SFU Research Chairs & Endowed Professors Seminar Series: "Ernest Becker at SFU (1969-1974): A Psychobiography"

Thursday, February 6, 2014
11:30 - 12:30

Dr Jack Martin, Burnaby Mountain Endowed Professor
Department of Psychology


Some of my most recent work in the history and theory of psychology has taken the forms of intellectual history and historical biography. For example, in the past two years, I have published intellectual and historical biographies of Ernest Becker, 1974 Pulitzer-prize winning author of “The Denial of Death.” Becker was a Professor at SFU from 1969 to his death at the age of 49 in 1974. He is well known for his humanistic-existential approach to psychology, especially his studies of life and death, the human condition, and human motivation. In this talk, I begin by drawing a distinction between biography and psychobiography, and then continue with an illustration of the latter that is grounded in my previous work on Becker and his thought. In this particular psychobiography, I use Becker’s own existential, psychoanalytic theory of human motivation to explain his career-long struggles to position himself and his work deeply within the human condition, while simultaneously attempting to transcend that condition through a careful articulation of its essential tensions and his attempt to live fully in the face of them, despite a succession of failed attempts to obtain a tenured position in the academy and a growing conviction that his work never would be recognized in the manner he wished it to be. I argue that these latter circumstances interacted with Becker’s own theorizing in ways that contributed directly to his sense of “driven-ness,” accompanied as it was by periods of depression and self-absorption, that eventually resulted in the publication of his magnum opus, “The Denial of Death,” together with a very successful posthumously published companion volume, “Escape from Evil,” but which also may have hastened his death.