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Otto Rank

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Otto Rank (April 22, 1884 – October 31, 1939) was an Austrian psychologist. Born in Vienna as Otto Rosenfeld, he was one of Sigmund Freud's closest colleagues for twenty years, a prolific writer on psychoanalytic themes, an editor of the two most important analytic journals, managing director of Freud's publishing house and a creative theorist. In 1925, after Freud accused Rank of "anti-Oedipal" heresy, he chose to leave the inner circle and move away from Vienna with his wife, Tola, and infant daughter, Helene. For the remaining fifteen years of his life, Rank had an exceptionally successful career as a lecturer, writer and therapist in France and the U.S.


In the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society

In 1905, at the age of 21, Otto Rank presented Freud with a short manuscript on the artist, a study that so impressed Freud he invited Rank to become secretary of the emerging Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. Rank thus became the first paid member of the psychoanalytic movement, and Freud's "right-hand" man for almost twenty years. Freud considered Rank, with whom he was more intimate intellectually than his own sons, to be the most brilliant of his Viennese disciples.

Rank was one of Freud's six collaborators brought together in a secret "committee" or "ring" to defend the psychoanalytic mainstream as disputes with Adler and then Jung developed. Rank was the most prolific author in the "ring" besides Freud himself, extending psychoanalytic theory to the study of legend, myth, art, and other works of creativity. He worked particularly closely with Freud, not just in a secretarial role, but also in contributing two new chapters, on myth and legend, to later editions of "The Interpretation of Dreams". Rank's name appeared underneath Freud's on the title page of Freud's greatest work for many years. Between 1915 and 1918, Rank served as Acting Secretary in the International Psychoanalytical Association which Freud had founded in 1910. Everyone in the small psychoanalytic world understood how much Freud respected Rank and his prolific creativity in expanding psychoanalytic theory.

In 1924 Rank published The Trauma of Birth, exploring how art, myth, religion, philosophy and therapy were illuminated by separation anxiety in the “phase before the development of the Oedipus complex” (p. 216). But there was no such phase in Freud’s theories. The Oedipus complex, Freud explained tirelessly, was the nucleus of the neurosis and the foundational source of all art, myth, religion, philosophy, therapy – indeed of all human culture and civilization. It was the first time that anyone in the inner circle had dared to suggest that the Oedipus complex might not be the supreme causal factor in psychoanalysis. It was also the first time that anyone in the inner circle had dared to suggest that there was a “pre-Oedipal” complex – a term that did not exist at that time. Rank was the first to use the term “pre-Oedipal” in a public psychoanalytic forum in 1925 (Rank, 1996, p. 43). In the next edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Rank will be credited with coining this term, which is now mistakenly thought to have been introduced by Freud in 1932.

After some hesitation, Freud distanced himself from The Trauma of Birth, signalling to other members of his inner circle that Rank was perilously close to anti-Oedipal heresy. Confronted with Freud’s decisive opposition, Rank chose to resign in protest from his powerful positions as Vice-President of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, director of Freud’s publishing house, and co-editor of Imago and Zeitschrift. His closest friend, Sandor Ferenczi, with whom Rank collaborated in the early Twenties on new experiential, object-relational and "here-and-now" approaches to therapy, abandoned him. The break between Freud and Rank, and the loss of Rank's tremendous vitality, left a gaping hole in "the cause" that would never be filled by anyone else. Anna Freud replaced Rank on the secret "committee," but could not match his intellect, although Freud loved her dearly. Ferenczi became more and more alienated from Freud and died broken-hearted in 1933.

Post-Vienna life and work

In May 1926, Rank moved to Paris where he became an analyst for artists such as Henry Miller and Anaļs Nin and lectured at the Sorbonne (Lieberman, 1985).

In France and later in America, Rank enjoyed great success as a therapist and writer. Travelling frequently between France and America, Rank lectured at universities such as Harvard, Yale, Stanford and Pennsylvania on object-relational, experiential and “here-and-now” psychotherapy, art, the creative will, and “neurosis as a failure in creativity” (Rank, 1996).

He died in New York City in 1939 from a kidney infection, one month after Freud's physician-assisted suicide on the Jewish Day of Atonement.


Rollo May, a pioneer of existential psychotherapy in the United States, was deeply influenced by Rank’s post-Freudian lectures and writings and always considered Rank to be the most important precursor of existential therapy. Shortly before his death, Rollo May wrote the foreword to Robert Kramer's edited collection of Rank’s American lectures. “I have long considered Otto Rank to be the great unacknowledged genius in Freud’s circle,” said May (Rank, 1996, p. xi).

In 1936 Carl Rogers, the most influential psychologist in America after William James, invited Otto Rank to give a series of lectures in New York on Rank’s post-Freudian models of experiential and relational therapy. Rogers was transformed by these lectures and always credited Rank with having profoundly shaped "client-centered" therapy and the entire profession of counselling. "I became infected with Rankian ideas," said Rogers (Rank, 1996, p. 263).

The New York writer Paul Goodman, who was co-founder with Fritz Perls of the Gestalt method of psychotherapy, one of the most popular in the world today, and one which makes Otto Rank's here-and-now central to its approach, described Rank’s post-Freudian ideas on art and creativity as “beyond praise” in Gestalt Therapy (Perls, Goodman and Hefferline, 1951, p. 395).

In 1974, the sociologist Ernest Becker won the Pulitzer prize for The Denial of Death (1973), which was based on Rank’s post-Freudian writings, especially Will Therapy (1929-31), Psychology and the Soul (1930) and Art and Artist (1932).

The American priest and theologian, Matthew Fox, founder of Creation Spirituality and Wisdom University, considers Rank to be one of the most important psychologists of the 20th century. See, especially, Fox's book, Creativity: Where the Divine and the Human Meet (Jeremy P. Tarcher, 2002), paperback: ISBN 1-58542-329-7.

Stanislav Grof, a founder of transpersonal psychology, based much of his work in prenatal and perinatal psychology on Rank's The Trauma of Birth.

Today, Rank can be seen as one of the great pioneers in the fields of humanistic psychology, existential psychotherapy, Gestalt therapy and transpersonal psychology.

Major publications by date of first publication

Year German Title (Current Edition) English Translation (Current Edition)
1907 Der Künstler The Artist
1909 Der Mythus von der Geburt des Helden (Turia & Kant, 2000, ISBN 3-85132-141-3) The Myth of the Birth of the Hero (Johns Hopkins, 2004, ISBN 0-8018-7883-7)
1911 Die Lohengrin Sage [doctoral thesis] The Lohengrin Saga
1912 Das Inzest-Motiv The Incest Theme in Literature and Legend (Johns Hopkins, 1991, ISBN 0-8018-4176-3)
1913 Die Bedeutung der Psychoanalyse fur die Geisteswissenschaften [with Hanns Sachs] The Significance of Psychoanalysis for the Mental Sciences
1914 chapters in Sigmund Freud's Die Traumdeutung The Interpretation of Dreams
1924 Das Trauma der Geburt (Psychosozial-Verlag, 1998, ISBN 3-932133-25-0) The Trauma of Birth, 1929 (Dover, 1994, ISBN 0-486-27974-X)
1924 Entwicklungsziele der Psychoanalyse [with Sandor Ferenczi] The Development of Psychoanalysis / Developmental Goals of Psychoanalysis
1925 Der Doppelgänger [written 1914] The Double (Karnac, 1989, ISBN 0-946439-58-3)
1929 Wahrheit und Wirklichkeit Truth and Reality (Norton, 1978, ISBN 0-393-00899-1)
1930 (Consists of Volumes II and III of "Technik der Psychoanalyse": Vol. II, "Die Analytische Reaktion in ihren konstruktiven Elementen"; Vol. III, "Die Analyse des Analytikers und seiner Rolle in der Gesamtsituaton". Copyright 1929, 1931 by Franz Deuticke.) Will Therapy, 1936 (Norton, 1978, ISBN 0-393-00898-3)
1930 Seelenglaube und Psychologie Psychology and the Soul (Johns Hopkins, 2003, ISBN 0-8018-7237-5)
1932 Kunst und Künstler (Psychosozial-Verlag, 2000, ISBN 3-89806-023-3) Art and Artist (Norton, 1989, ISBN 0-393-30574-0)
1932   Modern Education
1941   Beyond Psychology (Dover, 1966, ISBN 0-486-20485-5)
1996   A Psychology of Difference: The American Lectures [talks given 1924–1938; edited and with an introductory essay by Robert Kramer] (Princeton, 1996, ISBN 0-691-04470-8)


Book-length works about Otto Rank.

  • Karpf, Fay Berger (1970). The Psychology and Psychotherapy of Otto Rank: An Historical and Comparative Introduction. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-8371-3029-8.
  • Lieberman, E. James (1985). Acts of Will: The Life and Work of Otto Rank. Free Press. ISBN 0-684-86327-8.
  • Menaker, Esther (1982). Otto Rank: A Rediscovered Legacy. Columbia University Press.

Articles or chapters about Otto Rank.

  • Kramer, Robert (2003). Why Did Ferenczi and Rank Conclude that Freud Had No More Emotional Intelligence than a Pre-Oedipal Child? A chapter in Creative Dissent: Psychoanalysis in Evolution, Edited by Claude Barbre, Barry Ulanov, and Alan Roland (New York: Praeger Publishers), pp. 23-36.
  • Kramer, Robert (1995). The Birth of Client-Centered Therapy: Carl Rogers, Otto Rank, and 'The Beyond,' an article in Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Volume 35, pp. 54-110.
  • Kramer, Robert (1995). The ‘Bad Mother’ Freud Has Never Seen: Otto Rank and the Birth of Object-Relations Theory, an article in Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis, Volume 23, pp. 293-321.

This article might use material from a Wikipedia article, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.

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