a PRÉCIS summary

Anil Mitra PhD, 1986, Revised February 2013,
January 2015

Home   |   Contact




Introduction to the Summary

Preface and Objective

Chapter One         The Man Apes: A Lesson for Thomas Hobbes

Chapter Two         The Origins Of Mind: The Mechanics of The Miraculous

Chapter Three       The Distinctively Human: Ego, Language and Self

Chapter Four        The Inner World: Introduction to the Birth of Tragedy

Chapter Five         Socialization: The creation of the Inner World

Chapter Six           The New Meaning of the Oedipus Complex: The Dispossession of the Inner World

Chapter Seven      Self Esteem: The Dominant Motive of Man

Chapter Eight       Culture and Personality: The Standardization of Self-Esteem

Chapter Nine        Social Encounters: The Staging of the Self-Esteem

Chapter Ten          Culture: The Relativity of Hero-Systems

Document Status




Introduction to the Summary

The Birth and Death of Meaning is a synthesis - from psychology, anthropology, sociology and psychiatry - on the “problem of man…” on existential problems, meaning, freedom…

I wrote this summary to learn – and I learned much from Becker’s work

However, this is not an endorsement of Becker’s work and I note, especially, Becker’s unbalanced emphasis on negative factors in human motivation


Preface and Objective


To explain what makes people act the way they do [-results from-] Learning from the disciplines of psychology, anthropology, sociology and psychiatry … exciting, personally and politically liberating discoveries: “We are today in possession of an excellent general theory of human nature.”


Knowledge of the positive and the dark side of his nature will give man a better chance to achieve something vital


Start with what is vital in Freud: “The universality of the human slavery and blindness that we call neurosis”, “The universal mechanism of development [implantation] of guilt [conscience]”, “Humanization is itself the neurosis”, “The price of freedom from anxiety … is the limiting of experience and action”, “The mechanisms of this ‘freedom’ are the defenses … denial, projection, repression” … “are the techniques of self deception” [pp. 54-57]

Develop Freudian psychology into an organic part of the general movement of ideas, tying it into the work of William James, Mark Baldwin, John Dewey … This got the human organism back into the working of mind Þ unifying early functional psychology and psychoanalytic and existential psychology into a whole. [The major names in this development are Erich Fromm who is “central” to Becker’s ideas and development, and Otto Rank who is “brilliant”. Others are: Alfred Adler, Wilhelm Reich, Kurt Goldstein, Harry Sullivan, Karen Horney, Ludwig Binswanger, Medard Boss, F. Buytendijk, Viktor Frankl, Ronald Laing, and Frederick Perls. To these Becker acknowledges a debt.]

What emerges [from Freud, Fromm, Rank]: A rounded picture, the potentially good largely shaped by society - good / bad, actually / potentially; but there is, potentially, a dark side having origins in animal fears, deep anxieties about death and impotence, about being overwhelmed by and absorbed into the world [-leads to-] a drivenness and desperation and obsession with meaning and significance of life and self … This is not to negate Rousseau [noble savage: man is essentially good but corrupted by society], and the Enlightenment hopes [unbounded reason, order, recapturing primitive innocence], but to show that that program is much more difficult than Rousseau dreamed. Hence, the mission is to achieve knowledge of the dark and the light sides of human nature

Chapter One. The Man Apes: A Lesson for Thomas Hobbes

Theme: co-development of brain / mind, interpersonal sensitivity, society and tradition, artifact, symbolism and cognition in response to the “needs” of survival and superiority of the hunters

The basic idea is that there is no single thing that is uniquely human. The factors above all developed and stand together as interdependencies. These developed in response to opportunities [and hence “need”] for appetite, survival and freer adaptation. The thesis of modern anthropology is that this occurs, at least originally, in the hunt and then in the opportunities provided by emerging social and ecological organization

Outline: Australopithecines, the transitional man-apes, appeared first a million years ago in the grasslands of Southern and Eastern Africa. They were roamers with upright posture, free hands for rudimentary weapons and food. Groups hunted and enjoyed animal flesh. Anatomically, they were like Homo s, but their brain was one-half the size of ours. Insights into our evolution - the “distinctively human” - are based on a taste for meat. We became men by fashioning and hunting in groups. To develop as efficient hunters, new forms of social organization were needed. The large brain is a late development in a picture of progressive development in a cycle of adaptation: efficient hunting [-results from-] new forms of social organization [time for hunt] [-results from-] intersensitivty [-results from-] preparation and planning; forms of social organization and value: sex codes, self-esteem in providing for the group; intersensitivty: emotional-cognitive; preparation and planning: cognitive-symbolic. Food sharing and group problem-solving [the other primates do not do this] = society = provision of sustenance and coming of age of members [-results from-] shrewdness and complexity of planning and development [-results from-] stimulus of the social conventions themselves to further development [-results from-] self-restraint and patience and planning, [-results from-] richer symbolisms, [-results from-] independence [-results from-] celebration of self and society [-results from-] reinforcement of success

Hunter [-leads to-] agrarian [-leads to-] towns [centralization, trade] [-leads to-] modern

Origin of Sexual Codes

Becker asks: “How did the sexual organization come about?” and gives us the views of Otto Rank and Norman O. Brown. According to them, highly sensitive early men made themselves conform to degrees of regulation because of their myriad fears of an overwhelming world of spirits and strange powers; that is, there were “spiritual motives”. Certainly, it is my view, that such fears maintain present social structure at least to some degree, and fear in general is a significant factor. Becker emphasizes the fact that in the “theory”, self-regulation was not “imposed” because of survival needs … However, this does not rule out the rule of survival - there is a sort of social evolution going on, with spirituality [and other factors] being the source of change [mutation] and the interactive and external environment the selective force

Chapter Two. The Origins Of Mind: The Mechanics of The Miraculous

Common themes to chapters two and three: Origins of interpersonal sensitivity, symbolic language, ego, self. Intimations of tragedy in the dualism-split of self and body

Theme to chapter two: growth of mind and symbol as a response to interpersonal sensitivity

1. The precise origin of symbolic language is a mystery. Some of the groundwork for the birth of symbol in man occurred at much earlier levels of evolution. Charles Sherrington: Amoeba exhibit stimulus --- response deriving reactive meaning. [Is this concept validly used?] This is the:

Simplest level: direct reflex

Next level: condition reflex; direct reflex and learning. The conditioning becomes a stimulus or sign for something else, a liberation from the environment and an enrichment of the world to include signs

Third level: relation between objects in a visual perceptual field and decision to act on them. Unusual autonomy: chimpanzee

Highest level [of reactivity meaning [valid concept here?]]: symbolic behavior - coin a designation and react to that designation. Becker reports these designations as arbitrary. A synthesis of lower levels and more

The development of mind is a progressive freedom from reactivity [delay and processing of information] [-leads to-] arriving at freedom from intrinsic properties of things. “Mind culminates in the organism’s ability to choose what it will react to.”

2. Vertebrate backgrounds to the growth of mind. The young of mammals are born in an immature state … with far-reaching consequences. The close dependence meant the young had a model for learning some of their behavior - for which they had a wider repertory and choice. Evolution ceased putting a premium on instinct. This needed the young to have a heightened sensitivity to individuals of their own species. … The more complex the animal, the longer the period of dependence of the young; monkeys have seventy-percent brain size at birth - infant humans achieve this at three months. Inside the head of a human infant a brain is being “incubated”; ape and human infants are remarkably like in form, but the adults are different - humans retain a true primate appearance … The great surge of human evolution was made possible by the social inventions of australopithecines [“man-ape”] who in turn owed their complexity to their mammalian heritage, to their long dependence, to their sensitivities to one another … The basis for this sensitivity / alertness is probably laid down in the dominance-subordination hierarchies of vertebrate society, of fish, reptiles, wolves, baboons. The sensitivity allows each animal to be cognizant in some way of the part he is to play in the life of the group. So man’s acute sensitivity to his fellows was foreshadowed in the earliest development of vertebrate stimulation … and with primates there is a new development. The primates are in sexual heat all the time instead of the usual diphasic division into reproductive and nonreproductive phases of lower vertebrates

The picture that emerges is unique in the animal kingdom: a great variety of animals in various stages of development - with keen sensitivity to the aggressive and erotic barometers of one another - are to gather in one group. The result is an extremely complex jumble of status to which they must adjust - This, again, puts a premium on plasticity and against instinctual rigidity, since nothing is as unpredictable as other living organisms. This continuing need for adjustment provides part of the stimulus for emergence of a larger-brained animal … Primate living laid the basis for the nervous complexity of man

3. On the humanoid level the problem of adjustment to the organismic environment is crucial. A way was necessary to give an ordered simplification to the interindividual environment. Among the lower primates the answer is strength and energy differences; for man, a schematization that is symbolic and psychological - by means of status and role … role, correctly. This is why status and role are central in sociology: they describe part of the essence of human behavior and emotion in subhuman primates to permit in turn a new ordering by the man-apes

Chapter Three. The Distinctively Human: Ego, Language and Self

Theme: nature and origin of ego and self as based in language

4. The distinctively human. Western culture has for the most part set a great distance between itself and nature; language helps in this … Speculations on the origin of language include: [Charles Hockett] the hunt; [Weston La Barre] infant-mother sensitivity. There is no agreement on the origins, but there is on the role of language in making man human … It has to do with the ego and its linguistic basis

Nature and Origin of Ego

Man’s large cerebral cortex seems to aid man feed consciousness from within and serve as a control for reaction to the environment. The “brain” is an internal gyroscope that keeps the organism in hand and the environment at a distance and well sorted out. The ego is the unique process of identity and central control in a large-brained animal. In normal function it keeps the organism independent of immediate environmental stimuli: to wait and delay response, to hold in awareness several conceptual processes and stimuli at one and the same time, imagine outcomes without immediate action; it makes a reasoned choice possible [decision making] [ego = design and problem solving - individual level]; it allows the organism a freedom unknown in nature … The study of the development of the ego is one of the great and lasting contributions of psychoanalysis

Freud’s Discovery of the Ego came partly from focus on the id, “it” = the unconscious instinctive functioning without conscious control and mastery, from which ground the perceptive “I”, “ego” springs and grows … The id is a world of pictures, emotions, sensory meanings in confusion, timeless. The lower animals are almost entirely id—bodies bound by instantaneous reactivity to a world of sensation, incapable of holding reactions and urges in abeyance - beds of sensation without delaying, central control. The id is reactive life, the ego, the human “organ” develops in controlling the reactivity; ego creates time by binding and organizing images in memory, allows man to live in a symbolic world of his own creation. When the cerebral cortex became a central exchange for the regulation and delay of behavior, the stage for consciousness of self and of precise time was set and a controlled-time stream could come into being … Lower animals live in a continuous “now” troubled, perhaps, by sensory [as against symbolic?] memories over which they have little or no control. The uncontrolled picture thinking that probably occurs in the prehuman primates is an intrinsic symbolization in which the individual cannot assign himself a very definite place … In sleep the “I” gives up its differentiated alertness and control of anxiety and defense mechanisms [Preface and Chapter 6], and sinks to bed in the id. [Freud’s theory of dreams is based on this idea that ego gives up direction of the individual’s perceptions and everything that the ego has chosen not to be aware of, in order to continue its mastery over sensation, may surface - things the ego cannot or will not admit.]

Ego and Anxiety Control. For delay of sensation, control of function, ego must be an alert sentinel - to control anxiety. Freud discovered this as one of the ego’s main functions. [Comment: As the individual learns to resolve the stimuli causing anxiety, by controlling the anxiety while cognitively resolving it, he becomes less responsive to the stimulus. An aspect of neurosis may be the denial of essential anxiety. However, the original basis of the anxiety remains.] “The ego handles anxiety by saying: this is not me, my conduct, etc.” But of course, first a differentiated concept of “me” is essential. Freud thought that the “nots”, the alien things, were in the id in the form of guilt and threatening desires, but most modern psychologists no longer hold this view as the source of anxiety

Anxiety Control and Origin of Thinking. Main ego function [-leads to-] delay [-leads to-] scan memory Ö thought for alternate approaches and choose; therefore, anxiety control central to time-binding, action delaying, and cerebral functions of humans

Intrinsic Symbolic Processes. Rudimentary ego and intrinsic symbolic processes seem to exist on a subhuman level = existence of consciousness. But this is not enough for full development of ego and symbolic communication

For true ego need, a symbolic rallying point, a personal and social symbol “I”; the ego builds up in a world in which it can act with equanimity largely by naming names. Objects are designated good, bad, and indifferent. [A lack of such an ego explains why an “ape’s emotional motor is always idling” - an apt way to describe an animal whose brain is large enough to provide anxiety-provoking sensory memories and whose environment is complex and threatening, yet an animal who does not have controlled symbols to distance himself from his immediate internal and external environment

Speech is essentially human. Every language has, effectively, “I”, “you”, and “me” without which there can be no ego. The “I” is the rallying point for the already existing rudimentary ego of the subhuman primates. Further, “The ‘I” is not airy. It is bolstered by a name”. “A whole marvelous organic existence can be predicated on a mere sound, as in ‘Nobody can do that to Fred C. Dobbs’.”

6. Self and Self Objectification. The price of control given by the “I” is that it does so initially by taking away control: the human animal is an organic instinctive center and in learning the social “I”, it partly loses its instinctive center within itself and becomes split against itself … We first understand me, then I. This means that the child begins to identify himself as an object of others [me] before he becomes an executive subject [I]. This is self objectivity: “I can think of me”. … “Man may be the only object in the universe that sees himself as an object - with experiences and fate.”

The Process of Self Objectification

Beings and objects have insides and outsides. The child initially experiences itself as inside and others by outside. [Without initially making a distinction - necessarily] … He only learns about his outside by taking the attitude of others toward himself. The self cannot come into being without using the other as lever. As sociologist Franklin Giddings said, “It is not that two heads are better than one, but that two heads are needed for one.”

Consciousness is, therefore, a fundamentally social experience. Symbolic action is also learned from outside in: as a child imitates the language of adults, this becomes a signal to him … A self-reflexive animal gets the meaning of his acts by observing them after they have happened and by observing the responses of others. This is how mind grows and how self-reflexivity gives depth of experience at the cost of directness of experience

The Self vs. The Body

Hence, from above, there is a real dualism in human experience. The social identity is largely symbolic but the experience of one’s powers is at first organic. The sense of self builds up thought symbols as well as energetic movement, perceptions, and excitement. The child has self-experience when his actions have been blocked and he takes the role of other to see what his act means. The more the blockage, the more the sense of self is symbolic … If a person’s social identity is undermined in later life, he always has his organism to fall back on; this “is the basis for all psychotherapeutic change as well as for spiritual self-realization”. If the child has been allowed to gain an “organismic identity” by relatively free actions and self-controlled manipulation of his world, he has more strength and resilience toward the vagaries of social symbol systems … The total striving organism is greater than the particular world view imposed on it. Often, under severe stress, an individual saves his sanity by learning to fall back on his body, to rely on it. He learns to trust nature and stops the interference of his mind - the fears that act back on his body and undermine it … This is why progressive educators from Rousseau to Dewey and Reich have made self-directed activity by the child a basic cornerstone of mental health

Chapter Four. The Inner World: Introduction to the Birth of Tragedy

Theme: the structure of human anxiety [beyond immediate physical anxiety] and its basis in the dualism of symbolic / physical; that is, self / body; that is, inner / physical

Recall the vital dualism

of experience [the inner and the outer worlds] - It is one of the great mysteries of the universe, the basis of the belief in souls and spirits … Gustav Fechner, one hundred years back [from 1970s], tried to prove there is an equal part of soul for every particle of matter. He said all objects have interiority, even trees - Why not say the tree soaks water because it is thirsty? Even rocks have interiority if only the idling of the atoms. … These thoughts help introduce the problem of man’s distinctive interiority. At the scale of man the great dualism of nature—poignant for human being—is carried to its furthest extreme. The child quickly learns to cultivate the inner, private, life because it puts a barrier between him and the demands of the world. By the time we grow up we become masters at dissimulation, at cultivating a self that the world cannot probe, but we pay a price. We find ourselves hopelessly separated from everyone else … Only during one period do we break down the barriers of separateness: “preadolescent chumship” … One reason youth and elders don’t understand one another is that they live in “different worlds”: youth trafficking in their “insides” which elders have long since “submerged”. The parent himself “now” has difficulty making contact with his own inner feelings, hopes, and dreams. He wonders who is really inside his fleshy casing … “What do the blue eyes, the wrinkles mean?” The face is a lie for an animal who really feels himself to be somewhere in his own interior; … We find ourselves in the ironic situation of having to transact with others with the part of ourselves - our exteriors - that we value the least. And we are all placed in the position of having to judge others on this least important aspect

The Protean Self

The self is not physical. It is symbolic. It is [usually] “in” the body but rarely completely in the body … A person is where he believes his self to be; or, more technically, the body is an object in the field of the self. It is one of the things we inhabit. … William James eighty years ago said a man’s “me” is the sum total of all that he can call his, not only his body and his mind, but his clothes and house, his wife and children, his ancestors and friends, his reputation and works, his lands and horses, his yacht and bank account. [Yes, the self men “identify” with things that are not essential - either through a mistake in judgment or an acceptance of judgment of others.] … This is important for an understanding of the bitter fighting between social classes for social status. … We see grown and healthy organisms being jerked off balance by their symbolic extensions … Becker cites examples of symbols of individual and group status

You get a good feeling for what the self looks like in its extensions if you imagine the person to be a hollow cylinder in which is lodged his self. Out of this cylinder the self overflows and extends into the surroundings as a kind of huge amoeba, pushing its pseudopods to a wife, a car, a flag, a crushed flower in a secret book. The picture you get is of a huge invisible amoeba spread out over the landscape with boundaries very far from its own center or home base. Tear and burn the flag, find and destroy the flower in the book and the amoeba screams with pain … Usually we extend these pseudopods not only to things we hold dear, but also to silly things … We call precisely those people “strong” who can withdraw a pseudopod at will from the trifling parts of their identity, or especially from important ones. … This flexibility of self is real power and the achievement of it rare maturity. In technical language, we say the person is “well centered” and has control of his ego boundaries. Centering of the ego boundaries under one’s control is one of life’s principal tasks and few achieve it. The origin of the difficulties is in childhood when the child has no control over his self. His awarenesses are not really his own: he has identified with his parents. His own feelings of warmth about himself will exclude areas that cause anxiety to the parents. He may not have control over his own feelings in certain areas [or even awareness of this fact - either through explicit repression or, subtly, by assuming it to be the natural order of things.]

This simplified discussion of the ego and its boundaries takes us to the heart of psychoanalytic theory, to one of its truly great and lasting discoveries: the “mechanisms of defense”, which have largely to do with where and how [the child] stakes out the contents and extensions of his self. In his symbiotic relationship with his mother, the child absorbs part of her and her worldview, automatically and unthinkingly - “introjection”; or the child places his thoughts and desires out into other persons - “projection”. Each of us is in some ways a grotesque collage of injected and ejected parts over which we have no honest control. We are not aware that we carry such a burden of foreign matter in our amoebic pseudopods, nor do we know where the heart of our self really is, or clearly what images and things compose it … so we spend our lives searching in mirrors to find out who we “really are”

Finally, the Protean character of self helps us understand another great fruit of psychological and psychoanalytic investigation: the “character types” … People spread themselves differently, derive their sense of value from different activities. The narcissist, or phallic-narcissist, character, for example, has highly charged his sensuality with a sense of himself. The sadist, or anal-sadist, is sensitive to the dualism of self and body and prefers the physicalness of body to the symbolism of self. Physical expressions of the body are more important than symbolic expressions of the mind; an example, the torturer who tries to expose the self and show its impotence in the face of physical power [or, on the opposite side, the victim, or saint, who asserts the priority of the inner self even though the body dies in the process]. Here is not only a character [the sadist] who has made a peculiar kind of investment in the dualism of self and body, but also a type of animal who must establish and universalize his characterological preferences into a philosophy of existence. The drama of the sadist is particularly interesting as an attempt to assert the victory of human powers over the insides of nature. It is in these interiors that lies the secret vitality that man cannot fathom, that seems to mock all his efforts at order and control with indeterminacy and disruption. Little wonder that the scientific revolution in the West has given such an ascendancy to the sadistic character type

Becker now turns to the question: “What is the origin of the inflexibility of ego boundaries - what is at stake in the world of the self?”

Note to Chapter Four: Phantom pain

“Phantom pain”, relation to referred pain, is an intriguing aspect of the dualism of body / self … It helps us understand something about the historical dualism of soul and body, and also of the deep rooting of one in the other. What is the mechanism of pain and the way it is assigned a location; or of the assignment of any perception? Phantom pain is the pain an individual feels in a part of a body after it has been amputated … There must have been amputations and phantom pain far back into prehistory, and so the traditional beliefs of an invisible but sentient soul could have some empirical basis. In other words, the idea of the soul is the peculiar gift of a self-reflexive animal to the data of existence

Chapter Five. Socialization: The creation of the Inner World

“It is not our parents' loins, so much as their lives that enthralls and blinds us”: Thomas Traherne, c. 1672

Theme: origin of human anxiety in the socialization process in which the self appears “in” the body

One of the two most important facts about children everywhere - their need for closeness, fondling and warm praise! [Due to the basic need for interpersonal sensitivity and due to natural needs expressed, indirectly, through “Mom”.] The child’s ego or sense of self at this time of merger and identification with his mother must be one of pure pleasure - the psychoanalysis have aptly named it the “purified pleasure ego” … Socialization refers to the training of the child and to the process of disentanglement from Mother in order to function as a member of a social group. The child comes to realize that he has to abandon the idea of “total uninterrupted excitement” in the physical and then social worlds, if he wants to keep a secure background of love from his mother. This is what Alfred Adler meant when he spoke of the child’s need for affection as the “lever” of his education. The ambivalence of the process is the conflict between:

Anxiety at Lost Control

Independence Anxiety

Need for Need for Development of

Sensitivity Conflict Independence Ego

Loves Contact


The Fundamental Role of Anxiety in Child Development. [[-leads to-] Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis]: Anxiety pervades the organism when it feels completely powerless to overcome a danger. Except in small doses it is overwhelming. Kurt Goldstein has observed: the ability to withstand anxiety is heroic. Probably it is the only genuine heroism given to man. [Heroism is the ability.] The origin and exact nature of anxiety is still unclear [Becker]; Kierkegaard - a basic response to man’s condition - his finitude; Darwin - grew up in evolution, a stimulus to growth of intellect, had survival value; modern - anxiety is a part of the alertness that characterizes all life and derives from protoplasmic irritability; Freud - all the higher organisms have anxiety - a universal reaction of the organism to danger

For the child, because of his utter helplessness, anxiety comes to be naturally associated with the threat of abandonment - The infant has no way of knowing he will not be abandoned to his helpless pain except by continual contact and relief of that pain

Freud’s contribution to the theory of ego development: the psychoanalytic theory of neurosis - how the child comes to control anxiety. We saw [Chapter 3] ego as central control of reactivity. Ego delays response to permit richer reaction; therefore, if ego must overcome the most overwhelming stimulus of all: anxiety of abandonment! How? By becoming, said Freud, the site of anxiety, by producing it at will and proclaiming its supreme independence of the environment in this vital area of adaptation … Freud understood this process of ego taking over anxiety as a sort of “vaccination” of the total organism. And a good many of the child’s first anxieties are those of his trainers … and so the child obtains his own control by a fundamental adaptation to his social world … Freud’s theory of the ego and Mead’s theory of the self merge to give us a thorough understanding of the external source of the child’s inner world

The Great Debate over Freud’s View of Anxiety: The merger of the psychoanalytic and sociological theories of humanization was not smooth … because … Freud was never very clear about the nature of anxiety for the child. In Freud’s early writing, there were two major sources of anxiety for the child: the trauma of birth; that is, the child’s discovery of its own helplessness, and the fear of castration awakened by the child’s own sexual urges. Evolution had decided the child’s fate by building into him strong instincts of destructive aggression. His [the child’s] major anxiety, over the loss of the protective and loving mother, is a problem stemming from his relentless search for pleasure. Freud could not get away from his instinct theory and so could never get away from the idea that anxiety was due to social frustration

Because Freud was a phylogenetic thinker, his thought lingered on events that happened way back in evolution. Freud postulated a hypothetical event in the dim recesses of prehistory - the famous “primal-horde” theory about the crisis in the humanoid horde, when the young males, tired of being deprived of females by the dominant male, turn on him and kill him, and take possession of the females - their own mothers. Freud sometimes wrote as though the primal-horde theory was an actual prehistorical event and the memory of it was passed down in evolution, in our genes as a racial inheritance of indelible feelings. This complex of feelings and the related suppression and guilt - suppression of the patricidal urge and guilt over both the patricidal urge and the incest instinct - these Freud called the “Oedipus complex” … But the child must abandon this attitude and learn to satisfy himself by controlling himself with social symbols and a new kind of mastery, instead of biologically. In Freud’s view, this is how the Oedipus complex is resolved and how the “superego” or sense of conscience is implanted: the parent’s values become the touchstone for the child’s conduct. As Alfred Adler put it, the early training process awakens a person who has social [symbolic] interests rather than personal [body] interests

Freud’s Error. The errors in Freud’s theory of anxiety can be pinpointed. Decades of observation and research have led to a general agreement that the infant is not driven by instincts of sexuality and destructive aggression: the man-apes took a step away from baboons by making new social inventions over sexuality and aggressive competition

The major revision of Freudian thinking, then, is a complete carrying out of what Freud failed to accomplish fully: abandonment of phylogenetic thinking in favor of general developmental and interpersonal thinking

This transition can be seen as a shift from genetic determinism to genetic determination of potential, in the sphere of personality. Anxiety is based on the child’s helplessness, but this is not a helplessness in the face of the instincts of his own id, but in the child’s life situation and in his social world. All this is actually in Freud’s work, but he never made the development complete and clear cut … One reason that the world of Alfred Adler is still contemporary is that he saw what was really at stake in the early training period more clearly than did Freud. Adler insisted that the Oedipus complex as such was rare. The child does not bring to the relationship with his mother any dark desires that have to find their outlet at body orifices. Rather, he brings a generalized need for physical closeness and support. If the family dramatizes this closeness and support while lingering on any one orifice, then we can say that this child is perverted by the adult; or better, in the context of a certain kind of relationship. … Freud’s term “polymorphous perverse” should be changed to “polymorphous pervertible” …

Yet infantile sexuality is observed, but what is it if it is not an autochthonous drive? We see that after a few years children do masturbate pleasurefully and enjoy rubbing against the bodies of their parents. But it is now understood that the issue is not what “adults” would be experiencing, but rather the child’s experience of the stimulating contact … The appendages of the body are secondary compared to the emotions of the inner self … urges for all kinds of experience and maintenance of boundless parental love … Sexual functioning is subservient to ego functioning, to problems of identity and freedom. Paradoxically, sex does not dominate the child as sex, even if it shows itself as sex, as Rank reasoned in his Modern Education. The main anxieties of the child are frankly existential from the beginning. … We know now that a child becomes passive and oral, not because of a rigorous weaning from the breast, but because of a whole atmosphere that undermines his initiative and self-confidence. A child becomes tense, mechanical and “anal”, not because of strictly scheduled toilet-training or meticulous bodily cleanliness and orderliness, but because of a lack of joy and spontaneity in the child’s environment, anxieties about life which are communicated to him, and which cause him to shut up within himself and to try extra hard for basic security. [This simple account does not do justice to the rich variations in each case and to the child’s own natural ambivalence about his body, but it gives a feeling for adult as “perverter”.] The adaptation a child makes to his early training is a kind of “standardized confusion” about what the world wants from him and what is possible for him in it

At the center of the confusion is the fact that the child has only his body. He is not yet a fully symbolic animal. He has no coin other than his body to establish himself as a loved object. He doesn’t understand big words, long sentences, monologues on the nature of reality. … Does the mother value his body - him - or not? Only if we understand how basic and natural this question is, can we also see why harsh and loveless training regimens are the most harmful to the child. They deprive him of his first and only secure footing and make his feel secondary to symbols. He develops a symbolic style of achieving his sense of self without having had a secure physical sense of himself. This is why psychoanalysts have been concerned about facts that seem trivial: time of weaning, sphincter training, severity of the training, etc. … These questions should not be understood as narrow questions of body zones or routine matters of child discipline that are completely forgotten in a few years or are irrelevant to the hard facts of adult life … The atmosphere of love and support that surround all the child’s body transactions with his mother is what sustains his sense of self-worth and distinguishes between those who are able to face challenges and those who shrink from them

We can understand why Freud said that the Oedipus was universal - but again, not for his phylogenetic reasons. Rather, the very fact that there has at all been frustration, confusion between the body and symbols, in a hypersensitive affection-hungry animal, leaves an undigested residue. The child is a “museum of antiquities”, of nervous conditionings and archaic messages that are unrelated to the straightforward experience of the adult world

Chapter Six. The New Meaning of the Oedipus Complex: The Dispossession of the Inner World

Theme: the fundamental contribution of Freud. How the conscience is implanted: the dynamics of neurosis

The flexibility of the self is an achievement of rare maturity: The ability to relinquish objects, reorganize boundaries of self and ego, extending and withdrawing at will … it seems simple. Why not just do it?

We cannot easily, and few can fully. The reason lies in the development of the ego itself. Freud saw that the ego grows by putting anxiety under its control as it finds out what anxiety is for the organism, and then chooses to avoid it by building defenses that handle it. Freud put it: The ego “vaccinates” itself with small doses of anxiety, and the “antibodies” that the organism then builds up become its defense [mechanisms] - Denial: This is not happening to me; projection: that person is thinking these vulgar thoughts; repression: that did not occur … But now the freedom from anxiety is bought at a heavy price: the restriction of experience - The ego develops by skewing perceptions and limiting action. The ego banishes from its own organization that which “threatens the safety” of the organism; rules established in interaction with parents [authority …] … The mechanisms of defense are par excellence techniques of self deception … This is the paradox called neurosis: the child becomes human by his autonomy, by accepting social values, by developing a conscience. As Freud said: The child becomes humanized and social and says “You no longer have to punish me, Father; I will punish my self now” … “I am a social person because I am no longer mine; I am yours”. The [terrible] conclusion we draw from Freud’s work is that the humanization process itself is the neurosis: the limitation of experience, the fragmentation of perception, the dispossession of genuine internal control

Freud’s theories will continue, into the future, to hold an awesome fascination and a feeling of terror [not because of reference to childhood instincts of sexuality and destructive aggression but] because of the universality of the human slavery and blindness we call neurosis. This is Freud’s durable contribution and the real meaning of the universality of the Oedipus. Freud himself prevented us from seeing this because he was not clear about the sources of anxiety … Freud, at the very beginning of his career, set out to discover the nature of conscience, why man everywhere feels guilty, what he feels guilty about, his deep underlying motives. Kant believed conscience was a miracle implanted by God. Freud wanted to show that it was the reflex of frustrated desire. What was the truth in this? Freud was wrong about the Oedipus complex, about the motives of the human condition. Motives were not inherent as Freud thought they were - the instincts of sexuality and destructive aggression. They developed within a child in interaction with his parents and were as diverse and complex as a set of a person’s perceptions and interactions. Freud did not discover the universal conscience of man, but, instead, the universal mechanism of implantation of conscience. His theory of ego and anxiety laid bare the reason that the sense of conscience was so deeply rooted, even in the face of experience and aging. When the child says, “I’ll ‘punish’ myself now”, he is affirming that he has control over the anxiety of his whole sense of being, of life and death. One’s motives reside in one’s skewed perceptions. That they are buried deep in unconscious, does not mean that they are buried in the recesses of evolution; but instead that they are veiled by ignorance of one’s self. Freud discovered conscience as limited vision and dishonest control over one’s self

The Basic Dynamics of Neurosis

Dishonest control is a neurotic style of living. It shocks us to learn that our innermost sense of right and wrong is [nothing more than] the distillation of a simple learning process. To admit that neurosis is merely a process of interference with simple animal movement, of the blocking of the forward momentum of action … But the work of Adler and Reich and more recently the extension of the work in the Gestalt psychology of Frederick Perls, has made this abundantly clear

Socialization is characterized by one fundamental and recurring fact: the child’s natural urge to move freely forward, manipulate, experiment, and exercise his own assimilative powers is continually blocked. Some blockage is good: for safety and learning self-control and mastery, but much is because of parents’ fears, irritability, etc., in Perl’s view, after the child’s attempt to carry through satisfying action is blocked by the parent. The energy must then find outlet in the process of adapting to the parent and his commands and the child thus incorporates the image of his parent and of his parent’s values and makes them slavishly and uncritically his own - because he does not have the ability or power to criticize. … In this process of frustrated blockage and the associated ambivalence, the mechanisms of defense take root with all the dishonesty about oneself and one’s real satisfaction that they represent. The child is coerced into adopting a fictional pleasure, the symbolic one that he does not understand, instead of his own authentic pleasure. The process is insidious; traumas are not important in the causation of neurosis … The contest of power that represents the socialization of a child is not necessarily a contest of blatant power, but more generally a contest of benign and disguised power. Psychologists have put it in the simplest, most biting formula: the avoidance of external conflicts [with the parents] creates internal conflicts [the neurotic de-centering, fragmentation and cluttering up of the self with alien images]. There is another sense in which the child loses governance over himself, the polar opposite of the excessive interference: not being interfered with enough. Free movement for the [mature] individual is not crippled movement, but neither is it fluid accommodation: it is movement under the aegis of the mover. Freedom is a sense of personal potency. And so the mother who does not permit the child to cultivate this aegis by wisely teaching him the limits of his powers, the rights of others, the natural difficulty of experience, is preventing him from becoming an individual

What Freud did Not do

In order to set up the next development, Becker now turns to consider what Freud did not achieve. … If Freud did not discover the nature of conscience, but only the mechanism of its implantation, he could not be correct about why people feel guilty. Freud thought that conscience [motivation] was laid down as early as the recesses of evolution as biological memory

Today we understand that guilt is due to the human condition, to the sense of being bound, overshadowed, feeling powerless. Guilt is understood as the sense in which the body is a drag on human freedom, on limitless ambitions of movement and expansion of the inner self. This is natural guilt. Further, as existentialists have taught us, a person can feel guilt about the blockage of his own development: that he has not had the experiences or realized the urgings that seemed his natural right. … Generally, man’s social experience can lead to an immense increase in his natural guilt. If neurosis is the result of benign blockage of free movement, guilt can be as superficial as interference with action, as natural a thing as a young animal’s dumb perceptions of the totality of his power world. … The perceptive genius of Kafka could instruct Freud on the nature of guilt. If we take what is durable in the work of the two men, we can understand how simple, how inevitable, how peculiarly human and tragic, is the dispossession of man

Freud’s Contribution

Becker implies that it is too early for a complete inventory, but that the general contents can be now identified: it would have to include everything in Freud’s work which revealed the individual’s blindness and dishonest self-control: his findings on the ego, anxiety, the mechanisms of defense, the character types, the importance of dreams as the royal road to the unconscious. If we omit all the phylogenetic referents and all the misemphasis on the sexual symbolism, we are still left with a staggering corpus of insight into why people act the way they do. [William James predicted that the future of psychology was with Freud’s work. The credit to names in the Preface is surely the natural development of the mainline of this psychology. An excellent appreciation and development is in Fromm, The Heart of Man [1964.]

Chapter Seven. Self Esteem: The Dominant Motive of Man

“The supreme law [of life] is this: the sense of worth of the self shall not be allowed to diminish,” Alfred Adler


Self esteem as the natural homeostasis of the psyche, as man’s essential social motive and as a natural continuation of early ego efforts to handle anxiety

Relationship of self esteem to psychoanalytic characterology and its continuation by Dilthey’s followers, the modern existentialists, and the data of anthropology. That this gives a “fairly complete cosmography of the inner worlds of men”

This change is central to the theme / development of the book. It culminates the development of human social motivation and personality analysis. It leads into interaction of personality and culture [Chapter 8], personality dynamics [Chapter 9], cultural stage for personality plays and relative nature [Chapter 10], universals [Chapter 11] synthesis of universals in psychology, sociology and anthropology to form a complete science of man [Chapter 12], possible directions for development of self and society [Chapter 13]

Freud did not explain motives [conscience, guilt], but how they are implanted. This is the main reason Alfred Adler is still contemporary. Adler broke very early with Freud on this problem when he strongly proclaimed that the basic law of human life is the urge to self-esteem. … Once this break with Freud is made, a new world of understanding opens up. Man’s motive has been laid bare, which is what Freud set out to do … This is why the clinical theories of Adler as well as Sullivan, Rank, Fromm, Horney and a growing number of young and undogmatic Freudians give us such rich and true explanations of what really makes people act the way they do - what they are really upset about

Self-esteem maintenance begins for the child with the first infusion of mother’s milk and is a natural and systemic continuation of the early ego efforts to handle anxiety. It is the durational extension of an effective anxiety buffer. The words ‘self-esteem’ are at the very core of human adaptation. The qualitative feeling of self-value is the basic predicate for human action, precisely because it epitomizes the whole development of the human ego

Socialization: the entire early training period in which the child learns to switch modes of maintaining self-esteem. He cannot earn parental approval or self-esteem by continuing to express himself with his body - It comes to be derived from symbols … The change is momentous. The child’s sense of self-value, of human worth, has been largely artificialized, largely a linguistic “contrivance”. He has become the only animal in nature who vitally depends on a symbolic constitution of his worth

The Inner Drama

“Everyone” runs an inner newsreel, even if it does not record the same symbolic events. Always it passes in review the peculiar symbols of one’s choice that gives him a warm feeling about himself. When the drama records a negative image, we immediately counter with a positive one … While we are asleep the ego is not working and has no conscious control over the messages. Our deeper experience may have on record that we are really worthless, helpless, dependent, mediocre, inadequate, finite: this is our unconscious speaking; and when the ego cannot oppose any positive images to counteract these negative ones, we have the nightmare, the terrible revelation of our basic uselessness … This balancing of positive and negative images of self-worth begins very early … Self-esteem depends on our social role and it is always packed with faces - it is rarely in the nature of documentary

Comments: Although the self-esteem may be central [it is confused with survival] - [1] we are dependent on others for survival, [2] the boundary between survival, status, comfort, etc. is never clear, in part because of social “lies”, and [3] very often approval is [at least apparently] prerequisite to warmth

The Psychoanalytic Characterology

Pathos: In humanization we exchange a natural sense of worth for a symbolic one. Then we are constantly forced to harangue others to establish who we are. We no longer belong to ourselves: our character has become social. Alfred Adler saw with beautiful clarity that the basic process in the formation of character was the child’s need to be somebody in the symbolic world, since physically, nature had put him into an impossible position. He is faced with anxieties of his own life and experience as well as the need to accommodate the superior powers of his trainers; and from all this to salvage his sense of superiority and confidence … He can do this by choosing a symbolic action system in which to earn his basic feeling of self-worth: examples, superiority through the “Don Juan” approach through physical attractiveness; by superiority of their minds; by being generous and helpful; making superior or beautiful things, money; by being devoted slaves; by serving the corporation or the war machine and so on

The great variation in character is one of the fascinations and plagues of life: it makes our world infinitely rich and yet we rarely understand what the person next to us really wants, what kind of message he is addressing to us, what kind of confirmation we can give him of his self-worth. … The reason scenarios of self-esteem seem so opaque even in our closest relationships is embarrassingly simple: we ourselves are largely ignorant of our own life-style, our own way of seeking self-esteem, more or less unique, formed in early training, beginning in presymbolic roots. As a result we have no way of getting on top of this process of conditioning, no way to grasp it, because as children we did not “know” what was happening to us. The psychoanalytic characterology is the study of efforts that the child makes to salvage an intact self-esteem from this confusion. … If this were merely a matter of finding out what symbol-system one had unwittingly adopted in order to get on top of all the burdens of his early situation, we could all fairly early get self-knowledge. But the sense of right and wrong, our way of perceiving the world, our feelings for it and who we are not merely a mental matter - they are largely a total organismic matter, as Dewey saw long ago, and Frederick Perls has recently reminded us. We earn our early self-esteem not actively but in large part passively, by having our action blocked and reoriented to our parents’ pleasure. This triggers introjection of parents’ images without digesting them - part of our “honest” control … So the self is largely a confusion of insides, outsides, boundaries, alien objects and it is de-centered and split off from the body in some measure. This is what makes the study of character difficult and fascinating. Even the person himself cannot know completely what his experience and feelings mean because it is largely presymbolic and unconscious

What makes the psychoanalytic corpus so compelling from the scientific point of view is that it has mastered the general problem of character by finding the current types, outline groups, into which everyone more-or-less fits: aggressive, passive, sadistic, narcissistic [or oral-aggressive, oral-passive, anal-sadistic, phallic-narcissistic], and so on. We can rarely know the unique character a person has, but his mode of earning self-esteem is more or less identifiable in terms of the basic psychoanalytic characterology. If we merge it with the characterology developed by Dilthey’s followers, the modern existentialists, and the data of anthropology, we have a fairly complete cosmography of the inner worlds of men

Chapter Eight. Culture and Personality: The Standardization of Self-Esteem

“We are born to action; and whatever is capable of suggesting and guiding action has power over us from the first,” Charles Horton Cooley

“…Mankind’s common instinct for reality … has always held the world to be essentially a theatre for heroism,” William James

Theme: how culture and personality dovetail to provide self-esteem and “heroism”; why? “In order” to take care of individual self-esteem and safety of the individual and of society: as the function of hero systems. The cost in individual freedom

Comment: Chapters 8 and 9 show an important link between the individual [who “needs” a personality] and society [which provides a “cultural” based hero system or system of roles and status]

Self-esteem must be the dominant social motive of man for: when people do not have self-esteem, they cannot act. When the “inner drama” begins to run consistently negative images of one’s worth, the person gives up … Anthropologists have long known that when a tribe of people loses the feeling that their way of life is worthwhile, they may stop reproducing, or in large numbers simply lie down and die beside streams full of fish … The self-esteem is vital: it is wrong to say that man is a peacock, if we mean thereby to belittle his self-glorification. When the child poses the question, “Who am I? What is the value of my life?”“, he is really asking something more pointed: that he be recognized as an object of primary value in the universe. Nothing less. He wants to know “What is my contribution to world-life?” “Where do I rank as a hero?”

This is the unique human need, the logical and inevitable result of the symbolic constitution of self-worth in an unbelievably complex animal with exquisitely sensitive and effusive emotions. Self-preservation, physico-chemical identity, pulsating body warmth, a sense of power and satisfaction in activity - all these tally up in symbolic man to the emergence of the heroic urge. Freud saw the psychic nature of these facts, and he tallied them under the label of narcissism. It was a truly brilliant formulation. Freud saw the universality of narcissism, and revealed the clinical liabilities of it. Adler, too, studies the neurotic overemphasis of the “will to power” and made the idea a central part of his formulations; but it was Nietzsche, earlier, who saw the healthy expression of the “will to power” and glory, the inevitable drive to cosmic heroism … This is why we still thrill to Emerson and Nietzsche, because they saw that heroism was necessary and good … Sibling rivalry is not mere competitiveness or selfishness. It is an expression of a child’s need to be an object of primary value

Culture and Personality

Culture provides a heroic-action system in which individuals can realize their ambitions. This symbolic system is what we call culture. In this way the ego earns the vital self-esteem that is a buffer against anxiety: culture provides just those rules, customs, and goals of conduct that place right actions automatically at the individual’s disposal. One crucial function of culture is to make self-esteem possible … Its task is to provide the individual with the conviction that he is an object of primary value in a world of meaningful action. … Morality is merely a prescription for choice; and “meaning” is born as the choice is carried into action. … Physiology often provides the most direct cues to action and the cultural drama is a succession of performances based on the age and sex differences; also, size, race, “ability” … Status and role provide basic prescriptions for action, personality typings, what an individual should do in a particular situation, and how he should feel about doing it … Culture cannot provide its members with a feeling of primary value in a world of meaning unless it provides a prescription for meaningful action on the part of all. Status and role serve further to make behavior predictable

One of the great insights into the nature of society is that it is precisely a drama. In sociological terms, status is something that everybody has, a formalized cue. Culture has the most to gain [?] from the resulting predictability

Sometimes status cues can be extremely complex [you and thou, etc. - the Balinese have seventeen gradations of status language]. Why complicate thus? Because there is a challenge to ego mastery and a denial of meaninglessness. It makes heroism possible. This is its function on a symbolic level

There is also the physical aspect: Culture has to provide man with safety as well as self-esteem and the area of least dependability in social life is other people. As Sartre said, “Hell is other people.” Status cues and role prescriptions for behavior take care not only of self-esteem and the vital matter of interpersonal safety; culture, society and nature also provide for in other areas of physical safety: needs. More on this later

The Paradox of Hero-Systems

Culture and personality neatly dovetail into one coherent picture. If self-esteem and primary heroism is the vital need, culture provides it through the hero system. The action resulting from the provision of cues provides stability. [Not every system will “work”; selection eliminates nonviable ones [but the meaning of viable must be adaptive].] We raise our children within a codified hero-system that will permit us to survive and thrive according to our own peculiar needs

But there is a negative aspect to these arrangements: the cost in freedom that they represent. This was seen by anthropologists such as Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict. Benedict even spoke of the megalomaniac and paranoid styles of cultures

The child is shaped to follow certain rules in a world which automatically follows those rules. Socialization in this sense is a kind of symbolic instinctivization which represents the same hardening of behavior as thought found among lower animals. So people willingly propagate whole cultural systems that hold them in bondage, and since everybody plays the same hero-game, nobody can see through the farce. … For every simplified ordering of man’s world and most of all for the expression of his unique humanness, there is a tragic paradox

Comments on Change

Since it is the avoidance of anxiety that keeps an individual bound to a certain personality, change must involve exposure to anxiety

Chapter Nine. Social Encounters: The Staging of the Self-Esteem

“Society is organized on the principle that any individual who possesses certain social characteristics has a moral right to expect that others will value and treat him in a correspondingly appropriate way … He automatically exerts a moral demand upon others obliging them to value him.,” Erving Goffman


Chapter 7 formulated the centrality of self-esteem in personality development

Chapter 8 showed the dovetailing of culture and “heroic” roles by which self-esteem is expressed and maintained

Chapter 9 discusses the dynamics of self-esteem maintenance in social encounter without basis in any specific cultural system - what is universal in interpersonal dynamics. It therefore goes towards answering the question “what is the detailed relation between self- esteem maintenance and social behavior” and so providing a more complete answer to the question “why do people behave the way they do” … of course the heroic mold varies among cultures and this sets up Chapter 10, and certain types of “unconvincing” performance of the cultural hero-plot undermines the precariously constituted cultural meaning from which everyone derives sustenance - and this sets up Chapter 11

The fundamental task that every society must face is truly monumental. Individualism must be protected at their sorest point: the fragile self-esteem of each member. In the social encounter each member exposes for public scrutiny and possible intolerable undermining the one thing he needs the most: the positive self-valuation he has so laboriously fashioned. With stakes of this magnitude, there is nothing routine about social life. Each social encounter is a hallowed event

Protection of self-esteem is handled by society by a series of intricate conventions, or “face rituals” [Goffman] or codes for interaction. Two claims have to be met by the face ritual: the social claim or right to engage the self, and the individual’s right to privacy. Factors include deportment, dress, and bearing. These are instilled by teaching the child to have feelings attached to himself: imagine the confusion when the teaching is not socially correct - the feelings to match the occasion are not the socially appropriate ones. Less obvious than the physical qualities [deportment, etc.] are qualities such as honor and pride … Goethe said there was a courtesy of the heart which is akin to love. The courtesy is the delicate handling of other selves. The love is the control of oneself so that social life can go on

The Self as a Locus of Linguistic Causality

The psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan liked to use the term self-system instead of the Freudian divisions of the psyche and, for Sullivan, this self-system was largely a linguistic device. … Individuals who do not learn the correct responses can be socially discounted: to present an infallible self is to present one which has an unshakable control over words. Dale Carnegie said, “It matters not what you mean: you and those around you become according to what you say.” The proper word or phrase properly delivered is the highest attainment of human interpersonal power. The easy handling of the verbal context of action gives the only possibility of direct exercise of control over others. … The English invariably discomfort Americans because they seem to be saying just the right thing at the right time … Goethe considered acting in one’s youth an indispensable preparation for adult life. Theatrical acting is a vicarious freedom of acting in control of a situation. It demonstrates perfectly how control can be gained merely by saying the right things. By using the word ceremonial properly the individual can navigate without fear in a threatening social world. He can even ignore the true attitudes of farewells and so on

… There is also a more subtle aspect, Becker continues: the ability to use formulas with facility actually improves the power to manipulate others indirectly, by providing the symbolic context for their action

A fundamental task of culture is to constitute the individual as an object of primary value in a world of meaning. Without this, he cannot act. Now, the proper exercise of ritual formulas provides just this … The leader who, after a short whispered outline plan of attack, shouts, “Let’s go, men”, implies that at all times and places, this is the situation in which man should most want to be. [Again, I am having problems. What about developed trust? What if some overall meaning context is missing - as in Vietnam?]

As the individual exercises his creative powers in the social encounter, he forms himself into a meaningful ideational whole, receiving affirmations, banishing contradictions … On the other hand: if he bungles the performance, he loses the credentials for his particular performance parts, and thus his identity. [Another complaint. The awkwardness of the dream. The needs of the mass. The origin of meaning. All this is fine at a level and as a partial explanation of social encounter, but what about the unique event? What about the origin of conflict?] … Loneliness is not only a suspension in stimulation; it is a moratorium on self-acquaintance. It is a suspension of the very fashioning of identity. [Still more, loss of identity or loss of support / potency?]

Subtler Aspects of the Social Creation of Meaning

For the maintenance of self-esteem to work in social encounter, individuals must be acutely sensitive to cues. Each person has to assess three things about another [the assessment of which allows one to fulfill his “social human nature”]

The other’s general intent in the situation

The other’s response to himself

The other’s response or feeling toward me, the recipient or observer of his action

The adept performer should be able to:

Save or maintain his own face [self-esteem]

Prepare appropriate lines that may be necessary to protect the other’s self- esteem, if the other inadvertently makes a gaffe

Frame creative and convincing lines that carry the interaction along in the most meaningful, life-enhancing fashion; or, wanting that, try to get out of the interaction gracefully and at the other’s expense

There is a creative element in every performance: by presenting uniquely creative lines, the actor obliges his interlocutor to cope with the unexpected, also in a creative fashion. [Jokes are, in part, a relief from this tension.]

What can be learned of the phenomenon of “natural leadership” from the fields of psychology and sociology is interesting. A pattern of mothering feeds into the self-system of the child a boundless self-regard. The strong self, as he grows up, makes an effort at performance often beyond their means and so obliges them to a careful deference. The aura of infallibility is enforced as the performance of others stumbles. The feeling of infallibility releases the inner creative powers, essential to the needs of the context. Becker de-emphasizes the physical context, but positions of statesmanship do seem to require brilliance in physical assessment. Undoubtedly, superior social performance and brilliant assessment of the physical situation are mutually reinforcing

Subtler Aspects of the Social Creation of Meaning

For the maintenance of self-esteem to work in social encounter, individuals must be acutely sensitive to cues. Each person has to assess three things about another [the assessment of which allows one to fulfill his “social human nature”]

The other’s general intent in the situation

The other’s response to himself

The other’s response or feeling toward me, the recipient or observer of his action

The adept performer should be able to:

Save or maintain his own face [self-esteem]

Prepare appropriate lines that may be necessary to protect the other’s self- esteem, if the other inadvertently makes a gaffe

Frame creative and convincing lines that carry the interaction along in the most meaningful, life-enhancing fashion; or, wanting that, try to get out of the interaction gracefully and at the other’s expense

There is a creative element in every performance: by presenting uniquely creative lines, the actor obliges his interlocutor to cope with the unexpected, also in a creative fashion. [Jokes are, in part, a relief from this tension.]

What can be learned of the phenomenon of “natural leadership” from the fields of psychology and sociology is interesting. A pattern of mothering feeds into the self-system of the child a boundless self-regard. The strong self, as he grows up, makes an effort at performance often beyond others’ means and so obliges them to a careful deference. The aura of infallibility is enforced as the performance of others stumbles. The feeling of infallibility releases the inner creative powers, essential to the needs of the context. Becker de-emphasizes the physical context, but positions of statesmanship do seem to require brilliance in physical assessment. Undoubtedly, superior social performance and brilliant assessment of the physical situation are mutually reinforcing

Chapter Ten. Culture: The Relativity of Hero-Systems

“If the end of all is to be that we must take our sensations as simply given or preserved by natural selection for us, and interpret this rich and delicate overgrowth of ideas, moral, artistic, religious and social as a mere mask, a tissue spun in happy hours … how long is it going to be well for us not to “let on” all we know to the public?” William James


Anthropologists know that cultural-need systems vary much more than there is uniformity. This points to the relativity of cultural values, to arbitrariness and to the fictional nature of cultural meaning. However, the idea of a hero-system is not completely relative, for, if a culture’s hero-system becomes devalued, the people give up. There must also be some contact with physical reality and perhaps some representation beyond the immediate mythology which shows a universal structure or pattern of coping and living. The idea of universality is presented through a set of fundamental human problems. The final section on “the fictional nature of hero-systems” discusses contact with physical reality. Becker asserts that, in the past, reality rarely tested a culture on the salient points of outer [physical] consistency of its hero-system, but that in the future both inner consistency [because of the emergence of world culture] and outer consistency [because of the depletion of the environment] will be tested. Man, if he has to survive, has to bring down to near zero the large fictional element in his hero-systems … in relation to this there is a discussion of the invisible world and fragility of material- based hero-systems: the “technocratic state.” This sets the stage for a discussion of universals in psychology [Chapter 11] and sociology, anthropology and psychology / psychiatry [Chapter 12]

Two centuries of anthropological work have found that there are any number of ways and patterns in which individuals can act and in each pattern they possessed a sense of primary value in a world of meaning … However, one of the main reasons that cultures can be so directly undermining to one another is that, despite their many varieties, they all ask and answer the same basic questions: there are only a handful of such vital points or “common human problems” … and one of the great advantages of being able to “boil the human situation down” to the same questions the world over is that it partly lifts the screen that divides people and their ways of life. The screen can never be lifted entirely, yet there is what anthropologists have long recognized as the psychic unity of mankind … You can understand strange premises and see sympathetically why people do not act as we do

The Six Common Human Problems

Becker identifies six common problems which I identify as three. Roman numerals are for my three, Arabic for Becker’s six

I. What is the Relation of Man to Nature?

This is Becker’s first problem

This is the fundamental question of human life, of course, and must be answered in order for man to survive physically. It is the question of man’s relation to his environment; it includes material nature as well as spiritual-emotional connection [and is so related to Common Problem III] … In Western society nature came to be looked upon as a grab bag. Nature was physical, not spiritual; neutral and self-renewing. Man takes and deserves what he gets … For the primitive who engaged in potlatch and gift exchange, the artifacts that were passed from hand to hand have a richness of experiences that we cannot imagine. A tree that has been sacrificed remains a “presence”

II. What is the Relation of Man to Man?

This makes up three of Becker’s questions:

2. What are the innate predispositions of man? The question of personality, how to navigate in the social world

3. What types of personality are most valued? The basic question of status. The answer reveals the hierarchy of heroes in the cultural plot

4. What are the modes of relating to others? This is the basic question of role. The answer reveals what we should do with our social lives, how we chart the worlds of friendship, kinship, career

Also important, although Becker does not include this: What is the relation of man to himself? This is in part the inner mirror for all other questions

III. What is the Relation of Man to the Universe?

This set is more metaphysical than the others since man does not have immediate day-to-day experience of it [Western, material man, that is]. Becker says that Problem 2 is also metaphysical, but I think not. Question 1 does have metaphysical interpretations and does develop Question III, but is no more metaphysical, intrinsically, than Question II. This set includes some of the “eternal questions”

5. In what kind of space-time dimension does human action take place?

Even the time and space of physics is not the “simple” object once imagined [Newton.], having many modifications such as closedness [relativity,] granularity [quantum theory,] possible cyclicity [ergodic theory] and so on. To the Australian aborigine the World of Dream, legendary past and waking present blended inextricably into one synthetic experience - he lived in these worlds at once. For him the land was sharply marked out with sacred places mixed in with everyday space. Gods were reborn in sacred spaces and a mythical being dwelled there: you could pass them on the way to the hunt. For Western secular man, space and time have the same properties everywhere. Obviously this question touches on all the others

6. What is the hierarchy of power in nature, society and the cosmos and where does the individual fit into it?

This is the question of most direct concern. It is probably the one we would first put if we woke up on a strange planet

If we don’t get this question right, we fail right away in all others … A person’s whole sustenance comes to be based in a power source unknown or unacknowledged to himself. One of life’s most shattering and self-revealing experiences is to have divulged to oneself the unconscious sources of his power: mother, the boss, money, the Pentagon, the heroes of the free-enterprise system, Marx and Lenin, humanity, the Church, one’s spouse, his guru, or his guns

One of the principle aspects of the relativity of cultures is that there are very diverse hierarchies from which one can draw his power, his heroism … Let us look at one striking change that has occurred in history, in the perception of power and in the sources of power to draw on. It will make intelligible our whole discussion

The Invisible World

Probably for a half-million years mankind has believed that there were two worlds, a visible one in which everyday action took place, and a greater, much more powerful world - the invisible one, upon which the visible one depended, and from which it drew its powers … The problem of life, in such a dual universe, is to control and tap the powers of the invisible, spirit world. From the earliest times this has been the function of the religious practitioner, that he had the talent of bridging the two worlds: the pontifex, as the Romans called him. … In the West the belief in a dual universe lasted right up until the Enlightenment and the nineteenth century, and then gradually faded away for the most part. Today we imagine that all real experience, all valid data, exists on the level of the visible world alone; and, as we might expect, we feel a real superiority in this belief over the ancients. Besides, the old view is a half-million years old, the new one a mere hundred fifty. This makes it modern and “scientific”. Modern science, however, demonstrates that the commonsense post-Enlightenment view of reality is not “the truth”. There is, empirically, an invisible nature of microcosmic and cosmic levels and the stuff of existence is in many ways ephemeral. Our bodies are an organization of ephemeral, changing entities

All of this seems to make the ancients less childish in their beliefs. The tribal peoples who ashamedly renounced their traditional “superstitions” to adopt the Western worldview now appear to have been too hasty. We are learning that the Bantu peoples possessed an ontology, a philosophy of existence, as sophisticated as any we can think up today - in fact, need to think up to explain the whole of experience. Once you train yourself to imagine an invisible dimension of experience, you begin to understand what the ancients meant by “heaven”, the realm of timeless entity

The major lesson of the dualism of worlds, the relative psychologies that result from these beliefs, is somewhat as follows. For believers in the dualism, the invisible world has more power and authority than the visible one. So, the people in the visible world can renew and augment the powers of the invisible one by proper ritual observances. Their major duty in life is to the invisible spirits and gods. Put this baldly, it sounds humanly demeaning - a tyranny of the departed spirits. This tyranny was a real one in life under the great dualism; but there was an important, positive side. In traditional and primitive societies, the family was essentially a religious group, a priesthood, because of its sacred ritual duties to the departed ancestors. This is hard to grasp today … everything a person did was done, in other words, partly in heaven. This is the meaning of Pascal’s beautiful, primitive prayer which went something like this: “Lord, help me to do the great things as though they were little, since I do them with Your powers; and help me to do the little things as though they were great, because I do them in Your name …” The visible world was like a stage … The individual pops into the physical embodiment from the entrance, comes to the center of the stage, plays out his role in life

Becker continues: We can now understand why the problem of heroism, or self-esteem, is so acute in modern life … A main function of culture - men together finding, making meaning - is to provide the individual with a primary sense of heroism … to answer the question, “How does the dignity, control, bearing, talent, and duty of my life contribute to the fuller development of mankind, to life in the cosmos?” … We can see that primitive and traditional hero-systems provide a clear-cut answer to precisely this question, and we can also judge that modern society provides no easy answer if it provides any at all. The allegiances of modern man are material and limited to a single lifespan [and this, as observed above, has no basis in experience - only in a highly distorted view of experience]. These are easily undermined, and when they are, the heroic is undermined with them. What is more, whole masses of men are deprived of these allegiances, of a meaningful place in the material culture hero-systems, and they have lost belief in their traditional systems as well. They live on the margins of society … The crisis of middle- and upper-class youth in the social and economic struggle of the Western world is precisely a crisis of belief in the vitality of the hero-systems [self-contradictory / self-love nature of material culture] that are offered by contemporary materialist society. Of course these hero-systems are by no means extrinsically necessary. They are intrinsically and circumstantially perpetuated by the mutual reinforcement of personality, culture and stability. Alternative systems entirely compatible with the essential truths of modern [and ancient] knowledge are available and are more centering and more consistent with our awareness of eternal possibility

The Fictional Nature of Human Meanings

Some consequences of the empirical facts about the basic change in worldview [“material / invisible” dualism [-leads to-] materialism] that has been developed in history: First - a striking sketch of the relativity of hero-systems, and if this leaves the matter open to argument and debate, good, because man’s answers to the problem of his existence are in large measure fictional. His notions of time, space, power, the character of his dialogue with nature, his venture with his fellow men, his primary heroism - all these are embedded in a network of codified meanings and perceptions that are in large part arbitrary and fictional. This begins early in childhood … In the symbolic world limitations are overcome. Here the child can grow to “enormous size” as the child / individual identifies with giants, gods, heroes of myth, and legend, or historical figures of a particular culture … The ego, or self, becomes indistinguishable from the cultural worldview because the worldview protects the ego against anxiety. The ego now feels warm … the mind flies out of the limits of the puny body and soars into a world of timeless beauty, meaning and justice

This is already a shocking conclusion to symbolic animals who pride themselves on living in a real world of intense experience … But can it all be a fiction, a mirage, “a tissue spun in happy hours” as James put it? Ludwig von Bertalanffy wrote [1955] that evolution would soon have weeded man out, if his cultural categories of space, time, causality, etc. were entirely deceptive. Anthropology has taught us that when a culture comes up against reality on critical points of its perceptions and proves them fictional, then that culture is eliminated by what we would call “natural selection”

Document Status

I maintain this document because I learned much from it

…and, therefore, in case I need occasional reference to it

…but not because I am in agreement with the content

The chapters after the tenth are omitted. The sense of those chapters, for me, is presaged in the earlier ones

No action needed for Journey in Being™

The document may be useful if I return to write on the topics

I maintain no claim to originality or copyright on the material of this document. However, the document formatting is my property

Anil Mitra, January 6, 2015