Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning

N.B., You're responsible for reading Part II ("Logotherapy in a Nutshell") and the Postscript ("The Case for a Tragic Optimism"), but not part I.

Summary of PART I:

A description of Frankl's many experiences in GERMAN CONCENTRATION CAMPS during WWII, which had a great impact on his later thinking.

Much suffering & meaninglessness

-- led Frankl to wonder about MEANINGS and their psychological importance, esp. in relation to dealing with suffering in life.

Normally, people have a collection of meanings that lend sense & purpose to their lives:

health, approval of one's peers, material wealth, good love-life, family relations, comfort, happiness, etc.

But what about when none of these usual meanings are present, such as in a concentration camp? Instead, there are

suffering, poor health, brutality, deprivation, lack of material comfort, the closeness of death, etc.

In Frankl's experience, many people simply GIVE-UP ON LIFE under these conditions, and choose suicide, in one form or another.

However, other people do not. Frankl's question, then, was -- what is the difference between these two? What drives some people to continue fighting for life, while other people simply die?

Frankl's answer is: Survivors had some MEANING or PURPOSE -- some HOPE in the future to propel them forward. "He who has a WHY to live for can bear almost any HOW." -- Nietzsche



LOGOTHERAPY: a form of psychotherapy oriented around finding meaning in one's existence.

-- a basic premise of Logotherapy is that many (but not all) forms of psychopathology (i.e., mental illness) are rooted in a basic lack of meaning in life.

-- PSYCHOANALYSIS holds that psychotherapy is about uncovering and dealing with the PAST -- a kind of ARCHEOLOGY.

-- LOGOTHERAPY, in contrast, holds that psychotherapy is about achieving an orientation toward the FUTURE, especially toward meanings to be fulfilled in the future -- a kind of TELEOLOGY.

For Frankl, the point is not simply to come to an abstract meaning of one's life, but a CONCRETE PURPOSE that one actually lives out -- hence an emphasis on RESPONSIBILITY.

For Frankl, the most basic motive force in people is a "WILL TO MEANING," which is more basic than a "will to pleasure," or a "will to power." For instance, people will suffer and even die for their values.

However, this "will to meaning" can be frustrated. This is called "EXISTENTIAL FRUSTRATION."

-- existential frustration is a part of everyone's experience, in one way or another, so it isn't pathological in itself.

-- however, an intense and enduring pattern of existential frustration can lead to "NOOGENIC NEUROSES" -- forms of mental illness rooted in a basic lack of meaning in one's life.

Generally, Frankl conceives of being human in terms of "NOODYNAMICS" -- an ongoing tension between who one is and who one can become -- a tension between one's achievements and one's goals.

-- so, for Frankl, mental health is NOT about attaining equilibrium, or contentment, or a painless state.

-- rather, it's about living out a meaningful struggle to become what one can possibly be -- to live out life's fundamental tensions in a meaningful way.

For Frankl, one common experience in modern life is "EXISTENTIAL VACUUM" -- an enduring, pervasive pattern of existential frustration, where one experiences one's life as being mostly empty and meaningless.

-- the biggest symptom of this is BOREDOM.

In Frankl's view, our modern social situation helps foster existential vacuum.

-- the older, more traditional meanings are on the decline:

-- animal instincts

-- traditions, such as religion, family, community

-- in their place, an increase in values that are essentially passive (rather than active & responsible), and that are ultimately unsatisfying:

-- CONFORMITY (just doing what everyone else is doing)

-- TOTALITARIANISM (just obeying orders, doing what you're told)

-- PLEASURE-SEEKING (just pleasuring oneself sensually, sexually)

-- connection to modern phenomena such as:

-- DEPRESSION (the "common cold of psychopathology"),

-- AGGRESSION (murders, rapes, gangs, abuse, etc.),

-- ADDICTION (drugs, alcoholism, etc.),

-- EMPTY SEXUAL PROMISCUITY (high teenage-pregnancy rates)

all of which Frankl sees as rooted in people's not perceiving and living out any higher purposes in their lives).

How can we start to live more meaningful, responsible lives?

Frankl's "categorical imperative" of Logotherapy:

"Live as if you were living already for the 2nd time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now." (pp. 131-132)


Another aspect of Frankl's view of meaning is that meaning is ALWAYS CHANGING -- life's meaning is inherently TRANSITORY, as we are always making choices and reorienting ourselves within the world.

DISCOVERING MEANING -- 3 basic ways:

1. Creating a work or doing a deed,

2. Experiencing something or encountering someone (esp. in LOVE),

3. By the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.

He's not talking about deliberately seeking out suffering (i.e., MASOCHISM), but about attaining a meaningful attitude in the face of life's unavoidable suffering. This is very important for Frankl, because here we're really challenged to CHANGE OURSELVES.


"PARADOXICAL INTENTION," a Logotherapeutic technique:

-- useful in cases of problems with "ANTICIPATORY ANXIETY," where one's fear of a certain event is precisely what brings about that event, e.g., test-taking, insomnia, sexual impotence, blushing, stuttering, etc.

-- cases of anticipatory anxiety involve:

"HYPER-REFLECTION" -- excessive thinking about the situation

"HYPER-INTENTION" -- trying too hard to avoid the situation

-- treatment involves PARADOXICAL INTENTION -- changing one's meaningful orientation to the situation by actually INVITING IT -- with a SENSE OF HUMOR that helps provide a distance from the situation.

-- in many cases, this shift in attitude undercuts the anticipatory anxiety.


The collective (social) neurosis

Prevalence of NIHILISM, the view that life has no meaning.

An outgrowth of DETERMINISTIC view of being human (i.e., views that reduce human beings to one, or a combination of things -- NOTHINGBUTNESS), such as:

biological, environmental, social, and/or psychological factors

Frankl uses the term "PAN-DETERMINISM" to refer to all forms of deterministic explanations of the human condition.

The problem with pan-determinism is that it NEGLECTS the interplay of FREEDOM and RESPONSIBILITY that is central to the human condition.

For Frankl, people have a basic freedom which is NOT ABSOLUTE (in the sense of being able to will one's situation completely), but is a FREEDOM TO TAKE A STAND in whatever situation in which they find themselves. People do DETERMINE THEMSELVES, within limits.



TRAGIC OPTIMISM: it is possibly to remain essentially optimistic, even in the face of life's "TRAGIC TRIAD:"




How can we do this?

1. turning suffering into a human achievement -- an occasion to find deeper, more meaningful living.

2. deriving from guilt the opportunity to change for the better

3. deriving from life's transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action NOW -- not in some indefinite "later."

In general, living a meaningful life (which includes an ongoing quest for even deeper meanings) counteracts the "mass neurotic syndromes" of our times:

depression, aggression, addiction, etc.

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