Otto Rank: Exploring the Legacy of an Austrian Psychoanalyst

Alexander Tokarev, PhD
Updated on: March 19, 2024
Reviewed by:
Yelnur Shildibekov, PhD
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Otto Rank, born on April 22, 1884, in Vienna, Austria-Hungary (present-day Austria) and passed away on October 31, 1939, in New York City, New York, U.S., was an Austrian psychologist and one of Freud’s closest colleagues.

Rank was known for expanding psychoanalytic theory to analyze legends, myths, art, and creativity. He proposed that the root cause of anxiety neurosis lies in a psychological trauma experienced during an individual's birth.

Fast Facts: Otto Rank

  • Born: April, 1884, Vienna, Austria
  • Died: October 31, 1939, New York, USA
  • Education: Doctorate in Philosophy from the University of Vienna in 1912
  • Notable Works: "The Trauma of Birth," "The Myth of the Birth of the Hero," "Art and Artist"
  • Key Concepts: Birth Trauma, Pre-Oedipal, Creative Will, Counterwill, Separation and Unlearning, Immortality Ideologies

Early Life

Otto Rank, originally born as Otto Rosenfeld in 1884, came from a modest Jewish household in Vienna. Son of a Jewish craftsman, Rank grew up in a poor family, often facing financial challenges that shaped his early years. Despite these obstacles, he exhibited a strong desire for learning and self-improvement.

Rank attended trade school, working diligently in a machine shop to support himself. Despite the demanding nature of his work, Rank dedicated his evenings to pursuing his passion for writing, displaying a remarkable determination to cultivate his intellectual pursuits.

It was during this period that Rank encountered Sigmund Freud's seminal work, "The Interpretation of Dreams," a transformative experience that ignited his interest in psychoanalysis. Inspired by Freud's theories, Rank endeavored to apply psychoanalytic principles to understand the intricacies of art and creativity.

In 1907, Rank's intellectual pursuits led to the publication of "Der Künstler" ("The Artist"), a pioneering work that sought to elucidate the nature of art through a psychoanalytic lens. This publication garnered attention within the psychoanalytic community and caught the eye of Freud himself, who recognized Rank's potential as a burgeoning scholar.

Encouraged by Freud's recognition, Rank embarked on an academic journey. With the help of Freud's assistance, Rank secured his admission to the University of Vienna. In 1912, Rank earned his doctorate in philosophy from the institution. It was during his university years that he formally adopted the pen name "Otto Rank," signifying a symbolic transformation in his personal and professional identity.

During his time at the university, Rank continued to make significant scholarly contributions, publishing notable works such as "Der Mythus von der Geburt des Helden" ("The Myth of the Birth of the Hero") in 1909 and "Das Inzest-Motiv in Dichtung und Sage" ("The Incest Motif in Poetry and Saga") in 1912. These works delved into the complex interplay between psychoanalytic concepts, such as the Oedipus complex, and their manifestation in literary and mythological themes, showcasing Rank's interdisciplinary approach to scholarship.


Rank had a strong relationship with Sigmund Freud. He was among the six collaborators selected by Freud to form a clandestine "committee" or "ring" aimed at upholding the psychoanalytic principles amidst conflicts with Alfred Adler and Carl Jung.

Notably, besides Freud, Rank emerged as the most prolific author within this group, significantly expanding psychoanalytic theory to encompass the analysis of legend, myth, art, creativity, and the concept of the "Double" ("Doppelgänger").

Rank was the secretary for the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. Additionally, between 1912 and 1924, he took on the editorial responsibilities for the Internationale Zeitschrift für Psychoanalyse ("International Journal of Psychoanalysis"). In 1919, he established a publishing house dedicated to psychoanalytic literature and managed its operations until 1924.

Between 1915 and 1918, Rank also assumed the role of Secretary for the International Psychoanalytical Association, an organization founded by Freud in 1910. Within the world of psychoanalysis, Freud's profound respect for Rank and his prolific contributions to expanding psychoanalytic theory were widely acknowledged. Freud even referred to Rank as his "heir" in front of a circle filled with competitive peers, recognizing his significance within the field (Lieberman and Kramer, 2012, p. 225).

Conflict with Freud

In 1924, Rank published "Das Trauma der Geburt" ("The Trauma of Birth"), later translated into English in 1929, wherein he explored the influence of separation anxiety on art, myth, religion, philosophy, and therapy, particularly focusing on the phase preceding the development of the Oedipus complex (p. 216).

This departure from Freud's established theories was unprecedented; Freud regarded the Oedipus complex as the central neurotic nucleus and the foundational source of various aspects of human culture.

Rank's introduction of the concept of the "pre-Oedipal" phase in public psychoanalytic discourse in 1925 marked a significant divergence from Freudian doctrine (Rank, 1996, p. 43). Furthermore, in a 1930 self-analysis, Rank noted the overemphasis of the pre-Oedipal superego by Melanie Klein, without acknowledgment of his pioneering work.

However, Freud's initial support for Rank waned as he distanced himself from "The Trauma of Birth," perceiving Rank's departure from the primacy of the Oedipus complex as dangerously close to anti-Oedipal heresy.

Expressing his displeasure to Sándor Ferenczi, Rank's close friend at the time, Freud's fury was palpable (Kramer, 2015). Faced with Freud's unequivocal opposition, Rank chose to resign from his positions as Vice-President of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, director of Freud's publishing house, and co-editor of "Imago" and "Zeitschrift," in a gesture of protest.

Following the conflict, which was finalized by the mid-1920s, Rank engaged in teaching and clinical practice across both the United States and Europe, with a primary focus on Paris, for approximately a decade. He eventually established permanent residence in New York City in 1936.

Summary of Main Ideas

Therapy as Learning and Unlearning Experience

Rank viewed therapy as a process of learning and unlearning focused on emotions. The therapeutic relationship facilitates:

  • Learning more creative ways of thinking, feeling, and being in the present moment.
  • Unlearning self-destructive patterns of thinking, feeling, and being in the present moment.

According to Rank, neuroses, or patterns of self-destruction, stem from a failure of creativity rather than a retreat from sexuality, as proposed by Freud.

Psychoanalysis of Creativity

Rank's psychoanalysis of creativity has been applied to action learning, a process involving inquiry-based problem-solving and organizational learning.

Transformative action learning, inspired by Rank's work on art and spirituality, enables individuals to step out of prevailing ideologies, reflect on assumptions, and reframe choices.

Continuous Separation and Unlearning

Rank compared the process of unlearning to the "breaking out" process of birth, emphasizing the importance of continual separation from internal mental objects and cultural conditioning.

Unlearning involves separating from one's self-concept, which may be culturally conditioned, familial, or organizational.

Resistance as a Creative Function

Rank reframed "resistance" in therapy as a positive trait, defining counterwill as defending the integrity of the self, aiding in individuation, unlearning, and the discovery of willingness.

Influence and Application

Rank's ideas have influenced various fields, including anthropology, psychology, and theology.

His concepts have been applied in terror management theory, prenatal and perinatal psychology, and philosophical discourse, highlighting his enduring relevance and impact.

Key Concepts

Otto Rank introduced several key terms and concepts within the realm of psychoanalysis and psychology. These include:

Birth Trauma: Rank proposed the concept of birth trauma, suggesting that the experience of separation during birth influences an individual's psychological development and may contribute to anxiety and neurosis later in life.

Pre-Oedipal: Rank coined the term "pre-Oedipal" to describe the phase preceding the development of the Oedipus complex, challenging Freud's emphasis on the Oedipus complex as the central neurotic nucleus.

Creative Will: Rank discussed the notion of the "creative will," emphasizing the innate drive towards self-expression and creativity as a means of overcoming existential anxieties and achieving personal fulfillment.

Counterwill: Discussing resistance in therapy, Rank used and defined counterwill in the therapeutic context as a positive trait that defends the integrity of the self and aids in the process of individuation and self-discovery.

Separation and Unlearning: Rank emphasized the importance of continual separation throughout life, advocating for the process of unlearning as a vital aspect of personal growth and creativity.

Immortality Ideologies: Rank explored the concept of immortality ideologies, which represent a psychological coping mechanism that individuals adopt to cope with the fear of death and the desire for lasting significance (cited in Sheets-Johnstone, 2003).

These terms and concepts represent some of Otto Rank's pioneering contributions to psychoanalytic theory and psychological discourse, shaping our understanding of human development, creativity, and existential concerns.