Schizophrenia Is Taking Me Home: Gustav Ichheiser’s Uprooting and His Commitment to Psychiatry

  • Stephan Dietrich
Part of the Theory and History in the Human and Social Sciences book series (THHSS)


This chapter analyzes Ichheiser’s unpublished manuscript he wrote about his internment in a psychiatric unit from a psychotherapeutic perspective. His state of mind is related to both the clinical definition of schizophrenia and the condition of persons being persecuted and finally exiled. While we cannot go back to analyze Ichheiser’s mind per se, his manuscript and his life circumstances give much insight into a troubled person that can provide the current reader with examples of how persons migrating and losing their homes may feel in general. Ichheiser’s fate is analyzed from an existential psychotherapeutic approach.


Uprooting Exile Involuntary commitment to psychiatric wards Diagnosis Existential psychotherapeutic approach to being uprooted 


The Austrian psychologist Gustav Ichheiser (1897–1969) was forced to escape Vienna, Austria, due to his Jewish heritage and the rise of fascism. He emigrated to the USA via Switzerland and England, in 1940. One decade after his arrival, he was committed to a state hospital, diagnosed with “schizophrenia, paranoid type,” where he lived for 11 years. Ichheiser was absolutely certain that the psychiatrist’s initial diagnosis had been the result of “misunderstandings” and “blind spots.” In his unpublished paper, “Was I insane - or was I ‘railroaded’ to a state hospital” (1966), he presented his viewpoint in the form of a “counter-diagnosis.” The text is in some way autobiographical, but also a résumé of his own scientific subjects’ misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and delusions.

This chapter takes a closer look at Ichheiser’s own arguments as a researcher and also applies his scientific theories to the “case Ichheiser” itself. In addition, to more deeply understand both the given diagnosis and some problems relating to displacement, the phenomenon of “being uprooted” is discussed, along with various problematic issues relating to mainstream diagnostic procedures.

Initial Thoughts

Indeed, the diagnosis of “schizophrenia, paranoid type” carries negative, stereotypical connotations. A schizophrenic person is generally described as being insane and crazy, who acts completely unpredictably and scattered and is potentially dangerous and totally unintelligible. Furthermore, the person’s personality is split, thoughts are fragmented and incoherent, and emotional expressions are inappropriate. Schizophrenia is a very serious diagnosis, not only in society but also in the international classification of mental disorders,1 difficult to treat, and with a poor prognosis.2 Before the discovery of the antipsychotic effects of chlorpromazine, imipramine, and haloperidol in the 1960s, no alternative was available other than hospitalization.3

This bitter fate of being classified as paranoid-schizophrenic befell Gustav Ichheiser. Although he never had steady employment at a university and lived for 11 years in a state hospital, he continuously published articles in well-known journals in German, Polish, and English. Undoubtedly, the overall subject of Ichheiser’s work is the phenomena of “misunderstanding,” “deception,” and “delusion,” in the context of social perception. Hence, Ichheiser’s career was everything but ordinary.

In this chapter, I focus on Ichheiser’s unpublished text Was I insane – or was I “railroaded” to a state hospital (1966), an extraordinary historical document. Ichheiser presents a counter-diagnosis to, in his opinion, the completely false psychiatric diagnosis that led to his 11-year hospitalization. His text not only delineates an autobiographical view of his detention but also his attempt to scientifically elaborate on this counter-diagnosis, using numerous references to his own works and beliefs. He is fully aware of the difficulties accompanying such an endeavor when he writes that many people will react to this publication as “I [Ichheiser] am only ‘proving’ what I am trying to disprove … and that, therefore, I am only harming myself” (p. 3). Indeed, this is a very special case: a psychology researcher specifically investigating “blind spots,” “misunderstanding,” and “misinterpretation” in human interaction and also within the human sciences in general actually falls victim to exactly those mechanisms he is writing about. Although possibly an overstatement, his case proves his own theory—which is elaborated on in the following pages.

Essential Biographical Notes on Ichheiser

Gustav Ichheiser was born in 1897 in Krakow, Poland, the second son of a Jewish family. Two years after the death of his father Michael (1911), he moved with his mother Helene and brother Albert to Vienna, where he received his high school degree. Information on his early childhood is scarce, as is information on reasons the family moved to Vienna. Immediately after high school, Ichheiser was called into military service.4 In 1918, he suffered a middle ear inflammation that resulted in being discharged from military service. He was treated for nearly 3 months in a hospital in Vienna.

During his treatment in 1918, Ichheiser started his studies at the faculty of law in Vienna, but switched 1920 to the faculty of philosophy to study psychology. In 1924 he concluded his studies with his thesis Gegenstand der Ästhetik (The subject of Aesthetics), which was supervised by Karl Bühler. In the following years, he worked as a journalist, a teacher, and as a research associate and psychologist for nearly 8 years at the Vocational Guidance Bureau in Vienna. He tested and evaluated educational dropouts. Between 1934 and 1938, Ichheiser commuted between Warsaw and Vienna, spending parts of the year in Poland where he was associated with the Institute for Social Problems. While working and publishing his work on different social-psychological issues, his main focus was always “success” and “ability,” and his preoccupation with “misunderstanding” and “delusion” started quite early (e.g., 1928a, 1928b, 1929, 1934). Despite some problems along the way, Ichheiser had made a solid career for himself in Vienna. Although he was not professionally bound to any university, he published a wide range of articles and also established an independent research profile.5 Nevertheless, as a Polish Jew in Vienna, the doors for an academic career were shuttered for Ichheiser.

But this was not his biggest problem at this time. As mentioned earlier, his Jewish heritage and the rise of fascism forced him to escape from Austria in 1938, finally emigrating to the USA in 1940. His mother’s and brother’s final destination is unknown.6

With the help of friends and acquaintances, he managed his escape and found his first job at Consolidated Book Publishers in Chicago. In the light of the atrocities of the fascists and the coercion of emigration, it is remarkable that Ichheiser continued working scientifically without any time gap. He immediately began to publish in English, tackling the problem of a language barrier. He married Edith Weisskopf in 19417 and worked for 1 year at the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago and another year as a psychologist at the State Hospital of Manteno, Illinois. From 1944 to 1948, he was Professor of Psychology and Sociology at Talladega College (a missionary school for Blacks in Alabama). During this time, Ichheiser also started to focus his research interests more on the phenomena of anti-Semitism (1942, 1944, 1946a, 1946b) and race (1949a), always maintaining his focus on “misunderstandings” in a social context. Dissatisfied with the Talladega College position, he decided to return to Chicago in 1949, with hopes of working at the University of Chicago. That same year, with great difficulty and the help of Louis Wirth and Everett Hughes, he published his major text, Misunderstandings in human relations: A study of false social perception (1949b).

Back in Chicago, Ichheiser continued to experience difficulties. He was neither employed by the University of Chicago8 nor able to find other opportunities of employment equivalent to what he had in Alabama. Although he would always continue to work on various projects, he never achieved formal fulltime employment as a researcher, let alone as a professor. He never achieved to stabilize his life after immigrating to the USA, neither personally, economically, nor professionally. Finally, he experienced a mental breakdown in 1951, and the welfare service committed him to the state hospital in Peoria, Illinois,9 on the grounds of “paranoid schizophrenia” and “inability to manage his own estate.” After 11 years in the hospital (1963), he was moved to a halfway house, where he resided for 3 more years. In 1969, after his final attempts to do some research work at the university , he committed suicide, maybe with the knowledge that at his age and with the stigmatization of mental illness, he would never fulfill his dreams.

Unfortunately, Ichheiser did not leave many notes that might shed more light onto his personality. Ancillary I want to cite two companions of him. His ex-wife Edith Weisskopf wrote about him that “Gustav Ichheiser’s view of the entire world was drenched in doubt. He said, ‘Things are not as they seem to be’” (Weisskopf, as cited in chapter ““Who Is Ichheiser?”: A Person Who Failed Himself and the World”, p. xy). A friend and supporter of Ichheiser in the USA, Everett Hughes, wrote about their difficult friendship: “The trouble with Ichheiser was that he lived his social theories” (chapter ““Who Is Ichheiser?”: A Person Who Failed Himself and the World”, p. xy).

Being Uprooted by Displacement

As apparent from these few notes in Ichheiser’s biography , emigrating to the USA was certainly a critical life event for him. The political, cultural, and intellectual atmosphere in Vienna before and after 1938 was oppressively dangerous. These aggressive changes resulted in Ichheiser’s losing his customary life in Vienna and, even more horrific, his entire family. Loss of his home country (German: “Heimat”)10 made him uprooted11 and displaced. This happened to him at least twice in his lifetime—his relocation from Krakow to Vienna initiated by his mother and then the escape from Vienna to the USA.

Such uprooting involves numerous different psychological dimensions that we can be certain that dealing with such an “event” is never easy. In fact, what it actually implies for a person is scientifically quite difficult to describe because the psychological phenomena behind these certain types of “home” feelings are deeply rooted into one’s existence as human beings and hence they tend to conceal them precisely when we are aiming to focus on them. As Heidegger states in Being and Time (1927/1996), some phenomena do not themselves appear as such, but rather, “mak[e] [themselves] known through something that does show itself” (p. 26).12 The question of identity and of personality, the self, and social interactions are closely interwoven with a person’s origin. The lack and, even more so, the loss of origin undeniably impacts perception, thus affecting one’s entire being in the world, including health13 and even dreams (Cernovsky, 1987, 1988, 1990; Wotruba & Wotruba, 2011). When displacement is involuntary, the impact is heightened.

Much earlier, Strauss (1957) speaks about an “Entwurzelungsdepression” (“uprooting depression”) particularly on the prosecution of Jewish people during the NS-Regime. The genesis of this special form of depression is linked with a continuous humiliation and degrading treatment, caused by the total lack of rights, helplessness, and uncertainty about the future. Often, this uprooting depression becomes chronically progressive, especially if the re-rooting in a new community poses challenges.

Uprooting is an act of violence, an assault to the identity and the origin of a person. The origin contains a certain religious, cultural, and social environment. And this environment is defined by many common habits of being. Heidegger (1927/1996) describes it as the They (das Man)14—meaning a certain social and cultural accepted way of behaving, thinking, and living. A person becomes accustomed to these habits in a very intense way, actually so intense, that they become ingrained. Some habits will continue indefinitely; others will be dropped. The identity, the self of a person, is influenced by these habits from the beginning of one’s life.15 One’s origin is somehow the ground, the foundation, where the roots of a person are nurtured. Every person is always in this “we”-world, in this world of the “they.” But in addition to this “we,” every person also has an inner individuality, a self-being. Everyone is confronted by this simultaneous way of being, i.e., a self-being and a we-being. Everyone has the duty to reflect on the habits of the “we” and make individual adjustments with their own inner ideas to become the person they are. The origin of every person is thus the beginning of every self. But every soil, every ground, is different. To live somewhere else, or to leave the home country, even when by choice, is always a confrontation with the unfamiliar, with the strange and unusual, maybe with something incompatible. A person needs time to familiarize the self with the new culture, the language, and the social habits. Becoming familiar with a strange culture is already a difficult task, but it is even more difficult to keep one’s inner self and not to be assimilated by the new culture.

As mentioned earlier, Ichheiser incurred uprooting from his own origin twice. The first was from Poland to Vienna. After the death of his father, his mother had decided to move to Vienna. Thus, Ichheiser had to deal with cultural changes quite early in his life. The second uprooting was when he left Vienna for the USA. During the NS-Regime, his country developed into a place that no longer was a part of himself. He became not only an alien in his own country, but he was declared a person whose life was worthless because of his origin. Indeed, to be expelled from one’s homeland is terribly abysmal because it is the loss of one’s social framework, culture, and everything else linked to it, rightly or wrongly, with the person’s origin and thereby with the developed identity. Both “origins” of Ichheiser, the Polish and the Austrian, were completely erased. He was suddenly separated from his past.16

For Ichheiser, as for countless others, the only possibility was to leave everything behind and become an alien in a new country. One might think of it as being reborn in a strange world in which the soil is not familiar at all. I imagine that even in countries in which habits may seem quite similar, not feeling being at home and becoming homesick will still arise due to differences in the way of being. A gap between the person and the new culture emerges, remaining for a very long time, sometimes for the entire lifetime. With the loss of the origin, which is a large part of personality, a refugee has to then confront the circumstance of his/her identity now being defined by this gap. One might be able to adapt oneself to the new culture, become again a part of the “they,” but even if a person achieves this first step, the duty to develop the self in this new adopted environment is challenging.

Being an alien—being different—was always an issue for Ichheiser. As we will see in the following section, he also addresses many of these issues in his theories. Being a self, to have an individual identity, an inner force, which necessarily must interact with a social environment, which at the same time is not always interested in the inner concerning’s of a person. To be oneself, to be accepted by a social environment yet not to lose yourself in this “fight,” is very important in the thinking and research of Ichheiser. Actually, this is a difficult combination. While he himself was alienated, it may have also been something quite normal for Ichheiser.

Ichheiser’s Main Topics of Interest 17

In general, a researcher is intrigued by a certain phenomenon of the world, which usually, so to speak, compels him to think and write about it.18 This phenomenon is, as I imagine, not arbitrary but rather directly associated to the researcher’s life and his origin, his imprinting, and developments; it is deeply related to special life events, beliefs, and perceptions. Sometimes the main research interest is modified over the years, but sometimes, as was the case with Ichheiser, the researcher is hooked on one subject, which becomes a lifetime companion—in other words, the researcher is unable to maintain a healthy distance and becomes fully ingrained with “his/her” phenomenon. Undoubtedly, the main subjects of interest for Ichheiser were the phenomena of “misunderstanding,” “misinterpretation,” “deception,” and “delusion” in the context of social perception.

Ichheiser’s first empirical pursuit in psychology was his dissertation on aesthetics (1923, 1924, 1925; see also chapter “Introduction: Finding a Biography”). His aim was to show that art is genuinely subjective and that its origin never emerges from objective criteria. The creation of art is always something internal, something that arises from an inner world. Scientifically it is impossible to conceive the experience of aesthetics and art. The aesthetic experience is more a question of the soul. As we can see, in his first works he already delineated a main theme of human science that would remain pivotal for all of his subsequent work—the separation of subject and object.

Unfortunately, the general political atmosphere of the time and the social constellations in particular made it impossible for Ichheiser to pursue a scientific career at a university (see more on the general social and political atmosphere in Vienna during this time in chapter “Seclusion: A Safe Place? Remarks on the Biography of an Outsider”). Instead, Ichheiser started working as a “psychotechniker,” writing primarily about issues related to people at work, especially on the phenomenon of success (1930a) and the psychological mechanisms relating to judgment and deception of others (1930b). He continuously worked on these issues, among others, from 1930 until his escape to Switzerland in 1938. During this phase, he also started to engage increasingly in social-psychological topics. Ichheiser’s view on work is not very optimistic. He believes that the only aspect of occupational life that matters is success and performance. He distinguishes between dimension of success ( Erfolgsdimensionen ) and dimension of performance ( Leistungsdimension ). Against the background of his own unattainable academic career, he sarcastically writes in 1931a:

[T]o write a high quality scientific work and to have an academic carrier is not the same (or herein at the end the author makes a mistake?); the scientific field, which carries its own value criteria, represents the dimension of performance; the academic carrier, the rank, the salary, that which is associated with the reputation of the position, represents the dimension of success. (1931a, p. 88)19

He stresses that because of social and political factors, some have occupational lives that are more successful than those of others, not because of individual abilities or skills, but because of sociological circumstances.

As we can see, Ichheiser’s view of the world is divided into two dimensions. On the one side is an inner personality, a soul as an inspiring source. This inner personality is confronted with a social environment that does not emphasize this inner force. And even more than that, the social environment discards a person’s inner life in favor of success and performance. A professional, e.g., a psychologist, who evaluates other people, supports these basic social tendencies by condoning the whole person.

Even in his early German publications, Ichheiser was extremely occupied with describing the gap between the inner personality and that which is socially visible or perceived, as when he discusses the “insurmountable gap” (Unüberwindlichkeit der Kluft 1927, p. 328) between a person’s socially shared world and inner world (see more on this topic in chapters “An “Iron Curtain” Between Persons: Gustav Ichheiser’s Theoretical Paradoxes” and “Ichheiser’s Critique of Success and the Performance Principle in a Neoliberal Competitive Society”). He became acquainted with the modern philosophical tradition of phenomenology (as brought forth by Edmund Husserl) and tried to substantiate his theories by embedding them into naturally given structures of consciousness. The splitting of an inner subjective perception and an outer objective world and the confusion that arises from this gap are the main concern of his work. This gap is naturally given and has to be accepted by any human being. The former point is a rather important one, as Ichheiser did not only aim to observe and describe social aspects relating to this gap, but to prove empirically that this gap is natural. Along these lines , he argued that this division takes place in everyone. On the one hand is an inner personality, and on the other is a socially accepted and required role that people have to “play.” This creates an unpleasant tension inside every person. In an early article, he describes this phenomenon as the tension between “being” and “appearance” (1928a).

Regarding social interaction, Ichheiser was convinced that only those facets of personality appear that carry social importance, the “aspects relevant to the individual stays in the shadows” (own translation, 1931b, p. 255).20 As a consequence, the socially desired aspects of the personality become the only important part of a human being and his “self.” Ichheiser describes it as a “chronically tension between the inner (Innen) and the outer (Aussen). In the worst manifestation, this leads to schizophrenia” (1931b, p. 259) and a totally estrangement of a person.

In his article “Inner personality, image and social roll” (1949c), he further writes:

There is finally a third type,21 represented by those individuals who, in principle, are willing and able to enter the world of social roles and to accept them as a meaningful pattern of life, who, however, are neither willing nor able to discard altogether the other, deeper meaning of life which consists not in playing successfully social roles but in being one's self. It is this third type of persons who are the real victims of the atmosphere of estrangement in modern society. Individuals who belong to this last type are the schizoid personalities of our age. The roots of their schizoid personality, however, are essentially not psychological but sociological in nature. (p. 67)

This inner tension caused by the gap and the role we play is a vital issue for Ichheiser. Related to this is his (1943) statement that psychologists and, indeed, any other people who evaluate others share a “tendency to overestimate personal factor and underestimate situational factors in interpreting personality” (p. 151). This is a direct effect of the social role we play. Misinterpretations result because we normally meet other people in “certain stereotyped situations, performing the same stereotyped roles” (p. 151).

Ichheiser (1970) later summed up his aim of his social-psychological model focusing on four questions: “i) what we actually are; ii) what we think we are; iii) what other people think we are; and iv) what we assume other people think we are; together with the dynamic interrelation among these four aspects” (p. 170).

Ichheiser’s social-psychological writings convey a rather technical view of social interaction. The inner personality is weak, and the foremost duty of a person seems to be to find and adopt to a certain social role. What you really are, yourself, is actually not important at all if you want to survive in society. What counts is only how others perceive you. This gap is constitutive and inescapable. Hence, you are always confronted with misunderstandings and misinterpretations about your personality. Communication is something shallow and quite often misleading.

“Was I Insane? “Ichheiser’s Counter-Diagnosis

Having briefly reviewed some biographical information, some thoughts on uprooting and the strain it may have caused Ichheiser, and some of his theoretical approaches of social psychology, I now turn to his unpublished article “Was I insane—or was I ‘railroaded’ to a state hospital?” (1966).22 This article is an autobiographical attempt to “achieve a public vindication as well as a personal catharsis, which latter presupposes, of course, telling my own version of the whole story” (p. 28). But Ichheiser also combines his personal catharsis with the intention of proving his own theoretical works about misinterpretation in the judgment of other people. The whole article is devoted to disproving the psychiatric diagnosis, which finally led to being committed to the state hospital. The diagnosis from July 30, 1951, states:
  • Schizophrenia, paranoid type

  • Feelings of persecution elaborated

  • Suspiciousness

  • Poor judgment

  • Lack of insight

This is supplemented with the August 7, 1951, judge’s statement: “A mentally ill person incapable of managing his own estate” (1966, p. 6). Ichheiser’s unexpected and astonishing hypothesis is that because of his release to a halfway house in 1963, “The initial-committing and the final-discharging diagnosis concerning my ‘mental condition,’ cannot be possibly both true—one of the two at least must be false” (1966, p. 26). Ichheiser is absolutely certain that he did not suffer from any illness or mental disorder at the time of commitment and that the “affair Ichheiser” is an oppressive proof of his own theory.

Hence, Ichheiser writes nothing about any psychological or medical treatments during his 11 years in the hospital. In fact, he writes nothing at all about that time—the entire period seems to be erased. He also does not consider that there may have been an improvement of his mental condition during this vast period. For those hoping for an introspective analysis of this time or a detailed description of conditions in a psychiatric hospital, they will be disappointed. The article is a frontal attack in which he inverses the diagnosis by saying, “Hence, not I myself, but rather he [the psychiatrist] was‚ lacking in insight and revealed a‚ poor judgment” (p. 26). The psychiatrist labors under certain misunderstandings and misinterpretations with disastrous consequences for Ichheiser—“forgotten and buried alive, for more than one decade” (p. 23). To prove his hypothesis, he discusses every item of the diagnosis and appends some necessary clarifications about himself.

He describes himself as a person who does not fit “into the conventional-traditional scheme” (1966, p. 4), neither politically nor in other convictions. He is not a supporter or proponent of any political line, ideology, or tradition—he has his own unique way of seeing things. He writes that his expressed views in some publications must appear as “utterly shocking (‘unthinkable’) from the standpoint of the sacred dogmas” (p. 1) and furthermore “heretical” (p. 3). Nevertheless, he is completely convinced that his theories are true and have frequently been proven by historical events.

All of his articles “were altogether scholarly in their character and thus protected by the principle of academic freedom” (1966, p. 12). So the only way for society to eliminate him was “the age-old, surreptitious technique of injuring and, if possible destroying me by ‘exposing’ and discrediting not my work but my ‘corrupt’ personality” (p. 12). He blames himself for not seeing this intrigue, for not being “sufficiently suspicious” (p. 12). For Ichheiser, the situation is quite clear. His unique and herein “dangerous” and “heretical” thoughts and writings discredited him; he became an academic outlaw without the opportunity of being heard or accepted, an alien in his own scientific community. Furthermore, the community wanted to expel him. So his commitment to the state hospital was only a logical step in this complot against him. This is one direction of Ichheiser’s retrospective explanation, without any substantial evidence.

The other direction Ichheiser writes about is that, shortly before his commitment to the state hospital, he “was all the time fully aware of behaving in a ‘crazy’ or ‘crazy-looking’ way” (1966, p. 15). This is quite surprising; even more peculiar is his explanation for his crazy behavior. For him, it is the “master key” (p. 17) to understanding his entire incredible story.

In comparison with Josef K., the main character in Franz Kafka’s (2015) formidable novel The Trial, Ichheiser narrates an enigmatic story about the time before his diagnosis, which should enlighten the reader about his crazy behavior and paranoia. The plot is quite simple: after his return to Chicago in 1948, Ichheiser was trying to settle in at the University of Chicago again. At last, with the help of Louis Wirth and Everett Hughes, he published his opus magnum Misunderstandings in human relations: A study of false social perception (1949b) as a supplement to the American Journal of Sociology; however, as aforementioned, after having been in the USA for 10 years, he had failed to find a consistent position at the University of Chicago. Some months before being committed in 1951, he writes that strange and unlikely incidents had happened. His conclusion was clear—“One of the governmental intelligence agencies dealing mainly with international relations seems to be interested in me as a possible candidate for a job” at the University of Chicago (1966, p. 17). As he found out in the library, such “investigations” for important positions are not handled like an ordinary job interview. Instead, it was always “covered-up, and thus looks mysterious” (p. 17) so that “all prospective candidates. .. are not aware of being investigated” (p. 18). The candidates are put

in various difficult situations so as to see how they will react to those situations and how they will be able to cope with them … [T]his procedure goes sometimes so far as placing the investigated candidate in a mental hospital, without providing him with any explanations why he was committed to such one, or a similar institution. (p. 18)

Those assumptions “started in my mind the chain of the tragi-comical, yet fateful, mental developments which led to my ‘crazy’ or ‘crazy-looking’ behavior” (1966, p. 18). Ichheiser saw himself in an extreme, ambiguous, and stressful situation, whereby all relevant and clarifying information was restrained. As a result, in a dire state and desperately wanting a job, he tried to react appropriately, according to his own theory, to all these investigations and the test situation supposedly implemented by the university and intelligence agency. He further writes that even after his commitment to the state hospital, which he “quite ‘consistently’ considered to be still another test” (p. 19), he was not able to discard these beliefs. Obviously, this whole situation and the mysterious happenings in his environment induced a “pseudo-paranoid” (p. 15) tendency. He was completely overwhelmed and unable to cope with this situation. He had misinterpreted certain situations and finally found himself in this diagnostic situation with a psychiatrist, vested with a “spectacular blindness” (p. 20), unwilling to discuss the matter with him. “He [the psychiatrist] would have been probably able, through a meaningful conversation with me, to clear up the whole confusion in a very short time” (p. 20). Unfortunately, this was not the case, and the destiny of Ichheiser was sealed for the following 11 years.

For sure, those in charge can be very rough and challenging, but Ichheiser’s interpretation of these past events is difficult to believe. Nevertheless, besides his contextual narration and the question of truth, other important phenomena for understanding the “affair Ichheiser” appear. One thing is clear: Ichheiser struggled tremendously on the grounds of not having an appropriated professional occupation. He was desperate, hopeless, and in a difficult personal situation. He was a researcher, compelled by inner urges to write down his insights. And even though he published in many notable journals, he was always convinced that the scientific community rejected his writings about shocking and “unthinkable” phenomena. He saw himself as an outsider because of his thoughts and ideas. Actually, he was an alien in many senses of the word. His insights into why he was so committed were quite limited. Even many years after his release from the hospital, he was absolutely convinced that his case was only too clearly supported by his own theory. All else—such as his uprooting, obsession with working at the university, abandoning his dignity during this “investigation process”—was submerged under his “paranoid” thinking. But this is not an accusation; it may very well have been a normal reaction to all his past traumatic events.

“Counter-Diagnosis” or to Counter Diagnosis

As I see it, Ichheiser had an accurate intuition for important but mostly concealed phenomena in human existence. I will take him seriously and lay a focus on “diagnosis” as he did, a key competence in the treatment of people until today.

From its Greek origin διάγνωσις, “diá” (through, out of) and “gnosis” (insight, judgment), diagnosis means the detection or discovery of a physical or psychic disease or disorder through a diagnostic procedure. In this sense, a diagnosis is always a judgment of a person’s current condition. A final diagnosis has a central role in medicine, psychology, and psychotherapy because a good diagnosis should be the basis for a useful and hopefully effective therapeutic intervention. A diagnosis is something that codifies the unsaid; it expresses this unknown but always felt riddle and ideally relieves someone of feeling uncomfortable about not knowing what is wrong. A diagnosis can be a salvation but sometimes a burden.23

For a competent diagnosis, various variables must be gathered to form an adequate and differentiated overall view of a person’s symptoms. The fact is, however, even with the criteria and algorithms provided by the ICD or DSM for a diagnostic procedure, making a valuable diagnosis on a mental disorder is extremely difficult and always vague (Linden & Muschalla, 2012). The reason is quite simple. A human being is not a mechanical object, like a car. If a car is defective (e.g., brakes do not work), you can go to a garage, and the mechanic will make a diagnosis by excluding one possible cause after another. Finally, he usually will find the problem and fix it. Thus, with mechanical objects such as a car, a diagnosis can be made fairly easily because there is a cause behind the problem; furthermore, why the defect arose in the first place is not very important.

Compare this to a diagnosis of a broken leg. From the X-ray, the doctor immediately sees the fracture site and has an adequate treatment. The diagnosis was accurate but limited to a mechanic-objective view of the human body. The orthopedist is usually not very interested in the main cause of the broken bone.24 But a broken bone is not simply a mechanical limitation but may say something more important about that person, something unexpected but equally important.

Maybe this person is a runner who exceeded his physical limitations; or perhaps this person suffers from a neurological disorder like multiple sclerosis, and the disease was the main cause for the broken leg; or possibly this person hates his/her job and needs a break from work. Not only may the primary reason for the fracture be unclear, but there may be further consequences as a result of this fracture. For example, this person may have a highly stressful job who finds running as an effective and important way to reduce stress; by not being able to run, this person may become depressed. Being able to walk as one would like may cause many other new problems and symptoms. If such diverse problems can result from a broken leg, you can imagine the range of daily life problems that might occur due to mental disorders.

To make an adequate and appropriate diagnosis, one that includes the whole individual with all his/her needs, fears, and hopes seems almost impossible. Sigmund Freud (1905/2013) pointed to this difficulty with his case of Dora, in which he states that for a psychotherapist, it is actually quite impossible to make a serious diagnosis, because it is the nature of a human being to not have a whole and organized view over his/her life history. Hence, an appropriate diagnosis is only possible after many weeks—or even months—of analysis. Perhaps an appropriate diagnosis, one that considers the whole person, is only possible at the end of a treatment.

No doubt, Freud’s viewpoint is extremely important for every psychotherapist, psychiatrist, and psychologist. Typically, however, no time is available for such a lengthy diagnosis. But Freud would have completely agreed with Ichheiser that a diagnosis is generally filled with misinterpretations, abbreviations, and ignored facts. It becomes even more complicated if one focuses on the sources of error that arise specifically from the therapist or doctor. Freud would also agree with Ichheiser on the point that the solution of this huge problem is “a meaningful conversation” (Ichheiser, 1966, p. 20). But what is a meaningful conversation?

“For We Are a Conversation ”: “Seit ein Gespräch wir sind”

The words “For we are a conversation, and we can listen to one another”25 are taken from the poem of the famous German poet Friedrich Hölderlin (1770–1843) Celebration of PeaceFriedensfeier (2004). On the surface, these words seem to express something simple. Yet, Hölderlin is not an ordinary poet, and his poems deserve to be analyzed word for word. “For we are a conversation” is a strange line construction. This line is divided into three separate parts: “For,” “we are,” and “a conversation.” “We are” “a conversation” implies that, as human beings, we quite literally are a conversation, a talk, a speaking together. “For” points to the fact that we are not always a talk. We can lose this manner of being a talk. Hölderlin continues with reference to listening. It is not enough to be a talk, to speak, but we must also listen to each other. We do not use language or conversations as we would use a toothbrush. Hölderlin implies that we are not humans without talk, and what we become depends on real talk.

Jean-Luc Nancy (1997) notes that “Because we are a talk and listen to each other. What makes us who we are, is that we hear each other; what makes us who we are is that we hear from each other what we are; what we are, we hear from each other, namely our talk” (p. 13).26 Any use of communication is not only an exchange of information. In every exchange or conversation lies the possibility of being confronted with something strange and unfamiliar. In this confrontation, we recognize the difference between us and that which is strange and familiar. In the openness of a real conversation, an honoring of the strange and unfamiliar will occur, along with the knowing oneself.

It is worth pointing out that, as Heidegger (2002) delineates, a big difference is evident between a talk (Gespräch) and a conversation (Konversation): “Every conversation is a form of a talk. But the actual talk is never a conversation. A conversation is specified thereby that you only hold onto that which is spoken, and will precisely not venture into the unspoken” (p. 182).27 A “real talk” is something deeply rooted into our being, which includes not only speaking words but, even more importantly, the ability to listen. Listening always comes before talking. In this original form, a talk is something creative, a source that provides new possibilities for both the speaker and listener. In a talk, as Hölderlin writes, we become “self” in a deep, fundamental sense. But sometimes we may hear something very unfamiliar, something that deeply unsettles us, and we stay in the dark. Then there is no talk, no hearing, only silence.

In many situations, a normal conversation is fully sufficient. But any therapy and any diagnostic procedure will certainly not be effective and helpful if there is no real talk. Without the possibility and the courage of the therapist or doctor to engage in real and life-changing listening, their view and diagnosis will always be constricted. This is then not a talk with but rather a fixation of a person. It is no longer a talk between two living persons but instead an exchange of information between a mechanic and object. Heidegger (2001) states in the Zollikon Seminars, “As a physician one must, as it were, stand back and let the other human being be” (p. 211). The problem of judging and evaluating others does not lie only in misinterpretations or misunderstandings of what was heard but more deeply in the way we talk to each other.

If we imagine engaging in real talk with Ichheiser and listening carefully to the unspoken, to the things that do not appear by themselves (in Heidegger’s, 1927/1996 sense), we might be able to grasp a deeper understanding of Ichheiser’s concerns, personal as well as theoretic.

His displacement and uprooting was a highly critical life event for him. The loss of your “home country” and, herein, your origin, social life, and past is enormous and may present lasting challenging consequences for the rest of the life course.

Undoubtedly, in Ichheiser’s case, emigration was traumatic.28 But furthermore, the question is: did Ichheiser ever find his place within the world even before the emigration? The few biographical notes above suggest he already had been alienated in Vienna and also in Poland. Although he had finished his studies in Vienna, his career possibilities were quite limited because of his Jewish heritage. For sure, this was painful. His being different was always an existing phenomenon for him. At least he had found work in Vienna and was accepted, to a degree. The rise of fascism escalated the notion of being different in an inhuman and despicable way. His social psychological theories of role-play and the continuous misinterpretation of the personality by others became very comprehensive. Nevertheless, Ichheiser was a very strong personality and maybe incapable of diminishing or reducing his own inner urge to be more respected by society. Ichheiser’s personality clearly reflects an inner tension caused by the gap of whom he perceived and felt to be and how society viewed him. No record exists as to whether Ichheiser ever made a psychotherapy or how he did reflect on this topic for himself. Certainly he was preoccupied by this theoretically.

What is astonishing is that Ichheiser continuously published without any extensive break. It seems that even during his escape through Switzerland, he published an article (1939). Although I was unable to find personal comments about his escape, it seems he split off his past completely and started his new life in the USA without any apparent gap. As Wotruba and Wotruba (2011) have pointed out, every person emigrating from one place to another has to deal with splitting off the past life and the future life in the new country. It is not only a question of becoming familiarized with the new world but also being confronted with the loss of the whole past world that was abruptly taken away and the sheer impossibility of returning. But even without this split, cultural differences greatly impact every aspect of our being. Maybe this neglecting the past and solely looking to the future initially helped Ichheiser to cope and survive. However, such dramatic events will arise again throughout the course of a one’s lifetime in various ways.

As I understand, the situation in the USA was something of a re-traumatization for Ichheiser. He was once again confronted with being alienated, being displaced, and, in a much more pronounced form, being different. The discrepancy between Ichheiser and his new “home” became increasingly virulent. Although he was supported by some, became published, and found various jobs here and there, his being different became an unpleasant part of his personality. Maybe this was the only stable part of his personality.

All this inner tension finally exploded in the events shortly before his hospitalization. His wish to become a normal citizen was so pronounced that he even perceived a psychiatric commitment as a test for a job—how desperate must one be to accept being treated beneath every human dignity?

Retrospectively, his initial diagnosis becomes understandable. But again, let us enter into a real talk with Ichheiser. Being paranoid does not necessarily mean that the person is truly paranoid. Taking a closer look at the phenomena of “being paranoid,” we see that initially this phenomenon is a tendency to retrieve from other people. Hence, hardly any possibility exists to reflect or review one’s own thoughts and feelings. Everything becomes truth, and a person perceives his own thoughts as the only sole truth. If someone does experience such a paranoid situation, the question arises as to why nobody makes an effort to start a real talk. Someone suffering from paranoid tendencies is unable to connect with other people alone. The angst is so encompassing and all-embracive that every open conversation is too dangerous. That might be the major disorder—to believe that the world and all people are dangerous. But, in fact, when nobody listens to you, is hearing you, or wants to understand your thoughts, the world becomes a foreign desert. All that is left is yourself, your thoughts, your history, and your feelings.

Ichheiser’s text is a good example of being unheard. Maybe even he was unable to hear his own feelings and wounds. He was unable to communicate, to talk, to hear, to make himself and his concerns clear and comprehensible for others. Nevertheless, he had the urge to talk. But “the bitter truth is that many for many [sic] long following years [in the hospital], incredible as it might sound, I was, mentally and socially, completely isolated, and had never any opportunity to talk with anybody in a meaningful way” (Ichheiser, 1966, p. 21).

It needs at least two persons for such a meaningful conversation. Such a talk necessitates listening and is defined by the wish, desire, and courage of both persons to hear the unheard, to understand the unintelligible, to see the unseen, and finally to change as a result of this talk. Such a talk is open and unpredictable in its consequences, but it is also truly a place where both persons become closer to each other and to their own selves. In such a talk, the question of truth is not important because everything someone says is actually the truth to that person. Sometimes this may be rather difficult, as not every thought is comprehensible to everyone. In such instances, you need to be able to be misunderstood . In fact, to be misunderstood is the place in which the difference between you and me occurs, which is also precisely the place in which changes can take place! In this sense, it is possible that “schizophrenia” took Ichheiser home to his erased origin to cure the wounds of his roots.


  1. 1.

    For the actual criteria for schizophrenia, see ICD-10 (1992) and DSM-5 (2013).

  2. 2.

    See, for example, Harrison et al. (2001) or Harrow and Jobe (2013).

  3. 3.

    A milestone in the understanding of madness” and its social mechanism Michel Foucault’s Madness and civilization: A history of insanity in the Age of Reason (1961/1988)

  4. 4.

    He was first based at the Russian front until October 1916 and then was in Italy from March 1917 until July 1918.

  5. 5.

    He did not follow Bühler, but instead he gained expertise in the upcoming and modern phenomenology (see chapter “Who Is Ichheiser?”: A Person Who Failed Himself and the World”).

  6. 6.

    Both wanted to return to Poland, but no evidence reflects that they did.

  7. 7.

    Actually, the marriage did not last long. They divorced 3 years later. In her autobiography, Edith Weisskopf does not even mention the marriage (see chapter ““Who is Ichheiser?”: A Person Who Failed Himself and the World”).

  8. 8.

    He even applied for a job as a janitor. In a letter requesting a letter of reference from Wirth, Ichheiser’s bitterness is evident; “Working as janitor in the Social Science Building would not only provide me with the urgently needed income but, in addition, enable me to sign my publication as a member of the University of Chicago.” (See also chapter ““Who is Ichheiser?”: A Person Who Failed Himself and the World”, pxy.)

  9. 9.

    Unfortunately, the hospital was torn down and no official records reporting on this involuntary institutionalization have been found so far.

  10. 10.

    Heidegger also speaks about the “homelessness” (“Heimatlosigkeit”) of people after WWII on more philosophical grounds. See “Letter on Humanism” (1946).

  11. 11.

    In the light of the current refugee crisis in Europe, the psychological dimensions relating to the phenomena of “uprooting” have become an even more important research area. Undoubtedly, it is not done by giving refugees only a job and a roof over their heads. Housing is only the beginning, not necessarily leading to psychological well-being (see Dietrich & Joerchel, in press).

  12. 12.

    “One speaks of ‘appearances of symptoms of illness.’ What is meant by this are occurrences in the body that show themselves and in this self-showing ‘indicate’ as such something that does not show itself” (Heidegger, 1927/1996, p. 25).

  13. 13.

    According to Fazel, Wheeler, and Danesh (2005), the rate of post-traumatic stress disorders is very high in the refugee population; for other health problems, see Briggs (2011); Lindert, Ehrenstein, Priebe, Mielck, and Brähler (2009); and Kirmayer et al. (2011).

  14. 14.

    “The self of everyday Dasein is the they-self which we distinguish from the authentic self, the self which has explicitly grasped itself. As the they-self, Dasein is dispersed in the they and must first find itself” (Heidegger, 1927/1996, p. 121)

  15. 15.

    Even the relationship between an unborn baby and his mother differs in various cultures.

  16. 16.

    Wotruba and Wotruba (2011) believe that dreams are a possibility that “may potentially help to pave their way out of the division between their Present and their Past: their current existence was too abruptly and dramatically split from their past” (p. 119).

  17. 17.

    The aim of the following paragraph is not to describe his theories in detail. I am more interested in working out the general subjects of his work and to get into his “world” and his “concerns.”

  18. 18.

    I was asking myself why a researcher concerns himself with a very special subject. I did not find many relevant articles about this issue in the literature. In his book From Anxiety to Method in the Behavioral Sciences, George Devereux (1967) discusses this issue.

  19. 19.

    Original: [E]in wissenschaftlich hochwertiges Werk zu schreiben und die akademische Karriere zu machen ist nicht dasselbe (oder irrt hier am Ende der Verfasser?); das wissenschaftliche Sachgebiet, das eigene Wertkriterien besitzt, bildet hier die Leistungssphäre; die akademische Karriere, der Rang, die Bezüge, das mit der Stellung verbunden Ansehen, ist die diesem Sachgebiet spezifisch zugeordnete Erfolgssphäre.

  20. 20.

    Original: “In Berührung miteinander treten also stets nur die sozial relevanten Seiten der Persönlichkeit; die individuell relevanten bleiben im Schatten.”

  21. 21.

    The other two types are (1) a coping type, which “will tend to keep aloof, in order to preserve the integrity of their personality,” and (2) people who “accept the word of roles as the only valid pattern of life, relinquishing any desire for a deeper self-expression” (1949c, p. 67).

  22. 22.

    Ichheiser was quite clear about the reason why the article wasn’t published: He submitted “this certainly relevant document to a number of appropriate psychologic-psychiatric journals. It was rejected under flimsy and irrelevant pretexts, obviously because it cast very serious doubts on the professional integrity of certain groups of psychiatrist by revealing strikingly and cogently their lack of genuine objectivity and their ideological motivated bias” (1966, p. 28).

  23. 23.

    Vorläufer (2016) asks for good reasons: “Can a diagnosis be understood as therapeutical, i.e., as one that does not insult us, but rather one which is the start of a therapy by itself?” (p. 112, own translation) [original: “Kann sich eine Diagnose auch als seine therapeutische verstehen, d.h. als eine, die uns nicht kränkt, sondern die selbst der Beginn einer Therapie ist?”].

  24. 24.

    And that is his job. He has to limit his view to being a “good” doctor. Every doctor has to reduce the complexity and focus only on certain parts of the body.

  25. 25.

    The original German verse reads: “Seit ein Gespräch wir sind/und hören können voneinander.” The translation of Hölderlin’s poem isn’t appropriate. As we will see, there are huge differences between a conversation and a talk. In the original, Hölderlin means “talk” instead of conversation (“Gespräch”). An appropriate translation may be: “Since a talk we are.”

  26. 26.

    Own translation from the original: “Da wir ein Gespräch sind und einander hören. Uns macht aus, dass wir einander hören; uns macht aus, dass wir voneinander hören, was wir sind; was wir sind, erfahren wir voneinander, nämlich unser Gespräch selbst” (Nancy, p. 13).

  27. 27.

    Original: “Jede Konversation ist eine Art von Gespräch. Aber das eigentliche Gespräch ist niemals Konversation. Diese besteht darin, daß man sich am jeweils Gesprochenen entlang schlängelt und sich auf das Ungesprochene gerade nicht einläßt” (2002, p. 182).

  28. 28.

    Ten years after he arrived in the USA, Ichheiser (1966) wrote that “In 1951, that is at the time of my commitment to the state hospital, I was not more emotionally disturbed than, let us say, 5 or 10 years earlier” (p. 22). Thus, Ichheiser implies that he was never able to change the emotional state he was in during his escape.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Sigmund-Freud-UniversityViennaAustria

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