“…one of the essential features and dangers in man in contemporary society, namely that we have become out of touch with all realities except one, that is the manmade reality of business, of organization of things we can manipulate. We are in contact with artifacts. We are in contact with social routine, and we are in contact and refer to what produces more things, but we are not in contact with the basic realities of human existence. We are not in contact with our feelings, with what is really our feeling, with our happiness, unhappiness, our fear and doubt, and all the things that go on in a human being. We are not in contact with our fellow man or nature. We are only in contact with a small segment of the world created by ourselves, and actually we are deeply afraid of touching anything deeper.” - Erich Fromm, PoN, KL 763-768
“What I mean to say is that the aim of life, which corresponds to the nature of man in his situation of existence, is to be able to love, to be able to use one’s reason, and to be able to have the objectivity and humility to be in touch with a reality outside of oneself, inside of oneself, without leading to distortion. This type of relatedness to the world is the greatest source of energy beyond that produced by the chemistry of the body. There is nothing more conducive to creating anything than love as far as it is genuine. Being in touch with reality, doing away with fiction, having the humility and objectivity to see what is, and not talk about things that separate us from reality, is the most essential basis for any sense of security, for any sense of feeling 'I' without needing props which substitute for that feeling of identity." - Erich Fromm, PoN, KL 370-6
[This subseries of posts about the ideas of Erich Fromm will cover his thinking about human needs and about love. I’ll begin in this post with a discussion of his understanding of human needs. In the next, I’ll describe the forms of evidence Fromm drew upon in making the case for these as fundamental needs. Then I’ll talk in more depth about Fromm’s understanding of these as generic needs and the productive and destructive ways people and societies attempt to fulfill them. After that, I’ll move in a slightly different direction and summarize Fromm’s ideas about love. In these four posts, I might briefly foreshadow some of my criticisms (four wholly noncritical posts is a lot to ask!), but I’ll try to limit myself to describing his views without taking a position. The next series of posts will be highly critical, discussing problems with his formulations, particularly those that stem from his religious sympathies and those that come into relief when we extend his ideas to nonhuman animals.]
As I discussed in an earlier post, Erich Fromm believed that any meaningful humanistic psychology/psychiatry, and humanistic practice more generally, had to begin with the attempt to determine our fundamental needs as human beings. Only if we’re aware of these needs can we distinguish superficial and harmful attempts to meet them from useful and productive actions. Only then can we rationally attempt to fulfill them in our own lives and intelligently help other people to do so. Only then do we have a sound basis on which to evaluate our own society, recognizing the real sources of distress and obstacles to joy and fulfillment within it. Only then can we see through our culture’s accepted notions of what’s best for us, think clearly about what the good society means, and together fight the forces that obstruct and distract from their fulfillment and build movements and communities that favor and promote it. Only on this basis can we build a comprehensive humanistic practice that doesn’t lose sight of needs when talking about values or ethics, and that recognizes the deep connections amongst these. Viewed in this light, it’s surprising how many conversations about well-being, political values, and transforming society proceed in the absence of a reasoned discussion of human needs and without even an attempt to establish a shared baseline understanding.
As I’ve mentioned, in addition to rejecting religiously based ideas about what’s good for us, Fromm rejected both chauvinistic assertions that our own society’s values are universally good and arguments that values are merely culturally relative. So he refused the “principle of adjustment” – the psychiatric view that people’s needs coincided with the needs of the system in which they lived, such that conformity with or “functioning” in one’s society is indicative of mental well-being and to be valued and encouraged.1 He also opposed the easy acceptance of slogans of mental health - happiness simplistically defined as “having fun” (which “has very little to do with what in other cultures has been described as happiness,” PoN, KL 570-572), a focus on undefined notions of pleasure (PoN, KL 1672), or well-being seen as a quest for social and economic success or "security" (PoN, KL 601-603).
While he refused to accept ideological arguments about human needs that seemed more suited to encouraging conformity with the system, Fromm held that real needs could be recognized. He was at pains to emphasize that the needs he was talking about were every bit as fundamental as our needs for food and shelter. “There is a general assumption,” he wrote, “that if we have enough to eat or to drink, and enough sleep and enough security, and as Freud would add, a normal sexual satisfaction, if all this is given and not disturbed, then life is no particular problem. But the point is, that is when the problems begin” (PoN, KL 301-303).
It was relatively easy for Fromm to be optimistic that the problem of poverty and physical deprivation could be, and was being, solved, even under capitalism. He thought the high material standard of living in certain countries during the Cold War was inevitably spreading. This optimism did require a certain blindness to realities in the US, particularly when it came to race, as well as an inattention to some of the basic elements of Marx’s thought, by which Fromm was otherwise heavily influenced. But this was true of many progressive (usually white male) thinkers during this era. We can see now that such optimism was misplaced, and that the idea of unfettered “growth” itself was, as he recognized in other contexts, a dangerous illusion.2 But it was somewhat more reasonable to believe in this vision in that era. At the same time, and what’s important here, Fromm’s basic point - that humanistic movements can’t just focus on those “material” (the distinction isn’t entirely valid) needs and neglect others - was right.
What are our needs?
Fromm thought that we could discern fundamental human needs and thus establish “objective and valid aims for mental health” (PoN, KL 367-368) on which a social vision, a humanistic psychiatry, and a program of social activism could be based. The essential human needs, according to Fromm, are: relatedness, rootedness, unity, a sense of identity, excitement and stimulation, effectance, transcendence, and a frame of orientation. He believed these were not artificially created or culturally contingent but existential needs – needs stemming from the conditions of our existence as human beings which had to be met, one way or another, by every person and by any society.
Relatedness (and alienation as a problem of relatedness)
Previously, I discussed Fromm’s emphasis on the problem of alienation in contemporary society. On the one hand, we can see this as the result of his working in the Marxist tradition. But Fromm’s concern with alienation went beyond Marx’s. He focused on this problem with such intensity because he saw relatedness as so inescapably necessary to our well-being and growth. If Fromm saw any human need as the unifying core of all of the others, it would be relatedness. He referred to alienation – “alienation from ourselves, from our own feelings, from people and from nature; or, to put it still differently, the alienation between ourselves and the world inside and outside of ourselves” - as “the central problem of mental health” (PoN, KL 625-627).
Fromm expanded on Marx’s idea that the condition of alienation was undesirable for humans to talk about alienation as a lived experience – a psychologically intolerable experience which people will go to great lengths to avoid. Because we in the US are alienated, he argued, “[w]e are starved for any touch with the realities of life” (PoN, KL 454-455). (One significant aspect of the need for relatedness, according to Fromm, is a need for contact with the realities of life and death in the form of dramatic rituals. I’ll discuss this a bit more later.)
The primary result of this alienation is boredom, which Fromm regarded as an enormous psychological, and therefore social, problem:
In a culture wherein we become alienated from ourselves, from others, in which our own human feelings become abstractions, cease to be concrete, we become awfully bored. We lose energy. Life ceases to be exciting in a true sense. I believe that boredom is one of the great evils that can befall man. There are few things which are as terrifying and unbearable as being bored (PoN, KL 823-826).
We speak so often of the evils of life: sickness, mental illness, alcoholism, what not, but I think we are not sufficiently aware that one of the worst sufferings in life is boredom and that people go to any lengths and any effort…to escape it, to cover it up (PoN, KL 308-310).
Both Marx and Fromm would hold that alienation is independent of psychological effects: we’re alienated and unfulfilled/unactualized not only whether we consciously recognize it or not (indeed, we’d expect extreme alienation to be marked by the failure to recognize itself – people so alienated that they’ve lost even the sense that they’re alienated) but independently of whether it has psychological effects on us as individuals.
But, far more than Marx, Fromm focused on what he saw as alienation’s powerful and inevitable psychological effects. Because he saw relatedness as such a profound need and source of psychological energy, joy, well-being, and identity, he regarded its absence – the condition of alienation – is psychologically devastating. “All this state of abstraction, of being alienated from the concreteness of one’s own experience, has far-reaching consequences for one’s mental health,” he writes, because it means the loss of a principle source of psychic energy - “the energy that springs from our being related to the world, our being concerned” (PoN, KL 804-810):
Joy, energy, happiness, all this depends on the degree to which we are related, to which we are concerned, and that is to say, to which we are in touch with the reality of our feelings, with the reality of other people,… [I]n this process of being related, we experience ourselves as entities, as I who is related to the world. I become one with the world in my relatedness to the world, but I also experience myself as a self, as an individuality, as something unique, because in this process of relatedness, I am at the same time the subject of this activity, of this process, of relating myself (PoN, KL 812-818).
While Fromm emphasizes the psychological experience of alienation, he doesn’t reduce alienation or boredom to a psychological state, a conscious feeling as in many pop cultural portrayals of “alienated youth.” Alienation, like its consequence depression, isn’t something that can be expressed in the form “I’m feeling alienated today.” It’s a lack of active relatedness to the world and our own feelings that results from social circumstances that prevent us from developing genuine, loving, productive relationships.3
Rootedness and Unity
The needs for rootedness in (AoHD, 261) and unity with (AoHD, 262) the world around us are in essence variations on the need for relatedness. Fromm believed that our seeking after unity was the result of the existential split with the nonhuman world resulting from “man’s” nature as “life being aware of itself,” his
awareness of himself, of his fellow man, of his past, and of the possibilities of his future…of himself as a separate entity,…of his own short life span, of the fact that without his will he is born and against his will he dies, that he will die before those whom he loves, or they before him,…of his aloneness and separateness, of his helplessness before the forces of nature and of society... (TAoL, 8).
This condition “would be unbearable could he not establish a sense of unity within himself and with the natural and human world outside,” Fromm argued. “Man, aware of his separateness, needs to find new ties with his fellowman; his very sanity depends on it. Without strong affective ties to the world, he would suffer from utter isolation and lostness” (AoHD, 262). Thus, “[t]he deepest need of man,” in Fromm’s view, “is the need to overcome his separateness, to leave the prison of his aloneness” (TAoL, 9).
Excitement and Stimulation
Disputing the capitalistic idea that workers need external reward and punishment to compel them to work, Fromm argued that the evidence pointed undeniably to our “inherent need for excitement and stimulation” (PoN, KL 1596-1597), our tendency toward “seeking for pleasure and - on a higher level of personality - of being actively interested in people, things, ideas” (PoN, KL 1773-1775). He remarks that “In the psychological field, Karl Bühler (1924) was the first to speak of the intrinsic pleasure in activity and the functioning of the human organism, and called this pleasure Funktionslust (pleasure in function)” (PoN, KL 2073-2074), which is a wonderful word.
Activity in itself doesn’t satisfy our needs, in Fromm’s view. We need to do creative work that meaningfully affects the world. As he describes: “To effect is the equivalent of: to bring to pass, to accomplish, to realize, to carry out, to fulfill; an effective person is one who has the capacity to do, to effect, to accomplish something. To be able to effect something is the assertion that one is not impotent, but that one is an alive, functioning, human being” (AoHD, 264).
Fromm borrowed Marx’s (highly idealized) example of the medieval artisan as a “productive, original individual” who “enjoyed the process of work, doing things that are beautiful,” though he believed other cultures have also provided opportunities for that kind of creative expression (PoN, KL 464-471). “This kind of skilled work,” he argues, “does not require extrinsic rewards or threats of punishment to be performed. It carries with it the intrinsic reward of interest, the exercise of skill, relating oneself to the world by a creative act, and more than anything else, that of growing and becoming oneself” (PoN, KL 1626-1628). Such work responds to our deep need not just for stimulation or activity itself but for effectance.
Fromm argues that this need has passed unappreciated by many social thinkers, whose social visions are impoverished and misguided by their neglect of these needs. “For thousands of years,” he writes, “writers and utopians in the most moving words have described that the most beautiful aim of life is one in which one spends only a little time working for the necessities to keep alive, in which there is a wealth of commodities and no need.” This idea of fulfillment through maximal leisure and consumption is also part of the capitalist mythology. Fromm’s conception of human needs, though, gives him a different perspective: “[Q]uite realistically, if this life could be achieved for today, one would have to make every effort to avoid it, because it would lead to a real psychic disaster” (PoN, KL 562-567).
As I’ll discuss in more detail later on, he further argues that this existential need to effect “expresses itself in interpersonal relations as well as in the relationship to animals, to inanimate nature, and to ideas” (AoHD, 266).
Sense of Identity
The need for a sense of identity is similarly derivative of and dependent upon the core needs for relatedness and effectance:
Man’s awareness of himself as being in a strange and overpowering world, and his consequent sense of impotence could easily overwhelm him. If he experienced himself as entirely passive, a mere object, he would lack a sense of his own will, of his identity. To compensate for this he must acquire a sense of being able to do something, to move somebody, to ‘make a dent’, or, to use the most adequate English word, to be ‘effective’ (AoHD, 264).
Frame of Orientation
The need for a sense of identity is also related to what Fromm believed was a human need for a frame of orientation, in the form of both a frame of reference and an object of devotion around which to organize and direct our actions. The frame of reference is a coherent map of the world, providing an understanding of the world and our place in it:
[W]e have to make some sense of our life. We just cannot stand living, merely eating and drinking and not making sense. We have to give some answer to the problem of living and we have to give some answers theoretically and practically. By this I mean that we need a frame of reference in which we orient ourselves in life, which makes the process of living and our position in it somehow sensible and meaningful…. This is not only an intellectual frame of reference, but we need also an organizing principle of an object of devotion, of something to which we devote our energies beyond those which we need for producing and reproducing (PoN, KL 317-323).
“Man,” Fromm argues,
requires a picture of the world and of his place in it that is structured and has inner cohesion. Man needs a map of his natural and social world, without which he would be confused and unable to act purposefully and consistently. He would have no way of orienting himself and of finding for himself a fixed point that permits him to organize all the impressions that impinge upon him (AoHD, 259).
But beyond this frame of reference, to guide “his” action, “man” needs
a goal that tells him where to go. …an object of total devotion…to be the focal point of all his strivings and the basis for all his effective - and not only proclaimed - values. He needs such an object of devotion for a number of reasons. The object integrates his energies in one direction. It elevates him beyond his isolated existence, with all its doubts and insecurity, and gives meaning to life. In being devoted to a goal beyond his isolated ego, he transcends himself and leaves the prison of absolute egocentricity (AoHD, 260).
Fromm argued that “these two needs are imperative needs and nobody can avoid them.” “In this sense,” he continued, “we all need religion, provided we use the definition of religion in a very general sense, namely a system of orientation and object of devotion, regardless of what the specific contents are.”
Bound to this is our “idealism” – our need for “strivings transcending beyond the routine task of continuing our life and of surviving, and of creating a frame of reference and an object of devotion that transcends our biological survival” (PoN, KL 350-357). We are all, according to Fromm, idealists in this sense: we have a need for transcendence – to transcend “life” – our material conditions of existence - either through creation or through destruction.
Related to all of this is a need Fromm emphasizes in many works: the need for transcendence. Fromm’s description of transcendence here shows how closely related it is to other needs:
The term ‘transcendence’ is traditionally used in a theological frame of reference. Christian thinking takes for granted that man’s transcendence implies transcendence beyond himself to God; thus theology tries to prove the need for belief in God by pointing to man’s need for transcendence. This logic, however, is faulty unless the concept of God is used in a purely symbolic sense standing for ‘not self’. There is a need to transcend one’s self-centered, narcissistic, isolated position to one of being related to others, of openness to the world, escaping the hell of self-centeredness and hence self-imprisonment. Religious systems like Buddhism have postulated this kind of transcendence without any reference to a god or superhuman power... (AoHD, 260, n. 9).
There are several assumptions underlying his case for this alleged need, and a lack of clarity in terms of what it is precisely that we’re supposed to need to transcend, both of which I’ll return to later.
Leaving aside for the time being the matter of whether Fromm is right that these are all really existential, universal human needs, there’s the question of internal consistency. It isn’t necessary that these needs be compatible for them to be real – we can imagine fundamental needs nevertheless coming into conflict - but Fromm presents them as not only compatible but symbiotic. (In productively fulfilling our need for effectance, for instance, we’re fulfilling our need for a sense of identity, and vice versa.) It might already appear from this survey, though, that there’s some inconsistency or tension between some of the alleged needs themselves – specifically, between the relatedness-type needs and the transcendence-type needs. There is, and it becomes more apparent to the extent that Fromm fleshes them out.
I’ll argue later that the transcendence-type needs insofar as they don’t merely recapitulate other needs, are out of place – contrary to the others and inconsistent with his larger vision. For now, though, we can just recognize the importance of his founding his humanistic psychiatry – and his humanistic politics generally – on the search for human needs, and consider how, even if we don’t fully accept Fromm’s list, we can arrive at a real understanding of these needs.
1 While he rejected normality-based definitions of health, he also refused a simplistic, reflexive celebration of the abnormal or oppositional for its own sake, which he saw as equally simplistic and evidence-light.
2 Fromm ran into similar problems when he talked about democracy and freedom as having been substantially established in some countries.
3 Fromm also depicts it as in some sense an existential condition, a problem I’ll address at length in future posts.