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Theme Pack 5: Striving and Social Interest

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The Origin of the Striving for Superiority and Social Interest1

By Alfred Adler [1933]

Chapter XII in The Collected Clinical Works of Alfred Adler: Volume 7


While it almost sounds like a timely problem to talk about striving for superiority and the roots of social interest, for Individual Psychology it is an old problem. The total value and meaning of Individual Psychology are contained in these two aspects and their solution. Our work has always emphasized these two elements, but we need to clarify their foundations to avoid any doubt about their meaning, which we sometimes find in our friends, but more often in our opponents. I do not think that what we mean by striving for superiority is very well known outside our group. We must add additional information to existing knowledge. This knowledge cannot be directly understood or found through an analysis of visible symptoms and facts, as something new is not generally found through analysis. In such a case we have the parts instead of the totality in front of us. The totality tells us Individual Psychologists much more than the analysis of the parts. Also, with synthesis nothing new emerges if one simply puts the parts together. Where shall we start our explorations, if we want to reveal what we have accomplished? In respect to the striving for completeness, or as it often appears, striving for perfection, striving for superiority, or as it has often been attributed to us by less intelligent writers: striving for power, some have always understood the real meaning, but not fundamentally enough to communicate this knowledge to a larger audience, or to clarify the fundamental importance this striving has in the development of the whole personality. Individual Psychology was first to mention that every individual has this striving for completeness. It is absolutely unnecessary to indoctrinate people with the idea so they can develop into superhumans, as the bold efforts of Nietzsche have shown. Individual Psychology has pointed out that every individual is aware of striving toward completeness, striving from lower to higher. Those who can read between the lines will have understood that we who practice Individual Psychology are constantly aware of the fundamental meaning of striving for superiority and that we uncover the typical direction of this striving in any disturbed person.

1 Originally titled “Über den Ursprung des Strebens nach Überlegenhei und des Gemeinschafsgefühles,” Aus einem Vortrag in der Wiener medizinischen Gesellschaft für Individualpsychologie. Published in the Internationale Zeitschrift für Individualpsychologie, Volume XI, 1933. 2 Translation by Sophia J. de Vries, 1990.

Nevertheless. I must answer a question which keeps reappearing every time this issue arises. Both friends and adversaries have questioned what probably was not quite clear in our group. Today, I will try to bring us closer to an understanding, because clarity for all is necessary.

In the first place, striving for superiority is innate. Not in a concrete way or as a drive, if there would exist a drive, which could later result in a good ending if nurtured, it is inborn as something that belongs to life, a striving, an urge, a development, something without which we simply cannot visualize life. Scholars, especially nature researchers, have always emphasized this principle in the physical development of man. Especially after Darwin, Lamarck, and others, it is a matter of course to keep the thought of development in mind. If here we take one step further and emphasize what was present in these researchers' minds, we may conclude that life means development. The human mind is alas too easily accustomed to translating everything that moves into form, not to observing the flow, but the frozen movement which has taken on solid form. From the beginning, Individual Psychologists have dissolved in movement what we perceive as form. As a result, we believe that to live means to develop. Everyone knows that the total human developed from one egg cell, but everyone should also understand correctly that this egg cell contains the foundations for development. How life came on earth is a question; maybe we will never find the final answer. We should consider how, for instance, Smuts has made a worthwhile attempt (Wholeness and Evolution) by assuming that life also exists in inanimate matter, a consideration modern physics comes close to when pointing out how electrons move around protons. We do not know if this conception will prove true in the future; however, our comprehension of life as movement cannot be doubted anymore, movement which goes in the direction of self-preservation, of increase, of contact with the outer world, of successful contact in order to survive. We must begin with this path of development, with a constantly active adjustment to the demands of the world, if we want to understand in which direction life leads and moves. We must keep in mind that this is a matter of origin, which is connected with the source of life. We need to overcome for the continued existence of the individual and the human race; we need to create a favorable relationship between individual and environment. This compulsive force to promote improved adjustment never ends. These concepts form the foundation of our understanding of the striving for superiority.

Possibly much of what I have explained here looks familiar to you and has been known by others. Nevertheless, Individual Psychology claims special credit for showing a connection and how this force, called “life,” develops in every individual. We find ourselves in the middle of evolution and notice it as little as we feel the earth revolving. Striving toward successful assimilation in the world is part of this cosmic connection. Even if we doubt that striving for superiority existed at the beginning of life, the progress of billions of years shows that even now striving for completeness is a fact for all of us. Furthermore, none of us knows the one correct road to completeness. Often mankind has attempted to picture this final goal of human development. So far, the best image we about this ideal elevation of man is the concept of God.3 No doubt the concept of God contains the same movement toward completeness as a goal, and it corresponds most closely with the dark desire of mankind to reach perfection as a concrete goal of completeness. Indeed, everyone has a different concept of God. Some images cannot come close to the principle of completeness; however, the purest expression of God succeeds as a concrete grasp of the goal of completeness.

Of course, people imagine this goal of completeness differently. We Individual Psychologists doctors, who deal with shortcomings in neurotics, psychotics, delinquents, and alcoholics, etc., also see this striving for superiority in them, but going in a different direction, contrary to intelligence, rather than as a correct goal of completeness. For instance, when someone tries to reach completeness by dominating others, we consider this goal already unfit. A goal of domination is no guide for the individual or mankind, because everyone cannot choose this direction; it would force him in opposition to the force of evolution; he would have to violate reality and protect himself, full of anxiety, against truth and all people who acknowledge truth. When we meet people whose goal of completeness is to lean on others, we consider this goal to contradict common sense. When someone finds his goal of completeness in leaving the tasks of life unsolved in order to prevent possible defeats, which would look like the opposite of completeness, this goal is completely inappropriate, though many people find it acceptable. Consider the question: what has happened to those people who chose a wrong goal of completeness for themselves and whose active adjustment has failed, because they went in the wrong direction and not toward advancement for all (see Alfred Adler: What Life Should Mean to You)? The extinction of species, races, tribes, families, and thousands of individuals who have left nothing behind teaches us the necessity for finding a tolerably correct goal of completeness. For every individual, the goal of completeness dictates the direction for the development of his total personality, movements of expression, outlook, thinking, feeling, and world concept. A direction deviating somewhat from the truth will result in harm for the individual, if not his ruin. It would be a happy discovery if we could know more about a correct direction, because we are embedded in the stream of evolution, which we have to follow.

Also in this respect, Individual Psychology has accomplished important work equal to its principle of general striving for completeness. Our many experiences have led us to understand the direction of an ideal completeness, namely, in the criteria of Gemeinschaftsgefühl, best translated as the social feeling of belonging and embeddedness.4 In regard to social interest, Individual

3Ernst Jahn und Alfred Adler: Religion und Individua psychologie. Eine prinzipielle Auseinandersetzung über Menschenführung. 1933 Verlag Dr. Rolf Passer, Wien und Leipzig.4 Translator’s note: Hereafter translated as social interest which is generally found in translations of Adler's works because there is no English word that covers the concept of Gemeinschaftsgefühl.

Psychology literature contains certain variations; that is why I want to talk about it. I don't want to talk much about the usual and silly mistake, sometimes made in our group by beginners and also outside of our group, as if what we call “social” means a contemporary specific circle or a larger group to which a person should belong. Social interest means much more. Specifically, it means to feel with all concerned subspecies aeternitatis, striving toward a form of community, which has to be conceived as eternal, as if mankind had reached the goal of completeness. It never has anything to do with a presently existing group or society, or with political or religious concepts. However, the goal that is most apt to lead to completeness means the ideal community of all mankind, the last fulfillment of evolution. Of course, people ask how I know this. Undoubtedly not from direct experience, and I will admit that those who find in Individual Psychology a touch of metaphysics are right. Some praise this aspect of our approach, some condemn it. Alas, many people have a wrong idea about metaphysics and want everything they cannot immediately understand excluded from people's lives. In doing so, we would curtail development, possibilities, and innovation. Every new idea lies beyond immediate experiences. Immediate experiences never create anything new. Creative thinking, when combined with immediate experiences, does create something new. Call it speculation or transcendental, every science ends in metaphysics. I don't see any reason to be afraid of metaphysics, which have influenced people's lives and development. We are not blessed with the absolute truth. That is why we are obliged to think about our future, about results of our actions, etc.

Our concept of social interest as the ultimate development of mankind has to contain the goal of an ideal society, because it is a situation where we imagine all life problems solved, all relationships improved, a goal that goes in a beneficial direction. Completion has to include the goal of an ideal society because everything we find worthwhile in life is a product of this social interest. I will repeat what I have worked out in another connection. The newborn child finds only what others have added to life, the contribution of our forefathers. This fact alone could inform us how life continues, how we can get closer to a situation with larger contributions and greater ability to cooperate, to a time when every individual functions as part of the total. Only the forms of cooperative movements in the direction of this ideal community will last. We do not want to pass judgment, but one thing we can say: a movement of an individual or a group can count as worthwhile for us only when it contains value for eternity, for the higher development of all mankind.

What happens to people who have not contributed anything? Disappeared, extinguished! The force of evolution, this impulse to reach a higher stage physically, intellectually, and spiritually, eliminates everything that does not participate or contribute anything. A ground rule in development warns the negative individual: go away; you don't understand what life is about! Thus, the eternal value of the contribution by people who have accomplished something for all becomes accentuated. However, we are prudent enough not to claim that we have the key to say correctly in every case what is and what is estimated as good for eternity. We know we may make mistakes. Only an objective exploration or events themselves can decide. At least it we can avoid what does not add to the striving for completeness. I could talk more about this completeness and show how all our functions are calculated so as not to disturb the society of man, but rather connect the individual with society. To see means to absorb, to fertilize what reaches the retina. Seeing is not only a physiological event, but also shows that man is part of the whole, who takes and gives. Through seeing, hearing, and talking we connect with others. Thus, all functions of our organs are correctly developed only if they are not detrimental to social interest. We talk about virtue and mean that someone participates; about vice and mean that he disturbs participation. Everything considered a failure is a failure because it disturbs the development of society, such as difficult children, neurotics, delinquents, or suicides. In all these cases participation is absent. In the history of man we do not find isolated individuals. Our development was possible only because mankind formed a society and in his striving for completeness included striving toward an ideal society. All man’s movements in the stream of evolution, express whether he has fond this direction toward an ideal society or not. Man is lastingly directed, obstructed, punished, praised, or challenged by the image of an ideal society, with the result that everyone does not merely have to account for every deviation, but also has to atone for it. That is a hard law, even gruesome. Those who have already developed a strong social interest are firmly determined to diminish the hardships of those who take wrong steps, as if they knew: there goes a person who has missed the correct road as a result of causes which Individual Psychology can point out. If people understood where they went wrong while avoiding evolution, they would leave the wrong road and follow the better one.

Finally, what about social interest; is that also inborn or do we have to instill it in people? Of course, it is inborn, but it can become developed only when the child is exposed to life around him. It unfolds in social association, in the same way that character traits are formed, however, in the limited way the child understands social relationships. The determining factor is the creative power of the child, guided by environment and education, as well as influenced by the experience of his body and how he appraises it. Considering the contemporary psychological state of mankind, and maybe also its physical state, we must evaluate the inborn foundation of social interest as too insufficient to develop and unfold without social understanding. Certain inborn faculties and functions operate almost completely on their own, for instance, breathing. We are not that far at all with social interest. We have not developed it in the same way as breathing; yet we have to expect the development of social interest as an end goal of completeness intensely enough that mankind will possess it in the future and use it as he does breathing. What we have to do in the present critical state is quite clear. No doubt this view offers us a sound foundation, not only for the evaluation of the individual and the education of children, but also for the improvement and direction of those who have failed. Of course, success requires explanation and understanding. We are not sure that every child or adult knows where he is going. It should be talked about long enough until perhaps in the course of thousands of years talking about social interest will be superfluous, like talking about correct breathing. Talking about social interest as belonging to the evolution of mankind, as part of human life, shows the fundamental importance and strength of Individual Psychology. Nowadays, everybody talks about society and social interest. Others have discussed it, but we are the first to strongly emphasize the fundamental essence of social interest. The concept of society and social interest can also be abused. But he who has understood correctly, knows that the essence of society and social interest contain an evolutional element that turns against everything contradicting this direction. He will avoid abusing society or letting himself be abused by others. The practical value and importance of Individual Psychology is that it has clarified the fundamental meaning of social interest for the improved development of the individual and all mankind.


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