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Continuation of...

Fromm, Mills, Berger, and Sociology

by David H. Kessel

As indicated earlier, in Invitation to Sociology (1963), Berger presents the sociological perspective as a "form of consciousness" organized around four motifs (or themes). He describes "sociological consciousness" as a "transformation" of perspective which sees "in a new light the very world in which we have lived our lives," of "finding the familiar becoming transformed in its meaning." He says that the "first wisdom" of sociological consciousness is that "things are not what they seem," that social reality has "many layers of meaning." Thus, for Berger, the hallmark of sociological consciousness is the "ability to look at a situation from the vantage points of competing systems of interpretation." To do this, he, too, proposes specific guides by which to understand and recognize what he calls "sociological consciousness,"...namely, his four motifs. Part of my thesis is that Fromm's possession of a sociological consciousness can be elucidated or brought forth by using Berger's motifs. I will explain them as presented by Berger, providing examples from Fromm after each explanation.

Berger calls the first theme the debunking motif. He calls this an "unmasking tendency," a "seeing through the facades of social structures," or what Nietzsche called the "art of mistrust." Berger contends that the roots of debunking are not psychological (i.e. peculiar to the individual), but rather, are methodological---a "logical imperative to unmask the pretensions and the propaganda by which men cloak their action with each other." He maintains that a debunking motif is inherent in sociological consciousness and is, in fact, presupposed by asking sociological questions. It is presupposed in the following three ways:

1. by being interested in looking some distance beyond the commonly accepted or officially defined goals of human action

2. by having a certain awareness that human events have different levels of meaning, some of which are hidden from the consciousness of everyday life

3. by having a measure of suspicion about the way in which human events are officially interpreted by the authorities, be they political, juridical, or religious in character

Finally, Berger links the debunking motif with the concept of ideology. He defines ideology as the ideas or views which serve to rationalize the vested interests of groups, ideas which "systematically distort social reality...," which are "unmasked as self-deception..."

In general terms, I believe Fromm's debunking perspective is best illustrated in his method of radical doubt which he defines as:

the readiness and capacity for critical questioning of all assumptions and institutions which have become idols under the name of commonsense, logic, and what is supposed to be natural ("Introduction" to Illich's Celebration of Awareness)

This debunking is only posssible, he continues, "if one does not take the concepts of one's own society or even of an entire historical period...for granted..."

The primary concept Fromm uses in relation to the debunking motif is the concept of the "unconscious"...deriving his efforts from Freud's formulation of it as a "dynamic process" rather than a "place" or "region" within us. We can define it as that which happens, so to speak, behind the backs of men; that which is not at a level of consciousness. That which is "conscious" is usually taken to be "real" and much of what is real remains unconscious. This is what must be unmasked, whether pertaining to individuals or to what Fromm develops as the "social unconscious. This notion has already gained entrance into sociological discourse in the form of what men "take for granted," a phenomenological concept applied sociologically by Alfred Schutz.

The debunking motif is also implied in Fromm's call for a radical critique of society, "its hidden norms and principles." In The Forgotten Language he speaks about the "manifest" content of dreams and their "latent" concealed meanings, later transferring this psychoanalytic technique from the realm of the individual to the realm of society. He refers elsewhere to psychoanalysis as the "uncovering of the unconscious." Also, his continual attention to ideology as a mask or rationalization which hides or distorts reality illustrates his thorough identification with a debunking approach. Finally, in a statement similar to Berger's, Fromm says:

Awareness of the unconscious is an experience which is characterized by its spontaneity and suddenness. One's eyes are suddenly opened; oneself and the world appear in a different light, are seen from a different viewpoint (Beyond the Chains of Illusion)

These are just a few preliminary examples of Fromm's debunking tendencies. Yet, they clearly indicate that he took very little at face value and always penetrated "beyond," looking for that which was hidden or was prevented from coming to awareness (i.e. his concept of the social filter.

Berger's second theme is the unrespectability motif. He says that most any society can be divided into two sectors. The "respectable" sector is, in America, that view of society which corresponds to "middle-class propriety," the dominant definition of the social situation. The "unrespectable" sector is everything outside of what is considered respectable according to these middle class values. He mentions language as a primary means by which to distinquish between these sectors. The suppression of certain language in certain situations, or the use of certain language--terms to describe social reality--is central here.

The unrespectability motif involves looking at social reality from all perspectives; in its complexity and depth; on varying levels of meaning, "...not only from the perspective of city hall but also from that of the city jail." This motif is a detachment from any taken-for-granted positions of a society, especially those postures which limit themselves to "total respectability of thought." Berger maintains that "total respectability of thought...will invariably mean the death of sociology." He says that "unrespectable sociological consciousness is always potentially dangerous to certain minds...since it will always tend to relativize the claim to absolute rightness upon which such minds like to rest." Thus, where this danger is not perceived, one is not likely to find "sociological consciousness" of the type Berger advocates.

The unrespectability motif likewise permeates the work of Fromm. His awareness of the "respectable" sector is illustrated well in his comments about the "crisis of psychoanalysis," written in 1969:

I believe that the main reason lies in the change of psychoanalysis from a radical to a conformist theory. Psychoanalysis was originally a radical, penetrating, liberating theory. It slowly lost this character and stagnated, failing to develop its theory in response to the changed human situation after the First World War; instead it retreated into conformism and the search for respectability (The Crisis of Psychoanalysis)

Also consistent with this motif, Fromm analyzes the nature and use of language as a "filtering" device. He says:

Different languages differ not only by the fact that they vary in the diversity of words they use to denote certain affective experiences, but also by their syntax, their grammar, and the root-meaning of their words. The whole language contains an attitude of life, a frozen expression of experiencing life in a certain way (Beyond the Chains of Illusion)

Fromm's social-psychological formations were usually attempts to penetrate the respectable sector of society. His concept of the pathology of normalcy; his critique of bourgeois democratic pluralism; and his critique that "obedience" has been rationalized as commonsense acceptance of "objective necessities," all portray a concern about moving past "respectable" propriety. His overall critique of American capitalist society and the so-called "human" living within an "unrespectable" portrayal of human existence.

The third theme of Berger's sociological consciousness is the relativization motif. The import of this motif is that the values and beliefs of different cultures, as well as those within a culture, can be "radically relativized." Within any given society, the narrowness about one's own "social location" is exposed as relative to many factors, rather than being "set" or "natural." The relativization motif provides insights into other cultures, that there are a "variety of ways of looking at the world." Berger stresses that this sense of relativity or change is not a manifestation of "intellectual or emotional immaturity." Rather, this motif involves recognizing that " is impossible to exist with full awareness in the modern world without realizing that moral, political, and philosophical commitments are relative..." It promotes an awareness of the ways in which different meaning systems "can provide a total interpretation of reality, within which will be included an interpretation of the alternate systems and the ways of passing from one system to another." It also leads to the examination of how the meaning system provides "tools" to combat doubts; that there are "various means employed to cut off questions that might threaten the individual's allegiance to the system..." In short, the relativization motif exposes these "defenses" and stimulates growth in awareness that "not only identities but ideas are relative to specific social locations."

Once again, this motif is also richly embodied in Fromm's work. It is ironic that Fromm was very critical of a "sociological relativism" which postulates that:

...each society is normal in as much as it functions, and that psychology can be defined only in terms of the individual's lack of adjustment to the ways of life in his society (Dissent, Spring 1954)

The irony here is that because Fromm exercised the type of relativity Berger presents, that is, that ideas are relative to social locations, he was able to critique the taken-for-granted nature of "sanity" and "in-sanity" in differing societies and to then postulate universal criteria for mental health. Because he could relativize his own society's definition of mental health, he gained insight into other societies and their similar processes. For Fromm, merely staying on the level of "cultural relativity" tended to hide real human commonalities and provide ideological justifications for the status quo.

Likewise, his efforts to bring Marx into a clearer light in American society were efforts embedded in the relativization motif. In Fromm's pioneering essay (at least in America), Marx's Concept of Man, Fromm chastizes Americans for their ethnocentric ignorance, distortion, and falsification of Marx's ideas. He "radically relativizes" American values and beliefs, situating them in their own particular socio-economic conditions.

Another example of using this motif is Fromm's treatment of certain Freudian concepts. As mentioned earlier, Fromm utilized ideas of others after critically examining them for any specific historical bias. For example, he felt this was especially necessary in relation to Freud's concept of "penis-envy." He relativized Freud's unreflexive formulation by showing how it was grounded in a patriarchal social environment and how Freud erroneously "universalized" it to all societies. Fromm put it this way:

This strange theory, according to which one half of the human race is only a crippled edition of the other, followed Victorian ideas that woman's desires were almost entirel directed to the bearing and upbringing of children---and to serve the man (The Crisis of Psychoanalysis)

A final example of the relativization motif in Fromm's work has to do with the relative nature of "meaning systems" and how they provide their adherents with the means by which to counter objections to it. I believe this is what Fromm had in mind when he said:

Experience can enter into awareness only under the condition that it can be perceived, related and ordered in terms of a conceptual system and of its categories. This system is in itself a result of social evolution. Every society, by its own practice of living and by the mode of relatedness, of feeling and perceiving, develops a system, or categories, which determines the forms of awareness (Beyond the Chains of Illusion)

The final motif is one which Berger says is much less far-reaching but which is no less important as a basis for the other three, the cosmopolitan motif. It involves "an openness to the world, to other ways of thinking and acting." It is the ability to transcend one's own physical location and attachment to it. Such transcendence involves being "at home wherever there are other men who think;" a perspective beyond "a narrow parochialism in its focus of interest..." Those operating from within this motif are persons who have "a taste for other lands, inwardly open to the measureless richness of human possibilities, eager for new horizons and new worlds of human meaning."

The cosmopolitan motif is also evident in Fromm's thought. It can be illustrated by means of two quotations. These show quite well, as Berger himself indicates, how this motif underlies the other three motifs:

To that degree to which a person--because of his own intellectual and spiritual development--feels his solidarity with humanity, can he tolerate social ostracism, and vice-versa. The ability to act according to one's conscience depends on the degree to which one has transcended the limits of one's society and has become a citizen of the world (Beyond the Chains of Illusion)


The revolutionary character is the one who is identified with humanity and therefore transcends the narrow limits of his own society, and who is able, because of this, to criticize his or any other society from the standpoint of reason and humanity. He is not caught in the parochial worship of that culture which he happens to be born in, which is nothing but an accident of time and geography. He is able to look at his environment with the open eyes of a man who is awake and who finds his criteria of judgine the accidental in that which is not accidental (reason), in norms which exist in and for the human race ("The Revolutionary Character")

I believe these few examples demonstrate Fromm's "sociological consciousness" (consistent with Berger's intent) and a quality of mind much like that which Mills' "sociological imagination" entails. Both of these conceptualizations point to much the same thing...they are complimentary...and they both can be found in Fromm's work. But more than this, I believe they can be fruitfully integrated and the result will prove to be more informative than utilizing them separately...for general purposes as well as in a future detailing or systematizing of Fromm's sociology.

I will briefly elaborate on this below, but for now and in sum, I believe that this essay has shown that by using both Mills and Berger as an evaluative context that Fromm clearly had a sociological perspective, utlizing standard sociological concepts as well as formulating his own. Fromm has a sociology within his work and should be taken more seriously in the discipline itself.

However, before concluding, I want to address the possible integration of Mills and Berger mentioned above Fromm illustrates it already. I'll then address, very briefly, what needs to be done next in order to make Fromm's sociology more explicit and useful to sociologists in the critical, humanistic, and prophetic vein.

One can hardly read The Sociological Imagination without gaining the sense that Mills had a critical consciousness somewhat similar to Berger's motifs. Indeed, a biographer of Mills situated him within a milieu he called "texas cosmopolitanism." I believe the general description of the "sociological imagination" given earlier implicitly contains the debunking, unrespectability, relativization, and cosmopolitan motifs. Yet, there remains an area of doubt about this. It would seem that Mills himself alluded to it when he said, "Although fashion is often revealed by attempts to use it, the sociological imagination is not merely a fashion." What did Mills mean by this? I think he meant, at least in part, that merely asking his sociological imagination questions in the course of an investigation does not guarantee the answers will be accurate, critical perceptions of social reality. In fact, later in The Sociological Imagination (Chapter 9--On Reason and Freedom), Mills clearly distinquishes between "reason" (critical thinking) and "rationality" (manipulative technique) and the possibility of the latter being substituted for the former. In other words, his questions could be the focus of most any study...from any paradigmatic perspective...and thus could...1) be asked unreflexively; and 2) result in ideological answers...rather than critical answers. "Ideological" here means the sense in which both Berger and Fromm used distortions of or rationalizatons about social reality, not merely as "subjectivity." However, I must reiterate that I don't think Mills was asking them ideologically, just that he recognized the danger of that possibility.

To make more explicit that which Mills leaves somewhat problematic, I want to suggest that Berger's motifs provide the critical thinking (method) by which these questions are to be asked. Berger acknowledged that sociological knowledge itself could be used by anyone for their own purposes. But just as certainly, Berger acknowledged that his motifs were of a criticl nature; that is, non-ideological approaches to social reality. As he said, they are the means by which:

The sociologist tries to see what is there. He may have hopes of fears concerning what he may find. But he will try to see regardless of his hopes and fears. It is an act of pure perception, as pure as humanly limited means allow, toward which sociology strives (Invitation to Sociology)

Thus, the integrating of these two sociological standards involves the implicit presence of each motif within each question. In asking each question, debunking must take place, especially where ideological answers are the norm. Answering each question non-ideologically will necessarily infringe upon the "unrespectable" sector of an ideologically-charged environment. Asking each question is in itself a "relativizing" of existing idealizations of a given society. Answering each question itself presupposes the cosmopolitan nature of the person doing the answering. In short, Mills provides the salient questions and Berger provides the means (thinking tools) by which critical and non-ideological answers might be provided.

In short, this integrative approach is beneficial to presenting Fromm's sociology. I believe that this statement is justified because Fromm himself portrays the following statement:

Objectivity requires not only seeing the object as it is, but also seeing oneself as one is, i.e. being aware of the particular constellation in which one finds oneself as an observer related to the object of observation (Man For Himself)

This intergrative understanding of Mills and Berger is consistent with Fromm's own procedures. Together they provide a type of hermeneutic (a point of interpretative reading) by which to understand Fromm's sociology without damaging his holistic approach and while remaining faithful to his worldview.

If my position in this essay is somewhat near the mark, then what should be next? If Fromm has a sociological perspective, then an explication of it is necessary. As said earlier, Fromm never systematized his sociology and nobody else has tried to do it, either. Part of this should include a detailed review of his books and articles (and some of the commentary on him) for the exact locations and extent of his sociological terms, ideas, and concepts. Likewise, the development of his sociological or at least sociologically-relevant formulations need to be worked on. These tasks remain...but Fromm is worth it.

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