An inexplicably forgotten thinker: The reappearance of Dr. Allers

by Luis Fernando Figari

For many years Dr. Rudolf Allers was a personality in the world of culture. Renowned psychiatrist, outstanding philosopher, patrologist, self-sacrificing teacher. By no means a man who passed by unnoticed, very much to the contrary. Nonetheless, today he is practically forgotten.

A trip through the internet, in which you find everything, will result in a microscopic amount of information about this great Catholic thinker of the 20th century. Only tangential references; almost nothing about his biography, nor of his thought. One could ask oneself whether this is due to the fact that his reasoning has lost value, or rather, to the fact that his positions would prove uncomfortable to those who’ve accustomed themselves to today’s grave cultural crisis or simply to carelessness and indifference.

It turns out to be almost an odyssey to arrive at the discovery that some 600 publications of books and articles are the product of his pen. A close collaborator of Alfred Adler, he separated from him because he didn’t consider verifiable the affirmations of psychoanalysis, whose empirical fundaments he judged to be fragile and reductive to the extreme.

In a classroom of the University of Vienna, Allers and Oswald Schwarz publicly announced their abandonment of Adler’s Society for Individual Psychology. Victor Frankl expressed his adherence to the dissidents and in consequence was expelled from the Adlerian group.

Allers decisively influenced the young Frankl. In today’s famous Logotherapy there remain undeniable traces of Allerian thought which considered that “without a certain philosophical substructure, the attempt to bring a patient to normality is a hopeless enterprise.” In the Logotherapy Congress of 1990 in Buenos Aires, Frankl recognized his indebtedness to Allers.

Allers was also a mentor of Hans Urs von Balthasar and a friend of Saint Edith Stein. After her death, Allers translated one of her works into English and used Stein’s material in his classes. All this should be sufficient to induce an interest in Allers, a protagonist of importance in the trajectory of twentieth century western thought.

He was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1883. His father was a medical doctor and his mother came from a family of scientists. Rudolf followed the path of his father and of his mother’s family. He studied medicine and sciences. He very much liked laboratory work, a tendency he maintained throughout the course of his life. He received his doctorate in 1906, from the University of Vienna. Alongside his medical studies he dedicated a lot of time to the study and practice of chemistry. In fact he published several articles about biochemistry. His studies in this area served him in his neurophysiological investigations.

He had Sigmund Freud as a professor, having become interested in his line of psychoanalysis in 1908. In that same year he was united in matrimony with Carola Meitner, the daughter of a famous Viennese lawyer. He oriented himself towards psychiatry and obtained the post of assistant in the Clinic for Nervous and Mental Illnesses in Prague. From there he moved to the mental illness clinic of Munich where he became professor of psychiatry in 1913. He worked alongside Professor Emil Krapelin, considered the founder of modern psychiatry.

The advent of the First World War took Allers to the field of battle as a surgeon medic. He received the Cross of Merit and the Red Cross Medal for his sacrificial service on the Polish-Russian front. He published a book, the fruit of his experience with the wounds of war.

At the end of the war he was named head of the Department of Sensorial and Medical Psychology in the Institute of Psychology of Vienna. From 1927 on, in addition to studying and teaching, he practised psychiatry. His own search for truth and the need to deepen his study in order to better help his patients took him, on the advice of Father Agostino Gemelli, to the study of philosophy at the University of the Sacred Heart in Milan where, in 1934, he obtained another doctorate.

His philosophical deepening brought him to identify with the Philosophia perennis (perennial philosophy), although, rather than limiting himself to it, he remained open to all that new philosophical currents could contribute towards the better understanding of the human being.

Some books of his, translated from German into English, The Psychology of Character (1931), New Psychologies (1933), Practical Psychology in CharacterDevelopment (1934), drew a lot of attention in the United States with their new focus.

In 1937 he was invited to the Catholic University of America as a professor of psychology. His life in Vienna having proved too difficult during the advent of Hitler, Allers, with his wife Carola and their son Ulrich, took the opportunity and travelled to the new continent. After ten years of teaching he transferred to Georgetown University, this time as professor of philosophy. This whole stage of his life can be called Allers’ American period.

In 1955 he made an extensive tour through France and Austria during which he gave numerous conferences. In 1958 he received a research grant from the Guggenheim Foundation which took him to Europe again. A year later he returned to Austria to give a series of courses in the European Forum. His articles were published in America and Europe.

In his American stage, thanks to his achievements in teaching and publishing, and for having written one of the most solid refutations of Freud, The Successful Error (Freudianism), Allers received the Saint Thomas Aquinas Medal for his “prominent contributions to philosophy.” He also received an honorary doctorate in Law from Georgetown; was president of the Philosophical Chapter of the Maryland-Virginia district, president of the Society of Metaphysics of America, and member of various academies such as those of art, philosophy, medieval thought, and sciences of New York. The press considered him a “a Catholic pioneer of psychology in the United States.”

His last book, Existentialism and Psychiatry, is a compilation that includes four brilliant lectures, published in the American Lectures in Clinical Psychiatry series. In this volume he demonstrates his familiarity with philosophy in general, with existentialism, with psychology, psychiatry, physiology, technological thought, and theology.

Allers’ thought embraces the whole unity of the human being. Far from being an exponent of today’s tendency towards fragmented knowledge, his goal, on the contrary, is an approach to the whole man.

Since the time he was a student of Freud, Allers was a protagonist and witness of the evolution of psychology and psychiatry in some of the critical moments of these disciplines. His orientation towards the study of philosophy was the consequence of what he perceived in his practice as a psychotherapist. Behind psychoanalytical and other currents of thought that present themselves as sciences, there exist underlying ideas. Criticism of the fragile fundaments of these mental disciplines brought Allers to a series of concerns about the ideas or ideologies upon which they are based.

He was a pioneer in perceiving this grave deficiency and he endeavoured to remedy it in his psychotherapy and in philosophy. With respect to these he said: “They have persuaded me of the need to clarify the fundamental concepts of medical psychology and to provide psychology and psychotherapy with a solid philosophical base.”

“It has been made more and more evident to me that the theory and practice of psychiatry depended, in great part, on the general ideas about human nature that prevail in successive phases of history. Never before has history moved at such a speed as it has since the end of the 19th century. In consequence, never before have such profound changes occurred in all the empirical and theoretical disciplines. Psychiatry is enveloped in this process in the same measure as other disciplines, or perhaps even more. So the mode in which psychiatry conceives its problems and its task depends, whether it knows it or not, on the manner in which it conceives of human nature. The development of the vision of man, however, pertains to philosophy.” This is how Allers wrote in 1961. For him psychology, psychiatry, psychotherapy require a “philosophical anthropology,” that is, a “comprehensive philosophy of human nature.” And this supposes, among other things, the right method.

In this line, Allers also underlined the close relation which, for many psychiatrists, was being produced with philosophy. Nonetheless he warned that “the psychiatrist is easily inclined to develop his own philosophy, because it appears to sustain the points of view suggested by his experience. But the said experience, in turn, is forged by the intellectual climate in which the psychiatrist grew and in which he moves.”

In 1961 he turned to a psychiatric current in the United States which had imported a Heideggerian perspective from Europe, and he tried to demonstrate how those who had assumed a few of Martin Heidegger’s ideas did not understand him as a whole. In conclusion he said that it was necessary to adopt a correct methodological perspective, a perspective which allows itself to evaluate diverse conceptions from a wide historical perspective. In this way he explained the results of his quest in search of the truth about the human being and of the way to help those who suffer internally.

Today these ideas of Allers have become uncomfortable to many. However, for anyone who aspires to approach these disciplines seriously, dialoguing with the great Austrian master and evaluating the reach of his positions is something unavoidable. In fact, in the last few years the voices warning about the presence of ideologies at the base of diverse academic disciplines that usually present themselves as neutral have become more and more numerous.

The positions of the Viennese master on education coincide with those of John Henry Cardinal Newman. There is no evidence that Allers had read Newman. Nonetheless, they coincide in the rejection of the fragmentation produced in university education. “In practice,” says Allers, “the student is encouraged too much to ‘specialize’ as fast as possible, even if he is still incapable of evaluating the nature of subjects and of his own abilities. The educators themselves have lost sight of the fundamental unity of knowledge and of learning.”

The results of what Professor Allers pointed out more than forty years ago can be seen in the rapid decline of education – not only university, but also school – in many countries. It’s not uncommon that diplomas have no real worth other than the paper they are printed on. Allers himself affirmed, in an autobiographical sketch published in The Book of Catholic Authors, that: “As I see it, the multiplicity of interests that I have experienced in my life has been one of its highest values.”

As a Christian humanist, Allers moves about in theological co-ordinates, as can be evidenced in his numerous publications in reviews such as Etudes Carmelitaines (Carmelite Studies), Ecclesiastical Review, The Thomist, Franciscan Studies, The New Scholasticism, Modern Age, Orientamenti Pedagogici. In the midst of his central concern for the human being, his identity and goal, Allers didn’t forget to treat a theme which today reveals itself as fundamental: “Technology and the human person” and “Technology and Christian culture.” At the same time he treated themes with great cultural reach like “Psychiatry and the modern mind,” “Psychiatry and the role of personal faith,” “The role of psychology and philosophy in the forge of the modern world.”

In a much-acclaimed discourse to the American Catholic Psychological Association, in September of 1956, Allers pointed out that the human being is not, neither as individual nor as group, the measure of all things. Man, in order to preserve his values, “must discover a via media between extreme subjectivism or individualism, on one hand, and the uniformization resulting from group uniformity, on the other.” Already back then he pointed to what he calls “the kingdom of the trans-subjective.” Today his perspective can be applied to a macro-social problematic that expands in proportion to the advancement of the process of globalization.

Allers indicated three basic principles which frame his philosophical, psychological, and psychiatric undertaking: “The Catholic conception of the universe, the philosophical system of the philosophia perennis, the empiricism of modern psychological investigation, especially as it is presented in individual psychology.”

In teaching his thought encounters its fundamental field of deployment. He possesses an extremely suggestive methodology, one that is neither static nor boring, but rather aimed at the responsible and active participation of the student, who is involved in the learning method as well as in a parallel deepening in the ample world of thought.

Despite the time he dedicated to his many publications, he remained fascinated by teaching. Helping others discover a right methodology, form themselves in freedom, assume and internalize a right hierarchy of values is the aim of his personalism in action.

Already professor emeritus, he continued to teach philosophy at Georgetown, but his failing health restricted his mobility, so his students would go to the retirement home of the Archdiocese of Washington, Carroll Manor. The Carmelite sisters in charge of the house had converted the solarium into a classroom for the aged teacher’s students. At the age of 80 he was called to the presence of God. The funeral Mass was celebrated on December 17, 1963, in the Church of the Holy Trinity, in Georgetown. His mortal remains are found in Saint Mary’s cemetery.

The commemoration of the 120th anniversary of the birth of this Christian thinker is nearing. It’s a magnificent occasion to relaunch him so that the edition of his new works and translations can be added to the ones that have already begun to appear.

Rudolf Allers’ concern that Christians be conscious of their identity, that those invited to intellectual work be in condition to dialogue with the intellectual currents of their time, brings Christians to be conscious of the faith we profess, of our commitment to give reason for it, and of the knowledge of our own traditions of thought.

I conclude this article with a quote: “Man has been endowed by his Creator with the power of creativity, not in order to arouse existence but rather to transform what merely exists into a world and give it meaning.”


Notice: These articles have been translated by members of the Christian Life Movement and have not been revised by the author.

The digital version of this document has been prepared by the Christian Life Movement. All rights reserved (©).

The digital version of this text can only be reproduced with pastoral reasons, without any modifications and keeping the integrity of it’s meaning. The source of the document must be clearly quoted. It is understood that it can only be used in non-commercial publications and under the conditions previously explained.

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