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May 18 2012

Erich Fromm

I read the works of psychologist Erich Fromm (1900-1980) voraciously when I was younger. His wrote about how humans suffered from a sense of alienation due to their estrangement with nature and with other people, and that this was a source of many mental problems and destructive behavior because they sought to fill that need by various means that did not address the fundamental problem of alienation. In his writings he suggested alternative ways of achieving fulfillment by connecting people with one another in deep and meaningful ways.

I am not sure what Fromm would have thought of the current social networking phenomenon with its seeming compulsion to be in constant contact with others via cell phones, text messaging, Facebook, and the like. I am guessing that he would have seen this as a manifestation of the basic human need to connect with others but that it would not satisfy it because of its superficiality.

Fromm was a social psychologist in addition to being an individual psychologist and thus also explored what kinds of societies helped people reduce their sense of alienation. Fromm wrote a lot of books, Escape From Freedom, The Sane Society, and The Art of Loving being the better known ones. Although he was secular in his thinking, he was born and raised in the Orthodox Jewish tradition and drew extensively upon his studies of the Torah for his insights.

I loved Fromm’s humane attitude and approach to life and it is a pity that he is not better known and read these days. Hence I was delighted to hear that one of the regular commenters here (Salty Current) is writing a series about him and his work. The first post is here and I look forward to reading the subsequent ones.

9 comments

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  1. 1
    SC (Salty Current), OM

    Wow! Thank you for linking to my series! The more reading and note-taking I do, the longer my list of planned Fromm posts grows. So many insights, so much to examine critically.

    I’m so glad I mentioned it here. What a pleasant surprise immediately to encounter someone else who shares my appreciation for his work. Please feel free to criticize my arguments; my thinking is developing as I write the series, and some of my agreements and disagreements with Fromm I’m still working out for myself.

    I am not sure what Fromm would have thought of the current social networking phenomenon with its seeming compulsion to be in constant contact with others via cell phones, text messaging, Facebook, and the like. I am guessing that he would have seen this as a manifestation of the basic human need to connect with others but that it would not satisfy it because of its superficiality.

    Huh. That’s an interesting question…

    (By the way, all of the posts in the series – there are only a few so far, with a new one going up in a few minutes – are tagged “Erich Fromm” for help with searching.)

  2. 2
    Jared A

    I am not sure what Fromm would have thought of the current social networking phenomenon with its seeming compulsion to be in constant contact with others via cell phones, text messaging, Facebook, and the like. I am guessing that he would have seen this as a manifestation of the basic human need to connect with others but that it would not satisfy it because of its superficiality.

    Why do you assume that social networking interactions are by definition superficial? I see no reason to assume that all personal interactions through internet social networking are superficial.

  3. 3
    Mano Singham

    Maybe it was too quick a judgment but given the brevity of the interactions in those forms of media, I found it hard to see how they could achieve depth. I am willing to be proven wrong, though.

  4. 4
    Sunny

    Perhaps the younger generation feels different because they have grown up with it.

    I did not know about Fromm. Is there a book by him that you would recommend in particular?

  5. 5
    Mano Singham

    The three books I mentioned are good ones. The Art of Loving is a slim book that is about personal interactions while the other two are more sociological analyses of society.

  6. 6
    mnb0

    Erich Fromm was quite famous in The Netherlands some 30 years ago, in certain leftish circles. I have read Escape from Freedom.
    What bothered me was the question if his analysis is testable scientifically. The question is not entirely fair of course – this book is from 1941 and Popper wasn’t around yet – but the answer still will to a large extent decide if his analysis is still valid in our days.

  7. 7
    Sunny

    Thanks. I think you may find the following article interesting:

    THE DISCONNECT Why are so many Americans living by themselves?
    http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2012/04/16/120416crbo_books_heller?currentPage=all

  8. 8
    christianagnostic

    I really enjoyed Escape from Freedom….his analysis of the Protestant Reformation was intriguing. I credit Frohm for allowing me to think more critically about religion and it’s tyrannical influence within political movements.

    Thanks for the reminder….

  9. 9
    divakarsnatarajan

    I was introduced to Erich Fromm by my daughter’s Carnatic music teacher – the late Shri B R C Iyengar. He also urged me to Jeremy Rifkin’s Entropy.

    Between the two of them they appear to provide the most cogent explanations of contemporary society and its perils.

    His works reveal his considerable erudition, some of his descriptions verge on poetry and they teem with insight.

    Without even mentioning it Fromm’s radical humanistic examination appears to obsolete current classifications of attempting to understand people by their gender, race, nationality etc

    It is way the energies of our mind are channelised through our “characters” that will most accurately explain our motivations and actions.

    Fromm is phenomenal.

    I would suggest starting with Man For Himself, then Fear of Freedom and the opus Anatomy of Human Destructiveness.

    I enjoyed reading SC (Salty Current), OM, yesterday and was delighted to tweet her? his ? critique yesterday. @divakarssathya

    I am trying to find the quote where he compares the contemporary adult with the subjective powers of a three year old to the “obedient” medieval man who more resembles an 8 year old.

    Very relevant for our times. Could you please help locate it ?
    Thank you Mano :)

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