What are some examples of worldly spirituality

Alternative spirituality between navel gazing and social engagement

According to a widespread thesis, alternative-spiritual actors do not strive to change social conditions; what is essential, however, is the work on their own identity in the service of “self-realization” (cf. Lasch 1980, List 1988, Bellah et al. 1996). Responsibility for problems and their solutions would be placed on the individual and the complex relationships between (apparent) self-determination and internalized social demands would remain hidden. Today's spiritual field is structured in the form of a market and instead of communal forms of relationship, fleeting encounters between independent transaction partners predominate (cf. Hero 2010). The individualization thesis (cf. Beck 1986, Beck & Beck-Gernsheim 2002) forms the theoretical frame of reference for these assumptions, which are often put forward as criticism. Based on the approaches of Erich Fromm and Marylin Ferguson, which are important for alternative spirituality, the views described are relativized in the present work. The extent to which the claims formulated in the exemplary self-testimonies have actually been met and also guide action in today's alternative-spiritual milieu can be the subject of further research.

Following a widespread assumption, alternative-spiritual proponents do not strive for social change, instead self-realization through working on one's identity is essential (cf. Lasch 1980, List 1988, Bellah et al. 1996). Problems and their solutions would be seen as each individual’s own responsibility and complex relations between (apparent) self-determination and internalized social requirements stay concealed. The contemporary spiritual field would be structured on a market basis and contacts between independent partners prevail rather than collaborative relations (cf. Hero 2010). The thesis of individualization (cf. Beck 1986, Beck & Beck-Gernsheim 2002) serves as a theoretical framework for these (critical) assumptions. The view mentioned is put into perspective on the basis of Erich Fromm’s and Marylin Ferguson’s approaches considering both as important figures in the field of alternative spirituality. Further research can aim to clarify whether their pretensions are actually met by the alternative-spiritual milieu of their time and today.


In the present work, the terms “individualization” and “alternative spirituality” are first clarified. In the specialist literature, alternative-spiritual actors are often viewed as subjects who are fixated on their own development and self-realization and who attribute the causes and solutions to problems to the individual - and not to society. Then approaches are presented that are able to relativize this view: firstly, works by the German-American psychoanalyst, philosopher and social psychologist Erich Fromm (1903-1980), whose image of man can be considered exemplary for parts of the alternative-spiritual scene, and secondly, " The Aquarian Conspiracy “(1980; Eng .: The gentle conspiracy 1982), a classic of New Age literature by the American writer Marilyn Ferguson (1938-2008). The discussion on this includes an anthropological-theological perspective on Fromm's thinking and a metaphorical digression on Ferguson's concept of the network. The article concludes with reflections on the interweaving of alternative spirituality and the politically alternative left-wing milieu in Ferguson's and Fromm's time, examples of current initiatives in the footsteps of both of them, as well as an outlook on further research needs.


The concept of individualization became known primarily through the work of Ulrich Beck (1986, as well as Beck & Beck-Gernsheim 2002) and is - although it is accused of ambiguity and lack of precision (Burkhart 1998: 129) - a central point of reference in contemporary social science analysis. What is meant is a process that characterizes the late modern era, in which the individual is increasingly made responsible for his own biography and has to choose from various options. Due to the pluralization of values ​​and ways of life, the individual has to constantly reposition himself and make far-reaching decisions instead of being able to rely on familiar paths. Individualization can be understood as a process of increasing self-determination that presupposes certain socio-structural and cultural conditions (e.g. Pollack & Pickel 1999). However, it can also be used to designate a mode of attribution, an institutionally anchored "pattern of interpretation that accentuates self-control, self-responsibility and self-control" (Wohlrab-Sahr 1997: 28).

In the present work, individualization means practice,

to transform the suffering of the individual in the family, in the circumstances, in society into a suffering that can be attributed to the individual as personal idiosyncrasy, as a flaw in personal development, as a wrong biographical decision or as a lack of willingness to change (von Kardorff 2016: 277 ).

Following the editors of the anthology “Therapeutization and Social Work” (Anhorn & Balzereit 2016), from which this quote comes, social constellations are systematically ignored. This increased attention to the individual goes hand in hand with an increasing therapeutic treatment of everyday life (von Kardorff 2016; cf. also Maasen 2011; Tändler & Jensen 2012). This means that perspectives and practices that originally stem from a clinical-therapeutic setting are now a natural part of almost all social and private areas. The field of (psychosocial) health and illness is occupied by various competing actors who contribute to this development. This also includes esoteric-spiritual-new-religious forms of healing practice, "which are nonetheless well and firmly integrated into the economic utilization contexts and the ideological functional logic of the therapeutic-industrial complex" (Anhorn & Balzereit 2016: XVIII). With the dispositive of therapeuticization, social contradictions as an object of possible collective action would be disregarded and become questions about one's own identity that can be psychologized. In doing so, one's own way of life is moralized in the name of unused individual potential and the refusal to make socially reasonable decisions. It is noteworthy that

that 'heteronomous (external) leadership' and 'autonomous (self-) leadership' are intertwined to the point of indistinguishability: Instead of directive and demonstrative, authoritarian-hierarchical specifications (of ought and must), more and more reserved and, at first glance, less frequent forms of behavior control evident as power and domination (Anhorn & Balzereit XIX f.)

on. The actors have the impression that they can act of their own free will. Following Foucault, therapy becomes an element of a neoliberal “government” and formation of the subject, in which “adaptation and submission services [...] i. d. Usually mediated (indirectly) and generated with the active (voluntary) participation of those subject to power ”(Anhorn & Balzereit: 13). New and sometimes radical variants of "voluntary" self-optimization and perfecting of the individual are discussed today in the context of trans- and posthumanism, in which the limits of human possibilities are also to be expanded through technological processes (Krüger 2010).

Alternative spirituality

Sociological approaches connected with the secularization thesis share the claim that religion is losing social importance in modernizing societies. It has no clear outline and can no longer provide binding interpretations and collective values ​​for society as a whole. A fundamental tension between religion and modernity is assumed (Berger 1973; Martin 1978; Wilson 1982; Tschannen 1991; Bruce 2002, Dobbelaere 2002; Pollack 2003; Pollack & Rosta 2015). In critical examination of this point of view, the term individualization - in Beck's sense - has become a central (religious) sociological category in recent decades (Luckmann 1967/1991; Pickel 2011). From an empirically observable decline in ecclesiasticalism, one cannot simply infer a disappearance of religiosity per se. It is more likely to speak of a transformation of the religious, of different forms of subjective or individual religiosity. These invisible religion (Luckmann 1991) can also be found beyond the established churches and often cannot easily be identified as religious in a conventional sense. According to the paradigm of religious individualization, there is no longer a unified, socially acceptable “holy cosmos”. Instead, those interested could freely choose from the religious offerings, resulting in syncretistic connections and individual systems of ultimate importance. It should be noted that the search for individual religiosity is of course still structured by new life-world patterns and is based on values ​​and norms that prove to be plausible for the individual due to the respective socio-structural embedding (Hero 2010).

The alternative religious scene is often referred to as "spiritual" in everyday language and in self-description. Even if this represents a narrowing in terms of the history of the concept of spirituality and its meaning in various recent religious traditions, it is also increasingly used in this sense in social science-oriented studies. Hubert Knoblauch sees a central feature of spirituality understood in this way in the fact that personal, extra-everyday experiences are taken seriously and "interpreted in a symbolic, extra-worldly way" (Knoblauch 2006: 100). This applies in a special way to "alternative-spiritual movements". By this, Knoblauch understands what it was called until the 1990s New Agewhich is fed by inconsistent, primarily “alternative” religious, psychological and other cultural (e.g. popular science) sources. The term I used, the alternative spirituality means that New Age as well as parts of the Human Potential Movement and the “holistic” spiritual and therapeutic activities of today's self-awareness scene. In addition to individualism and experience orientation, Markus Hero sees a pronounced anthropocentrism (the “divine” lies in people) and the earthly orientation (“sacralization of everyday life”) as central features of the “new religiosity” (Hero 2010). Today, “alternative” spirituality is often part of the cultural mainstream; one thinks, for example, of the broad reception of esoteric or (supposedly) Far Eastern practices in the wellness sector or in management literature. Critics see this as a tendency to retreat into the private sphere and a dwindling willingness to take responsibility for society (cf.e.g. Lasch 1980; List 1988; Bellah et al. 1996)

It is not uncommon for an “anti-institutionalist gesture” (Knoblauch 2002: 303), a tendency towards “de-institutionalization” (Pollack & Pickel 2003) to be seen as an important characteristic of the new religious scene and especially of alternative spirituality. According to Markus Hero (2010), however, there is no general weakening of institutional structures, but mediating social structures in which religious actors interact and which actually enable the new religiosity to be lived out in the first place still exist. By chronologically tracing the development of the new religiosity since the 1960s, Hero today sees the market as the primary way of institutionalizing it, after the community and the organization. This is characterized by a certain type of exchange relationship, in which mutually independent transaction partners enter into fleeting client-like relationships that usually do not entail any obligation for the future.

To recapitulate briefly - so far several theses about alternative spirituality have been put forward: They do not seek to change social conditions, instead what is important is individual behavior and the work on one's own identity in the service of self-realization. The responsibility for problems and their solutions are placed on the individual and the complex relationships between (apparent) self-determination and internalized social demands remain hidden. There are market-like relationships between independent transaction partners.

Personal transformation = social transformation?

The following main part of this article is initially devoted to the question of how topics of the individualization thesis are negotiated within the alternative-spiritual field. It is particularly a question of whether and, if so, how the causes and solutions of problems are ascribed to the individual or to society, as well as the mutual relationship between self-determination and external determination and the claim to self-realization. The question of the underlying anthropology with regard to the relationship between the individual and his or her social environment is also taken into account.

The primary reference point is the work of Erich Fromm, who became an important “public intellectual” (Jacoby 1987) through bestsellers such as “Die Kunst des Liebens” (1956) and “haben oder sein” (1976). Fromm's contribution to the development of the critical theory of the Frankfurt School is largely ignored today, which is not least due to a rift with his former colleague Herbert Marcuse. Marcuse, an idol of the left student movement, accused Fromm, among other things, of transforming social oppression into a moral problem and blaming the individual for not developing his full potential (Marcuse 1969; on the course of the Fromm-Marcuse debate see Rickert 1991 and McLaughlin 2017). Marcuse's criticism is in line with the general assessment of the “psychoboom” and spirituality by parts of the left alternative, although the scene of the New Spirituality and the left alternative milieu showed considerable points of contact in the 1970s (Reichardt 2014). Fromm's writings on the psychology of religion have been interpreted from the perspective of their Jewish, Buddhist and religious criticism (e.g. Hardeck 1992; Domagoj 2011). He also played an important role in the history of alternative spirituality. That's how he influenced it Human Potential Movement of the 1960s, which in turn is the New Age fertilized in the 1980s and lives on today in the spiritual self-awareness scene. This development was and is viewed critically by the International Erich Fromm Society:

"So we have the situation that the non-academic reception of piousness (while the academic reception has stagnated for a long time) is handled via a sub-market in which the corresponding titles compete directly with the esoteric authors" (Klein-Landskron 1990: 3; in recent years on the other hand, an increasing academic interest in Fromm can be observed again, see McLaughlin 2017: 8 f. with references).

According to Fromm's estate and rights administrator Rainer Funk, an in-depth investigation of Fromm's reception in esoteric spiritual circles is still pending (email to the author, October 3, 2018) and will not be carried out in this work either.

Then it is outlined which institutional forms the actors themselves consider suitable for realizing their goals. The bestseller “The gentle conspiracy” (1982) by Marilyn Ferguson is used as an example for this. According to Wouter Hanegraaff, this “New Age Manifesto” (Hanegraaff 1998: 106) contains characteristic positions of the early New Age of the 1960s and 1970s, although he does not share the widespread view that Ferguson is representative of the entire “movement” including developments 1980s. The term “network”, as it is used by Ferguson, which is relevant in our context, is, in my opinion, still relevant in today's alternative spirituality, as will become clear below.

Erich Fromm's humanistic religion as an example of alternative spirituality

Fromm's (religious psychological) work does not itself contain a slight religious productive element. An example of this is “Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis” (1960/1971, citation in the following according to the more recent edition), which contains, among other things, a text by Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki (1870-1966), one of the most important Zen teachers in the West. Fromm and Suzuki each stand for a special interpretation of psychoanalysis and Zen Buddhism and want to build a bridge between Eastern religiosity and Western science. This topic was already discussed in religious reform circles around 1900 (cf. e.g. Vivekananda, 1893/1935) and remained for later New Age Central movement (see e.g. Capra 1992). For Suzuki, the practice of zen is the scientific religion of the future. It is an originally Japanese and at the same time universal experience, the essence of the religious consciousness of mankind (Borup 2004). Suzuki is influenced on the one hand by a (nationalistic) reform Buddhism familiar with Western Enlightenment philosophy, on the other hand by “esoteric” European-American thinkers (Borup 2004).

According to Fromm, psychoanalysis and Zen deal with the essence of man and with a path that leads to his change. He sees some Zen approaches already implicit in Sigmund Freud's thinking, which he finally unfolds in his own humanistic psychoanalysis. Fundamental to Fromm's thinking is his understanding of the human being, which he also explains in his essay on Zen. Humans are confronted with the fact that they do not fit into their environment like animals. He is part of nature, but at the same time goes beyond it by developing an awareness of himself through the power of reason. He must live your own life and will not be lived from outside. This leads him to the experience of loneliness and helplessness. Anyone for whom it is of the utmost importance to face the problem of his or her existence as a whole person is a religious person for Fromm. Psychoanalysis, as Fromm understands it, is thus implicitly characterized as a religious endeavor. The overcoming of isolation could now consist - on the level of the individual and on the level of religious systems - through the doomed attempt to return to the state of harmony before birth or in the animal mode of being. The other answer is to be born whole

to develop the awareness, reason, the ability to love to a degree that one leaves one's own egocentric inclusion behind and arrives at a new harmony, a new oneness with the world (Fromm 1960/1971: 113f),

whereby one experiences oneself at the same time as a separate whole. This includes an active, creative approach to the world, which is seen as it is without distortion.

According to Fromm, contemporary society is in a crisis situation. Man has turned into a thing and subordinated life to property. He dropped the illusion of a fatherly God as a helper, but also the goals of the humanistic religion:

the overcoming of the boundaries that an egoistic self sets, the realization of love, objectivity and humility and the reverence for life, which sees life itself as the goal of life and makes people what they can be according to their dispositions ( Fromm 1960/1971: 104).

Fromm sees these goals, which are also an ideal of today's spiritual field, realized in an outstanding way in Zen. But instead of promoting these “true” values ​​that are appropriate to humans, today's thinking is determined by socially determined fictions and deceptions.

For most of human history, [...] a small minority has ruled and exploited the majority of their fellow human beings. [..] In the long run, the majority had to voluntarily acknowledge their own exploitation - and that is only possible if their minds were filled with the most varied of lies that explained and justified the recognition of the rule of the minority (Fromm 1960/1971: 126) .

Every society forms the “social character” of its members through the mediation of the family in such a way “that they want to do what they have to do” (ibid .: 133). Fromm contrasts the mostly negative influences of society with the human striving for development. Fromm sees biophilia, the love of living things, as the primary principle, and necrophilia - as well as various non-productive character orientations - as the “consequence of inhibited growth” (Fromm 1974: 411 f.). The assumption of such an affirmation of life corresponds less to psychoanalytic orthodoxy. But it is central to humanistic psychology and alternative spirituality, where it is ascribed to the “inner”, “higher” or “true self”. In the best case, the goals of societies would be congruent with the goals of humans or humanity as a whole.

According to Fromm, it is important to see the interrelationships between economic and spiritual causes for the state of a society.

Christianity preached spiritual renewal and missed the change in the social order [...], Marxism placed the necessity of social and economic changes in the foreground and overlooked the necessity of an inner change of the human being (Fromm 1955/2003: 230 ).

A productive social character can only be made possible in a society "in which no person is a means to an end for another, but in which he is always and without exception an end in himself" (ibid .: 234). All economic and political activities would have to be subordinate to the goal of the inner growth of the human being.

According to Fromm, the rational human ability to distance oneself from oneself leads to a problematic situation. People feel their existence is uncertain and questionable and seek refuge in religions in order to deal with this situation - in the sense of overcoming contingency. Elsewhere, Fromm describes religion as "any system of thought and action shared by a group that offers the individual a framework of orientation and an object of devotion" (1976/2010: 365 f.). Jean Paul Sartre's existentialism, to which Fromm does not explicitly refer, comes, based on human openness to the world, to a rejection of essentialist orders and worldviews as well as a belief in God. For Fromm, on the other hand, it is precisely the character determination of man that is described that makes religion necessary. On the one hand it is interpreted in a functionalist way, on the other hand it is an unavoidable reaction to an existential human need (Kolbe 1986). The question for Fromm is therefore not, as indicated above, whether someone is religious, but in what way. The one that is beneficial for humans humanistic religion now sees, as described above, life itself as the goal of life and claims to make man what he can be according to his dispositions. Fromm describes the religious attitude as X experience and means that

Giving up the desire to cling to "I" as if it were an indestructible, separate entity; as an emptiness in order to be able to fill oneself with the “world”, in order to react to it, to become one with it, to love it. Becoming empty is not an expression of passivity, but of openness (Fromm 2008: 51).

According to Fromm, the ascent to new harmony means a self-redemption through reason, which is also responsible for the contradicting situation of the human being. God therefore becomes a symbol of the human ability to reach a higher level of self-knowledge and the ability to love, to find one's true self (cf. also Höllinger & Tripold 2012).

The view that the realization of the highest dispositions is the goal of man is already prominently found in Aristotle (cf.Nicomachean Ethics I, 5) and is today a fundamental idea of ​​humanistic psychology (cf. Runggaldier 1996) and alternative spirituality. Proponents associate self-actualization with personal growth, creativity and self-loyalty, with an emphasis on feelings towards one-sided intellectualism, with protest against heteronomy, institutional constraints and role expectations (Remele 2001). Critics such as Christopher Lasch (1980) believe that when referring to self-realization or authenticity, everything is ignored that goes beyond the self and its momentary sensitivities. Charles Taylor (1996) agrees with the criticism of a purely self-related self-realization (cf. Assing-Hvidt et al. 2012). However, he takes the concern of self-actualization seriously and tries to understand it better. He assumes that the formation and maintenance of one's own identity take place in dialogue throughout one's life. Only in contact with others who mean something to us did we get to know ourselves or form our selves in the first place. Every self-realization worthy of approval would have to take account of this dimension of the encounter and the “shared horizon of meaning” (Taylor 1996: 47) that is always given.

Gunda Schneider-Flume (1978), on the other hand, works out that Fromm assumes a primarily speechless, isolated rational being that is only related to itself and first has to create a relationship to the world and to fellow human beings. With Fromm, the original isolation must be overcome in order to become sane. In contrast to a theological anthropology, Frommian humanism is also under tremendous pressure:

Man has to live [...] he has to create himself and thus produce the meaning of his life, otherwise he misses life. Human life, as Fromm understands it, is characterized by the loss of the dimension of permission. For Fromm, life is not a gift that one can be happy about and for which one can be grateful; initially life is a curse, man himself must transform this curse into a blessing (Schneider-Flume 1978: 144).

For Fromm, overcoming isolation now leads through so-called “productive love” (Fromm 1956/2003: 36). This is not understood in the sense of the Freudian sexual instinct or as a great feeling in the sense of the thesis of the experience society, but as an ethical act that is practiced throughout life, especially towards the helpless, poor and strangers. Fromm (1974/1999) understands the activity of loving as giving, as a phenomenon of abundance and wealth of personality. Schneider-Flume again points out that giving here is understood entirely from the subject, from the self-producing individual, and asks the question "whether this person can transcend the circle of his self-realization at all, whether his giving reaches the other at all" ( Schneider-Flume 1978: 149). For Fromm, charity is determined by the fact that I realize myself, not by the fact that the other needs something.

The concrete person of the neighbor is not perceived correctly due to the "compulsive reference back to the problem of self-realization" (ibid .: 151) according to Scheider-Flume and only appears under the aspect of the "identity of the human core, which is common to all people" (Fromm 1956/2003: 71). If one pursues this idea further with Emmanuel Levinas, Fromm is apparently unable to understand the other as another. In my opinion, this position from Fromm is characteristic of parts of alternative spirituality, which see the “wholeness” or “holism” as the basis and goal of their worldview. According to Levinas, in this “totalitarian” thinking there is no outside of the subject and the order of being designed by him. The gaze of the one who realizes himself in this way is lordly, always aiming to form a whole with the world and thus to integrate it into his own totality. What is ignored here is being hit by the gaze of the other, in which his “infinity”, his incomprehensibility, is revealed (Levinas 2002: 110). In the gaze of the other, a hidden center meets me, a withdrawn origin, which I cannot master - if I give up the need for wholeness. Some passages in Fromm's work put such a totality thinking into perspective. For example, when he writes about being one with the world, in which people experience themselves as a separate whole (Fromm 1960/1971), or when, following Immanuel Kant, he demands that no one is allowed to be a means to an end for another - and with it also not to serve one's own self-realization (Fromm 1955/2003). Nonetheless, Schneider-Flume's analysis is basically correct. It could be made fruitful and further developed in the course of further research on alternative spirituality.

Marilyn Ferguson's "gentle conspiracy"

Ferguson is a protagonist of the with her influential work "The gentle conspiracy" (1982) New Age, which especially in the 1980s stands for the hope of a dawning new age. This tendency is an optimistic criticism of culture that defines itself in opposition to the values ​​of the “old” world. Fromm's descriptions of the current “crisis” and the vision of personal and social health, as well as his juxtaposition of authoritarian and humanistic religiosity, are modified in many ways New Age Texts resumed. In addition to the expectation of a harmonious, holistic world order, entirely in the spirit of Fromm, there are also more radical narratives of a coming "Age of Light" with unexpected happiness and limitless awareness (Hanegraaff 1998: 337). In any case, humanity has reached a crucial point in its history. Change can be understood as an inevitable happening, most of them New Age- Authors assume, however, that an active human contribution, especially work on the inner self, is necessary for a change for the better. The assumption that a transformed minority can bring about global change is widespread. As soon as a certain “critical mass” of people with higher consciousness is reached, the rest of humanity would follow in a chain reaction (cf. ibid .: 350 f .; this idea is also known as the “principle of the hundredth monkey”).

For Ferguson (1980), spirituality is the further development of religion to be striven for. She understands it to be direct knowledge based on personal experience, which differs from second-hand belief. Ferguson is thus in an Anglo-Saxon tradition of meaning of the expression "spirituality", which emerged at the end of the 19th century and differs from the Catholic-order theological line of tradition (Bochinger 1994). At Ferguson, spirituality allows a direct perception of nature and thus it is on a par with modern natural science. It leads to a coherent understanding of reality and, connected to it, to an ecological ethic which helps to compensate for the negative consequences of the natural sciences (Bochinger 1994).

Ferguson appreciatively quotes Erich Fromm, according to which a movement is emerging that combines the desire for profound social change with new spiritual perspectives.

Neither the state nor political parties or organized religion could provide an intellectual or spiritual home for this advance [...] The key to the success of the movement would be that it would be embodied in the lives of its most convinced members [...] In the midst of the alienation of today's social milieu, they would build their own world (Ferguson 1982: 65).

Ferguson sees personal example as the most important factor in social change, referring again to Fromm that “no great, disruptive idea can survive unless it is embodied in individuals whose life itself is the message. The transformed self is the means for this ”(ibid .: 136). The way to healing society leads first of all through more awareness, especially more awareness of one's own body, which can be achieved through body techniques that are regularly practiced. However, the self and society are inextricably linked. “At some point everyone who deals with the transformation of the individual must switch to social action” (ibid .: 221). Ferguson describes this as the “do-it-yourself revolution” (ibid .: 71), in which people who share a transformative vision join forces in networks. It describes networks in all areas of society on topics such as medicine, law, administration, insanity, art, death and alternative birth, ecology, nutrition and so on.

"Biophile" societies and spiritual "networks"

The individualization of social problems and the interrelationship of foreign and (apparent) self-determination are dealt with in detail by Erich Fromm. For him, self-determination is in harmony with a postulated, life-affirming principle inherent in human beings. Concealed outside determination, on the other hand, is the unconscious adoption of socially prescribed values ​​that contradict this principle. Fromm's approach to solving the “current crisis” focuses on two areas. On the one hand, the inner tensions should be revealed in a healing way, which result from the anthropologically conditioned reflexive self-relationship as well as from the contradiction between social character and inner biophilic tendencies. This can be done through spiritual practice or in (humanistic) psychotherapy.On the other hand, society should be changed in such a way that a productive social character can develop or a humanistic religion can be established. A discussion of Fromm's vision of socialist humanism can be found in Johach (2008). Fromm's overriding goal is to bring the inner disposition of the human being - like love and knowledge - to unfold. On the part of the political left in the wake of Marcuse, among other things, it is criticized that the emphasis on growth and “productivity” does not differ from the “goal of the healthy individual under the achievement principle” (Marcuse 1969: 254) and that Fromm basically wants to maintain the social status quo . On the other hand, it can be argued that, on the basis of his anthropology, Fromm judges certain social systems according to whether they promote or suppress “productive” responses to existential needs. The criterion for mental health is "not that the individual is adapted to a certain social order", but it is "a universal criterion valid for all people, namely that they find a satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence" ( Fromm 1955/2003: 14). Fromm's image of man can be problematized from the Marxist-Freudian side as idealistic and from the theological-anthropological side as too little dialogically problematized. In its practical effects, action based on this aims at least for one's own well-being as well as the well-being of fellow human beings and a corresponding change in social conditions.

Marylin Ferguson wants to help create the institutional conditions necessary to achieve personal and social transformation. We are talking about a "network" of spiritually and socially committed people. As Friedrich & Biemann (2016) show in their study of the history of concepts and metaphors, the concept of the network appears - in comparison to earlier connotations of the network or network concept - with a normative, socially utopian content from the 1980s at the latest. One understands it

the self-organization and cooperation of autonomous individuals who, through their interactions, create networks in which there is or should no longer be a centralized place of exercise of power. Networks are now regarded as the ideal model of democratic collectives (Friedrich & Biemann 2016: 5).

In the context of the New Age, the normative claim of social network conceptions gains a naturalistic legitimation - "If nature is organized in networks, we will be all the more in harmony with it (and therefore live better) if we follow it" (ibid .: 5). Ferguson propagates that network in this sense as a “tool for the next step in human evolution” (1980: 213). The network becomes a cultural guiding metaphor with which the mechanistic paradigm of the machine is to be overcome in favor of “holistic” networked thinking (Capra 1982). Friedrich and Biemann go on to say that from the turn of the millennium onwards, networks are no longer seen only as a solution to the modern crisis, but as part of the problem themselves. Today the term - again ambivalent - is also thought of from the phenomena of being entangled or trapped, think of "corruption networks", "smuggling networks" or of problematical aspects of "social networks". In alternative spirituality, the network metaphor still seems to have an unbroken positive connotation.

Summary and further research needs

In the examined texts by Fromm and Ferguson, hopeful visions of a “good life” are formulated, which also includes better social interaction. They encourage the readership to participate in the process of achieving this goal. The results of this work relativize the thesis that alternative spirituality basically ignores social contexts. Erich Fromm's anthropology is based on a primarily isolated subject who can overcome this state, provided that appropriate social conditions exist, in the creation of which it can and should participate itself. With the network metaphor, Marilyn Ferguson presents a vision for practical implementation. The aim of this essay is to reconstruct, embed and discuss selected historical personal testimonies in the history of ideas. Based on the finding that the attribution of the withdrawal to a private navel gazing does not coincide with the perception and representation of the authors examined, perspectives for future research emerge, which are finally shown in key words.

From the point of view of the history of reception, the influence of Ferguson and Fromm on the alternative-spiritual scene of their time would have to be clarified more precisely and to determine which other positions there were in these scenes with regard to the question. Sources up to the present day can be taken into account and similarities and differences to the discussed “classics” can be worked out and placed against their social and cultural-historical background.

A new perspective opens up when Fromm and Ferguson are read as part of the history of the left-wing alternative milieu of their time. According to Sven Reichhardt (2014), the topos of self-realization and the associated call for authenticity played a central role in this. The ideal of authenticity or the true self was linked to the political claim that is self-evident in this milieu. In contrast to Theodor W. Adorno's dictum, according to which “there can be no real life in the wrong” (Adorno 1951/2003: 43) - and it is therefore primarily a matter of changing social structures - a “politics of the first person” was set. The division between the political and the private was, so the claim, broken and everyday life understood as a revolutionary project.

Starting with the subject and his or her self-liberation, before claiming a social revolution, was a creed that reversed classic social criticism, so to speak: First came the change in consciousness, then that of social being (Reichhardt 2014: 873).

Instead of being put off by the classless society in the distant future, one wanted to redesign one's current life. The "grassroots revolution" (Huber 1980: 57), the "do-it-yourself revolution" (Ferguson 1982: 71) or the "revolution of hope" (Fromm 1968) should change society from below. The politically understood project of individual self-development was connected with the desire to build a community in an outside world that was perceived as cold and frozen (Reichhardt 2014). Hero also sees the community as the central alternative-spiritual form of institutionalization of that time - today, however, the scene is structured as a market. The “new healing providers” (Hero 2010: 135) would offer their lectures, consultations, therapy sessions and training courses in centers run as sole proprietorships, and would orientate themselves entirely to the personal sensitivities of their clients. This finding is largely to be agreed with, but alternative-spiritual groups can still be observed today, which see themselves as part of a “network” and strive for “personal and social transformation”. Phenomena like that Mindful Economy Network, the Network deep ecology, the Pioneers of Change, the Visionautics Academy, the projectpeacethat was based on Ken Wilber Integral forum, the Politics of the heart von Geseko von Lüpke or numerous initiatives on mindful consumption and eating habits can be understood as approaches to realizing these fundamental changes. These examples can be seen as intermediary organizations that are “oriented towards the common good” in the broader sense and thereby develop “civil society potential” (Borutta 2005: 3).

Whether the claims formulated in the texts have actually been met in the daily life of the actors of the alternative-spiritual milieu cannot be answered satisfactorily with the current state of research - and perhaps also in general. In any case, empirical studies show that values ​​such as altruism and solidarity are above average for the actors in this milieu (cf. e.g. Saroglou et al. 2005; Sarouglu & Munoz-Garcia 2008; Farias 2008). This is also expressed in a corresponding social and political commitment (see e.g. Engelbrecht 2009; Höllinger & Tripold 2012). The question of the social effectiveness of relevant initiatives could be investigated with approaches of the "social impact measurement", as they are used in the evaluation and optimization of non-profit organizations. However, there is by no means consensus on what is to be understood by “social impact” in concrete terms (Choi & Majumdar 2014) and which method would be appropriate to measure it (Nicholls 2009; Kroeger & Weber 2014). Social non-profit companies - church-related, non-religious and alternative-spiritual ones - also face considerable challenges when it comes to presenting or justifying the value of their own actions to stakeholders (Ebrahim & Rangan 2014). Instead, further research could analyze in more detail which goals alternative-spiritual networks pursue, how these are to be achieved and how the dimensions of the individual-private and the public-political are related to one another in this context and which attributions of individual and social problem causes and solutions result from it.

Conflict of Interest: The author confirms that there is no conflict of interest.


Adorno TW (1951/2003) Minima Moralia. Reflections from the damaged life. In: Adorno TW (ed.) Collected Writings, Vol. 4. Frankfurt a. M .: Suhrkamp. Search in Google Scholar

Anhorn R, Balzerei M (ed.) (2016) Handbook Therapeutization and Social Work. Wiesbaden: Springer.Search in Google Scholar

Aristotle (1999) Nicomachean Ethics. In: Flashar H (ed.) Aristoteles, works in German translation (6). Berlin: Akademie-Verlag.Search in Google Scholar

Assing-Hvidt E, Hansen HP, Iversen HR (2012) Beliefs and Orientations of Meaning in Danish Cancer Patients in Rehabilitation: A Taylorian Perspective. Spiritual Care 1: 32-57. Search in Google Scholar

Beck U, Beck-Gernsheim E (2002) Individualization. Institutionalized individualism and its social and political consequences. London: Sage Publications. Search in Google Scholar

Beck U (1986) Risk Society: On the Way to Another Modern Age. Frankfurt a. M .: Suhrkamp. Search in Google Scholar