Although Adler’s theory may be less interesting than Freud’s, with its sexuality, or Jung’s, with its mythology, it has probably struck you as the most common-sensical of the three. Students generally like Adler and his theory. In fact, quite a few personality theorists like him, too. Maslow, for example, once said that, the older he gets, the more right Adler seems. If you have some knowledge of Carl Rogers’ brand of therapy, you may have noticed how similar it is to Adler’s. And a number of students of personality theories have noted that the theorists called Neo-Freudians — Horney, Fromm, and Sullivan — should really have been called Neo-Adlerians.
And so the “positives” of Adler’s theory don’t really need to be listed: His clear descriptions of people’s complaints, his straight-forward and common-sense interpretations of their problems, his simple theoretical structure, his trust and even affection for the common person, all make his theory both comfortable and highly influential.
Criticisms of Adler tend to involve the issue of whether or not, or to what degree, his theory is scientific. The mainstream of psychology today is experimentally oriented, which means, among other things, that the concepts a theory uses must be measurable and manipulable. This in turn means that an experimental orientation prefers physical or behavioral variables. Adler, as you saw, uses basic concepts that are far from physical and behavioral: Striving for perfection? How do you measure that? Or compensation? Or feelings of inferiority? Or social interest? The experimental method also makes a basic assumption: That all things operate in terms of cause and effect. Adler would certainly agree that physical things do so, but he would adamantly deny that people do! Instead, he takes the teleological route, that people are “determined” by their ideals, goals, values, “final fictions.” Teleology takes the necessity out of things: A person doesn’t have to respond a certain way to a certain circumstance; A person has choices to make; A person creates his or her own personality or lifestyle. From the experimental perspective, these things are illusions that a scientist, even a personality theorist, dare not give in to.
Even if you are open to the teleological approach, though, there are criticisms you can make regarding how scientific Adler’s theory is: Many of the details of his theory are too anecdotal, that is, are true in particular cases, but don’t necessarily have the generality Adler seems to claim for them. A first child (even broadly defined) doesn’t necessarily feel dethroned, nor a second child necessarily feel competitive, for example.
Adler could, however, respond to these criticisms very easily: First, didn’t we just finish saying that, if you accept teleology, nothing about human personality is necessary. And secondly, didn’t he go to great lengths to explain his ideas about fictional finalism? All of his concepts are useful constructs, not absolute truths, and science is just a matter of creating increasingly useful constructs. So if you have better ideas, let’s hear them!
If you are interested in learning more about Alfred Adler’s theory, go straight to Ansbacher and Ansbacher’s The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler. They take selections from his writings, organize them, and add running commentary. It introduces all of his ideas in a very readable fashion. His own books include Understanding Human Nature, Problems of Neurosis, The Practice and Theory of Individual Psychology, and Social Interest: A Challenge to Mankind. Anotther collection by Ansbacher and Ansbacher (Superiority and Social Interest) includes a Biography by Carl Furtmuller
You can find early and recent work by Adler and others in English in The International Journal of Individual Psychology.
Copyright 1997, 2006 C. George Boeree.