Although psychological pioneers such as Jung and Freud dominated much of the early dialogue regarding psychoanalytic theory in the early through mid twentieth century, the contribution of Erik Erikson to modern psychology has proven to be no less enduring than it was originally regarded as radical. Some evidence suggests that Erikson’s theories of the eight stages of personal development have enjoyed a more widespread acceptance among contemporary twenty-first century thinkers and scholars than many of his predecessors and colleagues.
Erikson was a pioneer in adult psychoanalytic theory: “he stands alone as the one thinker who changed our minds about what it means to live as a person who has arrived at a chronologically mature position and yet continues to grow, to change, and to develop.” (Hoare 3); because Erikson’s theories went “beyond” those extended by Freud and others, his contributions to modern psychology are still regarded as important second-stage psychoanalytic theory.
Although for Freud “humans were psychosexual creatures” (Hoare 4). ,for Erikson the human psyche presented a much more complex and evolving entity, one which developed over a series of specifically defined stages, and the successful or unsuccessful navigation through these stages, which numbered eight, indicated whether or not an individual had successfully attained a working self-identity. Perhaps Erikson’s break-through inn psychoanalytic theory were at least partially based upon his personal life-experiences. Certainly within the context of Erikson’s theories of identity development, one’s personal experience played a crucial role in the development of identity.
As his many biographers have noted, Erikson “lived in dramatic times” (Hoare 4). and in his life he experienced “two world wars[…] and, later, living in the United States, saw the origin and first use of nuclear weapons.” (Hoare 4).; whether or not these historical experienced shaped his intellectual vision is debatable. What is less ambiguous is whether or not Erikson’s personal life, outside of any historical context, influenced his theories and it certainly did. Erikson’s early life: “born on June 15, 1902, in Frankfurt am Main, Germany” (Hoare 7).
Erikson first lived alone with his mother and then later, “The two lived among his mother’s artist friends, who provided early identifications for him” (Hoare 7). The fact that Erikson was essentially an artist rather than a pure scientist allowed him to bring a sensitivity to his psychological studies and theories which many scholars believe was previously lacking in psychology.
It is well known that Erikson in nineteen sixty-three “postulated eight stages that must be encountered successfully and lived through in the development of the self” (Hattie 118).; the navigation of these eight stages produced an enduring self-identity which continued to develop adn meet challenges right on through until personal death. (Hattie). The specific stages were looked at by Erikson as challenges and one either “won” or “lost” them. Such a vision was radical when Erikson proposed it and his ideas are still regarded, by some, as quite radical today.
For example, Christian educational theorists belive that not only Erikson, but many of the psychoanalytic theorists of the twentieth century have replaced the traditional role of ministers, and other mentors and societal influences over the upbringing of children in Western society. These people believe that “the vocabulary of the psychologist frames virtually all public discussion[…] Anthropologists and sociologists are likewise absent from the discussion.” (Hunter 5).a and this is viewed as being highly detrimental to educational strategies and programs.
However, despite the criticism of groups like these, Erikson’s theories continue to be deeply referenced and relied upon by modern psychologists, and he is revered as the primary thinker in psychology who extended the recognition of the development of self-identity beyond the early stages of adolescence and envisioned a paradigm which covered the evolution of the self over the entire duration of an individual life.
Hattie, John. Self-Concept. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1992.
Hoare, Carol Hren, ed. Erikson on Development in Adulthood: New Insights from the Unpublished Papers. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Hunter, James Davison. “When Psychotherapy Replaces Religion.” Public Interest Spring