Otto Rank

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Conscious • Preconscious
Id, ego, and super-ego
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Alfred AdlerOtto Rank
Anna FreudMargaret Mahler
Karen HorneyJacques Lacan
Ronald Fairbairn • Melanie Klein
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Otto Rank (April 22, 1884 – October 31, 1939) was an Austrian psychologist, one of Sigmund Freud's closest aides, and by the end of his career one of his most fierce critics. He remains famous for his trauma-of-birth theory and will therapy. Rank's work diverged from Freud's when he became interested in the way the infant experiences separating from the mother at the time of birth. He developed the idea that freedom, namely independence from others, is essential to the development of our creativity. For Rank, how we deal with the independence from our mother that is thrust on us at birth determines the type of personality we develop.

His theory, although considered limited in ascribing all such development as rooted in the birth trauma, has found wide application in various therapies and counseling contexts, particularly in the areas of personal growth and self-actualization. Rank's insight that the balance between individuality and relationships with others, especially within the family, is key to healthy human development is significant as we strive to understand and achieve our potential as true human beings.


Otto Rank was born Otto Rosenfeld, on April 22, 1884 in Vienna, Austria, into the lower-class Jewish family of Simon Rosenfeld, an artisan jeweler, and Karoline Fleischner. His father is said to have had a drinking problem, and never cared much for his family. Otto grew up indifferent toward religion, seeking solace in music and books. He read Henrik Ibsen, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Friedrich Nietzsche. He completed trade school and started to work in a machine shop as a locksmith. His older brother, on the other hand, studied law—the family having money for only one child’s education.

After reading some of the works of Sigmund Freud, especially The Interpretation of Dreams, Otto became infatuated with Freud's ideas. In 1905 he presented Freud with his work Der Kunstler (The Artist), a small monograph subtitled "An Approach to a Sexual Psychology," a study that so impressed Freud that he invited Otto to become secretary of the emerging Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. He thus became the first paid member of the psychoanalytic movement, and Freud's "right-hand" man for almost twenty years. During this time Otto officially changed his name from Rosenfeld to Rank. Freud considered Rank, with whom he was more intimate intellectually than his own sons, to be the most brilliant of his Viennese disciples. Freud also helped him to enter the University of Vienna, where Rank obtained his Ph.D. in 1912.

Rank was an expert in philosophy, literature, and mythology, and brought a new spirit into the Inner Circle. After Freud, Rank was the most prolific psychoanalytic writer, publishing, among others, Der Mythus der Geburt des Heldens (The Myth of the Birth of the Hero) in 1909, Die Lohengrin Sage (his doctoral thesis, The Lohengrin Saga) in 1911, and Das Inzest-Motiv in Dichtung und Sage (The Incest Motif in Poetry and Saga) in 1912. He also served, from 1912 to 1924, as the editor of the Internationale Zeitschrift für Psychoanalyse (International Journal of Psychoanalysis).

During World War I, Rank served in the Austrian army in Poland. The experiences he went through there produced somewhat of a character transformation for Rank, and influenced many of his ideas later in life.

He started a friendship with Sandor Ferenczi, which resulted in the publication of several collaborative works. In 1918, Rank married Beata Tola Mincer, with whom he had one child, Helene. The birth of his child enhanced Rank’s interest in the Oedipus complex and the mother-child relationship, which resulted in Rank's career shift and later split with Freud.

In 1924, Rank published his monumental work, Das Trauma der Geburt und seine Bedeutung für die Psychoanalyse (The Trauma of Birth). The book caused a split with the Freudians and his eventual expulsion from the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. In May 1926, Rank moved to Paris where he became a psychoanalyst for artists Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, and lectured at the Sorbonne.

For the next 10 years, Rank continued to teach and practice in the United States and Europe. He settled down in New York City in 1936. By then, many psychoanalysts in the U.S. considered Rank the leader of psychoanalytic thought. His influence was particularly strong in Philadelphia, where some of his methods were adopted at the Pennsylvania School of Social Work. Rank’s psychotherapy, which was a short version of Freud’s long psychoanalysis, fit better into American psychology.

Rank taught at the University of Pennsylvania and practiced psychotherapy in New York City. He traveled frequently between France and America, lecturing at universities such as Harvard, Yale, and Stanford on object-relational, experiential, and “here-and-now” psychotherapy, art, the creative will, and neurosis as a failure in creativity.

In 1939, Rank divorced his first wife and married Estelle Buel. He was planning to become a U.S. citizen and move to California. However, just three months after his wedding he developed a kidney infection, which led to fatal septicemia. He died in New York City on October 31, 1939, just five weeks after Freud had passed away in London.


Work with Freud

Rank was a fruitful writer, 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. Everyone in the small psychoanalytic world understood how much Freud respected Rank and his prolific creativity in expanding psychoanalytic theory. Rank was one of Freud's six collaborators brought together in a secret "committee" or "ring" to defend the psychoanalytic mainstream, as disputes with Alfred Adler and later Carl Jung developed.

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. Rank himself created this phase, since it did not exist in Freud’s theories. According to Freud, the Oedipus complex was the nucleus of the neurosis and the foundational source of all art, myth, religion, philosophy, therapy—indeed of all human culture and civilization. Rank’s theory was thus rather novel. 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 first used the term “pre-Oedipal” in a public psychoanalytic forum in 1925 (Rank 1996, p. 43). Rank should thus be credited with coining this term, which has mistakenly thought to have been introduced by Freud in 1932.

After some hesitation, Freud distanced himself from The Trauma of Birth, signaling 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 had collaborated in the early 1920s on new 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.

The hero

In his early work, The Myth of the Birth of the Hero, Rank examined various stories of heroes, found in different cultural traditions: Babylonian (story of kings Gilgamesh and Sargon), Hindu (myth of hero Karna), Persian (story of King Cyrus), Greek (heroes Oedipus, Hercules, Paris), Roman (Romulus and Remus), Celtic (Tristan), German (heroes Siegfried and Lohengrin), Jewish (Moses), Buddhist (story of Siddhartha), and Christian (story of Jesus). Rank found common patterns that exist in all of the stories:

  • Noble couple (god and goddess or king and queen);
  • Problems with conception;
  • Prophecy or dream about birth;
  • Warning of danger to the father;
  • Baby hero left to die in a box or a basket, usually floating on the water;
  • Hero saved by either animals or poor and humble people;
  • Hero’s search for his true parents;
  • Hero takes revenge (often on his father);
  • Hero receives due honors.

Rank interpreted these stories in the light of psychoanalysis, regarding myths as culture-specific expressions of common childhood experiences. He claimed that the story of a hero is nothing but an unconscious human desire to return to childhood. We all long for the comfort of the love of our mothers and fathers, who are symbolized as a king and a queen, or a god and a goddess. However, when we grow up, we drift away from them. Thus the story of the hero begins with our departure from our parents and represents our longing to return to the comfort of our childhood. Rank differed here from Freud, as he did not dwell on sexuality.

Creativity and will

Rank saw art as an act of re-creation. He claimed that artists possessed a strong urge to recreate reality in their own image, or to glorify their own will (or ego). Good art, however, begins when the artist identifies himself with the collective will of his own culture, and combines material values with spiritual, and individual with collective. The good artist, claimed Rank, is equipped with power—with the will to create. However, he recognized that it is not easy to reach the stage when one possesses the will to create. The necessary prerequisite to creativity is freedom, and freedom means to be independent. Independence leads toward building of our will, and according to Rank, will is the guiding force in personality development.

Independence, however, is not a state, but a process, and we all struggle for independence in different ways. Rank identified three basic types of people’s will, based on how they approach their independence:

  1. Adopted type: This type possess very weak will. They are passive, duty-bound, and follow authorities and society’s moral codes.
  2. Neurotic type: This type has stronger will, but they often struggle, internally or externally, with the expression of that will. They usually worry too much, or feel guilty after certain actions on their own.
  3. Productive type: This type knows how to utilize their will, and create something on their own. People of this type are often artists or geniuses—people who create something new. Rank regarded people of this type as the highest in society.

Birth trauma

One of Rank’s greatest contributions to the field of psychology was his idea of "birth trauma." He claimed that human life is filled with two basic instincts: "Life instinct" or the desire for individuality and freedom; and "death instinct" or the desire for belonging to a family or a community. At the same time we experience anxiety connected to those instincts. We have the "fear of life," or the fear of separation and loneliness, and the "fear of death," or the fear of losing our individuality and getting "lost in a crowd."

The earliest type of anxiety experienced, however, is the anxiety during birth. That anxiety, according to Rank, is the model for all anxieties experienced later in life. The way the infant experiences this early separation from his mother greatly determines his future experiences of anxiety.

We need, Rank claimed, to learn to face our anxieties and overcome them. Otherwise we can never live creative and fulfilled lives, but always remain in "the mother’s womb."


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. Carl Rogers always credited Rank with having profoundly shaped "client-centered" therapy and the entire profession of counseling. Paul Goodman, who was co-founder with Fritz Perls of the popular Gestalt method of psychotherapy, described Rank’s post-Freudian ideas on art and creativity as “beyond praise.”

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).

Rank is seen as one of the great pioneers in the fields of Gestalt therapy, and humanistic, existential, and transpersonal psychology. His stress on the importance of the early mother-child relationship has come to be considered crucial and is greatly emphasized in modern psychoanalytic theory. Rank's form of psychotherapy (as opposed to Freudian psychoanalysis), which is briefer in length, with more stress on the present relationship of a client and a therapist (opposed to transference), became the most widely used in psychoanalytic practice.


  • Rank, Otto. 1911. The Lohengrin Saga.
  • Rank, Otto. 1932. Art and Artist: Creative Urge and Personality Development. Agathon Press. ISBN 0875860109
  • Rank, Otto. 1932. Modern Education: A Critique of Its Fundamental Ideas. Agathon Press.
  • Rank, Otto. 1958. Beyond Psychology. Dover Publications. ISBN 0486204855
  • Rank, Otto. 1959. (original 1909). The Myth of the Birth of the Hero. Random House, Inc. ISBN 0394700708
  • Rank, Otto. 1975. (original 1924). The Don Juan Legend. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691086052
  • Rank, Otto. 1978. (original 1929). Truth and Reality. W. W. Norton and Co., Inc. ISBN 0393008991
  • Rank, Otto. 1978. (original 1936). Will Therapy. W. W. Norton and Co., Inc. ISBN 0393008983
  • Rank, Otto. 1989. (original 1925). The Double: A Psychoanalytic Study. Karnac Books. ISBN 0946439583
  • Rank, Otto. 1991. (original 1912). The Incest Theme in Literature and Legend: Fundamentals of a Psychology of Literary Creation. The Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0801841763
  • Rank, Otto. 1994. (original 1924). The Trauma of Birth. Dover Publications. ISBN 048627974X
  • Rank, Otto. 1996. A Psychology of Difference: The American Lectures. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691044708
  • Rank, Otto. 2003. (original 1930). Psychology and the Soul: A Study of the Origin, Conceptual Evolution, and Nature of the Soul. Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0801872375
  • Rank, Otto and Hanns Sacks. 1913. The Significance of Psychoanalysis for the Mental Sciences. The Nervous and Mental Disease Pub. Co.
  • Rank, Otto and Sandor Ferenczi. 2006. (original 1924). The Development of Psychoanalysis. Kessinger Publishing, LLC. ISBN 1428600027

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Karpf, Fay B. 1970. The Psychology and Psychotherapy of Otto Rank: An Historical and Comparative Introduction. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0837130298
  • Lieberman, James E. 1985. Acts of Will: The Life and Work of Otto Rank. Free Press. ISBN 0029190207
  • Menaker, Esther. 1982. Otto Rank: A Rediscovered Legacy. Columbia University Press. ISBN 0231051166
  • Menaker, Esther. 1996. Separation, Will, and Creativity: The Wisdom of Otto Rank. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson. ISBN 1-56-821-802-8
  • Taft, Jessie. 1958. Otto Rank: A Biographical Study Based on Notebooks, Letters, Collected Writings, Therapeutic Achievements and Personal Associations. Julian Press.

External links

All links retrieved November 18, 2022.


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