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Wednesday, October 20, 2021


Michael talked a bit about Eric Erikson and concluded his comment with some very kind words about me so I thought I would take the occasion to tell you all the little bit I can about my experience with Erikson. The year that I started my instructorship at Harvard, 1958, was the year that David Reisman was appointed to a university professorship there. Reisman’s office was on the third floor of Emerson Hall where the Social Relations Department had its home.  He had the habit of gathering around him a group of young untenured faculty and when I published a letter in the New York Times which caught his eye, he dropped me a note and suggested that I come by. I found my way to his office and in the deferential way in which junior faculty then spoke to senior faculty I said that I hoped I was not disturbing him. He welcomed me into his office and complained that although he was just down the hall from Mr. Sociology (by whom he meant Talcott Parsons), he never talked to the great man and nobody ever came to see him. I became part of a group of antiwar pro-nuclear disarmament folks around Reisman who called themselves The Committee of Correspondence, taking their title from a group during the American Revolution. We published a newsletter (in which my student and later friend and co-teacher Todd Gitlin regularly published) and met from time to time. When Erikson joined the faculty, I think in 1960, he became part of the group and that was when I met him.


Erikson was an odd duck. At the age of 58 he was roughly 10 years older than Reisman and since I was then 26, they both seemed ancient to me. Erikson had a shock of white hair and as I recall sparkling blue eyes and he made quite an impression on me. I found him very distant and have no recollection of having an actual one-on-one conversation with him in the time I knew him, but the graduate students and young instructors who served as his assistants in the course he taught loved him and idolized him. It is my impression, rather than my genuine recollection, that some young folks who later became quite distinguished served as his assistants in those days. Reisman, by the way, had the quite extraordinary habit of reading and writing extended comments on each of the essays submitted by the hundreds of students who took his large lecture courses, even though it took him well into the next semester to complete the task.


Erikson had published Childhood and Society in 1950 and I read it, I believe, sometime during my years at Harvard. It had a very great effect on me and I have quoted from it often in all the years since. The centerpiece of the book, of course, is Erikson’s expansion of Freud’s three stages of psychosexual development in the young child – the anal, the oral, and the genital – to a total of eight stages stretching throughout life. He is one of the great theorists of what came to be called Ego Psychology. One of the things in the book that I found particularly impressive was Erikson’s report of fieldwork he had done among Native Americans in the northwestern United States which enabled him to draw contrasts and comparisons between their stages of psychosexual development and those of Europeans and Americans of European descent.


When I came to write my long 800 page autobiography on this blog, I chose a passage from Childhood and Society as the epigraph for it.


Michael said...

I'm not quite sure I managed to find the epigraph. (I searched through some older posts on the blog; and I also tried looking at your autobiography on your Sharepoint, but didn't see an epigraph at the beginning of vol. 1, ch. 1.)

Is this it, by chance? - An individual life is the accidental coincidence of but one life cycle with but one segment of history.

By the way, here's the full paragraph from Erikson in which this appears (C&S ch. 7 sec. 8):

"Only in him who in some way has taken care of things and people and has adapted himself to the triumphs and disappointments adherent to being, the originator of others or the generator of products and ideas - only in him may gradually ripen the fruit of these seven stages. I know no better word for it than ego integrity. Lacking a clear definition, I shall point to a few constituents of this state of mind. It is the ego's accrued assurance of its proclivity for order and meaning. It is a post-narcissistic love of the human ego - not of the self - as an experience which conveys some world order and spiritual sense, no matter how dearly paid for. It is the acceptance of one's one and only life cycle as something that had to be and that, by necessity, permitted of no substitutions[*]: it thus means a new, a different love of one's parents. It is a comradeship with the ordering ways of distant times and different pursuits, as expressed in the simple products and sayings of such times and pursuits. Although aware of the relativity of all the various life styles which have given meaning to human striving, the possessor of integrity is ready to defend the dignity of his own life style against all physical and economic threats. For he knows that an individual life is the accidental coincidence of but one life cycle with but one segment of history; and that for him all human integrity stands or falls with the one style of integrity of which he partakes. The style of integrity developed by his culture or civilization thus becomes the 'patrimony of his soul,' the seal of his moral paternity of himself ('...pero el honor/Es patrimonio del alma': Calderón). In such final consolation, death loses its sting."

[*] I can't resist making a reference here to Nietzsche's amor fati. (See here:

Michael said...

Correction: "consolidation," not "consolation"

Achim Kriechel (A.K.) said...

It's strange, a few days ago I was briefly tempted to post this poem by Dylan Thomas here.

"Do not go gentle into that good night..."

Perhaps Erik Erikson's 'Phase 1, Primal Trust vs. Primal Distrust' must never be completed if one is to understand this first sentence by Dylan Thomas.

I remember a radio discussion between Ernst Bloch and Theodor W. Adorno, (around the early 60's, I heard it much later). The topic was: 'Possibilities of Utopia Today'. At one point, relatively early in the discussion, the question of the ultimate utopia par excellence comes up and both philosophers quickly agree that it is the quest to overcome death that basically provides the raw material and fundamental motive for all forms of utopia.

John Rapko said...

It's easy to miss the Bloch/Adorno discussion in English; it's in the Bloch volume entitled The Utopian Function of Art and Literature. First Bloch unequivocally agrees with the moderator's suggestion that "it is actually people's fear of death, a fear that they must die, that is the most profound and also the legitimate root of utopian thinking, and then asserts "death depicts the hardest counter-utopia." After some elaboration by Bloch, Adorno agrees and says "There is something profoundly contradictory in every utopia, namely, that it cannot be conceived at all without the elimination of death; this is inherent in the very thought. What I mean is the heaviness of death and everything that is connected with it."

LFC said...

Utopias have usually been primarily blueprints for collectives (typically a single society, but sometimes the whole world), and as such don't depend at all on the notion that death has to be eliminated. The assumption typically is that some ideal social arrangement will permit the maximum in the way of individual human flourishing, but that assumption does not entail the further thought that such individual flourishing must be endless or must take place in a context in which the life cycle, with its attendant trials and tribulations, has been abolished. Indeed utopias would probably be impossible if humans lived forever, because that would rapidly, assuming one finite planet, lead to massive overpopulation and ecological catastrophe, hence a dystopia.

I don't know exactly what notion of "utopia" Bloch and Adorno are presupposing, but it does not seem to be one that is characteristic of most utopian thinking in the Western tradition, at any rate. A good starting place on all this, albeit probably too long for straight-through reading, might be Frank Manuel and Fritzie Manuel, Utopian Thought in the Western World (1979).

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Michael, that is exactly correct. It is a statement with extraordinary resonance. My father's father was born in 1879 and died in 1944, thus not living long enough to see the end of World War II. I was born in 1933 and for me the defining political struggle as a young man was the campaign for nuclear disarmament. Imagine what it would have been like to live during the plague years when perhaps 1/3 of the population of Europe died. And yet each of us lives through some version of the same lifecycle intersecting with whatever moment in history is granted us by fate.

Eric said...

It is the acceptance of one's one and only life cycle as something that had to be and that, by necessity, permitted of no substitutions
Which brings us back to the discussion on free will.
The perspective Erikson speaks of in this passage is entirely consistent with Robert Sapolsky's decidedly materialist and determinist rejection of the notion of human free will.

it thus means a new, a different love of one's parents
I think love is the wrong word here. "Understanding of", or even "acceptance of," would be more fitting. Some parents are just awful as parents. To love a parent like that would not be healthy.

Achim Kriechel (A.K.) said...

to LFC

One of Ernst Bloch's early major works is entitled "The Spirit of Utopia" and he probably spent his long philosophical work primarily tracing this spirit in all its corners. That is why there is a whole phenomenology about utopia in his work. Social, economic and religious utopias, technical utopias and artistic utopias.

One of the most powerful utopias in history, namely that of early Christianity, initially makes precisely this individual overcoming of death the core of its "good news", without the collective, the social or a society playing a major role.

Sometimes I have the impression that some "AI people" do not live very far away from the eschatological utopias that were written in the deserts between Sinai and the Levant about 2700 years ago.

But of course, the most famous since Thomas More, future model worlds with everything you need.

LFC said...

I take your point re (early) Christianity. Unfortunately I don't have time to comment further right now.

Michael said...


Interesting juxtaposition of comments on Erikson! I agree that "love" is an odd term to use there. However - and it's interesting that you'd mention determinism here - it might be defensible if Spinoza's usage of "love" is defensible. (I'm not really sure that it is, but it's interesting to think about.)

Spinoza is an uncompromising determinist, who equates Nature and God, while also being famously "God-intoxicated" or (in his phrasing) professing an "intellectual love" of God. In short, to be philosophically consistent, his attitude toward the authorities who banished him from his community (not to mention the man who attempted to murder him!) would have to be fundamentally similar to, say, his attitude toward his own lung disease; and his attitude toward a beautiful work of art, or a letter from a close companion, would have to be his attitude toward a beautiful scene of nature. So it seems to me.

I don't mean this as a criticism of Spinoza. He did explicitly realize that his philosophy was at odds with some very common emotional attitudes, like shame and regret. I'm just not sure that even Spinoza could fully come to grips with the jarring implications of determinism for our emotional lives, though certainly he made an extraordinary effort. ("I have labored carefully not to mock, lament, execrate...but to understand.")

Basically, if it's appropriate (and not just a sort of rhetorical extravagance) to speak of Spinoza as loving his universe, then maybe it's also appropriate to echo Erikson on loving one's parents, as well as anything else that might've been a toxic, though essential and formative, influence. Sounds a tad bizarre, maybe, but some of the most fascinating philosophy does.

s. wallerstein said...

Loving one's parents.

When psychologists talk about learning to love one's parents, even if they were bad parents, they're not talking about gathering flowers constantly and spending every weekend with them, but about a process whereby you come to love yourself partially through learning to love your parents.

We're all much like our parents, like it or not. Not only do we inherit many psychological and character traits from them, but also they're our first role models in the most impressionable stage of our lives if we live with them, which is not always the case.

So since we are to a large extent reproductions of our parents in order to love ourselves (in the positive, not the narcissistic sense), we need to learn to love them. When we have learned to love them, sometimes we even come around to liking them at bit, but not always.

LFC said...

I haven't read every single word of the thread.

However, re parents. If parents are not abusive and discharge the minimal parental responsibilities and also show some modicum of affection for their offspring (which we can assume most do), then children arguably don't have to learn to love their parents, they just will come to do so in the course of things. That's not always how it works, to be sure, but as a working assumption it's probably accurate enough.

With adulthood or in some cases, perhaps, adolescence, there may come a reassessment of one's parents, but that, again in many cases I wd suggest (not all), does not affect the nature of the basic bonds.

Btw, I usually don't get too personal on this blog (certainly not as personal as s. wallerstein does -- everyone has his or her or their own comfort level in that respect) -- but since the subject of parents has arisen, I might mention that I'm thinking a little bit about that today, since it happens to be exactly 50 years since my father died (when I was a teenager, barely into my teens actually). I'm not going to say anything else about that right now in this space (or perhaps ever).

P.s. I am somewhat underwhelmed by ego psychology per Erickson. No doubt there is good stuff in C&S, though I remember almost nothing of the book (I am reasonably sure I read it at some pt, though even that is a bit hazy). But the good stuff is prob largely in the comparative studies RPW alludes to, not the generalizations about the life cycle, some of which seem to be v. obvious. Of course an individual life = one life cycle intersecting w one slice of history. Couldn't be otherwise. The sentence is well turned, but, as I say, pretty obvious. I think Mills makes some vaguely similar statement in The Sociological Imagination. Not that there's anything wrong w stating the obvious, everyone does it from time to time, it's just that it prob shdn't be confused w deep insight. This is not a criticism of Erikson mainly, bc I haven't read most of his work, and what I have read I don't remember that well.

s. wallerstein said...


Couldn't it just be that what Erikson says is pretty obvious, because as a result of his work, we've all assimilated certain concepts of his? Was it all so obvious previous to the publication of Erikson's work?

Eric said...

To me this sentence
It is the acceptance of one's one and only life cycle as something that had to be and that, by necessity, permitted of no substitutions
seems to be talking about coming to terms with the course of one's life as it has been, without any doubts or second-guessing over decisions one might otherwise have made. "Permitted of no substitutions" means that the life you have lived is the only life you could possibly have lived, given the time and circumstances of your existence. That perspective is completely at odds with spiritual ideologies based on judging how well a life was lived at the time of death.

Michael said...

Re. Erikson as underwhelming: I guess one person's philosophy is another person's "competent list of platitudes,", haha.*

I think a big part of what turned me on to Erikson was the idea of a gradual (and patterned, predictable) shift in a person's most basic, animating concerns. The idea of natural, ongoing personal development sometimes gives me a sense of hope, interest, even eager anticipation (a privilege less available as one ages?), that life will take on a different tone for me and for my loved ones as time goes on.

Not that my life is bad; right now it's pretty nice in a few ways, but of course there are aspects of it, and of myself, that I haven't made peace with. I take it that a large part of a person's earliest difficulties truly are formative, and never quite go away - but right now I find it pleasant to think that there are other parts of the personality, or of the emotional coloring of one's daily experience, that do undergo change, probably imperceptible while it's happening, but striking in retrospect.

*An expression I picked up from a memorable post on Prof. Leiter's blog:

LFC said...

s.w. -- maybe.

I don't read the sentence that way. Your reading might be correct, but as I see it he's saying a life cycle permits of no substitutions -- that means to me the broad outlines of a life, not every detail. That's quite different from saying one's every decision, or even every major decision, permits of no second-guessing b.c it had to be made that way. Skinner might say something like that, perhaps even Freud might, but an ego psychologist like Erikson I think wd want to preserve more possible freedom of action in his outlook. But this is not my field (to use a well-worn excuse).

Fair enough.
Personally I have been going through some trying times recently, but in keeping w my disinclination to get too personal, that's all I'm going to say about that. Except to say that I don't really find the whole idea of a life cycle, psychologized (not a word, sorry) and somewhat idealized, to be all that comforting rt now. But much may depend, as you suggest, on one's age and particular circumstances.

Eric said...

I see your point.

LFC said...


Achim Kriechel (A.K.) said...

"It is really my feeling that I live to create and spread a new mindset as far as death is concerned. I probably won't succeed, but that is another question. I would want all people to be aware that death is a danger that they let seep into their ethical principles, into their moral behavior. I would want death to really be completely removed from what is accepted - as it actually has been. Because what is often overlooked when talking about death and life is that death has by no means always been something natural. It has become natural in the few thousand years of our history, but we know that in prehistory, among all those peoples we spoke of earlier, death was by no means considered something natural. It was considered so unnatural that any death was considered murder. There was no natural death. Only a murder by someone - be it from a distance by magic or something else - could cause a death. So death was simply not accepted as a natural fact." (Elias Canetti)

Canetti, therefore, did not go "gentle into that good night" and did not conclude, either in writing and thinking or in theoretical considerations, "In such final consolation, death loses its sting."

If you think about it, this opposition to the tendency to rationalize death or to integrate it in any form as a factum brutum of life is a frontal attack on the so-called methaphysics of the Occident since Socrates explained the immortality of the soul to his students in the Phaidon.

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