Man’s Search for Meaning (Frankl)

Book #13, read December 2018

Man’s Search for Meaning (Viktor E. Frankl)

Honestly, I first heard of Man’s Search for Meaning from Jordan Peterson, in whose 12 Rules for Life the former is copiously mentioned. It seemed appropriate for my project here, so I finally started reading Man’s Search for Meaning around Christmas 2018. First-hand accounts of concentration camp survival are not exactly standard holiday fare, but idk, the time seemed right.

I realize now that Man’s Search for Meaning became a bestseller upon original publication in 1946 and further went on to become literally one of the most influential books ever published. So I guess I was living under a rock.

Logotherapy and the drive for meaning

The first half is an account of Frankl’s experiences in the concentration camps, and the second half is an explanation of Frankl’s “logotherapy,” a school of psychological thought according to which the drive for meaning is the main human motivator. Frankl’s succinct and matter-of-fact treatment of both of these subjects makes this a much breezier read than you might expect.

As such a popular work, the book has of course attracted a fair bit of controversy. A reader of Man’s Search for Meaning could be forgiven for coming to believe that logotherapy was straightforwardly generated by Frankl’s experience. Instead, it seems Frankly had already mostly developed logotherapy prior to his concentration camp experiences. There’s some question about the extent to which Frankl was himself involved in unethical medical experiments, i.e. in cahoots with the Nazis in some way. That is far beyond the scope of my knowledge and expertise, though.

More in my philosophical neck of the woods, Frankl’s been blamed for victim-blaming. Personally, I didn’t detect anything other than the suggestion that a certain kind of will to live might have been necessary, though was plainly insufficient, for concentration camp survival. Perhaps the causation is the other way around: prisoners started to lose their apparent will to live when they were already, in fact, dying.

None of this seems especially problematic to logotherapy. After all, if the main drive in life is to find meaning, and one’s life is already drawing to a close, then it makes sense that the potential for further meaning would seem minimal.

Is logotherapy falsifiable?

The main challenge I see for logotherapy is what you could call its “unfalsifiability.” If logotherapy is to serve as a proper guide for therapeutic practice, then it should have certain implications for therapists and individuals, and it should be possible to tell whether it’s applicable and working for them. I’m not sure it can.

According to Frankl, there are several categories of meaning to be found in life. First and certainly the most salient to contemporary Americans is meaning derived through work: acts and achievements in the world. Second, meaning can be found in the having of certain kinds of experiences – not necessarily hedonistic ones, also perhaps contemplative or transcendental ones. This might be meaning of a spiritual/religious character, or maybe less supernatural and more personal growth-y.

Last but obviously not least is the type of meaning that can come from suffering. Meaning doesn’t automatically come from suffering. But many humans turn out to be capable of deriving meaning for themselves by withstanding unavoidable suffering with a sense of dignity or uprightness.

If everything can be meaningful, then nothing is clearly meaningless

When I started thinking about logotherapy, I began to spontaneously make observations that are consistent with it. For instance, the search for meaning seems to lie behind the increasingly popular decision not to have children. When people have control over their fertility, in an economy and society where worldviews proliferate widely, some of them inevitably come to value things outside of what used to be the default.

That’s when I realized that basically any observation can be made consistent with the tenets of logotherapy. If meaning can come from work, pleasure, or not-pleasure (suffering), then anyone doing anything can be said to be pursuing meaning, however circuitously or without immediate effort.

What types of observations would we expect to make if logotherapy’s basic premises were false? We would expect to find significantly many humans who do not in fact seem primarily motivated by the search for meaning. But logotherapy simultaneously invites us to see the search for meaning as diverse and pervasive, potentially occurring under literally any circumstances. No one ends up looking like a genuine counterexample.

Logotherapy is unfalsifiable, but not useless

So logotherapy is probably unfalsifiable. Does that mean it’s useless? Maybe not. Frankl still does a good job of drawing out attention towards the search for meaning per se, and the weightiness of this ultimately personal responsibility.

Moreover, many of Frankl’s small, specific comments are incisive even apart from their relationship to logotherapy overall. Frankl encourages us to see a certain degree of anxiety over the meaningfulness of life as normal or even healthy, and possibly constructive rather than necessarily neurotic. He elevates our understanding of the complete human person as containing various natural drives and instincts, but not really being straightforwardly reducible to those.

“Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now”

“Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now” is pretty good life advice – it advocates for a certain kind of distancing from our own choices in the moment, without asking that we consider them “objectively,” without being ourselves.

Ultimately, according to Frankl, in the words that stick with me the most:

“It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.”

Getting what we want looms so large in the western psyche, the “existential vacuum” of Frankl’s description – weak traditions, weak instincts. But in a time when young adults seem largely unable to decide what they want, or even to enjoy what they really thought they wanted, a dose of unchosen responsibility and rise-to-the-occasionness may be just what the doctor ordered.