Projection: The casting of some ingredient into a crucible; esp. in Alchemy,  the casting of the powder of the philosopher’s stone … upon a metal in infusion to effect its transmutation into gold or silver; the transmutation of metals.


[Well, here we are with part 3 of the blog on Eric Fromm. I’m Fred, and Phil’s back to continue our discussion of how foreign policy can be irrational. So far we’ve done a general introduction of Fromm, and talked about his view of paranoid politics. Today we’re moving on to another mental device people use to avoid being rational. That’s projection, don’t you know, and Phil will explain.

Speaking of explanations, I could use one.  Why in the world did Phil insist on beginning this piece with a definition that applies to alchemy rather than psychology? The two don’t seem to mix very well. Perhaps he’ll explain at some point.]

Perhaps I will, but not right now. To understand Fromm we really need to start with Sigmund Freud[2] and what he had to say back in 1915. That was around the start of World War I. You remember that war, don’t you? We won!

[Actually I wasn’t around then, and neither were you.]

True. But that war was a real donnybrook[3], enormously bloody and destructive for Europeans. Germany and its allies lost. The war pretty  much killed off a large number of European men; extinguished the Austro-Hungarian Empire; pauperized Germany; weakened the Czarist Government of Russia to the extent Bolshevik (later Communist) revolutionaries took control; and basically set the stage for a rematch in World War II. [4] Nothing was the same after World War I.

Perhaps in 1915 Freud saw what was coming; perhaps not.  But he did write an influential piece on war and its effects on civilization.[5] States at war, he said, are ruthless; they commit misdeeds and acts of violence that would “disgrace the individual man.” They lie and deceive others, abandon treaties, etc., and pursue their national interests with “rapacity and [a] lust for power,” while at the same time exhorting their citizens “to sanction [these acts] in the name of patriotism.”[6] Basically nations at war break most of the rules people are supposed to live by in peacetime.

[True enough, but so what? War is hell[7], isn’t it?]

War disrupts civilization. You see, as children humans really are just a bundle of instincts and base passions. They civilize as they grow older, but the process isn’t easy. It’s enforced by the community. Some people internalize the rules, make them a part of their view of life; others simply go along with what the community says to avoid punishment. You might call the latter group hypocrites.[8]

[You’re skipping over a lot of the technical details here, aren’t you? You know, about the libido, the ego, reaction formations and that sort of thing?]

Yes. This is a blog, not a treatise; and I’m an amateur, not a professional in psychology.

Nor is the civilizing process complete for any individual. “A human being is seldom altogether good or bad; he is usually good in one relation and bad in another, or good in certain external circumstances and in others decidedly bad.”[9]

Freud said “[c]ivilization is the fruit of renunciation of instinctual satisfaction…[10]” Dread of the community is the basic force in creating it, but all that changes in time of war. In war the community loses its civilizing influence. People begin to shed the veneer.  “When the community has no rebuke to make, there is an end of all suppression of the baser passions, and men perpetuate deeds of cruelty, fraud, treachery, and barbarity so incompatible with their civilization that one would have held them to be impossible.”[11]

[OK, I get the point. But how does any of this relate to Erich Fromm? He focused on psychological projection, didn’t he?

Yes, but I think he simply made the same point as Freud, but from a different perspective. War trumps civilized behavior, because many social controls disappear in a war.  But the controls remain in force during peacetime, so the individual must fall back on other devices to neutralize them. Projection[12] is one of those.

As Erich Fromm says, everybody knows “the hostile and destructive person who accuses everybody else of being hostile and pictures himself as being innocent and victimized.”[13] That person isn’t doing anything unusual; he’s simply trying to deflect attention from what he does to what another might be doing.  If he’s internalized community standards, he’s refocusing to avoid the guilt that comes from breaking them. If he’s a hypocrite, doesn’t accept community standards, but lives by them simply to avoid punishment, he’s trying to avoid being caught by the neighbors.

In either case the maneuver makes no logical sense. If my enemy is guilty of x, that doesn’t excuse me if I do the same thing. “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”[14]

Anyway, that’s what I think. Erich Fromm had a different way of putting it. He said: ““What is the result [of projection]? The enemy appears as the embodiment of all evil because all evil that I feel in myself is projected on to him. Logically, after this has happened, I consider myself as the embodiment of all good since the evil has been transferred to the other side. The result is indignation and hatred against the enemy and uncritical, narcissistic self-glorification.”[15]

So projection, in this sense, is similar to the process described for alchemy except, of course, alchemy didn’t work. Throwing fragments of the philosopher’s stone on to lead didn’t really turn it into gold.  But throw a bit of projection into a social situation and, presto, while the object isn’t transmuted, the thrower is. He or she becomes pure, free of evil, and armed with the power to condemn others.

[Thanks for that. I think you’ve stretched the dictionary a bit, but still the explanation is serviceable.]

No doubt that makes projection a handy tool for demagogues. Not to assuage their own guilt; probably they’re unfamiliar with that emotion; but to influence others. All they have to do is make accusations, true or false, against this or that enemy; eventually some will resonate with the populace; and people will begin to form up, picket and shout, and possibly take action, legal or otherwise. It’s really very efficient; the demagogue accomplishes a lot simply by pointing a finger elsewhere.

[So how does one resist the lure of projective[16] thinking? What would you do in the area of foreign relations? Right now the newspapers are full of stories about murders, drownings, insurrections, troop movements and nuclear threats around the world. How should we react? ]

That’s a good question. I try to rely on common sense when I hear this kind of stuff.

  • First, whatever the subject, generally people tell us things because they want to influence us. We have to understand their motivation but also realize that even people with ulterior motives may tell the truth. So it all comes down to the evidence. What evidence is there that supports the alleged facts? Are we hearing paranoid speculation, real evidence, or a combination of the two?
  • Second, how important is the alleged event? Was someone inconvenienced, did he or she lose money, or did people die? Did one nation invade the other? Do these things happen commonly in that area of the world, or are they unusual? If they’re common, why single out any specific instance for special attention?
  • Third, what are we supposed to do about it? Do the advocates want us to contribute to a charity, call the police, or go to war? The more far-reaching the request, the more carefully we should think about it. Our resources are not unlimited and, unfortunately, we have to set priorities.

Finally, I check my own internal signals. If I’m beginning to feel self-righteous about the problem, whatever it is, I go back through steps 1, 2 and 3. As Erich Fromm said, we all need to be rational, not simply to indulge in “a mood of common mania and shared passion of hate.[17]

[That all sounds fine, but let me push you a bit further. Right now there’s a lot of talk about insurrection in the Ukraine. The government is impotent, the Russians are threatening, and rebels are invading public buildings. Shouldn’t we do something? How about sending military aid, or troops?]

Yes, we do hear a lot of that, don’t we?[18] We’re surrounded by adversity and don’t threaten people enough to gain their respect. Most people don’t think about war as a practical matter, but before we start anything new we need to ask ourselves (i) how many of the other side’s people are we willing to kill to resolve the situation, whatever it is; (ii) how many casualties are we willing to suffer ourselves, and (iii) how much should we spend? Our last two foreign wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, were fabulously expensive[19], and it’s not clear they were worth the investment. Although I must admit, in the end we did manage to help destabilize a good part of the Middle East. Some people think that was good.

[That’s enough for today.  I agree, even the U.S. can’t do everything, so we should be very careful about jumping into any new fights. We might pick one here and then find more important ones over there. And finally, nobody wants to go through another media-sponsored hate fest any time soon.

So it’s best to resist the war drums for a while. Hopefully the media and our politicians will reach the same conclusion.]



[1] See The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Complete Text Reproduced Micrographically (Oxford University Press, 1971). Henceforth, we’ll cite this version as OED (1971) at __) at projection, Vol. 2, p. 2320, sense 2.

[2] Check out Wikipedia for a biography of Freud. Go to:

[3] That’s slang for a brawl or a free-for-all. See The Free Dictionary by Farlex, at

[4] If you want to know more about World War I, check out the Wikipedia entry, at .

[5] We have a reasonably good collection of Freud’s writings here at the Zoo. See Freud, The Major Works of Sigmund Freud (3 Volumes) (Franklin Library, 1981) (hereafter, Freud at _).

[6] See Freud at Vol. 1, The Disillusionment of the War (1915) (Mayne translation), p. 591, 595: “The warring state permits itself every such misdeed, every such act of violence, as would disgrace the individual man. It practices not only the accepted stratagems, but also deliberate lying and deception; and this too in a measure which appears to surpass the usage of former wars. The state exacts the utmost degree of obedience and sacrifice from its citizens, but at the same time treats them as children by maintaining an excess of secrecy… It absolves itself from the guarantees and contracts it had formed with other states, and makes unabashed confession of its rapacity and lust for power, which the private individual is then called upon to sanction in the name of patriotism.”

[7] See Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (Oxford, 6th Edition, 2004) (hereafter, ODQ at __) at Ian Hay, p. 376, n. 2. The full quote is: “War is hell and all that, but it has a good deal to recommend it. It wipes out all the small nuisances of peace-time.”

[8] See Freud, Vol. 1, at The Disillusionment of the War (1915) (Mayne translation), p. 591,  599.

[9] See Freud, Vol. 1, at The Disillusionment of the War (1915) (Mayne translation), p.597.

[10] See Freud, Vol. 1 at The Disillusionment of the War (1915) (Mayne translation), p. 597.

[11] See Freud, Vol. 1 at The Disillusionment of the War (1915) (Mayne translation), p. 595.

[12] Check out Wikipedia for a short discussion of the topic. You can find it at:

[13] See Fromm, May Man Prevail? (Doubleday Anchor, 1961) (cited hereafter as MMP? at __) at p. 21.

[14] See ODQ at Proverbs, p. 633, n. 31.

[15] See MMP? at p. 22.

[16] Did I create a word there? Perhaps I should have said “projectile thinking?”

[17] See MMP? at p. 22.

[18] See, e.g., The Washington Post, McKeon, Inaction Invites War (Friday, May 2, 2014) at p. A19.

[19] See, e.g., Stiglitz & Bilmes, The Three Trillion Dollar War (Norton, 2008).