Man’s Search For Meaning

We now turn to Viktor E. Frankl, MD.  He was an Austrian Psychiatrist who founded “Logotherapy,” the “Third School Of Viennese Psychotherapy” after Freud’s and Adler’s.  He was imprisoned in concentration camps during World War Two.  He was a profound thinker and had some great theories on the nature of human beings before being in the concentration camps, but his imprisonment forced him to apply his theories to crucial tests.

After release, he wrote a book telling of his ordeals, published in German in 1946.  He was later asked to address his therapeutic approach shown in his camp experiences he wrote about. He began to write a number of books in German expanding on this.This book, “Man’s Search For Meaning” was a translation performed in 1984 and is the original story, entitled “Experiences In A Concentration Camp,” with two additional sections.  The second section, “Logotherapy In A Nutshell” is a condensation of a number of books written in German to outline his system.  The third section is called “The Case For A Tragic Optimism.”  I will principally address section 2, “Logotherapy In A Nutshell” to obtain the fundamental elements I require at this early stage.

This is another book I cannot praise highly enough.  I enthusiastically recommend that the reader read this book in its entirety, as it is profound and short.  It includes an extensive bibliography of books in English on Logotherapy and is still less than 200 pages long.  Aside from that, reading about Dr. Frankl’s experiences in those horrific camp situations is gripping and a sort of page-turner.  What a book.

I should warn the reader that many of Frankl’s positions and conclusions differ from mine in important ways, so reading him is vital.  What I have taken and discuss is what I have identified as material and essential to discussion and reality within my context, conveyed as carefully as I can to maintain Frankl’s original intent.  Where we differ, I try to make it plain.  The reader might also differ.

In his experiences, Frankl had observed a lot of camp inmates perish, many of them by the usual causes.  However, among those not subject to those causes, some survived and others did not.  Frankl found that, as he had anticipated, those who survived had a different outlook from those who did not.  He found that the survivors still wanted something, and that this something gave meaning to their lives. Frankl also found that many of those who died without the usual or expected causes essentially had simply given up.  The type something the the survivors wanted is what Frankl calls “meaning.”

The word “meaning” has been applied to many actions and life itself and goes back many years, perhaps to the beginning of civilization.  However long it has been, I have encountered very little in the way of definition for this term.  This concept is so broad and undefined that it has been the subject of jokes about “the meaning of life” and related issues, yet everyone seems to be seriously concerned about it, one way of the other.  I think Frankl has come to grips with the essentials of meaning, but I think much remains to be said about it.  This is the key element in of human life, as I see it.

Frankl wrote about the context of meaning:

Let us now consider what we can do if a patient asks what the meaning of life is. [Emphasis original]

I doubt whether a doctor can answer this question in general terms.  For the meaning life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.

The bracketed text is mine.  Note that Dr. Frankl here is writing as a psychiatrist, explicitly not as a philosopher.  As a doctor, he is looking at concrete examples of meaning or the lack thereof for a patient which then allows for concrete treatment.  For ethics, however, we must ask “What concept or concepts subsume these patients’ concretes?”  In other words, what is the essence of meaning?  We can effectively recognize when we encounter concrete meaningful things by applying the concept of meaning. So recognizing what the concept of “meaning” is, is just as essential for us as ethicists as it is for an emergency room doctor to understand what the concepts of “health” or “infection” are.  Let us examine what meaningful things are and what the concept of meaning is.

Frankl wrote a few pages later:

According to Logotherapy, we can discover this [or the] 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.

First of all, I ask: can we now make a better description of meaningful things than we have already had?  I say yes. Let us first more closely examine the above quotation.

Items as described in discovering meaning under category (1) are in fact production and achievement.  Items that are produced or achieved are things “one acts to gain and/or keep,” which is to say, values. Bearing in mind that these values entail meaning, we might term them meaningful values.

For category (2) we can envision the feeling we get of life being good when we repeated engage in  recreation, like, say, skiing.  We might also envision a romance with continuing interaction with our sweetheart. While we might have some experience that was totally due to chance, most of such experiences happen because we seek them out or establish situations where they are likely to come about.  In other words, again, we have something which “one acts to gain and/or keep,”  Which is to say again, they are meaningful values.

In category (3), again we have a meaningful value.  The value here is to achieve personal resolve or self-control on values. perhaps even a sort of tranquility.  This attitude is one of self-esteem and dignity, a definitely meaningful value of being an upright person.  This meaningful value of self-esteem applies not to only suffering, but in other circumstances as well.  If we have spectacular luck, a rational and meaningful self-esteem would prevent us from jumping to the conclusion that we are, therefore, a spectacular person. Indeed, proper self-esteem would be a continuing, quiet, objective satisfaction in our lives, resulting from doing what we must do, when necessary, to maintain this attitude.

I conclude that we encounter meaning in life in the form of meaningful values.  Note that Rand’s definition of value helped us recognize values when we encountered them.  This is good, but the question still remains: what is meaning?  Sometimes to really understand a positive, it is first necessary to study the negative, as well as the limits of that positive. I think Frankl discussion of negatives actually does this.  I think the positives he asserts about meaning may at first obscure its underlying essence, so I will initially turn to his discussing the lack of meaning and the limits of the range in meaning.  Let us now consider the “Existential Vacuum.”

… I turn to the detrimental influence of that feeling which so many patients complain today, namely, the feeling of the total and ultimate meaninglessness of their lives.  They lack the awareness of a meaning worth living for. They are haunted by the experience of their inner emptiness, a void within themselves; they are caught in that situation which I have called the “existential vacuum.”

A bit further on, he writes:

The existential vacuum manifests itself mainly in a state boredom.

On the next page, he writes:

Not a few cases of suicide can be traced back to this existential vacuum.  Such widespread phenomena as depression, aggression and addiction are not understandable unless we recognize the existential vacuum underlying them.

Several pages later, he writes of the social dimension of the existential vacuum:

The existential vacuum which is the mass neurosis of the present time can be described as private and personal form of nihilism; for nihilism can be defined as the contention that being has no meaning.

The existential vacuum is a very real problem philosophically, psychologically, and culturally, but we examine it at this point to further clarify its opposite.  Let us reverse these characteristics of no meaning and reverse the necessary elements within these reversals.

If there is no existential vacuum in a person, then:

  • They are filled with awareness of values worth living for and which they pursue or create.  Furthermore, they know they are not empty vessels, but beings of substance.
  • Far from being bored, they have a fascination and satisfaction with the things they do, the world they live in, and the people they meet.
  • They give no thought to suicide and enjoy active life without depression, anger, or mindless activities like drug addiction.

Several pages back, Frankl notes under the heading “Will To Meaning” the following was written when critiquing other psychotherapeutic theories:

Man, however, is able to live and even to die for the sake of his ideals and values!

What can we glean from all this in regard to the characteristics of meaning? I think there are several things we can say about meaning:

  1. Meaning is important.  What that means is if something is meaningful, it has the power to command our attention.  It is, well, important.
  2. Meaning generates motivation.  If a value not only commands our attention, but also commands our action or actions, it is meaningful.
  3. Meaning gives us the experience of a sort of existential pleasure or satisfaction over and above physical pleasures and often trumps pain.
  4. Meaning can be so strong as to command that we live or command that we die.  We can visualize examples, such as a mother giving up her life to protect her child.  By the same token, a mother who might be in extreme pain could continue to live to help her children, where if she were alone, she would not continue living.

Frankl has more to say in this book, but we will address them later.

I think that meaning is the key element we may use to clarify ethics and morality, both in Rand’s writing and generally.  We have some idea what meaning is and I also think that we may conclude that meaning is only found in, or lives in, values. Meaning does not float in space.  When we say life is meaningful, we are saying we are living in pursuit of meaningful values.  I think we may now begin to integrate some the aspects we have discussed about Rand with the concepts articulated by Frankl.





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2 Responses to Man’s Search For Meaning

  1. Rog says:

    When you say something is wanted or one wants something it is obvious you are not writing about whims or emotions that seem to have no cause. If discovering what is meaningful to you is your motivation, then you have to have a method of searching for it. This of course is what observing, thinking and forming concepts is about. The ultimate purpose of which is to find what makes you happy or what you love. We have been told this by a lot of self help books, but it has not been stressed that this is a rational pursuit. In fact many people feel that they just automatically or should automatically know what they love or what makes them happy. As a result they don’t seem to get very far in their quest. Is this what you are trying to change by exploring this field on a more fundamental basis?

    • admin says:

      Yes, I am trying to create an intellectual structure for ethics that goes beyond the basics. At the same time, I know that what one may find meaningful is infinitely varied, but I think some fundamental distinctions and inferences are desperately needed. It is my purpose to go from the most general principles to examining a methodology by which one may establish a method to determine one’s highest values and create a morality that one can rely upon as an efficient and fufilling means to live a meaningful life.

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