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Philosophical Thought

The philosophical question of life orientation in the context of individual psychology by Alfred Adler

Zakharov Aleksandr Dmitrievich

ORCID: 0000-0003-4422-4797

Postgraduate Student, Faculty of Social Sciences and Mass Communications, Financial University under the Government of the Russian Federation

125167, Russia, Moscow region, Moscow, 49/2 Leningradsky Ave.
Other publications by this author








Abstract: The question of life orientation, i.e. orientation towards creativity or destruction, life or death, has been considered in philosophy for a long time, but the social aspect of the issue has been developed relatively recently along with the development of psychology as a science, in particular, psychoanalysis and neo–Freudianism. This article is devoted to the study of the problem of life orientations on the example of Alfred Adler's individual psychology – a branch of deep psychology that has much in common with psychoanalytic knowledge, but differs in recognizing the holism of the human psyche. Qualitative analysis of primary empirical data, processing of secondary empirical data, analysis of the evolution of views on the chosen topic were used as research methods. This article examines and analyzes the basic concepts of individual psychology within the framework of the issue under study, as well as the assessment of the conceptual applicability of the theory of Alfred Adler to the actual existential problems of modern man. In the course of the research, the author comes to the conclusion that individual psychology, despite the historically mediated features of the proposed methods and theses, can and should be applied in the context of considering the ontological issue of life orientation, combines social and psychological-philosophical approaches, is consistent in theoretical and experimental terms, although it is almost not used in the framework of modern philosophical and psychological scientific knowledge.


life orientation, ontology, existence, holism, Alfred Adler, individual psychology, social feeling, neo - Freudianism, psychoanalysis, life plan

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The issue of life orientation is particularly acute in the context of the XXI century. The growing need for social activity and responsibility develops in parallel with the tendency to separation, extreme alienation of people within the framework of the ultimate individualization of economic and spiritual life. The lack of guidelines and stable values, replaced by chaotically emerging trends and trends, leaves a person alone with a terrifying virtualized world. Life orientations, if you look at them generally, remain unchanged and from time immemorial contain a tendency to create or destroy. At the beginning and middle of the last century, especially after the Second World War, the question of life orientation was transferred to the psychological plane, to the plane of a person's attitude to life, to himself and his kind. Interest in this topic began to revive within the humanities along with the advent of the non-classical paradigm of scientific thinking, a great contribution was made by supporters of psychoanalysis, in particular Freudianism and neo-Freudianism.

The pioneer was the founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, who introduced the concepts of Eros and Thanatos (love and death) as internal unconscious forces driving a person. The main representative and defender of the concept of life orientation in psychoanalysis is Erich Fromm, who devoted many of his works to this issue, examples can be "Escape from Freedom", "The Art of Being" or "The Anatomy of Human destructiveness", although almost no one speaks or writes about Alfred Adler, who raised a number of important issues on this topic decades before Fromm. It is this unfair silence that the article will be devoted to, it will use references to the original works and collections of articles by Alfred Adler, as well as to some of his modern researchers. Qualitative analysis of primary empirical data, processing of secondary empirical data, historical research, analysis of the evolution of scientific views on the chosen topic were used as research methods.­

Alfred Adler on the question of a person's life orientation

"Individual psychology developed out of an effort to understand the mysterious creative force of life – the force that is expressed in the desire to develop, overcome difficulties and achieve goals, as well as compensate for defeat in one area by striving for success in another." [1, p.29]

The first alternative to Freud's understanding of life orientation was proposed by Alfred Adler, who connected behavioral meanings with the meaning of a person's life. The meaning of life in A. Adler is primary regarding the meaning of individual actions, since he connects the meaning of life with the ideas of three fundamental life problems that arise from three aspects of human existence, namely: the fact of life on Earth, which generates problems of labor and professional self-determination; the fact of human life in society, which generates the problem of interpersonal relationships, friendship and cooperation; the fact of the existence of two sexes, which gives rise to the problem of love and marriage. [3, p.12]

Alfred Adler is the creator of the original controversial direction of deep psychology called "individual psychology". In this psychotherapeutic system, a useful unifying social feeling and an unhealthy individualistic desire for superiority built on an inferiority complex are antagonistically intertwined. This approach can be called socio-psychological. Adler's theory connects most of the psychophysical problems with the denial of a person's own beliefs, his "I", an important role here is played by the possibility of having an inferiority complex or a superiority complex. The origins of complexes are laid in childhood, traumas, fears are eventually forgotten by a person, and the problems caused by them remain. [7, p.169]

A. Adler in his writings describes the "sense of community" - the innate desire of people for each other, which motivates a person to reliability, honesty, loyalty. The "sense of community" is associated with a person's desire for superiority over others. Adler considers the driving force of the desire for superiority to be a person's inherent sense of inferiority, which is seen as a benefit leading to perfection and proximity to ideals. [6, p.378]

The feeling of inferiority is inherent in every person due to his special biological status, and it is formed up to the age of five, when a helpless child is alienated from his mother and is forced to adapt to the world around him, compare himself with others and draw primary conclusions about himself, his position in the hierarchy of society, his advantages and disadvantages. The creator of individual psychology came to an interesting conclusion: "From now on, the child perceives various situations not as they really are, but in accordance with a personal scheme of apperception; in other words, he perceives any situation through a "filter" of biases created by his own interests ... however, external observation of inferiority does not necessarily allow to understand the scheme of apperception properly [1, pp.32-33] The thinker touched here on the thesis that it is not so much the fact of a child's physical or any other inferiority that is important, as his personal attitude to it, his personal perception system, his aesthetic and ethical ideas about himself. If children are very vividly experiencing their inferiority due to hypersensitivity, suspiciousness or lack of attentive attitude on the part of their elders, then "already during the formation of the prototype they are more interested in themselves than others, and tend to continue to behave this way throughout their lives." [1, p.34] As a result of such erroneous ideas formed on the basis of purely personal feelings and lack of relevant experience, a person acquires a passive, disinterested attitude to life in social usefulness.

It is obvious that the issue of life orientation under consideration is moving from the psychological plane to the philosophical one.  Adler gives many insightful examples-indicators by which one can determine a person's attitude to life, and these examples are either individual traits of a person's character, or features of his behavior, reactions, stereotypes. Thus, he attributed courage, self-confidence, cheerful temperament (which, nevertheless, should not turn into excessive gaiety), striving for the common good, adaptability, the ability to empathize and empathy to socially useful non-aggressive qualities, and cowardice, hatred of people, satisfaction with fiction, to socially harmful and aggressive ones. self-indulgence, getting out of the influence of society, racial and gender prejudices and some others, further discussed in a separate chapter of the book "Understanding human Nature".

Alfred Adler believed that the concept of a goal, formed from childhood, forces a person to overcome himself and his shortcomings, both personal and universal, depending on the ambitions and the degree of trauma of the individual, thus forming a picture of the future, realized in all his thoughts, actions, deeds. The possibility of realizing this goal arises only in a social context, where traumatized people unite, cooperate in an attempt to overcome their individual shortcomings, in an attempt to build a healthy, optimistic society, to be saved, if not singly, as some widespread religions promise, then at least in a community of their own kind. In this position, one can trace the influence of socialist ideas, probably this was the reason for the similarity of interests and statements of Adler and Fromm, a representative of the Frankfurt school and a Freudian Marxist.  In general, there is a statement in the critical literature on psychoanalysis that neo-Freudians (Jung, Horney, Fromm, Sullivan, etc.) would be much more logical to call neo-Adlerians [10, p. 9], since they have much more in common with Adler's psycho-social views. In any case, his influence on subsequent representatives of psychoanalytic scientific thinking cannot be denied.

Universal life problems, individual complexes and life goals form the lifestyle of each person. In fact, lifestyle is the main determinant of a person's behavior, his life choices, decisions, actions, preferences. Based on the variation of two basic parameters – "social interest" and "activity" – Adler creates his own typology of life styles. The lifestyle depends on which aspects of his life a person attaches importance to, and what he ignores, how he interacts with the environment and how he organizes his daily life. [4, p.2] The socially useful type is considered the best within the framework of individual psychology, and the managing, taking and avoiding types in which there is no balance of social interest and activity are forced to exist.

The peculiarity of Alfred Adler's philosophy is the antibiologizing emphasis on the fact that heredity is not just leading, but also at least somewhat significant in the matter of assessing a person's abilities and capabilities. If we consider this thesis within the framework of Adler's theory, it seems quite logical, since, in his opinion, all qualities are realized and formed in the social environment, so that their change lies entirely on the shoulders of the individual as a social unit, not limited in this matter by kinship.

Separately, I would like to highlight the prophetic words of Alfred Adler, who subtly noticed the desire of his contemporaries and people of the future to dehumanize humanity. Of course, this fact was influenced by the positivist views that were fashionable at the beginning of the XX century, mechanistic views in medicine, chemistry, and physics that had not yet been completely eradicated, but he managed to create a psychological and philosophical impression of a modern person quite accurately. "It is typical for our age of technology to treat human beings like machines, expecting them to follow the laws of life in the same way that machines follow the laws of physics. In the latter case, such laws are indeed universal; however, in the case of people, they lead to their isolation, loneliness and the destruction of interpersonal relationships." [2, p.244] In the following quote, Adler hints at the shift of attention from spiritual creativity to the material, at the same time referring to the tragedy of a single human being who chooses instead of the social singular and isolated: "The development of personality can completely stop if it begins to transfer social relations between people to animals or inanimate objects." [2, p.68]

An up-to-date analysis of Adler's views on the issue of life orientation

Modern people place too much emphasis on normalizing the presence of mental abnormalities or psychological traumas, as if the existence of these problems is an unsolvable dilemma and a given, which is easier to get used to, accept than to fight or rebuild. The indecision of people in this matter is due to the social practice of approving spiritual passivity, the availability of psychological and pharmaceutical assistance. On the other hand, people get so tired of fruitlessly and singlehandedly struggling with a physiologically conditioned reality, which becomes an everyday existential test, that they choose performance-oriented cognitive behavioral therapies instead of deep ones, like psychoanalysis, individual or analytical psychology.

Such an attitude allows us to draw a non–trivial conclusion that biologically mediated life, spirituality is nothing compared to mechanisms, with programmed objects of inanimate nature, which do not have a socio-cultural context of formation and maturation, there is no emotional life and problems associated with its complexity. Traumatization and destigmatization of traumatization now go hand in hand, expose the weaknesses and shortcomings of man as a species, which is why people's concern with machines and programs has reached its historical apogee in our time, so that the anti-humanistic orientation in these conditions receives another, even more justified, discourse-mediated round of development.

In the heyday of psychoanalysis, it was thought that goal-setting solves the issue of human weakness and helplessness (Adler, Fromm, Frankl), as if the lack of a goal is a decisive factor in the formation of uncertainty or disappointment in their spiritual powers, and it is such people who are actually willing to admit the idea that death is better than life, that orientation to inanimate animate matter is much more correct and pleasant than orientation to the active protection of life in the crippled form in which it is objectified from time to time in humans, animals and other living organisms. Modern green movements, concerned about the fate of the animal and plant worlds, seem to actually shift to these worlds the human view of the pseudo-insoluble problem of spiritual orientation, extrapolate their hidden personal concern about the ontological status of man to the outside world of wildlife. The inability to be active in one's own life results in a particularly anxious concern for the non-human world, for the world outside human contexts and situations, which adapts to social reality insofar as it exists as one of the many factors of the existence of the world of other species, other beings, and ultimately turns into an end in itself, is covered with a layer of rationalizations and explanations mediated by economic and financial issues rather than humanitarian and social ones.

In an article for the Journal of Clinical Social Work, researcher Mary McCluskey, who tried to return Adler's name to the ranks of fundamental thinkers for psychological science, highlights such interesting aspects of modern critical views on Adler's system as: recognition of left-handedness as a physical deviation, recognition of sexual deviations as a conscious choice and as mental deviations [10, p.5], philistine simplicity of terminology, lack of a clear therapeutic methodology when working with patients [10, p.7]. On the other hand, she notes that individual psychology within the framework of Neoadlerism has undergone significant changes in terms of cleansing from stereotypes about "normality" and has opened up new possibilities of application for a wider range of people, for more diverse purposes. As McCluskey notes, in 1939 Wittels wrote: "Adler pointed out how safe and joyful we feel when we are part of the group in which we live, and how we become victims of anxiety and inferiority when we are alone with ourselves — hence the escape into a mental or nervous illness" [10, p.9]. Based on these words, it seems that that the demarginalization of mental disorders and deviations in modern society is an attempt to allow a person to become a society for himself, so to speak, to lock himself in the microcosm of his own inner world, hence the growing extreme alienation of individualism, manifested up to the complete rejection of reality in favor of virtuality.

The prescriptive (prescriptive) nature of the techniques and concepts of psychoanalysis, and Freudianism/Neofredism as areas of philosophy in particular, emotionally loses to the enjoyment of life without self-restraint and active work on oneself, it is counterintuitive and meets many obstacles on the way to the goal-setting root of motivation in the human psyche, which is why psychonanalysis by the end of the XX century was considered a marginal pseudoscientific theory. People are no longer ready to blindly move in the direction of the promised imposed healing, this path promises a lot of inconvenience, resistance, reasonable and unreasonable doubt and discomfort.


Nowadays, society is transformed in such a way as to meet the interests of individuals, therefore, it is believed that the degree of hostility of the individual to society should fall, while, in fact, the very need for society disappears, which ceases to be ontologically different from the individual, leaving him to chance, removing the help and participation of other individuals existing although in groups, but separately. The holism of personality within the framework of the philosophical approach of Alfred Adler allows you to overcome the barrier between the individual and the mass, between the personal and the social, personality and humanity, at the same time allows each individual to integrate into society so as not to lose their individuality, to remain a person with their own unique goals, experience, ideals and worldview – a life orientation to creativity, creation and connection with the world.

So, if we return to the actual issue of normalization of deviations, then, on the one hand, frees a person from the eternal torments of self-flagellation and self-criticism, allows him to relax and continue to exist in the form in which he was able to develop in the biological, historical, socio-cultural and psychological conditions given to him, on the other hand, allows people to get used to the idea that they can not deal with issues of internal nature, existential and original issues, as if life is completely meaningless and does not require the attention that has been given to it for centuries.

Adler led to the fact that socialization allows solving internal mental problems of a person, deprives him of a sense of inferiority, but modern man went further – created the possibility of socialization without direct contact, through virtual anonymous reality. In this case, social contacts have lost not only the negative properties of direct interpersonal communication (stress, uncertainty of one's own position in the hierarchy, doubts about the "I-image" and the correctness of its perception by Others), but also the obvious positive properties of real communication (the development of useful communication skills, a sense of community, lack of a sense of abandonment and loneliness, taking responsibility for words and deeds, the actual eventfulness of the activity). The transition to object-oriented ontology further aggravates the situation, leveling the impact on the general being of the activities of individual individuals who have been freed from the yoke of sociality, thus a person tries to exclude himself from life and the problems associated with it, while simultaneously trying to solve the issue of artificial intelligence capable of operating with data without feelings, emotions, reactions and assessments peculiar to everything subjective, i.e. coming directly from the subject to something external to it. Oddly enough, Adler himself was a supporter of this position, denying the paramount importance of sensuality for a person: "Any of our activities would be completely without feelings – feelings are just an accompaniment to our actions." [1, p.37] The edified schematicity of thinking and an attempt to turn psychoanalytic knowledge into purely scientific under the aggressive influence of positivism, neo-positivism and postpositivism forced Adler, like other thinkers, to be hostages of time and the dominant scientific paradigm, in which there is no place for humanitarian knowledge with its ambiguity, experimental unprovability and the case nature of the knowledge obtained and analyzed.

Russian researchers appealing to Adler's words usually refer to the general definition of lifestyle, which includes different facets of a person's character, behavior, interests, and values [5, 8, 9]. These factors help a person to form a life goal and move towards it, it is for this purpose that conclusions can be drawn about the analytical features of the life plan, which are named in the previous sentence. No matter how comprehensive and capacious this brief definition of the problem may seem, it is still much deeper and requires close attention, especially in terms of practical application not only by psychologists, but also by philosophers of various schools, directions, disciplines.

The influence of Alfred Adler on the philosophical ethical-existential question of the formation, existence and change of life orientation remains poorly understood, leaving a field for multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research by specialists from various fields of scientific knowledge.


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This article is devoted to a rather relevant and constantly significant goal concerning any person - namely, the search for life orientation. Various researchers have proposed numerous approaches to considering this issue, and these approaches, views, concepts change during various specific historical events and circumstances, but there are some approaches that systematize and concretize various basic benchmarks from the point of view of analyzing and considering the problem of life orientation, meaning and purpose of human life, which determines his life path. In this paper, the author examines this issue in the context of the individual psychology of Alfred Adler. The question of life orientation, analyzed by A. Adler on the problems of the XIX-XX centuries, is just as acute in the context of the XXI century. The growing need for social activity and responsibility is developing in parallel with the tendency to separate people within the framework of the extreme individualization of economic and spiritual life, so characteristic of our time, especially in conditions of radical social transformations and socio-political tension. Alfred Adler is the founder of the holistic system of individual psychology, which considers personality as part of a social system inextricably linked to others. He called his theory individual psychology, emphasizing the uniqueness of each individual, unlike Freud's works, which describe common patterns of behavior. Adler's followers founded centers in Europe, particularly in England, and in the United States; many of his original ideas have become widely used in modern psychology and psychotherapy. Probably, the concept of inferiority complex introduced by Adler is now much more known than any other concept from the field of psychology. The four basic principles of the Adler system are integrity, unity of individual lifestyle, social interest, or a sense of community, and the importance of goal—oriented behavior. Adler's conclusion that goals and expectations influence human behavior more than past impressions was the main reason for his disagreement with Freud. Adler also believed that people are guided primarily by the goal of achieving superiority or conquering the environment. He highlighted both the effect of social impact on the individual and the importance of the social interest of the individual: a sense of community, cooperation and caring for others. According to Adler, life is basically a movement towards increasingly successful adaptation to the world around us, greater cooperation and altruism. The lack of guidelines and sustainable values, replaced by chaotically emerging trends and trends, leaves a person alone with a terrifying virtualized world. Adler's individual psychology is similar to behaviorism in that it deals with observable behavior and its consequences, and also argues that any concept should be specific and tied to actual behavior. Unlike most psychological theories described here, individual psychology is not deep psychology, that is, it does not postulate intangible forces and structures lurking in the depths of the psyche. Rather, Adler developed contextual psychology, where behavior is explained using terms of the physical and social environment, in a context usually not realized by the individual himself, which is very important from the point of view of philosophical and methodological reflection of this position. The work appeals to various sources (although, unfortunately, mostly Russian-speaking), it contains arguments both to positions that coincide with the author's point of view and to opposing positions, and the argumentation is clear, the counterargument is specific. It seems that the work will be of interest to a certain part of the magazine's audience, and not necessarily when dividing the position of the author.