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Man's Search For Meaning - A Practical Philosophy - Review by Dan Geddes

  Man's Search for Meaning

Man's Search For Meaning

Viktor Frankl

How delightful to read a psychological work that addresses life's issues as most people understand them! Viktor Frankl's prose sparkles with his humanity and reason, and marginalizes much other psychological work as abstract or laboratory bound.

Frankl's story of his survival of Nazi concentration camps is by now famous. It presents perhaps the ultimate "if he could do it, so can you" case study. Most of our complaints and problems are trivial compared to Frankl's plight as a condemned Jew in Nazi Germany. Reading his Man's Search for Meaning it is difficult to not feel shame over our own trifling complaints. Frankl's message is that the ultimate human freedom is the freedom to control our attitude toward the situations we inherit. We do not have to respond to stimuli like Pavlovian dogs. No one can take this ultimate freedom away.

Man's Search for Meaning is comprised of two parts, the first and longer of which is Frankl's account of his experience in Nazi concentration camps. Frankl writes about his experiences entirely without bitternes or vengefulness. He describes what he believes are the three phases of prisoners' psychological reactions to the death camps. He illustrates these phases with examples from his personal experiences or of people he knew while incarcerated. Thus, his account of "Experiences in a Concentration Camp" focuses on the problems of despair, and the right conduct and thought of those who overcame the brutality inflicted upon them.

The three phases--the period following admission to the camps, the period of entrenchment, and the period following release--all presented unique challenges. Even the period following liberation saw survivors lusting for vengeance, or seeing no meaning to their lives when their entire families had been murdered. But many inmates could not retain their belief in life's meaning under the dehumanizing conditions within the death camps. Frankl describes how it was apparent when an individual had given up hope: they would refuse to leave bed to report for duty, and would often retrieve a long-hidden cigarette for a last furtive pleasure before their deaths. Frankl believes many people who find life meaningless hide their despair in empty pleasure-seeking.

Frankl's experiences left him with the conclusion that "Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems; to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual." (97) There is no general answer to the question "What is the meaning of life?". But each of us is presented with a situation, and a set of problems and challenges to face in our lives--the purpose of our lives is always suggested to us. It is misleading to look for a transcendent meaning above and beyond our lives. So often our life's meaning is found in creative work or the enjoyment of it, our love of others (which forces us to transcend our selves), or even in our response to suffering, which like death is an inevitable part of life. Because of his experiences, Frankl emphasizes the possibilities of finding meaning through one's unavoidable suffering.

While "Experiences in a Concentration Camp" is the longest portion of the book and an extreme case study, "Logotherapy In a Nutshell" formally introduces Frankl's school of thought. The term "logotherapy" is derived from "logos" the Greek word for meaning. Frankl believes that the most effective therapy for many people is to discover the purpose of their lives. Frankl believes that the origins of so many self-destructive patterns and behaviors lies in people's "existential frustration"--their inability to see meaning in their lives.

Frankl believes that Freudian style psychoanalysis is flawed in spending disproportionate energy seeking the origins of "neuroses." Logotherapists help their patients find the meaning in their lives, and foster forward-looking approaches to therapy. As Frankl says, logotherapy is more introspective and less retrospective than psychoanalysis. It is also more affirmative. Psychoanalysis often reduces meaning and values to mere defense mechanisms, to which Frankl sagely replies "I would not be willing to live merely for the sake of my defense mechanisms" (121). Logotheraphy posits the origins of many "neuroses" to noogenic (mind-originating, a soulful term) causes rather than psychogenetic (a clinical term) ones.

Frankl also argues that logotherapy is a more realistic response to the human condition in that it seeks to establish a healthy tension between a person's current station in life and his or her goals. That tension is what motivates us to solve the problems of life. Conversely, psychoanalysis too often sees conflicts as unhealthy, and views homeostasis, a tensionless state, as the ideal condition.

Perhaps the most attractive tenet of logotherapy is that it holds that there is no overarching meaning of life for all people. Each of us is presented with situations in life and must solve them to the best of our abilities. In fact, the purpose of our lives changes over times as we confront new challenges. Frankl memorably dismisses seeking a universal Meaning of Life to asking a chess champion what the best move in chess is without regard to a given scenario.

Logotherapy thus escapes the extremes of orthodox religion, which often holds that the meaning of life is handed down to everyone from God, and of nihilism, which holds that there is no meaning at all. Logotherapy locates a purpose for each of us in the situations we inherit; it is grounded in our pasts and in the recognizable patterns of nature and human behavior, but we are free to respond it to the best we can.

In addition to helping patients seek the meaning of their lives, logotherapist work to rid them of traditional neuroses as well. Frankl's identifies such noogenic traps as anticapatory anxiety and hyper-intention as causes of neuroses. Anticipatory anxiety results in self-fulfilling prophecies about our obsessive-compulsive fears. Hyper-intention means we try so hard at something that we cannot accomplish it, often because we are seeking the result of a behavior (he cites orgasm as an example) rather than performing the activity (love) for its own sake. Frankl believes these can be overcome through the tactic of paradoxical intention. He gives the example of a man suffering from anticipatory anxiety who feared that he sweated excessively around other people. Frankl advised him to try to sweat all he could. By intending to do exactly what he feared, the man short-circuited his obsessive fear and was cured (147).

Frankl not only diagnoses the individual but society as a whole. He sees our Collective Neurosis as the teaching of "nothingbutness"--the belief that people are nothing but the products of psychic and material causes. This he calls "pan-determinism," the belief that people are so overdetermined that they have no freedom, no agency. Again, Frankl has staked our an attractive middle ground between the determinists and the existentialists, many of whom have argued that man's freedom from tradition is a too great a burden to bear.

Man's Search For Meaning articulated ideas I have often sensed or expressed in lesser ways. So many people who have rejected orthodox religion still have a strong sense of purpose, that life is worth living even if we are "only" animals. Although determined nihilists can still undercut Frankl's arguments as expressed here, I am sure Frankl's other works provide a stronger philosophical justification for logotherapy.

9 June 2000