Monday, December 15, 2014

Diagnosing what ails us

I suspect states of denial, wishful thinking, and self-deception are ubiquitous in our society; combine that with chronic cognitive myopia, an addiction to short-term hedonic gratification, and dispositional tendencies toward such cognitive distortions as the availability heuristic, bandwagon effect, confirmation bias, and a status quo bias, and we have at least a plausibly partial explanation for the widespread indulgence in bread and circuses and the sad reality diagnosed in Erich Fromm’s locution (the idea going back to ancient philosophies), the “pathology of normalcy.

Unfortunately, a symptomatic diagnosis is pretty straightforward (for some of us at any rate), it’s the etiological explanation of the precise social psychological mechanisms and consequent prescription or therapeutic regimen (one whose possible consequences or side-effects don’t outweigh its possible curative value) that present seemingly insurmountable difficulties for the would-be Marxist humanist or Gandhian-like revolutionary.

Speaking of Fromm, I should mention two works essential toward assessing what is living and dead in his corpus (no pun intended): Daniel Burston, The Legacy of Erich Fromm (Harvard University Press, 1991), and Lawrence J. Friedman (assisted by Anke M. Schreiber), The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet (Columbia University Press, 2013). Friedman’s book also recognizes Fromm’s roles as a prominent public intellectual and political activist on the Left. He remains my favorite member of the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research (his contributions to which were ‘substantial,’ in later years among its most productive scholars). In stark contrast to Horkheimer and most of his colleagues” who, upon settling in New York, ...continued to perceive themselves as European intellectuals, persisted in writing for a specialized scholarly audience, and preferred to communicate in German,” Fromm proceeded to master English, developing a capacity to write graceful prose...[while working to become] accessible to the general American reading public.”

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