Heinz Kohut by Charles B. Strozier

Heinz Kohut

By Charles B. Strozier

Heinz Kohut (1913-1981) was a leading post-Freudian psychoanalyst and the creator of the first authentically American psychoanalytic movement that he called “psychoanalytic self psychology.” It took an emigre to be so distinctly American.

Kohut was born and raised in an upper middle-class, assimilated Jewish family in Vienna. Kohut’s father, Felix (d. 1937) was an accomplished pianist who went into the paper business after four long years of service on the eastern front in World War I. His mother, Else Lampl Kohut (d. 1972), was strong-willed and played the major role in the life of her adored only son, Heinz. Else Kohut kept the boy from school for his first four years and hired tutors; later, however, he attended the last year of elementary school and all eight years at the Doblinger Gymnasium. After 1932 Kohut studied medicine at the University of Vienna and graduated in 1938.

For at least two years in his early adolescence, Else Kohut hired a tutor, Ernst Morawetz, who was probably a university student, to spend most afternoons with Heinz and take him to the opera and museums. This tutor, about whom Kohut always spoke with great fondness, gave much meaning to a childhood that was otherwise filled with utter loneliness. Kohut was later to describe this relationship in disguised form as the camp counselor in his autobiographical case history, “The Two Analyses of Mr. Z.”

Kohut was a highly cultured man with exquisite tastes in music and the arts. He grew up attending opera as much as three times a week and was well acquainted with current trends in literature and painting. He had no special interests in Freud but sought some psychotherapy in 1937 from a psychologist named Walter Marseilles, who was an expert in the Rorschach test. Later that year Kohut went into analysis with the renowned psychoanalyst and friend of Freud’s, August Aichhorn. That analysis – and much else – was to be prematurely terminated as an effect of the Anschluss, or takeover, of Austria by Hitler and the Nazis in the spring of 1938.

Kohut was appalled – and in great danger. In early 1939 he managed to leave Vienna for England, where he stayed for a year, first in a camp for immigrants and then in his uncle’s apartment in London, before acquiring his visa for America. He arrived in the United States in March, 1940. With $25 in his pocket Kohut took a bus to Chicago to join his childhood friend, Siegmund Levarie, who had previously arrived and gotten a position at the University.

Further training in medicine took Kohut through residencies in neurology and psychiatry at the University of Chicago during the 1940s. Kohut moved slowly into psychoanalysis. He went through a “didactic” (and for him painstaking) analysis with Ruth Eissler in the early and mid-1940s and began course work at the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis in 1946. He graduated from the Institute in 1950 and immediately joined the faculty. At that point Kohut basically left the university, though he remained a lecturer in psychiatry, and worked full-time for the rest of his life as a clinical psychoanalyst. In two other milestones around this time, Kohut married Elizabeth Meyers in 1948 and had a son, Thomas August [after Aichhorn], in 1951 (his only child).

Kohut’s star quickly rose in the Chicago psychoanalytic community during the 1950s, where he was widely, though sometimes reluctantly, recognized as its most creative figure. He published a number of important articles in these years on applied psychoanalysis, especially the psychology of music, but his greatest contribution was an essay on empathy that was first presented in 1956 and published in 1959. In it Kohut argued that the essential way of knowing in psychoanalysis was through empathy, which he defined as vicarious introspection. Anything else was quixotic and false to the tradition. He never wavered from the position, and empathy would become the centerpiece of his more general self psychology.

In 1964-1965 Kohut served one term as President of the American Psychoanalytic Association, which marked the culmination of a long and active period of involvement in administrative leadership of psychoanalysis. But from the mid-1960s until his death in 1981, Kohut devoted himself to writing and scholarship. His most important book was the 1971 monograph, The Analysis of the Self: A Systematic Analysis of the Treatment of the Narcissistic Personality Disorders. That book had a significant impact on the field by extending Freud’s theory of narcissism and introducing what Kohut called the “self-object transferences” of mirroring and idealization. Kohut followed that book with a second in 1977, The Restoration of the Self, that moved from a focus on narcissism to a discussion of the self, its development and vicissitudes and the “tension gradient” of what he then called the “bipolar self,” an idea that has not generally endured. In 1978 the first two volumes of his papers, edited by Paul Ornstein, Search for the Self, appeared. Along with his writing, Kohut created a group around him of devoted followers that soon became a national and even international movement in scope. He had conscious ambitions to change the character of psychoanalysis.

Kohut’s last decade, however, was a time of personal torment, as he was a very sick man. He had contracted lymphoma in 1971 that caused a steady systemic decline. Kohut kept his cancer a deep and dark secret, known only to his family and one or two very close friends. In 1979, he had by-pass surgery from which there were some complications and a lengthy recovery. In the next couple of years he also developed inner ear troubles and once had pneumonia. By 1981 he was in a state of general decline and died that fall on October 8.

But despite his illnesses, Kohut continued to work. By the time of his death his last book, How Does Analysis Cure?, was largely complete, though it only appeared in 1984 after being edited by a colleague, Arnold Goldberg, with the assistance of Paul Stepansky. A volume of some new and republished essays appeared in 1985, edited by Charles B. Strozier (Self Psychology and the Humanities) and in 1990 and 1991 volumes three and four of Kohut’s papers, Search for the Self, have appeared, as well as a selection of Kohut’s correspondence, edited by Geoffrey Cocks, The Curve of Life (1994).

The essence of Kohut’s contribution to psychoanalysis is that he found a way to abandon drive theory but retain a depth psychology that places new emphasis on empathy and the direct and symbolic involvement of the self in the world (what he called “selfobjects”). Kohut transformed the way we think about narcissism, about “objects,” about sexuality and sexualization and about aggression and rage, about dreams, about the relationship between psychoanalysis and the humanities in general, about many of our ethical values, and about the very meaning of the self in human experience.

Because of his relative obscurity and difficult prose, in some respects Kohut’s greatest influence has been indirect, that is, filtered through his impact on the writings of others interested in holistic ideas of the self. He is the pivotal figure for all the varied expressions of the contemporary and competing orientations in self psychology; for intersubjective theory; for what is generally called relational psychoanalysis; and for the “postmoderns.” Many theologians, philosophers, historians, critics, and humanists, as well, have incorporated Kohut’s ideas into their writings, often without really knowing their source. Recent feminist writing of a psychological bent, as well, has found in Kohut a perspective on the self that avoids the insidious sexism in most of psychoanalysis. One can also say that much of the public discourse in a society obsessed with psychological meanings has been profoundly influenced by Kohut. The sense we have in the culture of dissociation, for example, from multiple personalities to the ravages of trauma in sexual abuse and war, owes some of its deeper meaning to his work.

Many had flailed at the stout walls of classical psychoanalysis and ego psychology. It took someone from the inside to think through the project from the ground up, discard the debris but recover what remained valuable in its clinical insights. Kohut may well have saved psychoanalysis from itself. Kohut’s personal experiences fitted him uneasily into the world of psychoanalysis as Freud constructed it. Kohut’s task became one of changing the theory to find a place for himself in it. That project connected with larger themes. Kohut lived out in his life and formulated in his work the core issues of contemporary America. He touched the pulse.

Charles B. Strozier
Heinz Kohut: The Making of a Psychoanalyst
(New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001).
Second edition in paper with a new introduction to appear in the spring of 2004 from Other Books.