Kurt Schneider: Biography And Main Contributions Of This Psychiatrist

One of the psychiatrists who most influenced the investigation of mental disorders.

Kurt Schneider is, together with Karl Jaspers, the main representative of the Heidelberg School, an important antecedent of phenomenology and psychopathology of a biological nature. 

In this article we will analyze the biography and theoretical contributions of Kurt Schneider, in particular those related to schizophrenia, depression and psychopathy.

Kurt Schneider Biography

Kurt Schneider was born in 1887 in Crailsheim, which is currently in Germany but at the time belonged to the independent kingdom of Württemberg. He studied medicine at the universities of Berlin and Tübingen, and in 1912 he obtained a doctorate with a thesis on psychopathology in Korsakoff’s syndrome (or “psychosis”).

After serving in the army during World War I, Schneider continued his training as a psychopathologist, philosopher, and teacher. In 1922 he was hired as an associate professor at the University of Cologne. In 1931, he became director of the Munich Institute for Psychiatric Research and head of psychiatry at a municipal hospital.

He served in the German army as a high-ranking physician and psychiatrist in the years of World War II. Later, in 1946, he was appointed head of psychiatry and neurology at the University of Heidelberg, an institution that played a pivotal role in later developments in academic psychopathology.

Schneider retired from professional activity in 1955; until that time he retained his post as dean in Heidelberg, obtained four years earlier. He died in October 1967 at the age of 80, leaving psychology and psychiatry a legacy that would have a notable influence.

One of the key points of Schneider’s methodology was his particular interest in the analytical description of the subjective experience of patients. In this sense, his proposals can be related to the phenomenological method, and must be understood in a broader theoretical context: that of the Heidelberg school of psychiatry.

The Heidelberg School of Psychiatry

Kurt Schneider is considered, along with Karl Theodor Jaspers (1883-1969), one of the main theorists of the Heidelberg school of psychiatry, whose nucleus was at the University of Heidelberg, in Germany. This trend was characterized by its approach to mental disorder from a biological perspective.

Jaspers is known primarily for his work on delusions; A very relevant aspect of his work is his emphasis on the importance of the topography (the formal aspect) of psychopathological symptoms, as opposed to their specific content. Other relevant authors from the Heidelberg School are Wilhelm Mayer-Gross and Oswald Bumke.

The clearest antecedent of the Heidelberg School is Emil Kraepelin (1855-1926). This author created a classification of mental disorders based on their clinical manifestations, opposing previous systems that used hypothetical causes as the main criteria. The influence of Kraepelin on modern diagnostic classifications is evident.

Contributions of this author

Kurt Schneider’s most significant contributions to the field of psychopathology relate to diagnostic methods.

Specifically, it focused on the most characteristic symptoms and signs of certain psychological disorders in order to systematize and facilitate their identification, as well as the distinction of similar but not equivalent phenomena.

1. First-rank symptoms of schizophrenia

Schneider delimited the conceptualization of schizophrenia from a series of manifestations that he referred to as “first-rank symptoms”, and which would help to distinguish this disorder from other types of psychosis. It is important to bear in mind that at the time the term “psychosis” also referred to phenomena such as mania.

The first rank symptoms of schizophrenia according to Schneider would be auditory hallucinations (including voices that comment on the actions of the subject and the echo of thought), experiences of passivity (such as delusions of control), delusions of theft of thought, diffusion of delusional thoughts and perceptions.

The influence that this grouping of symptoms has had on subsequent diagnostic classifications has been very significant. Both the DSM and ICD manuals are largely inspired by the Schneiderian conception that there are core symptoms (such as delusions and hallucinations) that may be accompanied by less specific ones.

2. Endogenous and reactive depression

Another of Schneider’s most relevant contributions is the distinction between two types of depression: endogenous, which would have a biological origin, and reactive, associated to a greater extent with psychological alterations, in particular due to negative life events.

At present, the usefulness of this distinction is highly questioned, in large part because it is known that in so-called “reactive depressions” the functioning of neurotransmitters is altered, in addition to the fact that Schneider’s idea underlies a  dualistic conception of psychology. However, the term “endogenous depression” remains popular.

3. The 10 types of psychopathy

Today we understand psychopathy in a similar way to the antisocial personality disorder described by the main diagnostic manuals. These ideas owe much to another of Kurt Schneider’s contributions: his description of psychopathy as an ambiguous deviation in relation to normative behavior, and of the 10 types of psychopathy.

Thus, this author created a non-systematic typology, based purely on his own ideas, thus differentiating psychopathy characterized by abnormalities in humor and activity, insecure-sensitive and insecure-ananchastic, fanatic, self assertive, emotionally unstable, explosive, insensitive, weak-willed, and asthenic.

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