What makes people act the way they do?
This question absorbed Ernest Becker’s intellectual life. He was determined to pursue it wherever it led him, and because he refused to confine his search to the boundaries of any one discipline, his academic career was scattered and stormy. From the time he completed his Ph.D. in 1960 until his premature death in 1974, he produced a steady stream of books and journal articles of rare and unusual depth. Within these works Becker outlines his “Science of Man” which brims with insights for anyone interested in the human condition.
Becker was born into a Jewish family in Massachusetts in September of 1924. 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 state. Upon graduation he joined the U.S. Embassy in Paris as an administrative officer. 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. Drawn to this field because of its interdisciplinary and cross-cultural approach to the study of human beings, his interest soon centered on philosophical anthropology. This remained his consuming passion.
At Syracuse, Becker studied under the Japanese specialist Douglas Haring. Becker valued Haring’s teaching style and intellectual influence greatly. His Ph.D. thesis, Zen: A Rational Critique (1961), examines the mechanisms of transference in Japanese Zen, Chinese thought reform and Western psychotherapy.
Becker received his 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, where Becker developed a close relationship with psychiatrist Thomas Szasz. Szasz was already criticizing the medical model of psychiatry and its inherent authoritarianism. Because of his own anti-authoritarian leanings, Becker was drawn to Szasz and his circle and regularly participated in their discussion groups. 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.
Drawn to this field because of its interdisciplinary and cross-cultural approach to the study of human beings, his interest soon centered on philosophical anthropology. This remained his consuming passion.
During this time, Becker published 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: The Birth and Death of Meaning (1962/1971) and The Revolution in Psychiatry (1964). 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 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 1962, the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene disciplined Szasz who was effectively stripped of his teaching duties within the state medical school. Although Becker had his differences with Szasz, he viewed the censoring as an encroachment on academic freedom and supported him. Becker paid dearly for this brave move for an untenured instructor; he was dismissed from the school along with several others. He 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, this time in the education and sociology departments at Syracuse University rather than the medical school. By this time, the student movements which would characterize the late 1960s began to take hold at Syracuse.
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.
Becker never identified himself with the youth and was suspicious of the later Dionysian excesses associated with psychedelic drug taking. However, he openly favored the civil rights movement, opposed the war in Vietnam, and shared the students’ criticisms of authoritarian educational practices. He was especially vocal 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 Syracuse terminated its contract with Becker 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 in the anthropology department. Becker’s innovative teaching style and lectures regularly drew hundreds of students. His teaching reflected his way of thinking: broadly interdisciplinary, innovative, and ready to apply theoretical formulations to current issues 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.” Moreover, Becker came to the lecture dressed for the part and used props and stage lighting to deliver his Lear.
The aspects of Becker’s teaching which roused the excitement of intellectual adventure 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 they keep Becker. 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 would not allow students to hire their own professors. Becker’s courses, under this arrangement, would be non-credit only. Instead, Becker decided to take an offer to teach social psychology at San Francisco State University. Becker had high hopes for this institution since 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 erupted on campus. Hayakawa, supported by 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.
The aspects of Becker’s teaching which roused the excitement of intellectual adventure among his students did not necessarily endear him to other members of the faculty.
In 1969, Becker 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 – an ideal place for a scholar like Becker. It was there that he published a thoroughly revised edition of The Birth and Death of Meaning, a remarkable essay on loneliness, and also wrote his masterpiece, The Denial of Death and its sequel, Escape From Evil. 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. In late 1972, Becker was diagnosed with colon cancer and died, at the age of 49, in March of 1974.
– Written by Daniel Liechty
– Main biographical source is the article by Ronald Leifer, “Becker, Ernest,” in The Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences Vol. 18, (New York: Macmillan/Free Press, 1976). Other citations available upon request.
-See also Daniel Liechty’s review of Jack Martin’s paper on Becker’s time at SFU as well as Martin’s paper itself at this link.