See biographical studies by D. Hausdorff (1972) and G. Knapp (1989); R. I. Evans, Dialogue with Erich Fromm (1966, repr. 1981).
Erich Pinchas Fromm (March 23, 1900 – March 18, 1980) was an internationally renowned social psychologist, psychoanalyst, and humanistic philosopher. He was associated with what became known as the Frankfurt School of critical theory.
When Fromm moved to Mexico City in 1950, he became a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and established a psychoanalytic section at the medical school there. He taught at UNAM until his retirement in 1965. Meanwhile, he taught as a professor of psychology at Michigan State University from 1957 to 1961 and as an adjunct professor of psychology at the graduate division of Arts and Sciences at New York University after 1962. In 1974 he moved to Muralto, Switzerland, and died at his home in 1980, five days before his eightieth birthday. All the while, Fromm maintained his own clinical practice and published a series of books.
Central to Fromm's world view was his interpretation of the Talmud, which he began studying as a young man under Rabbi J. Horowitz and later studied under Rabbi Salman Baruch Rabinkow while working towards his doctorate in sociology at the University of Heidelberg and under Nehemia Nobel and Ludwig Krause while studying in Frankfurt. Fromm's grandfather and two great grandfathers on his father's side were rabbis, and a great uncle on his mother's side was a noted Talmudic scholar. However, Fromm turned away from orthodox Judaism in 1926, towards secular interpretations of scriptural ideals.
The cornerstone of Fromm's humanistic philosophy is his interpretation of the biblical story of Adam and Eve's exile from the Garden of Eden. Drawing on his knowledge of the Talmud, Fromm pointed out that being able to distinguish between good and evil is generally considered to be a virtue, and that biblical scholars generally consider Adam and Eve to have sinned by disobeying God and eating from the Tree of Knowledge. However, departing from traditional religious orthodoxy, Fromm extolled the virtues of humans taking independent action and using reason to establish moral values rather than adhering to authoritarian moral values.
Beyond a simple condemnation of authoritarian value systems, Fromm used the story of Adam and Eve as an allegorical explanation for human biological evolution and existential angst, asserting that when Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, they became aware of themselves as being separate from nature while still being part of it. This is why they felt "naked" and "ashamed": they had evolved into human beings, conscious of themselves, their own mortality, and their powerlessness before the forces of nature and society, and no longer united with the universe as they were in their instinctive, pre-human existence as animals. According to Fromm, the awareness of a disunited human existence is a source of guilt and shame, and the solution to this existential dichotomy is found in the development of one's uniquely human powers of love and reason. However, Fromm so distinguished his concept of love from popular notions of love that his reference to this concept was virtually paradoxical.
Fromm considered love to be an interpersonal creative capacity rather than an emotion, and he distinguished this creative capacity from what he considered to be various forms of narcissistic neuroses and sado-masochistic tendencies that are commonly held out as proof of "true love." Indeed, Fromm viewed the experience of "falling in love" as evidence of one's failure to understand the true nature of love, which he believed always had the common elements of care, responsibility, respect, and knowledge. Drawing from his knowledge of the Torah, Fromm pointed to the story of Jonah, who did not wish to save the residents of Nineveh from the consequences of their sin, as demonstrative of his belief that the qualities of care and responsibility are generally absent from most human relationships. Fromm also asserted that few people in modern society had respect for the autonomy of their fellow human beings, much less the objective knowledge of what other people truly wanted and needed.
Fromm believed that freedom was an aspect of human nature that we either embrace or escape. He observed that embracing our freedom of will was healthy, whereas escaping freedom through the use of escape mechanisms was the root of psychological conflicts. Three main escape mechanisms that Fromm outlined are automaton conformity, authoritarianism, and destructiveness. Automaton conformity is changing one's ideal self to what is perceived as the preferred type of personality of society, losing one's true self. The use of automaton conformity displaces the burden of choice from the self to society. Authoritarianism is allowing oneself to be controlled by another. This removes the freedom of choice almost entirely by submitting that freedom to someone else. Lastly, destructiveness is any process which attempts to eliminate others or the world as a whole to escape freedom. Fromm said that "the destruction of the world is the last, almost desperate attempt to save myself from being crushed by it" (1941).
The word biophilia was frequently used by Fromm as a description of a productive psychological orientation and "state of being". For example, in an addendum to his book The Heart of Man: Its Genius For Good and Evil, Fromm wrote as part of his famous Humanist Credo:
"I believe that the man choosing progress can find a new unity through the development of all his human forces, which are produced in three orientations. These can be presented separately or together: biophilia, love for humanity and nature, and independence and freedom." (c. 1965)
Erich Fromm postulated five basic needs:
Fromm's thesis of the "escape from freedom" is epitomized in the following passage. The "individualized man" referenced by Fromm is man bereft of "primary ties" of belonging (nature, family, etc.), also expressed as "freedom from":
"There is only one possible, productive solution for the relationship of individualized man with the world: his active solidarity with all men and his spontaneous activity, love and work, which unite him again with the world, not by primary ties but as a free and independent individual . . . . However, if the economic, social and political conditions . . . do not offer a basis for the realization of individuality in the sense just mentioned, while at the same time people have lost those ties which gave them security, this lag makes freedom an unbearable burden. It then becomes identical with doubt, with a kind of life which lacks meaning and direction. Powerful tendencies arise to escape from this kind of freedom into submission or some kind of relationship to man and the world which promises relief from uncertainty, even if it deprives the individual of his freedom." (Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom [N.Y.: Rinehart, 1941], pp. 36-7. The point is repeated on pp. 31, 256-7.)
Fromm examined the life and work of Sigmund Freud at length. He identified a discrepancy between early and later Freudian theory: namely that prior to World War I, Freud described human drives as a tension between desire and repression, but after the war's conclusion, he framed human drives as a struggle between biologically-universal Life and Death (Eros and Thanatos) instincts. Fromm charged Freud and his followers with never acknowledging the contradictions between the two theories.
He also criticized Freud's dualistic thinking. According to Fromm, Freudian descriptions of human consciousness as struggles between two poles was narrow and limiting. Fromm also condemned him as a misogynist unable to think outside the patriarchal milieu of early 20th century Vienna. However, Fromm expressed a great respect for Freud and his accomplishments, in spite of these criticisms.
Fromm's most well-known work, Escape from Freedom, focuses on the human urge to seek a source of authority and control upon reaching a freedom that was thought to be an individual’s true desire. The culmination of Fromm's social and political philosophy was his book The Sane Society, published in 1955, which argued in favor of humanistic and democratic socialism. Building primarily upon the early works of Karl Marx, Fromm sought to re-emphasise the ideal of personal freedom, missing from most Soviet Marxism, and more frequently found in the writings of libertarian socialists and liberal theoreticians. Fromm's brand of socialism rejected both Western capitalism and Soviet communism, which he saw as dehumanizing and bureaucratic social structures that resulted in a virtually universal modern phenomenon of alienation. He became one of the founders of socialist humanism, promoting the early writings of Marx and his humanist messages to the US and Western European publics. In the early 1960s, Fromm published two books dealing with Marxist thoughts (Marx's Concept of Man and Beyond the Chains of Illusion: my Encounter with Marx and Freud). In 1965, working to stimulate the Western and Eastern cooperation between Marxist humanists, Fromm published a series of articles entitled Socialist Humanism: An International Symposium.
For a period, Fromm was also active in US politics. He joined the Socialist Party of America in the mid-1950s, and did his best to help them provide an alternative viewpoint to the prevailing McCarthyism of the time. This alternative viewpoint was best expressed in his 1961 paper May Man Prevail? An Inquiry into the Facts and Fictions of Foreign Policy. However, as a co-founder of SANE, Fromm's strongest political activism was in the international peace movement, fighting against the nuclear arms race and US involvement in the Vietnam War. After supporting Senator Eugene McCarthy's losing bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, Fromm more or less retreated from the American political scene, although he did write a paper in 1974 entitled Remarks on the Policy of Détente for a hearing held by the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.