About Adler

Life style

A lot of this playing with words reflects Adler’s groping towards a really different kind of personality theory than that represented by Freud’s. Freud’s theory was what we nowadays would call a reductionistic one: He tried most of his life to get the concepts down to the physiological level. Although he admitted failure in the end, life is nevertheless explained in terms of basic physiological needs. In addition, Freud tended to “carve up” the person into smaller theoretical concepts — the id, ego, and superego — as well.

Adler was influenced by the writings of Jan Smuts, the South African philosopher and statesman. Smuts felt that, in order to understand people, we have to understand them more as unified wholes than as a collection of bits and pieces, and we have to understand them in the context of their environment, both physical and social. This approach is called holism, and Adler took it very much to heart.

First, to reflect the idea that we should see people as wholes rather than parts, he decided to label his approach to psychology individual psychology. The word individual means literally “un-divided.”

Second, instead of talking about a person’s personality, with the traditional sense of internal traits, structures, dynamics, conflicts, and so on, he preferred to talk about style of life (nowadays, “lifestyle”). Life style refers to how you live your life, how you handle problems and interpersonal relations. Here’s what he himself had to say about it: “The style of life of a tree is the individuality of a tree expressing itself and molding itself in an environment. We recognize a style when we see it against a background of an environment different from what we expect, for then we realize that every tree has a life pattern and is not merely a mechanical reaction to the environment.”


The last point — that lifestyle is “not merely a mechanical reaction” — is a second way in which Adler differs dramatically from Freud. For Freud, the things that happened in the past, such as early childhood trauma, determine what you are like in the present. Adler sees motivation as a matter of moving towards the future, rather than being driven, mechanistically, by the past. We are drawn towards our goals, our purposes, our ideals. This is called teleology.

Moving things from the past into the future has some dramatic effects. Since the future is not here yet, a teleological approach to motivation takes the necessity out of things. In a traditional mechanistic approach, cause leads to effect: If a, b, and c happen, then x, y, and z must, of necessity, happen. But you don’t have to reach your goals or meet your ideals, and they can change along the way. Teleology acknowledges that life is hard and uncertain, but it always has room for change!

Another major influence on Adler’s thinking was the philosopher Hans Vaihinger, who wrote a book called The Philosophy of “As If.” Vaihinger believed that ultimate truth would always be beyond us, but that, for practical purposes, we need to create partial truths. His main interest was science, so he gave as examples such partial truths as protons and electrons, waves of light, gravity as distortion of space, and so on. Contrary to what many of us non-scientists tend to assume, these are not things that anyone has seen or proven to exist: They are useful constructs. They work for the moment, let us do science, and hopefully will lead to better, more useful constructs. We use them “as if” they were true. He called these partial truths fictions.

Vaihinger, and Adler, pointed out that we use these fictions in day to day living as well. We behave as if we knew the world would be here tomorrow, as if we were sure what good and bad are all about, as if everything we see is as we see it, and so on. Adler called this fictional finalism. You can understand the phrase most easily if you think about an example: Many people behave as if there were a heaven or a hell in their personal future. Of course, there may be a heaven or a hell, but most of us don’t think of this as a proven fact. That makes it a “fiction” in Vaihinger’s and Adler’s sense of the word. And finalism refers to the teleology of it: The fiction lies in the future, and yet influences our behavior today.

Adler added that, at the center of each of our lifestyles, there sits one of these fictions, an important one about who we are and where we are going.