_________________________________________________________ VOLUME 2, ISSUE 4 PSYCHNEWS INTERNATIONAL July-Sept 1997 _________________________________________________________ ========================================================== THE FIFTH COLUMN (1/2) ========================================================== Note: The Fifth Column is a regular, independent column written by Jeffrey A. Schaler, Ph.D. For this issue, Dr. Schaler has invited his colleague, Dr. Ron Leifer, to contribute to the PsychNews as a guest columnist. Opinions and comments are invited. Please send them to the PsychNews Int'l mailbox: firstname.lastname@example.org ---------------------------------------------------------- THE LEGACY OF ERNEST BECKER 1 Ron Leifer, M.D. Ernest Becker died on March 6, 1974 at the age of forty nine in Vancouver, British Columbia, an American intellectual in exile. He had been fired from three American universities and resigned in protest from one. Two months after he died, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for "The Denial of Death" (Becker, 1973). The reviewer for The New York Times, Robert J. Lifton, loved the book, but had never heard of Becker. He wondered who Becker was and where he had been hiding. Today, more than a decade later, Becker has become an enigmatic, shadowy cult figure, whose readers are stunned by his profound insights into the human experience (Editors note: See for example http://weber.u.washington.edu/~nelgee/index.html). I had the good fortune to know Ernest well, and I am happy to have this opportunity to share some memories of my beloved old friend. In these few pages, I would like to recall two features of Ernest's character which motivated his work and shaped his fate. They are rare qualities, but I believe they are essential for the survival of the human species. The first is that Ernest was driven by a passionate and sincere desire to understand himself and his world. The second is that he believed in the inseparability of knowledge and values and sought to embody his discovered truths in moral action. I first met Ernest in July of 1960. I was a third-year resident in psychiatry and he was a freshly ordained Ph.D. from Syracuse University joining the Department of Psychiatry as instructor in anthropology. We were drawn to each other by similar intellectual interests, shared sensuous enjoyments and a common ethnic heritage. We became the closest friends, comrades in arms who shared the excitement of intense effort in what we believed was a noble venture. When I finished my residency, I joined the faculty as instructor in psychiatry. For four years, Ernest and I had adjacent offices on the third floor of a creaky wood frame house in which the Department of Psychiatry was then quartered. Here we both worked on our own projects for long hours into the night, meeting periodically to pose questions, share thoughts and try out ideas on each other. We attended seminars together, ate together, visited each other at our homes, constantly talking, trying to decipher the enigmas of human nature and conduct. Becker was driven by a passionate and sincere search for truth. It was the guiding mission of his life, what he called his "oedipal project." He was the son of Eastern European Jews who emigrated to the United States at the turn of the century. In 1942, at the age of 18, he enlisted in the army and served in a second-line infantry battalion that liberated a Nazi concentration camp. After the war, he lived in Paris, working as an intelligence attache for the State Department but he became bored with the job. After a long period of reflection, he decided while walking in the Toulerise Gardens one day, that he wanted to devote his life to understanding himself, the human condition and the meaning of life. He decided to study anthropology--naively, he said, because the term literally means "the study of man" (Leifer, 1969). Ernest's passion for knowledge was his dominant quality. He referred to himself as "a man of knowledge," not immodestly implying that he had achieved a summit of wisdom, but programmatically, as his life's calling. He asked everyone whose intellect he respected for a list of the books which had most influenced their thinking. He was impatient for key ideas by which to understand not only the unhappy souls who became psychiatric patients, but also himself and the human condition. When he heard of an author he had not read, he headed immediately for the library, checked out a pile of books and retired to his office for a marathon of reading and note-taking which did not end until he had digested the ideas of the newly discovered author. In his years at Syracuse, the strongest intellectual influence for Becker was Dr. Thomas Szasz. Szasz is best known for his critique of psychiatry, (Szasz, 1961). Szasz came to Syracuse at the invitation of Marc Hollender who became chairman of psychiatry in 1956. Becker was introduced to Szasz by his teacher at Syracuse University, Douglas Haring, who was adjunct professor of anthropology at the Department of Psychiatry. One of the reasons Ernest came to the medical school was to study with Szasz. Ernest attended all of Szasz's lectures, seminars and clinics, and became part of a small circle of intellectuals who gathered around Szasz for fascinating discussion of psychoanalytic theory, the sociology of psychiatry and the history of ideas. This period at Syracuse was the Camelot of Ernest's life. Becker was influenced by Szasz in many important ways. Szasz created the opportunity for Becker to become a skilled psychiatric diagnostician and theoretician. Szasz published "The Myth of Mental Illness" in 1961 and it became the intense focus of critical discussion at Syracuse. In this classic work, Szasz developed a distinctive, non-medical approach to mental illness which he called "problems in living." Szasz encouraged Becker to see patients at the local state psychiatric hospital and develop his own ideas. Few social scientists in academic psychiatry have been blessed with such an authorized opportunity. There is an inner symmetry between Becker's "new science of man" and Szasz's concept of the myth of mental illness. Szasz's first book, "Pain and Pleasure" (1957), approached the problem of psychosomatic disease from the perspective of modern philosophy on the mind-body problem. Szasz's former teacher, Franz Alexander was, like Freud, a Cartesian dualist who believed mind and body are two different essences which can interact. Szasz was critical of this belief. Following Russell, Ryle and the analytic philosophers, Szasz argued that mind and matter are not two essences, but two categories of language and logic which are known through two different sets of methods and techniques. Matter, including the human body, is known by means of the mensurational methods of the physical sciences. Mind and conduct are known by means of language, communication, observation and interpretation. Szasz's argument that mental illness is a myth does not deny the existence of mental and emotional suffering and disability, as some of his more obtuse opponents believe. Rather, it asserts that mental illness belongs to a different logical category than physical illness, in the same way that mind, or meaning belong to a different logical category than material objects or bodies. A myth is a metaphor. For example, the term "fiery temperament" is a metaphor for the predisposition to anger. It does not mean that the person literally catches fire. In the metaphor, the qualities of fire are used analogically (without logic) to describe qualities of mind. Similarly, "mental illness" is a metaphor which employs qualities of the physical body to describe qualities of mind and conduct. Physical illness and mental illness are similar in that both are undesirable states which may lead to suffering, disability or death. The difference between them is that physical illness refers to undesirable states of the body and is studied and treated by the methods of the physical sciences. Mental illness refers to undesirable states of mind, mood and behavior and is studied and treated through language, communication, interpretation, evaluation, persuasion and social manipulation. The confusion of categories of language and logic results in false ideas, metaphors taken as facts--myths. Every society in history has believed as true, myths which other societies, of different places or time, regard as wishful beliefs, fairy tales, or superstitions. Primitive myths depict natural events as manifestations of supernatural spirits (mind). Modern myths depict mind as a manifestation of brain physiology. Primitive and modern myths are basically similar. They both confuse logical categories. The difference between them is just that they move in opposite directions. Logically, the belief that mental illness is fundamentally similar to physical illness is like believing that hurricanes are caused by angry gods, or that a person with a fiery temperament actually bursts into flame. Becker's early psychiatric education was based on Szasz's critical analysis of psychiatric thought and practice. Becker agreed with Szasz that the concept of mental illness is a modern myth which, like all social myths, functions as an ideology, in this case, to facilitate and justify an extra- legal system of social evaluation and control. But Becker was more interested in the clinical and theoretical implications of Szasz's concept of the linguistic and logical duality of body and mind. As Becker saw it, if mind and matter are different logical categories, then the experience of being human is contradictory at its core. This idea was not entirely new to Becker. He had studied Zen Buddhism in graduate school. His first book, "Zen: A Rational Critique" (Becker, 1961), was based on his doctoral dissertation which was entitled "Zen Buddhism, 'Thought Reform' (Brainwashing) and Various Psychotherapies" (1960). In the book, Becker criticizes the authoritarian structure of Buddhist master-disciple relationships from the combined points of view of the psychoanalytic concept of transference and the anti-authoritarian sentiments of the European Enlightenment. But he knew about the Buddhist diagnosis of human suffering as caused by samsaric ignorance--the illusion of the reality of the dual substances, mind and matter. Becker now looked at this problem freshly, through his new psycho-anthropological lenses. How does this contradiction become manifest in human thought, feelings and conduct, and how does the human individual attempt to resolve it? The "Birth and Death of Meaning" is Ernest's first attempt to reconcile this fundamental human contradiction between mind and body (Becker, 1962; see also Becker, 1964, 1969). (Compare the first and second (1971) editions of this book to see how he wove his mature concept of the denial of death into his earlier work.) This book is the product of Becker's lectures to psychiatric residents. It is a treatise on psychiatric anthropology, but it also has a spiritual dimension. It is Ernest's answer of that moment to his perennial question: "Who am I?" It describes the evolution of the primitive hominid into the human animal, a creature of meanings who, unlike any other natural creature, lives in two worlds: the natural and the supernatural, the world of matter and the world of meanings, suspended halfway between the animal and the divine. Becker believed that to understand oneself, one must accept the body, accept that humans are animals, embodied creatures of meaning, who are born and die in a dualistic world of physical objects and evaluated meanings, and who fear the death of meaning more than the death of the body itself. True self-knowledge, Ernest believed, required understanding of how self and society are woven out of the structures of meaning. Becker asked ultimate questions. To him, they were not abstract or theoretical, they were personal. Asking and answering these questions was at the heart of his "oedipal project" through which he created himself as a person. He believed that the most worthwhile intellectual questions are the fundamental questions of human nature, human destiny and the meaning of life. They are the identity questions of adolescents: "Who am I and what is my relation to the cosmos? What is the meaning and purpose of my life and how should I live it?" Ernest opposed the assumption fostered by Erik Erikson's school that the self-probing questions of adolescents are symptoms of identity anxiety. He rejected an ideal of human development which suggests that fundamental doubt and questions are symptoms of immaturity which should end by the beginning of adult life. He believed cosmic questions are the manifestations of a natural curiosity about the world. Society fears fundamental questioning and represses it. Every society programs its members with a ready-made set of ideologies and codes of conduct which serve the dominant social interests. Fundamental questioning is dangerous because it could spread a contagion of doubt that would undermine blind loyalty to social authority. Ernest did not want to be an ideologue for society. He encouraged free critical thinking in his students, and as a result, made many enemies among the faculty and administration. Ernest's passion for ultimate questions brought him into a deadly battle with the rising tide of empiricists who were taking over the social sciences and psychiatry. This battle reflects a broad historical trend in the sociology of knowledge and inquiry. The contemporary empiricists are the philosophical descendants of the logical positivists, the strict constructionists of science, who, in their historical mission to invalidate superstitions, false beliefs and authoritarian dogmas, accept only scientific facts as authentic knowledge. The empiricists believe that facts are pristine and supreme in the world of knowledge. They believe that values are separate from facts and can be neither logically nor empirically derived from them. Like other religious fanatics, the neo-positivists believe that they possess the only true path to knowledge of our world and ourselves, namely, experimentation and quantification. Ernest belonged to the classical school of anthropology and sociology, the "Verstehen" or "Understanding" school, which relies on language, communication and interpretation as methods of inquiry. Psychoanalysis belongs to this school. It is an ancient school of knowledge, derived from philosophical inquiry and speculation. Ernest championed a critical, ideal-typical social science where fact and value, knowledge and ethics are inseparable. In his battle with the empiricists, Becker stood firmly with the American pragmatists and the Frankfort School. During the period at Syracuse, when Ernest wrote and published voluminously, the three greatest influences on his thought were Sigmund Freud, John Dewey, and Karl Marx. The Verstehen school of social science has been on the wane for the past two decades, while the empiricists have been on the rise. Becker was one of the earliest casualties of this transfer of power. As he understood it, there were two reasons for this trend. First, social scientists imitate physical sciences because of the glorious success of the physical sciences in generating fantastic technologies that improve the quality and duration of life. Science has replaced religion as the path to truth and power. If animism was the religion of primitive peoples, then scientism is the religion of moderns, and social scientists and psychiatrists are its high priests (See Leifer, 1969). The second reason for the decline of the Verstehen school is that classical social science theory is rich with socially dangerous ideological possibilities, while empiricism is ideologically self-sterilized and thus, passively supports the political status quo. This is a significant fact, because Becker's struggle against narrow empiricism occurred during the revolutionary period of the sixties. His work was an intellectual manifestation of the historical moment, linked to the political movements and ideologies of the day. At Syracuse, Ernest participated in civil rights and anti-war demonstrations and was friendly with George Wiley, Rudy Lombard, Stanley Diamond and their circles.