The approach of Erich Fromm to the study of human personality starts from an evolutionary perspective. Specifically, Fromm maintained that humans, like all other living creatures, are motivated to survive and that survival requires adaptation to their physical surroundings. Humans are, however, unique in that they substantially alter their physical surroundings through the creation and maintenance of cultural institutions. Consequently, Fromm believed that human adaptation occurs primarily in response to the demands of political, economic, and religious institutions.
Fromm made a distinction between adaptations to physical and social surroundings that have no enduring impact on personality (static adaptation—for example, an American learning to drive on the left side of the road in England) and adaptation that does have an enduring impact on personality (dynamic adaptation—for example, a child who becomes humble and submissive in response to a brutally domineering, egomaniacal parent). Fromm consequently defined personality as the manner in which individuals dynamically adapt to their physical and social surroundings to survive and reduce anxiety.
Human adaptation includes the reduction of anxiety for two reasons. First, because humans are born in a profoundly immature and helplessly dependent state, they are especially prone to anxiety, which, although unpleasant, is useful to the extent that it results in signs of...
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Mental health for Fromm consists of realizing one’s own unique individual potential, and it requires two kinds of freedom that are primarily dependent on the structure of a society’s political, economic, and religious institutions. Freedom from external constraints refers to practical concerns such as freedom from imprisonment, hunger, and homelessness. This is how many people commonly conceive of the notion of freedom. For Fromm, freedom from external constraints is necessary but not sufficient for optimal mental health, which also requires the freedom to maximize one’s individual potential.
Freedom to maximize individual potential entails productive love and productive work. Productive love consists of interpersonal relationships based on mutual trust, respect, and cooperation. Productive work refers to daily activities that allow for creative expression and provide self-esteem. Fromm hypothesized that people become anxious and insecure if their need for transcendence is thwarted by a lack of productive work and love. Many people, he believed, respond to anxiety and insecurity by what he termed an escape from freedom: the unconscious adoption of personality traits that reduce anxiety and insecurity at the expense of individual identity.
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Fromm described five personality types representing an escape from freedom. Authoritarian people reduce anxiety and insecurity by fusing themselves with another person or a religious, political, or economic institution. Fromm distinguished between sadistic and masochistic authoritarians: The sadistic type needs to dominate (and often hurt and humiliate) others, while the masochistic type needs to submit to the authority of others. The sadist and the masochist are similar in that they share a dependence on each other. Fromm used the people in Nazi Germany (masochists) under Adolf Hitler (a sadist) to illustrate the authoritarian personality type.
Destructive people reduce anxiety and insecurity by destroying other people or things. Fromm suggested that ideally people derive satisfaction and security from constructive endeavors, but he noted that some people lack the skill and motivation to create and therefore engage in destructive behavior as an impoverished substitute for constructive activities.
Withdrawn people reduce anxiety and insecurity by willingly or unwillingly refusing to participate in a socially prescribed conception of reality; instead, they withdraw into their own idiosyncratic versions of reality. In one social conception, for example, many devout Christians believe that God created the earth in six days, that Christ was born approximately two thousand years ago, and that he has not...
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In Escape from Freedom (1941), Fromm applied his theory of personality to a historical account of personality types by a consideration of how political, economic, and religious changes in Western Europe from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century affected “freedom from” and “freedom to.” Fromm argued that the feudal political system of the Middle Ages engendered very little freedom from external constraints. Specifically, there was limited physical mobility; the average person died in the same place that he or she was born, and many people were indentured servants who could not leave their feudal lord even if they had somewhere to go. Additionally, there was no choice of occupation: A man’s job was generally inherited from his father.
Despite the lack of freedom from external constraints, however, economic and religious institutions provided circumstances that fostered freedom to maximize individual potential through productive work and productive love. Economically, individual craftsmanship was the primary means by which goods were produced. Although this was time-consuming and inefficient by modern standards, craftspeople were responsible for the design and production of entire products. A shoemaker would choose the design and materials, make the shoes, and sell the shoes. A finished pair of shoes thus represented a tangible manifestation of the creative energies of the producer, thus...
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Capitalism shifted the focus of commerce from small towns to large cities and stimulated the development of fast and efficient means of production, but assembly-line production methods divested the worker of opportunities for creative expression. The assembly-line worker has no control over the design of a product, does not engage in the entire production of the product, and has nothing to do with the sale and distribution of the product. Workers in a modern automobile factory might put on hubcaps or install radios for eight hours each day as cars roll by on the assembly line. They have no control over the process of production and no opportunity for creative expression, given the monotonous and repetitive activities of their jobs.
In addition to the loss of opportunities to engage in productive work, the inherent competitiveness of capitalism undermined the relatively cooperative interpersonal relationships engendered by the guild system, transforming the stable small-town economic order into a frenzied free-for-all in which people compete with their neighbors for the resources necessary to survive, hence dramatically reducing opportunities for people to acquire and maintain productive love. Additionally, these economic changes were supported by the newly dominant Protestant churches (represented by the teachings of John Calvin and Martin Luther), which stressed the inherent evilness of humankind, the lack of free will,...
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In summary, Fromm argued that the average person in Western industrial democracies has freedom from external constraints but lacks opportunities to maximize individual potential through productive love and productive work; the result is pervasive feelings of anxiety and insecurity. Most people respond to this anxiety and insecurity by unconsciously adopting personality traits that reduce anxiety and insecurity, but at the expense of their individuality, which Fromm referred to as an escape from freedom. For Fromm, psychopathology is the general result of the loss of individuality associated with an escape from freedom. The specific manifestation of psychopathology depends on the innate characteristics of the individual in conjunction with the demands of the person’s social environment.
Fromm argued that while escaping from freedom is a typical response to anxiety and insecurity, it is not an inevitable one. Instead, he urged people to embrace positive freedom through the pursuit of productive love and work, which he claimed would require both individual and social change. Individually, Fromm advocated a life of spontaneous exuberance made possible by love and being loved. He described the play of children and the behavior of artists as illustrations of this kind of lifestyle. Socially, Fromm believed strongly that the fundamental tenets of democracy should be retained but that capitalism in its present form...
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Fromm’s ideas reflect the scientific traditions of his time as well as his extensive training in history and philosophy, in addition to his psychological background. Fromm is considered a neo-Freudian (along with Karen Horney, Harry Stack Sullivan, and others) because of his acceptance of some of Freud’s basic ideas (specifically, the role of unconsciously motivated behaviors in human affairs and the notion that anxiety-producing inclinations are repressed or prevented from entering conscious awareness) while rejecting Freud’s reliance on the role of biological instincts (sex and aggression) for understanding human behavior. Instead, the neo-Freudians were explicitly concerned with the influence of the social environment on personality development.
Additionally, Fromm was very much influenced by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, by existential philosophy, and by the economic and social psychological ideas of Karl Marx. Fromm’s use of adaptation in the service of survival to define personality is derived from basic evolutionary theory. His analysis of the sources of human anxiety, especially the awareness of death and perception of isolation and aloneness, is extracted from existential philosophy. The notion that human happiness requires productive love and work and that capitalism is antithetical to mental health was originally proposed by Marx. Fromm’s work has never received the attention that it...
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Anderson, Kevin, and Richard Quinney, eds. Erich Fromm and Critical Criminology: Beyond the Punitive Society. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000. Contains a chapter on Fromm and his life as well as two essays by Fromm, but focuses on alienation and crime and the psychology of the criminal.
Fromm, Erich. Beyond the Chains of Illusion: My Encounter with Marx and Freud. New York: Continuum, 2001. Fromm discusses his views of Marxism, capitalism, and psychology in relation to the works of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud.
_______. Escape from Freedom. 1941. Reprint. New York: Henry Holt, 1995. Fromm’s early seminal work, in which his basic theory about the relationship between political, economic, and religious institutions and personality development was originally articulated. All of Fromm’s later books are extensions of ideas expressed here.
Funk, Rainer. Erich Fromm: His Life and Ideas—An Illustrated Biography. New York: Continuum, 2000. A biography of Fromm that tells the story of his life and discusses his ideas.
Wilde, Lawrence. Erich Fromm and the Quest for Solidarity. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Argues that Fromm’s humanistic ethics provide a framework for examining alienation in affluent societies.
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