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Erich Fromm

Erich Fromm

Unlike Freud or Erikson, Erich Fromm advocates no specific developmental stages. Personality can even continue to develop during adulthood, although external influences would obviously have to be proportionately stronger to affect the older, often less impressionable, individual. Like Freud, however, he proposes that personality is mainly shaped during the early years of a person’s life, with the existence, though not centrality, of childhood sexuality endorsed. One of Fromm’s own life experiences indicated to him the potential validity of the Freudian oedipal situation. As a 12 year old, he was stunned when a female friend of the family gave up her career in her twenties to devote her life to her widowed father. On her father’s death, she committed suicide and was buried with him, in accordance with her wishes, in the same coffin. In general, though, Fromm adopted a “resolutely anti-instinctivist posture” (Burston, 1991: 73).

Fromm prefers to focus upon the social, historical and cultural forces shaping human psychological development. He identifies, especially, a fundamental human polarity of freedom and alienation. The price humankind has paid for a greater freedom through the ages is a loss of security and sense of belonging. Optimal human development, Fromm continues, needs to strike a balance between liberty and narcissism, between independence and insignificance, between autonomy and desolation. Dysfunctional human development tends to utilise three psychic mechanisms of escape in striving to deal with a surfeit of freedom and the frequently accompanying sense of loneliness and doubt.

  • In its masochistic guise, authoritarianism results in a dependent person willingly submitting to the control of other people or social forces. In its sadistic form, the domineering person strives for power over others by making them dependent on him, exploiting them or humiliating them, physically or emotionally.
  • Whereas authoritarianism seeks to maintain contact between the oppressor and the oppressed, destructiveness aims at complete elimination. In addition to indulging in a “power trip”, the destructive person can achieve a sense of “splendid isolation” (Fromm, 1941: 179) by obliterating aspects of the world. Although more optimistic than many psychodynamic theorists, Fromm remained cynical in viewing characteristics such as conscience, duty, patriotism and sometimes even love itself as potential rationalisations for destructiveness.
  • Through automaton conformity, the person in chameleon-like and reflexive style abandons herself to the unconditional obedience of the prevailing societal rules governing behaviour. Becoming like everyone else initially procures a reassuring sense of belonging and security. In the long run, however, the consequent sacrifice of identity – a false self replacing the true self – merely produces further anxiety, insecurity and misgiving.

Regarding early development, Fromm suggests that the growing child gradually distinguishes “I” and “not-I” through contact with the environment, especially his parents. This brings about an increasing sense of identity and separation, along with commensurate increases in feelings of isolation and doubt.

The child is put into a golden cage, it can have everything provided it does not want to leave the cage. The result of this is often a profound fear of love on the part of the child when he grows up, as “love” to him implies being caught and blocked in his own quest for freedom. (Fromm 1941: 168)

It is important to Fromm that a child’s self-belief keeps pace with his increasing sense of isolation. Such positive growth is facilitated by warm and affectionate parents. Parents tend to have a negative effect on development when they are authoritarian or live their lives through the child to ease their own frustrated ambitions. Overcompensation, however, such as lavishing attention or gifts upon the child, can be just as bad, according to Fromm.

From such early experiences evolve Fromm’s three mechanisms of interpersonal relatedness.

  • In symbiotic relatedness, independence and sense of identity is never achieved by the child, who remains dependent upon his parents. Such dependence is a vehicle for the child’s security, the high priority of which may even lead to the child’s manipulation and exploitation of his colluding parents.
  • Withdrawal-destructiveness is another security operation in which the child distances herself from her parents. Its passive and active forms reciprocally interact: destructive treatment from parents encourages the child’s withdrawal; overly passive parents encourage the child’s destructiveness.
  • The most desirable form of parent-child interaction is love. Fromm defines love in similar vein to Adler’s concept of social interest (see Section 1.1) and Rogers’ core conditions of unconditional positive regard and empathy (see Section 3.4). It is seen as involving benevolence, caring, giving, a knowledge of how others feel and a respect for the right of others to develop in their own chosen ways. A consistent display of parental love may be internalised into the child’s view of himself and enable that crucial balance to be achieved between security and responsibility.

Regarding the development of human needs, Fromm recognises organic drives (e.g. hunger, thirst, sex), but does not view them as pre-eminent. Non-organic drives complete the motivational picture of the human being and her development. In this respect, Fromm proposes that the freedom-alienation polarity outlined above reflects and amplifies six basic human psychological needs.

  • Need for relatedness concerns contact with other people, ideally through productive love, as defined above.
  • Transcendence encapsulates the need to rise above our animal nature and organic drives. It can be realised through either destructiveness or creativity, the dominance of the latter being another of Fromm’s optimistic claims.
  • Rootedness extends beyond childhood parental ties to kinship with the family, community and society.
  • Identity can be achieved through a keen awareness of one’s unique abilities and characteristics.
  • Frame of orientation encourages a person to develop a consistent viewpoint, value system and goal direction in order to organise her experiences. It may transpire to be productive or nonproductive (see below).
  • Excitation and stimulation both counter and reinforce typically human preoccupations surrounding boredom and discontent and encourage sufficient energy and alertness to manage everyday demands.

Fromm points out that such non-organic needs may be difficult to satisfy due to the absence of a genetic programme to facilitate their fulfilment. They are intrinsic, however, to character type. In general, a psychologically healthy person exhibits a productive frame of orientation, most notably through biophilia. He loves life, values productiveness and mutuality, and easily utilises creativity and reason in a benevolent quest for personal growth. This appears to mirror Freud’s ideas on the genital character, albeit without the sexual emphasis and, to recap, resulting from social and environmental influences rather than instincts.

An unhealthy personality development is towards a non-productive frame of orientation. Fromm, across the whole span of his work, appears to divide this into at least the five categories outlined below, all of which essentially express and strive to deal with a pervasive underlying sense of loneliness. He also came to adopt the virtually synonymous term necrophilia, the antithesis of biophilia, where the person turns “away from life, persons, nature, ideas – in short from everything that is alive [and] transforms all life into things, including himself” (1973: 350).

  • Receptive, where the person constantly seeks support and affection from the environment and from other people. Undesirable personality traits developed include being characterless, passive, parasitical, spineless and sentimental.
  • Exploitative, where the person strives to implement his needs through force and cunning. Undesirable personality traits developed include being aggressive, conceited, rash, cynical and manipulative.
  • Hoarding, where the person demonstrates little faith in the outside world or the future. He surrounds himself with a “protective wall, and [his] main aim is to bring as much as possible into this fortified position and to let as little as possible out of it” (Fromm, 1947: 65). Even love is viewed as a possession. Undesirable personality traits developed include being miserly, compulsively orderly, pedantic and obstinate.
  • Marketing, where the person regards herself and her personal qualities as a commodities to sell. Accordingly, she seeks to develop an attractive exterior to the detriment of her needs for identity and self-realisation. Undesirable personality traits developed include being inconsistent, opportunistic, tactless and undiscriminating. The marketing non-productive frame of reference, especially, underlies the fundamental problem of alienation. The “right” personality for such an empty individual to adopt is whatever is in vogue.
  • Bureaucratic, where the person, often controlled by others within an oppressive power structure, exploits “red tape” as a convenient opportunity to vent hostility. The indulgent infuriation of innocent others may verge upon sadism.

Most elements of the above non-productive frames of orientation – which, evidently, may interact in complex ways – appear to implicate the underlying belief that everything desirable lies outside the person. On a more positive note, Fromm advocates that productive and nonproductive frames of reference are not necessarily mutually exclusive. They may blend and the productive may modify the non-productive: the receptive person, for example, may be sensitive and devoted rather than gullible and submissive; the exploitative type may be proactive and self-confident rather than aggressive and arrogant; the hoarding type may be practical and economical rather than unimaginative and stingy; the marketing type may be purposeful and adaptable rather than opportunistic and vacuous.


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