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mulling over (research) ideas

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.

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May 8, 2010 - Posted by | Behaviour modification, mindfulness

3 Comments »

  1. I found all that interesting, thanks. I’ve heard of Fromm.. Indeed some of the concepts travel similar paths to some of the work by Carl Jung by the sound of it.

    The idea of ‘Man’, and his split from nature – and the consequences this split has on life. Jung theorised that we suffer this split in our selves, and for us as ‘civilised’ people, we need to heal and make amends with that part of our Self, in order to individuate and become whole. Jung too referred to Buddhism a lot..

    It was something to that effect anyway.. really interesting concepts. After reading them I can’t help but hope I can reach a point in life where I feel completely undivided, and self aware.

    I can’t help but wonder though, Jung in particular (I’m not sure about Fromm but perhaps he’s similar) was as I’d say a man of the times. The writing is a little male chauvinistic I thought – are there any modern day psychologists that build on this older work and make any progress on finding out about the human psyche?

    I love that quote you have made, on people living in mechanical-like systems (management).

    I’ll leave you with a quote I liked re ‘man’, symbols, and nature:

    As scientific understanding has grown, so our world has become dehumanised. Man feels himself isolated in the cosmos, because he is no longer involved in nature and has lost his emotional “unconscious identity” with natural phenomena. These have slowly lost their symbolic implications. Thunder is no longer the voice of an angry god, nor is lightning his avenging missile. No river contains a spirit, no tree is the life principle of a man, no snake the embodiment of wisdom, no mountain cave the home of a great demon. No voices now speak to man from stones, plants, and animals, nor does he speak to them believing they can hear. His contact with nature has gone, and with it has gone the profound emotional energy that this symbolic connection supplied. – Carl Jung

    Comment by Rolley | May 9, 2010 | Reply

  2. […] On a similar notion, Pratt et al (1998) provide a systems perspective, which can be used to frame partnership working as  “an approach to … development that views groups of people coming together around a shared purpose as living systems”. I like this approach as it does not include any suggestion of coercion or hierarchy. Rather it suggests dynamic growth driven by a sense of purpose, which echoes the ideas promoted in Fromm’s concept of Biophilia. […]

    Pingback by Partnership working in health care – Ontological and epistemological perspectives « Mathehu's Weblog | July 20, 2010 | Reply

  3. […] The Heart of Man: Its Genius For Good and Evil by Erich Fromm ** (Nazism is mentioned here within the context of necrophilia and dehumanization) […]

    Pingback by Nazis, Fascism, and Holocaust-related books and films | Bob the Prophet | December 22, 2010 | Reply


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