Man’s Search for Meaning

Victor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, is a classic little book on meaning, which was originally published in 1946. His development of logotherapy is woven throughout his tale of survival of numerous concentration camps during the later years of the German occupation of Austria. As historical research has shown, Frankl did not develop logotherapy in those concentration camps. Frankl underscores that as well when he recounts the destruction of an important manuscript that he had smuggled through the showers of Auschwitz, the real showers. It did not survive very long, though, and Frankl’s observation in the other concentration camps – he was only a few days in Auschwitz – was partly driven by his wish not to forget the contents of his manuscript. The situation in the concentration camps also made for an ideal test-ground of Frankl’s main hypothesis, which is summarized in his favorite Nietzsche quote: “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.” Logotherapy tries to provide guidelines on finding reasons to live: “If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be meaning in suffering” (p. 67). The ability to choose how we react to even the most dire circumstances, Frankl calls this “spiritual freedom,” cannot be taken away from us. It “makes life meaningful and purposeful” (p. 67).

Frankl contents that we will not find meaning by letting it find us but rather that we have to find meaning: “We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life-daily and hourly. [...] Life ultimately means taking responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.” (p. 77, my emphasis).

Frankl also introduces the idea of an existential vacuum: a feeling of “inner emptiness, a void within themselves” created by a “lack of awareness of a meaning worth living for” (p. 106). An increase in people who suffer from an existential vacuum, Frankl traces back to two reasons: 1) We have to make choices, we cannot simply rely on our animal instinct, which would give us a sense of security; and 2) traditions that have been guiding people’s lives for centuries have diminished (p. 106). The result is a state of boredom that people often attempt to overcome by doing what others do, Frankl calls this conformism, or comply with the wishes of others, Frankl calls that totalitarianism (p. 106). Addictions are often used to hide the existential vacuum. Often people resort to more socially acceptable “masks and guises:” a will to power, a will to money, and a will to pleasure (p. 107). Logotherapy’s answer to the existential vacuum is a call for people to take on the responsibility to answer life’s questions: “logotherapy sees in responsibleness the very essence of human existence” (p. 109). Frankl goes on to point out that “the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his psyche, as though it were a closed system” (p. 110). Meaning needs to be something concrete, grounded in reality, rather than a metaphysical abstraction. Frankl calls this “the self-transcendence of human existence” (p. 110).

According to Frankl, “we can discover meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering” (p. 111). Thus, as he later points out, meaning can be found as much through experiencing as it can be found through achieving (p. 145). Frankl is quick to add to this list that if suffering is avoidable, we act masochistic rather than heroic if we try to endure the suffering rather than change the situation (p. 113). But with unavoidable suffering we retain the “freedom to choose how to respond” (p. 158).

The search for meaning, according to Frankl, is a prerequisite for finding happiness: “Once an individual’s search for meaning is successful, it not only renders him happy but also gives him the capability to cope with suffering” (p. 139). Again, Frankl points to “fatal conditions” if we do not find meaning (p. 139). He observes a “universal phenomenon” of the feeling of meaninglessness, which resulted from “a frustration of our existential needs” (p. 140). Although people have “enough to live by [they have] nothing to live for” (p. 140). However, he argues that this is not a symptom of a mass pathology; rather it is a sign of our humanness (p. 141). The answer to this is, of course, a search for meaning that is “dormant in all the single situations one has to face throughout” our lives (p. 143).

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Man’s Search for Meaning — 3 Comments

  1. Thanks, Wiebes, for digging up that website and sharing it here! I think that statue is even more needed nowadays when everybody seems to be good at shifting responsibility onto others…

  2. Pingback: Rachel’s Musings » Symptoms of Something

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