Converging Self/Other Awareness: Erich Fromm and Paulo Freire on Necrophilia and Biophilia

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In this paper, we trace Erich Fromm’s influence in the life and scholarship of Paulo Freire. In particular we focus on Freire’s use of Fromm’s concepts of biophilia and necrophilia as a major theme in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and apply it to present day praxis in both inward and outward release from the fear of freedom.

Of all of the Frankfurt School writers that have influenced Paulo Freire, there is more concurrence with the work of Erich Fromm than any of the others and Freire’s work more directly converges with Fromm’s social vision and humanist readings of philosophy in ways that create possibilities for individual and collective release from both inward and outward oppression. Freire visited Fromm more than once in the late 1960’s in Cuernavaca, Mexico in a meeting arranged by Ivan Illich (Funk, 2000, p. 138). In this paper we will discuss the significance of this kind of analysis as we explore some of the ways that Freire was directly influenced by Fromm’s work, and suggest ways that the impact of this influence offers us a complementary and holistic view that has the potential to lift people out of outward environments of oppression and while at the same time exposing and releasing them from the oppressor within their own being. Freire (2003) refers to Fromm in chapter one of Pedagogy of the Oppressed when he writes about oppression and consciousness (p.59) and also when he refers to the power of necrophilic behavior to “transform man into a thing” (p.59, 65). Freire cites Fromm further on this topic when he contrasts biophilia, the love of life and living things, with necrophilia which is the root cause behind oppression as the means of absolute control.

While life is characterized by growth in a structured functional manner, the necrophilous person loves all that does not grow, all that is mechanical. The necrophilous person is driven by the desire to transform the organic into the inorganic, to approach life mechanically, as if all living persons were things. Memory, rather than experience; having, rather than being, is what counts. The necrophilous person can relate to an object a flower or a person only if he possesses it; hence a threat to his possession is a threat to himself, if he loses possession he loses contact with the world. He loves control, and in the act of controlling he kills life. (Fromm cited in Freire, 2003, p. 77). This paper builds on Fromm and Freire’s use of biophilia and necrophilia by presenting examples of both through relevant and up to date practices.


American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting (AERA)


San Francisco, CA