Erich Fromm’s Biophilia

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This piece by Julia Ludewig is the seventh post in the Emotional Ecologies series edited by Sarah York-Bertram and Jessica DeWitt. In this series, contributors were asked to reflect on what role emotion plays in connecting humans to their environment and more-than-human beings.

Why is it that, despite better knowledge, we have not been able to make the behavioral and political changes needed to avoid the unfolding ecological disaster? What in our personal and collective psyches makes us unable or even unwilling to do so? How do emotions weave into these questions? Rainer Funk’s 1996 article, cited below, articulates these questions eloquently. German-American psychoanalyst and social theorist Erich Fromm (1900-1980) offers answers to these questions. This blogpost appreciates Fromm, who coined the term “biophilia” and devised a compelling theory about our psycho-emotional paradoxes long before “climate psychology” became a buzzword.

Sketch of Erich Fromm
Erich Fromm. Arturo Espinosa, 2013. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Fromm was not afraid to employ “love” as a central concept. While his book The Art of Loving (1956) remains among his best-known work, Fromm touched on what it means to love in many writings. Simply put, mature love is a non-possessive and non-symbiotic way of uniting with another human. This identity-preserving unity, Fromm argues, is the best way to overcome an existential calamity, namely “the sense of isolation and separateness” (1956, 42). “Love,” seen this way, is the caring interest in an Other, “the aim of which is the happiness, growth, and freedom of its object” (1941, 114).

Fromm’s thoughts revolved around human beings, their potentials and needs by asking what makes a human life fulfilling and what leads to pathologies. He had no trouble finding case studies of the latter. As a German Jew, Fromm experienced state-sanctioned persecution and immigrated to the US in 1934. Subjects such as narcissism, authoritarianism, and (the fear of) freedom constitute conceptual through lines in his more than twenty books. Importantly, Fromm dedicated himself to individual pathologies as much as collective ones. Among the latter were war as well as the psychological and ecological fallout of capitalism.

“The passionate love of life and of all that is alive; it is the wish to further growth, whether in a person, a plant, an idea, or a social group.”

Erich Fromm on “Biophilia”

Despite this focus on the human, Fromm included non-human animals and the natural environment in his thinking. His concept of “biophilia” exemplifies this inclusive sensitivity. Dovetailing with “care,” “growth,” and “unity,” Fromm defined “biophilia” as “the passionate love of life and of all that is alive; it is the wish to further growth, whether in a person, a plant, an idea, or a social group” (1973, 366). Fromm also understood both love drives to stem from a sense of separation (from other humans or nature, respectively) and both to seek transcendence by way of a non-egoistic interdependence. For Fromm, it did not matter where “life” sits and what specious form it takes—human, plant, animal—in order to love it. Loving to Fromm is a redemptive act, an art and a necessity for psychological flourishing.

“Growth” plays a particular part in Fromm’s theory of love, life, and the love of life. Conditioned to think of growth in terms of an economic “more,” we might find Fromm’s word choice counter-intuitive. However, it becomes clear that Fromm conceived of “growth” in a non-linear, non-economic, and most importantly qualitative way. “[L]iving-substance,” he claims, “has the tendency to integrate and to unite; it tends to fuse with different and opposite entities, and to grow in a structural way. Unification and integrated growth are characteristic of all life processes, not only as far as cells are concerned, but also with regard to feeling and thinking” (1964, 45-46). Growth, in this vein, is about increasing complexity and the integration of separate entities. In that sense, integration can happen on the level of a person’s feelings as much as in a human dyads, in a community of homo sapiens as much as across species.

Because he saw evidence of it everywhere, Fromm defined the opposite of biophilia as “necrophilia.” He conceived this as a “love for death” not just as being drawn to the destruction of beings who are physically alive, but also as a hatred of life (growth, integration, flourishing). Necrophilia, Fromm explains, is the “passionate attraction to all that is dead, decayed, putrid, sickly; it is the passion to transform that which is alive into something unalive; to destroy for the sake of destruction; the exclusive interest in all that is purely mechanical” (1973, 332; emphasis added). Fromm’s emphasis on the mechanical is noteworthy: on the one hand, it stands in contrast with “organic, biological” and on the other hand with “unpredictable, spontaneous.” Both connect to Fromm’s critique of capitalist ways of living in which a marketing-driven economy fuels a predictable desire for goods, which in turn detracts from human growth and destroys life-giving ecological resources. Despite his damning diagnosis of industrialized Western societies, Fromm also believed that a necrophilic way-of-life is not automatic. It develops only if humans’ primary potential for biophilia is blocked. Put bluntly: we can suppress the inborn love for life by growing up in a society that makes necrophilic feeling and acting the default.

Fromm diagnoses industrialized societies as systemically necrophilic, meaning that our way of living, producing, and consuming predisposes us to see natural (and human) resources as something to be used and used up.

Following this reasoning, the overlap between the individual and the collective comes into view. As a psychoanalyst trained in sociological analysis, Fromm was interested in the mutually constitutive relation between person and society, and by extension, between personal and collective pathologies (i.e., necrophilia). What a person feels and does, he reasoned, develops within larger contexts, and the values ingrained since childhood. This socio-psychological understanding echoes the Marxist idea that economic structures influence societal ideologies and vice versa. Ryan Gunderson (2014) details Fromm’s sociological potential in an appraisal well worth reading. Based on this characterological model, Fromm diagnoses industrialized societies as systemically necrophilic, meaning that our way of living, producing, and consuming predisposes us to see natural (and human) resources as something to be used and used up (cf. Funk 1996 for an excellent discussion).

The vehicle that mediates between personal and collective disposition is what Fromm called “social character.” “It is the function of the social character,” he claims, “to shape the energies of the members of society in such a way that their behavior is not left to conscious decisions whether or not to follow the social pattern but that people want to act as they have to act and at the same time find gratification in acting according to the requirements of the culture” (1949, 5; bold print added). Both a tool of efficiency and unconscious conditioning, social character has everything to do with emotions. This is similarly evident in the following quote, written just a few years earlier: “Changing social conditions result in changes of the social character, that is, in new needs and anxieties” (1941, 298; bold print added).

Erich Fromm’s writings warrant rereading because they develop a model of how individual thinking and feeling interacts with socioeconomic contexts.

Gratification, wants, needs, anxieties, passion, love—it is striking how large emotions loom in Fromm’s theory of human relations to each other and to nature. His writings warrant rereading because they develop a model of how individual thinking and feeling interacts with socioeconomic contexts. This intellectual offers us a theory of how emotions mediate the micro and the macro of our modern life, as well as what role they play in understanding our stance toward the natural world. Powerfully and almost in passing, Fromm invites us to understand love as a human capacity we need direct to humans as much as non-humans. Only then will we fulfil our promise as humans and stand a chance at surviving our ecological—and psychological—emergencies.

Feature Image: “Erich Fromm III” by Björn Groß is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.


Fromm, Erich. 1941. Escape from Freedom. New York: Farrar, Rinehart and Winston.

Fromm, Erich. 1949. “Psychoanalytic Characterology and Its Application to the Understanding of Culture.” In: Culture and Personality, edited by S. Stansfeld Sargent and Marian Smith, 1-12. New York: Viking Fund Press.

Fromm, Erich. 1956. The Art of Loving. New York: Harper & Row.

Fromm, Erich. 1964. The Heart of Man. Its Genius for Good and Evil. New York: Harper & Row.

Fromm, Erich. 1973. The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Funk, Rainer. 1996. “Das Biophilie-Konzept Erich Fromms und seine Bedeutung für umweltgerechtes Handeln.” In: Proceedings of the International Erich Fromm Society, edited by Manfred Zimmer,155-178. Osnabrück: International Erich Fromm Society.

Gunderson, Ryan. 2014. “Erich Fromm’s Ecological Messianism: The First Biophilia Hypothesis as Humanistic Social Theory.” Humanity & Society 38(2): 182-204.

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Julia Ludewig

Julia Ludewig is Associate Professor of German at the World Languages and Cultures Department at Allegheny College where she teaches all levels of language, literature, and culture classes. Her research focuses on comics and graphic novels, language pedagogy, and the environmental humanities. She is integrating the more-than-human world in her teaching and research. She has taught several community engaged writing classes on plants and co-led an experiential learning seminar to Germany on the theme of sustainability. A graphic essay on the intersection between comics and climate psychology will appear in "Sequentials." She also advocates for climate action in her professional organizations and her small northwestern Pennsylvania hometown.

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