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Horney & Humanistic Psychoanalysis

Intellectual Antecedents

Sigmund Freud and Psychoanalysis

Although a reviewer described New Ways in Psychoanalysis as "a fourteen-round ring battle between the ‘new ways' (Horney) and the ‘old ways' (Freud)" (Brown, 1939, p. 328), Horney acknowledged that she was deeply indebted to Freud, who had provided the foundation for all subsequent psychoanalytic thought. It is not difficult to see why the young Karen Horney was attracted to psychoanalysis. She suffered from many mysterious complaints and her ability to function was impaired. Of an introspective temperament, she had been in the habit of seeking relief by scrutinizing her feelings and motivations. Psychoanalysis offered the most powerful tools available for such an enterprise. She frequently recognized herself, moreover, in Freud's description of women's problems. Given her suffering, her temperament, and her craving for self-understanding, psychoanalysis as a theory and a therapy must have seemed to be exactly what she was looking for.

While some aspects of Freudian theory fit Horney's experience well, others did not. By the early 1920s she began to propose modifications in the light of her observations of her female patients and her own experiences as a woman. Perhaps the most important factor in Horney's initial dissent was that she came to see psychoanalytic theory as reproducing and reinforcing the devaluation of the feminine from which she had suffered in childhood. Disturbed by the male bias of psychoanalysis, she dedicated herself to proposing a woman's view of the differences between men and women and the disturbances in the relations between the sexes. This eventually led to the development of a psychoanalytic paradigm that was quite different from Freud's, but Horney always paid tribute to what she regarded as Freud's enduring contributions. These included the doctrines "that psychic processes are strictly determined, that actions and feelings may be determined by unconscious motivations, and that the motivations driving us are emotional forces" (Horney, 1939, p. 18). She valued Freud's accounts of repression, reaction formation, projection, displacement, rationalization, and dreams; and she felt that Freud had provided indispensable tools for therapy in the concepts of transference, resistance, and free association (Horney, 1939, p. 117).

Alfred Adler

Fritz Wittels (1939) argued that neo-Freudians like Horney were really closer to Adler than to Freud and should really be called neo-Adlerians. Horney began reading Adler as early as 1910, and despite the fact that she did not give him a great deal of credit as an intellectual antecedent, there are important similarities between her later thinking and his.

Adler's influence first appears in a diary entry in 1911. In her work with Karl Abraham, Horney struggled to understand her fatigue, and in her diary she recorded the numerous explanations he proposed, most of which had to do with unconscious sexual desires. In one entry, however, she looked at herself from an Adlerian perspective and arrived at an explanation that sounds very much like her own analysis of Clare, written thirty years later. She wondered whether her fear of productive work derives not only from her mistrust of her own capacity but also from the need to be first that Adler considered characteristic of neurotics.

Horney was especially intrigued by Adler's account of the "masculine protest" that develops in every woman in response to her sense of inferiority to men. She had no difficulty in identifying the masculine protest in herself. She "envied Berndt because he could stand near a tree and pee" (Horney, 1980, p. 252), she liked wearing pants, she played the prince in charades, and at the age of twelve, she cut off her hair to the neckline. She compensated for her physical inferiority to males by excelling in school, taking great pride that she was a better student than her brother. In the terms of her culture, she was behaving like a man by studying medicine and believing in sexual freedom.

According to Horney's Adlerian self-analysis, she needed to feel superior because of her lack of beauty and feminine sense of inferiority, which led to her to try to excel in a male domain. But her low self-esteem made her afraid she would fail, so she avoided productive work, as do "women in general" (Horney, 1980, p. 251), and experienced disproportionate anxiety over exams. Her fatigue was at once a product of her anxiety, an excuse for withdrawing from competition with men, and a means of concealing her inferiority and gaining a special place for herself by arousing concern.

Horney did not pursue this Adlerian way of thinking for the next two decades, but she returned to it in the 1930s and 40s, when it became highly congruent with her own approach to psychoanalysis. Although she tended to characterize Adler as superficial, she recognized his importance as an intellectual antecedent, acknowledging that he was the first to see the search for glory "as a comprehensive phenomenon, and to point out its crucial significance in neurosis" (Horney, 1950, p. 28).

Other Intellectual Influences

While still in Germany, Horney began to cite ethnographic and anthropological studies, as well as the writings of the philosopher and sociologist Georg Simmel, with whom she developed a friendship. After she moved to the United States, her sense of the differences between central Europe and America made her receptive to the work of such sociologists, anthropologists, and culturally oriented psychoanalysts as Erich Fromm, Max Horkheimer, John Dollard, Harold Lasswell, Edward Sapir, Ruth Benedict, Ralph Linton, Margaret Mead, Abraham Kardiner, and Harry Stack Sullivan, with most of whom she had personal relationships. In response to these influences, Horney argued not only that culture is more important than biology in the generation of neuroses, but also that pathogenic conflict between the individual and society is the product of a bad society rather than being inevitable as Freud had contended. Following Bronislaw Malinowski, Felix Boehm, and Erich Fromm, Horney regarded the Oedipus complex as a culturally conditioned phenomenon; and following Harry Stack Sullivan, she saw the needs for "safety and satisfaction" as more important than sexual drives in accounting for human behavior.

Although at first she saw conceptions of psychological health as relative to culture, in the late 1930s she began to develop a definition of health that was universal in nature. Drawing on W. W. Trotter's Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War (1916), she described emotional well-being as "a state of inner freedom in which ‘the full capacities are available for use'" (Horney, 1939, p. 182). The central feature of neurosis was now self-alienation, loss of contact with "the spontaneous individual self" (Horney, 1939, p. 11). Horney gave Erich Fromm primary credit for this new direction in her thinking, but other important influences were William James and Søren Kierkegaard. In her descriptions of the "real self," she was inspired by James's account of the "spiritual self" in Principles of Psychology (1890), and in her discussions of loss of self, she drew on Kierkegaard's The Sickness Unto Death (1949). Horney also cited Otto Rank's concept of "will" as an influence on her ideas about the real self, and in her later work she invoked the Zen concept of "wholeheartedness."

It is difficult to determine why Horney shifted from an emphasis on the past to one on the present, but she acknowledged the influence of Harald Schultz-Henke and Wilhelm Reich, analysts whom she knew from her days in Berlin. The Adlerian mode of analysis she had employed in her diary and to which she returned also focused on the present.

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Last updated: 06/18/2002