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Erich Fromm

1900-1980
German-born American psychoanalyst, social philosopher, and scholar whose writings have attracted the interest of a large general audience.

Erich Fromm was born in Frankfurt, Germany, and studied sociology and psychology at the universities of Frankfurt and Heidelberg, where he received his Ph.D. in 1922. Fromm was trained in psychoanalysis at the University of Munich and at the Psychoanalytic Institute of Berlin. In 1925, he began his practice and was associated with the influential Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt. Although Fromm began his professional career as a disciple of Sigmund Freud, he soon began to differ with the Freudian emphasis on unconscious drives and neglect of the effects of social and economic forces on personality. The theories he developed integrate psychology with cultural analysis and Marxist historical materialism. Fromm argued that each socioeconomic class fosters a particular character, governed by ideas that justify and maintain it and that the ultimate purpose of social character is to orient the individual toward those tasks that will assure the perpetuation of the socioeconomic system.

Fromm consistently advocated the primacy of personal relationships and devotion to the common good over subservience to a mechanistic superstate in his work. He believed that humanity had a dual relationship with nature, which they belong to but also transcend. According to Fromm, the unique character of human existence gives rise to five basic needs. First, human beings, having lost their original oneness with nature, need relatedness in order to overcome their essential isolation. They also need to transcend their own nature, as well as the passivity and randomness of existence, which can be accomplished either positively—by loving and creating—or

Erich Fromm (The Library of Congress. Reproduced with permission.)

negatively, through hatred and destruction. The individual also requires a sense of rootedness, or belonging, in order to gain a feeling of security, and needs a sense of identity as well. The remaining need is for orientation, or a means of facing one's existential situation by finding meaning and value in existence. Orientation can be achieved either through assimilation (relating to things) or socialization (relating to people).

Fromm identified several character orientations found in Western society. The receptive character can only take and not give; the hoarding character, threatened by the outside world, can not share; the exploitative character satisfies desires through force and deviousness; and the marketing character—created by the impersonal nature of modern society—sees itself as a cog in a machine, or as a commodity to be bought or sold. Contrasting with these negative orientations is the productive character, capable of loving and realizing its full potential, and devoted to the common good of humanity. Fromm later described two additional character types: the necrophilouscharacter, attracted to death, and the biophilous character, drawn to life.

Fromm emigrated to the United States in 1934, following the rise of Nazism in Germany. In America, Fromm became increasingly controversial in orthodox Freudian circles. He served on the faculties of, and lectured at, several universities in the United States, including Columbia University and Yale University, and in Mexico. In 1941, Fromm wrote Escape from Freedom, an analysis of totalitarianism that would become a classic in political philosophy and intellectual history as well as in psychology. According to Fromm, the "escape" from freedom experienced upon reaching adulthood and gaining independence from one's parents leads to a profound sense of loneliness and isolation, which the individual attempts to escape by establishing some type of bond with society. In Fromm's view, totalitarianism offered the individual a refuge from individual isolation through social conformity and submission to authority. Among his other important books in the areas of psychology, ethics, religion, and history are Man for Himself (1947), Psychoanalysis and Religion (1950), The Forgotten Language (1951), The Sane Society (1955), The Art of Loving (1956), Beyond the Chains of Illusion (1962), The Heart of Man (1964), You Shall Be As Gods (1966), The Revolution of Hope (1968), Social Character in a Mexican Village (1970), The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973), and To Have or To Be (1976).

Fromm's work has had a deep and lasting influence on Western thought. One central thesis that appears in much of his writing is that alienation is the most serious and fundamental problem of Western civilization. In his view, Western culture must be transformed— through the application of psychoanalytic principles to social issues—into societies that recognize the primacy of human beings as responsible, sovereign individuals and that are conducive to the attainment of individual freedom, which he sees as the ultimate goal of humanity's existence.

Further Reading

Funk, Rainer. Erich Fromm: The Courage to be Human. New York: Human Sciences Press, 1989.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaFamous Psychologists & Scientists