Life as a Source of Theory: Erik Erikson’s Contributions, Boundaries, and Marginalities

  • James J. Clark


Psychobiography and the study of lives – an area of specialized study in the discipline of psychology – asserts that it is often clarifying and sometimes essential to analyze the life histories of intellectual leaders whose ideas have shaped social and cultural life. Psychobiographies can help us understand the personal and historical contexts of theory construction, dissemination, and reception, while providing interpretive clues to the complex process of theory development and institutionalization (Anderson 2005). In fact, William Runyan (2006) has argued that studying how the lives of scientists have influenced their scientific projects can help steer observers away from misleading causal abstractions. Uncovering the connections between lives and theories has great heuristic value. The study of lives can advance the study of ideas.

Erik Erikson understood these possibilities and spent much of his long, productive life writing about the lives of historical figures who fascinated him: Hitler, Gorky, Jefferson, Luther, Gandhi, and of course, Sigmund Freud. Erikson saw the study of lives as critical to understanding historical events (e.g., The rise of Nazi Germany, the Protestant Reformation, India’s Independence Movement) and he believed that persons influencing important social changes were leaders precisely because they were “working out” personal conflicts that were psychosocial in origin. In brief, these leaders were able to navigate personal, developmental transitions in ways that were relevant to their sociohistorical contexts, and they were able to engage and powerfully influence the public and political conflicts of their times – for good and ill. In advancing and developing such ideas, Erikson reformulated and sometimes implicitly repudiated the central ideas of his professional mentors, Sigmund and Anna Freud. While considering himself personally and professionally “loyal” to the founders of psychoanalysis, he nonetheless tried to expand the focus of psychoanalysis from its “vertical,” geological drilling for the riches of intrapsychic toward an additional exploration of those dense surfaces of interpersonal, historical, and social geographies that contextualize human development.


Psychoanalytic Theory Identity Crisis Psychosocial Maturity Life Cycle Theory Sociohistorical Context 
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The biographical “facts” discussed in this chapter are drawn from what the New York Times (Lomas 1970) described as the seminal and “spiritual biography” written by Robert Coles (1970); the authorized, exhaustive, and historical biography written by Lawrence Friedman (1999); and the important British biographical perspectives provided by Kit Welchman (2000). As I never had the privilege of personally knowing Erikson, I have relied for the most part on the texts described above, which include Erikson’s autobiographical writings as well as those by others cited in the chapter. I am also very grateful for my conversations with Robert Coles and Lawrence Friedman who shared personal memories and impressions of this complex man whom they came to know so well at very different points in Erikson’s life cycle. In addition, William Borden, Wiliam MacKinley Runyan, Robert Walker, and Thomas Miller provided generative suggestions and criticisms. Finally, because each life is ultimately a mystery, I hope that the reader will see my claims as grounded in reasonable inferences as opposed to definitive conclusions.

I am deeply indebted to Robert Coles for directing my attention to childhood society's closing insights regarding "judicious indignation" by purposefully quoting it from memory to me on many occasions, finally clarifying for this occasionally obtuse listener that this text reflects Erik and Joan Erikson’s moral core.

Evidence for Erikson’s affinity for Paul Tillich’s perspectives can be found in the essay written for Tillich’s memorial service in 1966. (See Erikson 1987.)


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Kentucky, Center for the Study of Violence against ChildrenLexingtonUSA

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