BOOK REVIEW: UNDERSTANDING HUMAN NATURE: The Psychology of Personality (2009)

By Alfred Adler

Delano Palmer

The author, Alfred Adler, died a decade after the volume under review was published (1927). Like Sigmund Freud with whom he spent nearly ten years interacting, he came from a Jewish background. His father was a successful Viennese merchant whose cheerfulness and confidence were greatly admired by the young Alfred. Mr. Adler influenced his children mainly through encouraging words and deeds. Mrs. Adler on the other hand was not anything like her husband in optimism, and enthusiasm, but seemed to have displayed the very complex of inferiority that her son later popularized.

Alfred's childhood was marked by several, what could be termed, traumatic experiences in that, barely three years, he woke up to find a brother lifeless - one with whom he had shared the same bed. Pneumonia and Ricketts were two diseases which threatened his life from within, while two street accidents made the same bid from without. After a somewhat turbulent time in school, he blossomed into a fine student, taking his medical degree in 1895 at the age of 25. Two years later he married Miss Raissa Eptstein, a Russian, who was to greatly influence his view of complementarian marriage. After a general practice in medicine, he began to develop a lasting interest in the study of psychiatry. His work with children after World War I, was to eventually shape his views on personality, which are expressed in his Theory of Individual Psychology.

ADLER 2013Understanding Human Nature is an attempt by Adler to familiarize the public at large with his theory of Individual Psychology - at lease with the elements of it. In the preface he outlines his objective thus:

The purpose of the book is to point out how the mistaken behaviour of the individual affects
The harmony of our social and communal life; further, to teach the individual to recognize
his own mistakes, and finally, to show him how he may effect a harmonious adjustment to the communal life. Mistakes in business or in science are costly and deplorable, but mistakes in the conduct of life are usually dangerous to life itself. To the task of illuminating man's progress toward a better understanding of human nature, this book is dedicated.

The book gives a broad overview of human conduct, grappling with such issues as the inner principle of life, the relationship of this principle to community life, the influences of childhood on later life, and the motive and function of mental processes, such as perception and imagination. It also discusses, in the second section - the traits, expressions, and perversions of personality, with the final chapter focusing on certain specialized emotional manifestations. The implications of the author's observations for education are briefly set out in the appendix. The magnitude of the task of really understanding human nature does not go unnoticed by Adler. But though there are pitfalls in attempting to write such a book, he feels the benefits far outweigh the risks in undertaking such an ambitious project.

The chief benefit of understanding human nature, according to our author, would not only be an increased awareness of ourselves, but a life of harmony with our fellowmen. He states quite optimistically, "Human beings would live together more easily if their knowledge of human nature were more satisfactory," and again on another page, "Human beings would doubtless get along with each other better, and would approach each other more closely, were they able to understand one another better."

But if the pursuit of this knowledge is so important, why is it that not much progress has been made in this area? Adler feels that our isolated life style has greatly militated against such treasure hunt. His journey on the road to better self-awareness begins with a discussion on "soul" - the psychic life. His concept of this principles is limited to organisms that move, presumably, such as insects, animals and man, because "those organisms which are strongly rooted have no necessity for a soul". Though the soul is inherited, it is not transmitted whole, but passes through a stage of evolution. The function is then delineated in terms of its self-preserving role in the individual.

His thesis of Individual Psychology as it relates to the soul is that every expression of the psychic life is directed toward a particular objective. If the goal of an individual can be ascertained by, say, therapies, he would have gone a long way in helping such an individual on the way to wholeness. Because of the centrality of the soul in Adler's understanding of life, he indulges in a thorough discussion of its role in social intercourse, and childhood, having been convinced (like others before him) that the dynamics of the latter overly influence the stages of adulthood.

One senses the author's strength in his discussion of early childhood phenomena. He was well informed by his own childhood experience, and experiments with children later in life. He is convinced that "the basis of educatability lies in the striving of the child to compensate for his weaknesses. A thousand talents and capabilities arise from the stimulus of inadequacy". This "inadequacy" theme is interestingly developed in chapter 5 entitled "The Feeling of Inferiority and the Striving for Recognition."

What can be said of Adler's human and life view as seen through the lenses of his Individual Psychology? First some general impressions. The reader will have a sense of excitement from the very outset, because the author's preface promises much. Because of this, s/he will likely accompany the writer on his climb to self awareness - yearning, hoping, and praying that the trek uphill would contribute even in some small measure to his/her own self-understanding.

One big plus of this book is its clarity of thought and wealth of theoretical and practical insights (with the former outweighing the latter). Maybe the credit for the book's clear expressions should be shared, no doubt, with the translator. These two points are supported and illustrated by Adler's consistent attempt to define certain key terms. For instance: "What we call a character trait is the appearance of some specific mode of expression on the part of an individual who is attempting to adjust himself to the world in which he lives".

On the debit side, the work is marred at times by over generalisation, (such as "people who bite their nails are necessarily stubborn"--and scientific inaccuracies like "There is evidence to prove that it (Male dominance) occurred chiefly as a result of constant battles between primitive people, during the course of which man assumed the more prominent role as warrior, and finally used his newly won superiority in order to retain the leadership for himself...."

Although Adler uses the term "soul" quite often, one gets the impression that it is not used necessarily in the "Christian" sense (though his idea of soul as "life principle" is scriptural) or an entity distinct from the body. Soul to him is simply a function of the body. Of course, this whole point is debatable, and Adler, though baptized a protestant at age 34, should not be faulted here. Though the work is significantly dated, I was not only challenged but informed by it. A final critique; his view that knowledge of human nature would automatically lead to the better life is naive at best. Scripture and experience seem to strongly challenge such assumption. Here I think Adler's optimism lacks realism. For more on human nature from a theological perspective see,

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