Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning describes his experiences in the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz (Frankl 1985). These experiences inspired his ideas concerning meaning and meaninglessness. In a sense what makes Frankl’s ideas so powerful is that he was able to himself find—and to stress the importance of anyone, in any situation, finding—meaning, despite the brutal and awful conditions that surrounded him there. His being able to find meaning in such conditions contributed to his ability to survive the ordeal.
A key to Frankl’s conception of meaninglessness is his denial that having a meaningful existence is a person’s natural state. Instead, meaning has to be made. (But as we will see below this does not mean that there are some people, or some conditions, in which meaning is completely lost.) And the costs of failing to make one’s life meaningful to a significant extent can be severe. For example, Frankl theorized that some criminal behavior may be partially a result of failing to make one’s life meaningful.
Notice that it does not follow from what has been said so far that the concentration camp did not remove meaning from the existence of those involved in it. It did. But it removed meaning that had been previously created in the lives of the affected people. And so it was necessary to recreate meaning in life in order to survive.
There are three different courses of action that one can pursue—or three different states one can be in—in order to create meaning in one’s life. The first is through deeds or actions. Such actions can be, but need not be, particularly extraordinary. Making connections with other people could count as such an action. Helping someone with something small can even create meaning. The second course of action is the experience of values through a certain sort of medium—the medium might be an experience of beauty found in a work of art, or an important relationship with a close friend or loved one. The third sort of way that meaning can accrue to one is through suffering. While Frankl obviously did not want people to suffer, his view seems to have been that suffering is necessary, to some extent, for having meaning in one’s life. There are different sorts of suffering, and different grades of severity. Frankl was not suggesting that something as horrific as the Holocaust had a beneficial example of people. But meaning can be found (sometimes must be found) in suffering; in losing a loved one, failing in some of one’s pursuits, and so forth.
Frankl founded a school of psychotherapy called ‘Logotherapy’. ‘Logos’ is the Greek word for logic or reasoning. Frankl may have chosen this name because he believes that there is a clear sense in which most neuroses are failures of understanding or reason. As one would expect, it is specifically designed, at least in part, to help one deal with the existential loss of meaning.
There are three fundamental ideas to Logotherapy (Melton et.al. 2007). First, life has meaning—and thus can have meaning—under any sort of circumstance. Frankl’s experience at Auschwitz in effect proves this, because it is doubtful whether there are worse possible conditions than those that he there endured. Second, finding meaning in life is our main purpose in life. It is what Aristotle called the ‘final end’ of human existence. Finally, we always enjoy the freedom to find meaning in our circumstances, or in what we do. Under the worst conditions, there may not be much that we can do to find meaning, or express our freedom.
But one thing that is always available, even to someone horribly treated and in unfathomably bad conditions. And that one thing is to take a stand against the poor treatment. In the very act of negating one’s oppressors in this way meaning is made possible. Frankl emphasized that the first two ways of making or finding meaning, which he calls ‘creative possibilities’, are primary. The third only comes in to play, as it were, when conditions are so poor that there are no opportunities to create meaning in a more positive manner. The approach toward meaning in one’s life is called ‘bottom-up’, rather than ‘top-down’, because through it meaning is made. It is not simply bequeathed one. The role of the therapist in helping one through this process is effectively to show one that and how one’s affliction—however it specifically manifests itself—is ultimately the result of a privation of meaning. Once one comes to a full understanding of these kinds of connections, Frankl believed that most conditions will dissipate or disappear altogether (Metz 2013).
How might Frankl’s ideas help one to deal with more ordinary situations, such as those that arise for most people every day? It is intrinsic to Logotherapy that even being made aware of how one’s condition, or concern, relates to gains and losses of meaning can positively benefit one. In this way it contrasts with some more traditional forms of psychoanalysis, in which it can actually be dangerous to tell a person why he or she is suffering in the relevant way, rather than trying to get the person to figure it out within the context of therapeutic sessions.
- Frankl, Viktor E. Man’s search for meaning. 1985.
- Metz, Thaddeus, “The Meaning of Life”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)