Paul Rosenfels bigraphy, stories - Psychologists

Paul Rosenfels : biography

1909 - 1985

Paul Rosenfels, M.D. (1909, Chicago – 1985, New York), was one of the first American social scientists to defend homosexuality in print as a valid lifestyle. He is also known for having made a conscientious lifelong effort to develop the foundations of a "science of human nature."


Professional career

Rosenfels' first passion was history and in high school he drafted a book on the causes of war. In college he met Harold D. Lasswell, who told him that new insights into the psychology of war and the politicians who cause them would in the future be provided by the new science of psychoanalysis. Convinced that this tool could help him make an important contribution to the welfare of humanity, Rosenfels spent the next decade earning an M.D., becoming a diplomate of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, and studying with Freud's student Franz Alexander at the Institute for Psychoanalysis in Chicago.

His private practice was immediately successful, and he was especially effective in helping women. His lectures at the University of Chicago on psychiatry and the law were well attended. It was only when he had time to wonder whether the plateau he had achieved was going to offer enough fulfillment for a lifetime that he realized that, somewhere along the way, he had abandoned the questions most important to him: How do creative individuals learn and develop? Is it possible to describe human nature in general terms that apply to everyone? Could a formal science of human nature be helpful to ordinary men and women?

A Science of Human Nature

The scope of these issues went far beyond the topics of the day talked up in professional circles. He felt he did not belong in the academic fraternity they were eager for him to join. Like Bertrand Russell, he thought little of the problems his colleagues fretted about. He cared less about diagnostic minutiae and more about ordinary tangibles like human suffering. How can we end war, cure disease, eliminate hunger and poverty? How can we improve interpersonal cooperation and engender good will amongst men? He kept returning to the intellectual project that David Hume had said was the most important task for moral philosophers: the founding of a science of human nature. Why had modern students of the mind shied away from this goal, preferring to study the nervous system and even declaring dogmatically that concepts like love and power could not be studied by scientific methods?

As Rosenfels tried to become more honest with himself about his growing dissatisfaction he discovered two things. First, he could no longer classify his homosexuality as an illness to be simply denied expression. But more importantly, he had now exhausted his attempts to become a "real man" and wanted instead to accept what he could only call "something feminine" about himself. After all, Freud had admitted in a letter to his closest friend Wilhelm Fliess that, "No one can replace the intercourse with a friend that a particular -- and perhaps feminine -- side of me demands." The importance of these two findings, and the certainty that his professional colleagues would never accept him again if he openly espoused them, made him drop everything, move to California, and earn his living as a cook.

Alone at last, he proceeded to rethink everything they had taught him out of their textbooks, using now the principle of polarity as a great sword by which to cut through the Gordian knots that had stymied psychology and philosophy both. Gradually he teased apart in his mind the dynamics of love and power, honesty and courage, wisdom and strength, depth and vigor, faith and hope—as well as the more abstract categories of time and space, truth and right, tension and energy. In his mature works, the entire canvas of human nature is described from a single viewpoint using this unified and self-consistent vocabulary, doing for psychology what Carl Linnaeus had once done for zoology.

New York and the Ninth Street Center

In 1962 Rosenfels moved to New York City and established a private practice which drew large numbers of gay men. In 1973 his students opened the Ninth Street Center, an all-volunteer organization devoted to helping unconventional people live creatively in what they considered to be an ignorant and immoral world. Rosenfels' broad understanding of human nature, his warm friendships with his students, and his openness about homosexuality quickly made the Ninth Street Center a mecca for young gay men. Gay Magazine called him "the Giant of the New Free Gay Culture." As the Center slowly outlived the ghetto climate in which it was founded, its members found themselves serving a growing community of lesbians as well as gay men, ambitious straight people as well as gay—anyone, in fact, who believed that human potential, in the words of one of their pamphlets, was "too important to leave to professionals."

Rosenfels felt acutely the tragic nature of the world, and his writings are informed by a compassion for humanity rare in the literature of the social sciences. Yet, for those who knew him, he was merely a teacher who knew more than anyone else around about human beings. As useful as his insights were, he always said he was "only one page ahead of the class." As an imperfect human being himself, Rosenfels was to his students a constant reminder of how much we still don't know about ourselves, and that science can only teach us what we are willing to learn.

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Living octopus

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