Soul Metaphors: Contents

Chapter 23



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Chapter 24: Peering Through the Telescope: Conclusions

            I began this book by posing the question, “Why care about Alfred Adler?” I hope that in the intervening pages, and in your own practice with interpreting early memories, you have found many different ways to answer this question. Individual Psychology offers not only a common sense theory for explaining how the human psyche works, but also a diagnostic tool for uncovering and encapsulating the particular nuances of an individual’s character.
            Adler characterizes the tools and techniques we have learned in this book thusly:

Understanding someone’s lifestyle is like understanding the work of a poet. A poet uses only words, but his meaning is more than the mere words he uses. The greatest part of his meaning must be deduced by study and intuition; we must read between the lines. So, too, with that most profound and intricate creation, a personal philosophy of life. The psychologist must learn to read between the lines; he must learn the art of perceiving hidden meanings.[1]

For Adler, human life is defined by these hidden meanings. Each of us organizes our behaviors, feelings, attitudes and habits around core beliefs about ourselves, other people in the world, and the nature of life. By examining the metaphors of early memories, we are able to peer into this core body of beliefs and understand the meaning that an individual ascribes to life.
            Individual Psychology, of course, remains in the realm of theory. While it may be possible, with research, to prove or disprove some aspects of Individual Psychology, such as whether birth order correlates with certain personality traits, it is unlikely that the broader existential tenets of Adlerian personality theory can be verified by experimentation. Nor is it possible to verify scientifically the existence of the Freudian id, ego and superego or the reality of the various Jungian archetypes. Such notions are, themselves, metaphors that we use to further our understanding of human nature. Ultimately, it is probably an article of faith whether the individual is a unity in all his expressions and whether that uniqueness can be captured in the metaphor of an early memory.
            History itself has not always cared about Alfred Adler. A certain body of academic discourse has centered around Adler’s contributions to dynamic psychology, debating the originality of his ideas as well as whether or not he was merely a disciple of Sigmund Freud. Renowned psychological historian, Henri Ellenberger, maintains that:

It would not be easy to find another author from which so much has been borrowed from all sides without acknowledgement than Alfred Adler. His teaching has become, to use a French idiom, an “open quarry” (une carriére publique), that is, a place where anyone and all may come and draw anything without compunction. An author will meticulously quote the source of any sentence he takes from elsewhere, but it does not occur to him to do the same whenever the source is individual psychology…[2]

            In this book we have presented more than one example of how Adler has infused modern psychology and modern thinking with his ideas – despite the fact that few people actually know much about the original theorist. The notion of inferiority complexes evolved from Adler. The idea that people are creative and shape their own characters comes from Adler. Adler was one of the first dynamic psychiatrists to explore the outcomes of birth order. He was one of the first to view the therapeutic process as a mutual endeavor between patient and psychiatrist. He also introduced the idea that people tend to compensate for what they perceive as personal weaknesses. Powerful and successful forms of psychotherapy such as Neuro-Linguistic Programming and cognitive behavioral therapy utilize Adler’s teleological approach. He also, as we have learned, coined the now ubiquitous term, lifestyle.
            Of all his contributions, perhaps the most significant is the subject we have explored in this book: Adler taught that people can be understood according to their unique life philosophies, and he developed a powerful technique for rapidly uncovering these philosophies.
            Ellenberger offers several hypotheses to answer “this perplexing question of the discrepancy between greatness of achievement, massive rejection of person and work, and wide-scale, quiet plagiarism.”[3] The reasons that Ellenberger proposes include:

            The rationality of Adler’s theories. Once articulated, Individual Psychology expresses such common-sense notions that they may seem, true, obvious, and thus unoriginal.
            Adler’s bearing as a person. Adler did not conduct himself in any great manner that was likely to foster a charismatic movement. His clients included the middle class and the working class. He met with his colleagues in informal settings such as coffee houses. He lectured to public school teachers, not to university students.
            Adler’s writings. Adler did not leave behind a written body of work that does justice to his ideas. Although he authored numerous articles and books, he did not pen rousing rhetoric or create stirring metaphors. His written works are often dull and confusing, “written in an ordinary style and poorly organized.”
            National Socialism. Adler’s school was firmly established in Central Europe and found its greatest followers among Socialists and Jews. The Nazi tide largely crushed this movement.

            With Soul Metaphors, I have attempted to demonstrate that there are good reasons to care about Adler’s body of work. I have attempted to provide you, the reader, with a practical handbook for mastering what I see as the core of his theories: The diagnostic interpretation of early memories and the utility of these early memories in understanding a human being. I have taught to you what was taught to me by Conrad Kaplan and by his teacher, Edith Foster, who learned directly from Adler.
            In his great work on Galileo Galilei, German playwright Bertolt Brecht penned the following lines:

            Philosopher: Mr. Galilei, before we utilize your famous scope, we would like to ask for the pleasure of a formal debate. The theme: Can such planets exist?
            Galileo: I thought, you could simply look through the telescope and convince yourself?

Just as looking through the telescope seems the most obvious solution to seeing Galileo’s planets, practicing Adler’s techniques seems the best way to determine the utility of his contributions to society. I invite you to consider the hidden meanings behind your early memories and the early memories of friends, relatives and acquaintances. I encourage you to see if your approach to life changes over time as a result of having interpreted your early memories. Perhaps you will share early memories with your significant other or with work colleagues, or you maybe will elicit early memories from your students or parishioners. Maybe you will discover your life improving and relationships also improving as you and those around you grow in self understanding. I hope that when you come across an early memory described in an interview or in an autobiography, you will consider whether or not it provides insight into the narrator’s character. I encourage you to explore whether nurturing your own sense of social interest improves your emotional wellbeing.

Why should you care about Alfred Adler? I invite you to peer through the telescope and decide for yourself.

1. What Life Could Mean to You, 46.
2. Ellenberger, 645.
3. Ellenberger, 645-646.


(Copyright Ellen Alderton, www.WeLoveAdler.net)