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Biophilia – A synopsis of the concept as presented in Erich Fromm’s ‘The Heart of Man’

I found a first edition of this book online for a good price and bought it. That was a couple of years ago. I finally managed to read it and it was an interesting journey back in time, both in zeitgeist (written and published during and shortly after the Pig’s Bay crisis and the threat of nuclear war) and psychodynamic theory.

Fromm is searching for the essence of mankind, the characteristic that defines humans. His take on this is that the basic position of man is to stand apart from nature due to his ability to be aware of himself and his consequential ability to be reflexive. These abilities separate man from nature and make him stand alone. Fromm refers to this separation as a contradiction inherent in human existence” (Fromm, 1964, p. 116). This contradiction is evident in two ways.

1) Albeit being an animal, man’s survival instincts are incomplete or not sufficient to survive anymore (they have become blunt). Man relies on speech and tools to survive and that makes him special among all other living beings (although this might not be quite true anymore today, as we discovered some animals using tools and know more about their communication strategies).

2) We are aware of ourselves and of the fact that we are mortal. In this sense, we transcend nature because we are aware of life itself (the animal is not, which makes it a part of nature).

His quest about how we deal with this contradiction in our existence leads him to the question of whether our action are based on free will or whether they are determined by nature and/or nurture. He brings this conflict and contradiction to the point as follows:

“Man is confronted with the frightening conflict of being a prisoner of nature, yet being free in his thoughts; being part of nature, and yet to be as it were a freak of nature; being neither here nor there. Human self-awareness has made man a stranger in the world, separate, lonely, and frightened” (Fromm, 1964, p. 117).

As a result, we strive towards overcoming our sense of separateness and to become one again with nature. Our attempts at achieving a sense of belonging, we either regress or progress. Regression leads us back to nature (i.e. Rousseau, becoming childlike or childish, the womb), to animal life (rule of strength, violence, etc.) and to our ancestors (religions, laws, etc.). Progression means to develop to become fully human and to regain the lost harmony with nature and to lose the terror of separateness.

Fromm explores humans’ ‘Genius for Good and Evil’ and our regressive and progressive paths by investigating the dimensions of narcissism (benign-malignant), necrophilia-biophilia and incestuous ties (absent – incestuous symbiosis). In their malignant or destructive expressions, he calls these three concepts the syndrome of decay. This syndrome encompasses all tendencies directed against life and finds its expression in necrophilia, narcissism, and incest. I have always been particularly interested in his concept of biophilia. Hence, I summarised the key aspects of biophilia, as well as its opposite necrophila, below.

Necrophilia or the love of the dead shows itself in sexual perversion or the ‘morbid desire to be in the presence of a dead body’ (Fromm, 1964, p. 39). However, it is more than that. A person with necrophilous tendencies is drawn to everything that is dead or not alive, including corpses, decay, feces, dirt. They prefer to talk about sickness, funerals, death, destruction, the past; they are ‘cold, distant, devotees of law and order’ (p. 40) and like the use of force. Necrophiles like everything that does not grow but which is mechanical. ‘The necrophilous person is driven by the desire to transform the organic into the inorganic, to approach life mechanially, as if all living persons were things. All living processes, feelings, and thoughts are transformed into things’ (p.41). He continues to provide example in a similar vein but I think the picture he draws is emerging.

The opposite to necrophilia is biophilia, the love of life, the attraction to everything that lives and grows. Preserving life and preventing death is one form of biophilia. Biophilous tendencies can be much more varied and tend to integrate and unite, to fuse with different and opposite entities (this starts on a molecular level but also includes sexual union). This productive orientation expresses itself in curiosity, preference of the new over the old and a functional rather than mechanical approach to life. For biophilia to emerge or be sustained, certain societal conditions need to be in place. Chief among them are the absence of injustice and the presence of freedom to create and innovate.

Interestingly, Fromm also had something to say about knowledge management: ‘Briefly then, intellectualization, quantification, abstractification, bureaucratization, and reification – the very characteristics of modern industrial society, when applied to people rather than to things, are not the principles of life but those of mechanics. People living in such systems become indifferent to life and even attracted to death‘ (Fromm, 1964, p. 59).

The concept of biophilia encompasses people searching for self-awareness, aspirations, and growth. Given the current emphasis on mindfulness in psychological therapies and beyond, it was interesting to rediscover that in the 60s, when this book was published, From was already repeatedly referring to Buddhism and the eightfold path leading to awareness to the good in man by discovering him/herself. Moreover, Fromm’s approach fits with the psychological, health, and economic theories for which I have the greatest affinity: Frankl’s Logotherapy and Existential Analysis, Antonovsky’s Salutogenesis and Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach.

May 8, 2010 Posted by | Behaviour modification, mindfulness | 3 Comments