Saturday, December 15, 2012

Erich Fromm #4B: The case for human needs

[The first part of this subseries on Fromm's conception of human needs can be found here.]

“Modern anthropology and psychopathology and psychology can show that by studying the nature of humanity, by studying the problems of human existence, one can find, with as much empirical evidence as we have for the usefulness of vitamins, that these are the aims which make for the best and only satisfactory solution of the complex problems of living and existence.” - Erich Fromm, PoN, KL 378-381

Recognizing that human needs can’t simply be asserted, and also aware (well, to some extent) of the dangers of basing choices and policy on superstition and wishful thinking, Fromm sought to develop his understanding of human needs empirically. He drew on a variety of fields and diverse forms of evidence, including - but not limited to - his own clinical experience and exchanges with others, findings in neuroscience, studies of nonhuman animals and children, anthropological and historical research, extended case studies, indications of psychological and emotional distress in his society, signs of dissatisfaction in his society, cross-national rates of destructive behavior, the attractions of popular culture, and the trajectories of political movements. For at least some hypothesized needs, Fromm addressed in depth the arguments for other hypotheses that might account for the evidence. I’ll offer a small sample of the sorts of data he viewed as pertinent.

Fromm saw evidence of the need for relatedness, for example, in the allure of popular forms of entertainment and certain forms of commodified leisure. He considered these attractions in terms of both attempts to fulfill the need and efforts to elude the effects of alienation. Even more significantly, he viewed widespread evidence of alienation itself as an indicator of a thwarted hunger for relatedness.

Our fascination with fires, car accidents, and detective stories, he suggested, reflects our desire for a more authentic contact with reality, a “chance to get in touch with death, with something dramatic” (PoN, KL 436). Our activities and pastimes, too, he saw as evidence of our wish to elude the boredom of our alienated existence: “We start to go to parties, or to play bridge, or to drink or to work, or to drive around, or to do any number of things which help alleviate boredom” (PoN, KL 826-831).

Fromm found evidence of alienation in comparative rates of suicide and mental problems. He cited cross-cultural statistics as suggesting that even contact with a terrible reality is better than alienation, and that material improvements and a so-called high standard of living are no substitutes for real relatedness:

[I]t seems to me that perhaps in certain cultures in which life is on the one hand quite comfortable, nevertheless in which boredom has developed to a large extent, one finds more cases of suicide and schizophrenia than in other countries in which there is at least more touch with reality, even if the reality is tragic, since sadness and tragedy are still easier to bear than boredom, which is nothing but the expression of an unrelatedness to the world and to love. (PoN, KL 826-831; my emphasis)

He regarded an assortment of general social problems as symptomatic of alienation: “That this is happening today on a large scale is evidenced by the increase in drug addiction, by the lack of genuine interest in anything, in the decline of intellectual and artistic creativity, and in the increase of violence and destructiveness.” (AoHD, 299). High levels of depression, especially, were to be expected in societies such as ours. As Fromm saw it, this is precisely what his hypothesis about the need for active relatedness would predict - a systemic lack of relatedness results in widespread depression: “In the sense of this definition, the normal person in our culture is considerably depressed, because his intensity of feeling is considerably reduced” (PoN, KL 590-596).

(It’s worth noting here, once again, how fundamentally Fromm’s understanding of depression – as evidence of our society’s obstructing our ability to fulfill our vital existential needs - differs from that underlying contemporary psychiatry, which views it in terms of an individual’s “illness” interfering with their capacity to adjust to and function within the society. The difference in the therapeutic and political projects that follow from these readings is immense.)

He wasn’t suggesting that alienation was the only cause of these problems, or arguing that a tragic reality is an acceptable or desirable condition as long as the need for relatedness was fulfilled. But the fact that the relatively affluent, those who bear the weight of exploitation comparatively lightly, suffer from these problems at such high rates was evidence for Fromm of the fundamental, inescapable nature of our need for relatedness.1

Fromm examined studies of animals and children and also pointed to neurological research in presenting the biological basis of the need for excitation and stimulation. He describes the research of Heath, especially

his finding that electrical stimulation of the septal area can result in an experience of active interest, such as for instance intellectual or other kinds of interest not related to the satisfaction of appetites such as sex and hunger. He quotes one instance where in the process of solving an interesting mathematical problem, activity of the septal region was found in the EEG and he believes that it is likely that the activation of the pleasure area can result from the process of taking an active interest in the world outside (in my own terminology this would be a productive interest rather than a passive-receptive one). In other words, his discoveries point to the fact that mankind’s active interest in the world outside is grounded in the very structure of the brain, and hence does not need to be fostered by extrinsic rewards. (PoN, KL 1766-1773)

Our need for psychic stimulation and creative engagement could be seen in the effects of their absence on workers and the workers’ responses. “An increasing number of people,” Fromm avers,

feel that the boredom of forty hours a week spent in working is not, and cannot be, compensated by the rewards of increasing consumption - especially when consumption itself becomes boring and is not conducive to greater activity, growth of personality, and increase of skill. There is a great deal of absenteeism and psychosomatic illness among workers, and their displeasure with work shows also in the shoddiness of many products. (PoN, KL 1676-1679)

He also recognized our need for effectance in our attraction to various popular entertainments through which we can have vicarious effectance experiences. This was “why people today are fascinated by watching any skilled work process that they have the occasion to see - the playing of Casals, as well as watching a weaver at work” (PoN, KL 1618-1621).2

Much of Fromm’s work was devoted to understanding the power of movements like fascism. He contended that in order to comprehend the allure of fascism and Stalinism to so many people, we had to grasp the fundamental human needs to which they responded, particularly the need for a frame of orientation. Nazism and Stalinism “could arise, they could assume this tremendous power and appeal, because of the religious vacuum that is growing stronger and stronger in the 20th century and which was less strong in the 19th century, when at least the moral tradition of religion was a more potent factor in the life of people than it is today” (PoN, KL 404-406). Similarly with their powerful rituals: “The Nazis and Stalinists sense that. They introduce new rituals. Undoubtedly, the success of these systems was partly based on the fact that they were capable of satisfying the human sense for the dramatic. With us, in our culture, how can people satisfy it?” (PoN, KL 441-443).

He presented the weakness of the Socialist movement in the US as evidence of these basic needs. One of “the main reasons” for the movement’s defeat, he argued, was that

[i]t appealed only to economic interests and ignored the fact that the ideal interests of man, his need for a frame of reference, his need for an object of devotion, are as great or I think greater than his economic interests are. …But the Socialist movement failed to create a sense of a new human vision, and if you please, of a new religion (PoN, KL 1023-1028).

In effect, the movement “had to fail if it were not capable of providing such a vision” (PoN, KL 1028-1037).

In fact, he made a larger, bolder claim - that the widespread adherence to totalistic ideologies, all too prevalent in his era, was evidence of the power of this inherent longing:

The intensity of the need for a frame of orientation explains a fact that has puzzled many students of man, namely the ease with which people fall under the spell of irrational doctrines, either political or religious or of any other nature, when to the one who is not under their influence it seems obvious that they are worthless constructs. Part of the answer lies in the suggestive influence of leaders and in the suggestibility of man. But this does not seem to be the whole story. Man would probably not be so suggestive were it not that his need for a cohesive frame of orientation is so vital. The more an ideology pretends to give answers to all questions, the more attractive it is; here may lie the reason why irrational or even plainly insane thought systems can so easily attract the minds of men. (AoHD, 260)

His arguments weren’t as reductionistic as they might appear from this brief sketch. He wasn’t contending that the provision of rituals or a frame and object of orientation accounted for the rise of fascism or that the US socialist movement’s neglect of these existential, “nonmaterial” needs explained its relative lack of success. In various works he offers sophisticated accounts, consistent with this framework but not entirely reduced to it, of the rise of fascism as well as earlier religious movements.

The evidence Fromm presents for the existence of some hypothesized needs, and for their existential character, is substantially better than that which he presents for others. In some cases, moreover, he addresses alternative hypothesis in depth, while in others they’re left unexamined. So for example, his argument about the need for mental excitation and stimulation is quite involved, featuring evidence from research on animals and children and neurological studies. He also provides detailed criticisms of existing and potential counterarguments. In contrast, his evidence in support of the existence of an inherent need for a frame of orientation is fairly minimal. At one point, in fact, he concedes: “I don’t know whether I can prove it to anyone’s satisfaction. All I can say is that from observing myself, and that is where one should always start, from observing other people who seek psychiatric help, and from observing what goes on in the world, I have the impression that [people need a frame of orientation]” (PoN, KL 324-331). His evidence of a need for transcendence is pretty much nonexistent. (It seems the alleged needs that draw more from religion and the intellectual traditions that shaped his thought are less likely to be supported by strong evidence. But I’m getting ahead of myself...)

We live in a world of powerful social, political, and economic forces with an interest in shaping our understanding of our needs. Given the the unavoidable necessity of having a sense of human needs in order to work for better lives, it’s important – while respecting the perils of attempting to make universal claims about human beings and of the complexities of social research - to think seriously about the sorts of evidence for human needs that would be compelling.

This would have to come from many fields, as Fromm recognized. In fact, he worked optimistically toward the foundation of a social science institute whose goal would be “to pursue the scientific study of man in the spirit of humanism.” The project explicitly assumed “that in spite of all differences man is one species, not only biologically and physiologically but also mentally and psychologically” (PoN, KL 1454-1461). He made clear that this discussion had to be empirically grounded: “These general aims can be accomplished only if methods proper to the study of man are examined and developed. The problem is not that of choosing between a scientific and a non-scientific study of man, but of determining what constitutes the proper rational method for the understanding of man and what does not.” (PoN, KL 1461-1464; my emphasis).

In seeking to develop the scientific study of humans in the spirit of humanism, I’ll note in closing, Fromm rejected appeals to a detached, dispassionate, apolitical science:

It is often said by social scientists that one condition of scientific enquiry is the absence of any self-interested or preconceived aims. That this is a naive assumption is clearly shown by the development of the natural sciences: they are to a large extent furthered and not hindered by practical aims and necessities. It is the task of the scientist to keep the data objective, not to study without aims—which are what give meaning and impulse to his work. (PoN, KL 1466-1471; my emphasis)


1In pointing to the alienating aspects of the culture and system of the US in the 1950s and the ways in which it obstructed the fulfillment of certain needs, Fromm was surely tapping into something real, as the cultural movements of the next several decades attest.

2This can be seen in the popularity of many competition-based reality shows today, e.g., those about cooking or baking, fashion design, and so on. Fishing shows like Deadliest Catch or crime shows like CSI can be seen to combine skill (vicariously responding to our need for effectance) and immediate contact with life and death (vicariously responding to our need for relatedness and dramatic ritual).

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