Erich Seligman Fromm

A German-born American psychoanalyst, social philosopher, and scholar whose writings attracted the interest of a large general audience.

Erich Fromm was born March 23, 1900, in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. He was the only child of orthodox Jewish parents. Fromm was said to be a difficult and phobic child; however, his academic record was outstanding. He studied sociology and psychology at the universities of Frankfurt and Heidelberg, where he received his Ph.D. in 1922. Fromm was also trained in psychoanalysis at the University of Munich and at the Psychoanalytic Institute of Berlin.

In 1925, Fromm began his practice and was associated with the influential Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt. Although he began his professional career as a disciple of Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), he soon began to differ with the Freudian emphasis on unconscious drives and neglect of the effects of social and economic forces on personality. The theories he would develop integrate psychology with cultural analysis and Marxist historical materialism. Fromm argued that each socioeconomic class fosters a particular character, governed by ideas that justify and maintain that class and that the ultimate purpose of social character is to orient the individual toward those tasks that will assure the perpetuation of the socioeconomic system.

German-born psychoanalyst Erich Fromm.

German-born psychoanalyst Erich Fromm.
(© Hulton Archive/ Getty Images.)

In his work, Fromm consistently advocated the primacy of personal relationships and devotion to the common good over subservience to a mechanistic superstate. He believed that humans have a dual relationship with nature, which they belong to but also transcend. According to Fromm, the unique character of human existence gives rise to five basic needs. First, human beings, having lost their original oneness with nature, need relatedness in order to overcome their essential isolation. They also need to transcend their own nature and the passivity and randomness of existence, which can be accomplished either positively by loving and creating or negatively by hating and destroying. The individual requires a sense of rootedness, or belonging, in order to gain a feeling of security, and needs a sense of identity as well. The remaining need is for orientation, or a means of facing one's existential situation by finding meaning and value in existence. Orientation can be achieved either through assimilation (relating to things) or socialization (relating to people).

Fromm identified several character orientations found in Western society. The receptive character can only take and not give. The hoarding character, threatened by the outside world, cannot share. The exploitative character satisfies desires through force and deviousness, and the marketing character—created by the impersonal nature of modern society—sees itself as a cog in a machine or as a commodity to be bought or sold.

Contrasting with these negative orientations is the productive character, capable of loving and realizing its full potential, and devoted to the common good of humanity. Fromm later described two additional character types: the necrophilous character, attracted to death, and the biophilous character, drawn to life.

Among Fromm's other important books in the areas of psychology, ethics, religion, and history are Man for Himself (1947), Psychoanalysis and Religion (1950), The Forgotten Language (1951), The Sane Society (1955), The Art of Loving (1956), Beyond the Chains of Illusion (1962), The Heart of Man (1964), You Shall Be as Gods (1966), The Revolution of Hope (1968), Social Character in a Mexican Village (1970), The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973), and To Have or To Be (1976).

Fromm's work has had a profound influence on Western thought. One central thesis that appears in much of his writing is that alienation is the most serious and fundamental problem of Western civilization. In his view, Western culture must be transformed through the application of psychoanalytic principles. He hoped Western societies would come to recognize the primacy of human beings as responsible, sovereign individuals, capable of attaining individual freedom, which he saw as the ultimate goal of human existence.

Fromm was married three times. His first marriage to Frieda Reichmann ended in divorce in 1933. His second wife, Henni Gurland, died in 1952. One year later, he married Annis Freeman. Fromm died of a heart attack on March 18, 1980, in Switzerland where he had moved in 1974. Fromm was five days away from celebrating his eightieth birthday at the time of his death.

See also Freud, Sigmund.



Durkin, Kieran. The Radical Humanism of Erich Fromm. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Friedman, Lawrence Jacob. The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love's Prophet. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.

Fromm, Erich. The Pathology of Normalcy, edited by Rainer Funk. Riverdale, NY: American Mental Health Foundation Books, 2010.

WEBSITES “Erich Fromm.” (accessed July 24, 2015). “Erich Fromm: Freedom and Alienation, and Loving and Being in Education.” (accessed July 24, 2015).