What makes people act the way they do? This was the absorbing question of Ernest Becker's intellectual life. He was determined to pursue this question wherever it led him. Because he refused to allow his search to be confined to the boundaries of any one discipline, his academic career, cut short by cancer, was scattered and stormy. From the time when he completed his Ph.D. in 1960 until his death in 1974, he produced a steady stream of books and journal articles of rare and unusual depth in which he outlined his "Science of Man." His works brim with insights for spiritual, pastoral and psychological counseling.
Becker was born into a Jewish family in Massachusetts in September of 1924.(1) After completing military service, in which he served in the infantry and helped to liberate a Nazi concentration camp, he attended Syracuse University in New York. Upon graduation he joined the US Embassy in Paris as an administrative officer. A recent cache of personal correspondence between Becker and his close friend (the now renowned medical anthropologist) Philip Singer, written in the period between 1952 and 1956, is presently being analyzed and will help to fill in the gaps in our knowledge about Becker's activities in Europe and America during that period. Although he valued the experience of living in Paris, he became bored with this work and the prospects of life in the diplomatic corps. Therefore, in his early 30s, he returned to Syracuse University to pursue graduate studies in cultural anthropology. He was attracted to this field because of its interdisciplinary and cross-cultural approach to the study of human beings. His interest soon centered on philosophical anthropology and this remained his consuming passion. Although a simplification, it is useful to think of his intellectual career as a quest to come to terms with what is enduring in the philosophical anthropology of Freud and Marx.
At Syracuse, Becker studied under the Japanese specialist Douglas Haring. He wrote a Ph.D. thesis which examined the mechanisms of transference in Japanese Zen, Chinese thought reform and Western psychotherapy. The published version of this work, Zen: A Rational Critique (1961), was dedicated to Douglas Haring.(2) Obviously Becker valued Haring's teaching style and intellectual influence greatly.
Becker received the Ph.D. in the spring of 1960 and was hired to teach anthropology in the Department of Psychiatry at the Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse. Becker there developed a close relationship with psychiatrist Thomas Szasz. Thomas Szasz was already making known his criticism of the medical model of psychiatry and the authoritarianism inherent in that model.(3) Because of his own antiauthoritarian leanings, Becker was drawn to Szasz and his circle and regularly participated in their discussion group. At the same time, Becker took part in the various lectures and symposia which were available at the school and became acquainted with the clinical aspects of psychiatry from the inside.
During this time, Becker published various articles in psychiatric journals, advocating a transactional view of mental illness. He also published two more books which reflected his lectures to psychiatric interns at the center. In both of these books, The Birth and Death of Meaning (1962) and The Revolution in Psychiatry (1964), Becker argued for a broadly transactional understanding of mental illness which was in direct conflict with the medical model. Although these books demonstrate a wide scholarly knowledge of various social science disciplines, they were by no means universally appreciated within the field of psychiatry.
The views of Thomas Szasz were rightly understood as a direct attack on the current practices of psychiatry and thus he became embroiled in conflict with some very entrenched interests within the field. This was especially heated because the works of Szasz and his circle were being used to publicly criticize the practice of involuntary commitment of mental patients. By November of 1962, Szasz was disciplined by the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene and was effectively stripped of his teaching duties within the state medical school. This produced a division within the Department of Psychiatry between those who supported Szasz and those who did not. Although Becker had his differences with Szasz, he viewed the censoring as an encroachment on academic freedom and supported Szasz. This was a brave move for an untenured instructor within the department and Becker paid for it dearly. Along with several others, Becker was dismissed from the school. Becker soon left for a year of writing and reflection in Italy. He would spend the rest of the decade as a gypsy scholar, moving from job to job and department to department nearly every academic year.
Following a year in Rome, Becker returned to spend the 1964 academic year in Syracuse; not, however, at the medical school but in the education and sociology departments at Syracuse University. By this time, the student movements which would characterize the late 1960s were beginning to be felt at Syracuse.
Becker never identified himself with the youth and was suspicious of the later Dionysian excesses associated with psychedelic drug taking. However, he was openly in favor of the civil rights movement, was against the war in Vietnam and was very critical of many of the same authoritarian educational practices as were the students. He was vocal especially about the dangers to academic independence and freedom posed by the common practice of the universities to seek and rely on military and business sources for research contracts. This struck at the heart of the financial aspect of science research and Becker's contract at Syracuse was terminated after one year.
In 1965 Becker moved to the sociology department at the University of California at Berkeley on a similar one-year contract. The following year he received another one-year contract at the same school in the anthropology department. Becker was an innovative teacher and his lectures were always crowded by hundreds of students. Becker's teaching reflected his way of thinking. It was broadly interdisciplinary, innovative and eager to apply theoretical formulations to current problems of concern. It was also very theatrical. To illustrate a theoretical point on existential human choice and its relation to madness, Becker drew on Shakespeare's "King Lear." More than that, however, Becker came to the lecture dressed for the part and used props and stage lighting to deliver his Lear!
The very aspects of Becker's thought and teaching which roused the excitement of intellectual adventure and discovery among his students did not necessarily endear him to other members of the faculty. His willingness to employ literary sources and even theological sources, coupled with his constant criticism of narrowly empirical approaches to the social sciences, led many academicians to view Becker as soft and unscientific. Berkeley did not renew his contract.
The students, however, let their voices be heard in the matter. More than 2,000 students signed a petition demanding that Becker be retained. When this failed, they voted to have his salary as a "Visiting Scholar" be paid from student funds. The administration expressed willingness to use these funds to have Becker remain as an "educational consultant," but were unwilling to allow students to hire their own professors.(4) Becker's courses, under this arrangement, would be non-credit courses only. Becker decided to take an offer to teach social psychology at San Francisco State University. San Francisco State was definitely a step "down" from UC Berkeley. Yet Becker had high hopes for this institution. Its president, S.I. Hayakawa, was one of the key originators of the interdisciplinary science of General Semantics. Surely at an institution under his leadership, a broad "generalist" social scientist like Becker could expect a supportive administration. Unfortunately, it was not to be. For in the very year (1967-68) that Becker joined the faculty there, the student revolts literally erupted like a volcano on that campus. Hayakawa, supported by then state Governor Ronald Reagan, called in the National Guard to maintain order. Becker did not feel he could stay and teach freedom with armed police outside of the lecture hall.
In 1969, he resigned from his position and moved to Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. There he joined an interdisciplinary department which combined sociology, anthropology and political science. This was the ideal place for a man like Ernest Becker. It was there that he not only published a thoroughly revised edition of The Birth and Death of Meaning but also wrote his masterpiece, The Denial of Death and its sequel, Escape From Evil, as well as a remarkable essay on loneliness. The Denial of Death was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in the category of non-fiction. His last work, as it would turn out, was published posthumously. For in late 1972, Becker was diagnosed as having colon cancer. He died, at the age of 49, in March of 1974.(5)
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