Erich Fromm’s Concept of “Productiveness” for Educators
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A column by Rick Osbourne
Philosophically speaking Erich Fromm starts with the contention that, by his very nature man is curious, interactive, and productive, as opposed to lazy, slothful, depraved and sinful as some contend. And from an ethics perspective, anything that cultivates and encourages this productive nature is good, while anything that impedes or distorts this nature is evil.
The term “productiveness” as used by Fromm* refers to a specific way in which a person relates to himself, to others, and to the world around him. It’s an orientation, a context in which human life has the potential to become meaningful, consequential, and worth living.
Respectful, Interactive, and Creative
A productive relationship for Fromm begins with a deep respect, a reverence for life in general, including and especially for one’s self and one’s fellow humans (regardless of gender, ethnicity, race, religion, nationality or socio-economic status). In contrast, the lack of respect and reverence for life results in the misunderstanding (undermining) of oneself and the exploitation of one’s fellow humans, which in turn makes the productiveness experience impossible.
This mutually respectful, productive relationship is also interactive (in the sense that it’s something a person does, mentally or physically with others and/or things around them) instead of passive (in the sense that it’s something that’s done to a person, mentally or physically by others and/or things around them). In other words, productiveness is self-motivated, and self-directed instead of being motivated or directed by anything outside of oneself.
This mutually respectful, interactive relationship is also creative in that it produces something new whether it’s an idea, an appreciation for, understanding of, or an actual physical entity. In this sense the experience of productiveness is Godlike in its capacity to create, recreate, and multiply itself exponentially in the lives of those who understand and practice it.
Ends and Means
And finally, productiveness is an end in itself instead of a means to an end outside of itself. So if it’s done for sake of money, fame, or any other extrinsic reward, it’s not productiveness in the way that Fromm uses the term. That is to say, productiveness itself is the reward, the motivator. One practices this art because the experience all by itself is so rewarding, so fulfilling.
To the degree that a person relates productively to himself, others, and the world around him, his life will be meaningful, purposeful, and full of possibility. To the degree that a person fails to relate productively to himself, others, and the world around him, his life will be stale, empty, mechanical, impotent, meaningless, and boring. For Fromm then, productiveness, or the power to interact creatively characterizes human existence in its fullest and best sense.
The Powers of Reason and Love
According to Fromm, reason is the vehicle with which a person penetrates and comes to understand the world of things. On the other hand, love is the vehicle with which a person penetrates, and comes to understand himself and his fellow human beings.**
Thus through the power of reason, a person has the potential to penetrate, understand, and interact productively with things in the world around him. In the process of doing so, he has the potential to improve his own circumstances and the circumstances of his fellow humans.
Through the power of love a person has the potential to penetrate, understand, interact with, appreciate, and to connect creatively with himself and his fellow humans. The powers of reason and love are thus the vehicles through which man can express and experience productiveness.
Happy and Strong VS Depressed and Weak
Therefore, when a person uses his powers of reason and love to interact creatively and productively with himself, his fellow humans, and the world around him he will live a life worth living. When a person fails to use his powers of reason and love to interact creatively and productively, when his potential is stunted or impeded, a person’s life will lack meaning and purpose. It will be a distorted, perverted edition of what it could and arguably should be.
To the degree that his life is filled with productiveness, a person feels strong, fulfilled, potent, and happy. To the degree that his life lacks productiveness, a person feels weak, empty, impotent, depressed, anxious, and powerless (all forms of mental illness).**
Conditions Encourage or Discourage Productiveness
Let’s add one more factor. The possibility of relating to the world productively depends largely on one’s circumstances. That is to say, it’s almost impossible to relate productively to the world when one is in dire need of food, drink, a roof over one’s head, or clothes on one’s back.
On the other hand, when such basic necessities are met, the possibilities of relating productively are enhanced exponentially. So when he has discretionary time, when he is legitimately free to choose, man is naturally productive (not lazy, slothful, depraved or sinful***).
And historically speaking productiveness, when given the opportunity to breathe freely, has resulted in the development of human culture ranging from language and history, to religion, art, science, and sport. On the other hand, without discretionary time and the freedom to choose there would be no Socrates, Plato, or Aristotle, no Jesus, Allah, or Buddha, no Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Mozart, Beethoven, Einstein, Elvis, Muhammed Ali, or Robin Williams. For that matter, without the freedom to choose, the very concept of morality becomes meaningless.
*The concept of “productiveness” is discussed in great detail in Erich Fromm’s book entitled Man For Himself: An Inquiry Into the Psychology of Ethics.
** In “The Art of Loving” Fromm’s best known book, the concept of love is explored in detail.
***Mental illness, generally speaking, is the result of man’s productive nature being impeded. The antidote to depression, anxiety, and ennui according to Erich Fromm is productiveness.
Rick Osbourne is a former physical educator and a pioneer in the field of functional childhood obesity prevention. He currently serves as President of the Pull Your Own Weight Foundation which is an Illinois based, 501c3, not for profit organization whose focus is functional childhood obesity prevention. He’s written and published three books in this field, the latest of which is entitled Beating Childhood Obesity Now: A Simple Solution for Parents and Educators. He’s the Examiner’s national childhood obesity prevention correspondent. He writes an online column for The Edvocate. And you can connect with Rick via Twitter, Linkedin, or Facebook.