Erik Erikson's Life Passages

May 22, 1994

The psychoanalyst Erik H. Erikson, who died recently at age 91, was best known for the theory that each stage of life, from infancy onward, is associated with a specific psychological struggle that contributes to a major aspect of personality. Mr. Erikson's idea that life is a series of "passages" through which the individual constantly reinvents his or her possibilities has since passed into the realm of pop psychology, along with his equally original concept of the "identity crisis."

Mr. Erikson was born in Germany but spent most of his career in the United States, where he worked as a child psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School and later at Yale. Although he studied with Anna Freud in Vienna, and met her famous father during his years there, he never earned a medical degree or even a doctorate in psychology -- he once said he could learn much more from watching children play than from reading books. His sole diploma was earned in high school.

Mr. Erikson's career spanned an era in which psychoanalysis rose from an obscure theory to an all-encompassing philosophy purporting to explain the deepest motivations of individuals and social groups. Like Marxism, psychoanalysis spawned a world-wide movement of devotees, along with its own distinctive jargon, rituals and pantheon of heroes. Inevitably, attempts were made to fuse the two new world views, with varying degrees of success. Mr. Erikson himself was deeply preoccupied with the problem of how the individual's psychological "passages" are mediated by the environment and by other cultural and societal factors.

Yet he largely escaped the pitfalls of doctrinaire ideology and what he called "credal" thinking. He disappointed orthodox Freudians by his departure from many of the master's ideas. And though his theories of adolescence made him something of a role model for campus revolutionaries during the 1960s, he never became identified with the reflexive radicalism of that era. He will be remembered as one of the century's most original thinkers who, by placing the individual firmly in the context of society, was able to suggest the degree to which political, economic and social systems help mold a person's interior emotional life.

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