September 27, 1924|
|Died||March 6, 1974
Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada
|Residence||Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada|
|Alma mater||Syracuse University|
|Known for||Terror management theory|
|Notable work(s)||The Denial of Death|
|Awards||Pulitzer Prize (1974)|
|The Ernest Becker Foundation|
Becker was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, to Jewish immigrant parents. 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. In his early 30s, he returned to Syracuse University to pursue graduate studies in cultural anthropology. He completed his Ph.D. in 1960. The first of his nine books, Zen: A Rational Critique (1961) was based on his doctoral dissertation. After Syracuse, he became a professor at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada.
After graduating from Syracuse University in 1960, Becker began his career as a teaching professor and writer. Becker taught at Syracuse University for a few years before eventually being fired in 1963 for siding with his mentor Thomas Szasz in the psychotherapy disputes. In 1965, Becker acquired a position at the University of California, Berkeley in the anthropology program. However, trouble again arose between him and the administration, leading to his departure from the university. At the time, thousands of students petitioned to keep Becker at the school and offered to pay his salary, but the petition did not succeed in retaining Becker. In 1967, he taught at San Francisco State’s Department of Psychology until January 1969 when he resigned in protest against the administration’s stringent policies against the student demonstrations.
In 1969, Becker began a professorship at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, where he would spend the remaining years of his academic life. During the next five years, he wrote his 1974 Pulitzer Prize winning work, The Denial of Death. Additionally, he wrote the second edition to The Birth and Death of Meaning, and Escape from Evil. In November 1972, Ernest Becker was diagnosed with cancer.
Becker was an academic outcast in the last decade of his life. Referring to his insistence on the importance symbolism plays in the human animal, he wrote "I have tried to correct... bias by showing how deep theatrical "superficialities" really go". It was only with the award of the Pulitzer Prize in 1974 (two months after his death from cancer at the age of 49) for his 1973 book, The Denial of Death, that he gained wider recognition. Escape From Evil (1975) was intended as a significant extension of the line of reasoning begun in Denial of Death, developing the social and cultural implications of the concepts explored in the earlier book. Although the manuscript's second half was left unfinished at the time of his death, it was completed from what manuscript existed as well as from notes on the unfinished chapter.
In the 1960s, Becker and Thomas Szasz were part of a challenge to the pretensions of psychiatry as a science and the mental health system as a successful humanitarian enterprise. Their writings, along with articles in the journal The Radical Therapist, were given the umbrella label anti-psychiatry. This critical literature, with an associated activist movement, "emphasized the hegemony of medical model psychiatry, its spurious sources of authority, its mystification of human problems, and the more oppressive practices of the mental health system, such as involuntary hospitalisation, drugging, and electroshock".
Becker came to the position that psychological inquiry inevitably comes to a dead end beyond which belief systems must be invoked to satisfy the human psyche. The reach of such a perspective consequently encompasses science and religion, even to what Sam Keen suggests is Becker's greatest achievement, the creation of the "science of evil". In formulating his theories Becker drew on the work of Søren Kierkegaard, Sigmund Freud, Wilhelm Reich, Norman O. Brown, Erich Fromm, Hegel, and especially Otto Rank. Becker came to believe that individuals' characters are essentially formed around the process of denying their own mortality, that this denial is necessary for us to function in the world, and that this character-armor prevents genuine self-knowledge. Much of the evil in the world, he believed, was a consequence of this need to deny death.
Becker also wrote The Birth and Death of Meaning, which gets its title from the concept of humankind moving away from the simple-minded ape into a world of symbols and illusions, and then deconstructing those illusions through our own evolving intellect.
Becker died on March 6, 1974 from colon cancer in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada. After his death, the Ernest Becker Foundation was founded to devote to multidisciplinary inquiries into human behavior, with a particular focus on contributing to the reduction of violence in human society, using Becker's basic ideas to support research and application at the interfaces of science, the humanities, social action and religion. Flight From Death (2006) is a documentary film directed by Patrick Shen, based on Becker's work, and partially funded by the Ernest Becker Foundation.
- Zen: A Rational Critique. New York: W.W. Norton, 1961.
- The Birth and Death of Meaning: A Perspective in Psychiatry and Anthropology. New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1962.
- Revolution in Psychiatry: The New Understanding of Man. New York: Free Press, 1964.
- Beyond Alienation: A Philosophy of Education for the Crisis of Democracy. New York: George Braziller, 1967.
- The Structure of Evil: An Essay on the Unification of the Science of Man. New York: George Braziller, 1968.
- Angel in Armor: A Post-Freudian Perspective on the Nature of Man. New York: George Braziller, 1969.
- The Lost Science of Man. New York: George Brazillier, 1971.
- The Denial of Death. New York: Free Press, 1973.
- Escape from Evil. New York: Free Press, 1975.
Publications about Ernest Becker
- Liechty D (ed.) (2005) The Ernest Becker Reader. University of Washington Press. ISBN 0-295-98470-8
- Liechty D (ed.) (2002) Death and Denial: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Legacy of Ernest Becker. Praeger. ISBN 0-275-97420-0
- Liechty D (1995) Transference & Transcendence: Ernest Becker's Contribution to Psychotherapy. Aronson. ISBN 1-56821-434-0
- Streeter J (2009) Human Nature, Human Evil, and Religion: Ernest Becker and Christian Theology. University Press of America. ISBN 978-0-7618-4357-3
- p.xiv. Becker, Ernest (1962) The Birth and Death of Meaning: A Perspective in Psychiatry and Anthropology. New York: The Free Press of Glencoe
- Ken Barney (Winter and Spring 1994. Volume 15. Numbers 1 and 2 Pages 19–34). "Limitations of the Critique of the Medical Model". The Journal of Mind and Behaviour.
- Ernest Becker Foundation website http://www.ernestbecker.org
- Film's official website http://www.flightfromdeath.com
|Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to: Ernest Becker|
- The Ernest Becker Foundation
- Ernest Becker Unofficial Homepage
- Ernest Becker Listserv Archive (Unactive Now July 2009)
- Encyclopedia of Death and Dying