual', as Adler maintained. Only for general intelligence do biological relatives other than identical twins much resemble each other; and unrelated adoptees who grow up together show virtually no psychological similarities at all by adulthood. 50% of eminent people (U.S.Presidents, British Prime Ministers, first-rank world-class philosophers, eminences of English literature, and top British businessmen) turn out to have experienced major horrors in childhood such as serious medical conditions and parental death and bankruptcy, so compensation is as likely as capitulation providing intelligence is adequate. However, to rule out the imposed environment and to admit only a limited role for inheritance on personality is not to rule out genes. Indeed, genes -- in particular, 'gene packages' and the multiplier effects between different genes that cannot be simply passed on to children because genes segregate independently -- now come into their own as a way of explaining otherwise paradoxical human diversity.
(2) The unconscious. Adler's view of the unconscious was non-mysterious and non-dynamic. The unconscious-to-conscious relation is as "photo-to- negative": by just one lie to oneself, the unconscious can realize the master plan arrived at by consciousness. ('I have been rejected'; 'I am really superior'; or 'I have an excuse'.) Once such simple re-drafts of the story (or 'document') of one's life occur (cf. Margaret Donaldson, 1992), the 'lifestyle' derived from the 'guiding fiction' takes over whether one is awake or asleep. In dreams, the Adlerian unconscious can sometimes be caught engaged in the very same problem-solving work as goes on in daily life, yet without the constraints of reality. This view of dreams as a continuation of daytime speculations, anxieties and re-organising of accounts is more plausible than Freud's view that dreams provide disguised fulfilment of forbidden wishes.
(3) Competition and co-operation. At least by 1918, when he added the concept of 'social interest' (altruism) to his first personality process of 'personal interest' (egoism), Adler was arguably on the right track. Despite having lost both Adler and Jung over 'the doctrine of sexuality', Freud himself, by 1922, came to the view that eros was not in fact enough, even when id was considered in harness with superego. Belatedly, room had to be made for thanatos, the omnipresent death-wish that would help explain masochism, the horrors and hysterias of war, the mind's 'repetition compulsion' to dwell on painful stimulation and memories, and perhaps the aggressive elimination of pain and competitors.
Was Adler right? Well, in making personal interest and social interest not opposed to, but independent of each other, he can certainly be said to have anticipated the relations obtaining between today's 'Big' personality dimensions of 'Independence' (will, disagreeableness) and 'Tender- mindedness' (affection, and 'g'-free openness) (Brand, Egan & Deary, 1993). However, Adler's more lasting contribution to psychology will prove to have been in insisting on radical individuality, in some ontogenetic stories that merit careful testing, and in his addressing aspects of human personality that Freud gloomly packaged as thanatos and then left in an eerie limbo. Adler granted others the possibility of what he might without immodesty have observed in himself: will, achievement-striving, a strong sense of responsibility, assertiveness, self-help and 'personal interest' alongside soul, sympathy, tender-mindedness, idealism and 'social interest'. If they can grasp the importance of genes and 'g', Adlerians might still help face down the crudely determinist -- mainly environmentalist -- psychologies of the past.
BRAND, C.R., EGAN, V.G. & DEARY, I.J. (1993). 'Personality and general intelligence.' In G.L.Van Heck, P.Bonaiuto, I.J.Deary & W. Nowack (eds.), Personality Psychology in Europe 4, 203-228. Tilburg University Press.
DONALDSON, Margaret (1992). Human Minds. London : Allen Lane.