Sep 25, 2020 in Book Review

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

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Abstract

The 20th century produced a revolutionary change in the understanding of a human being. The perspective of a person possessing divine nature and qualities of God was destroyed first by Darwin’s theory and other atheistic materialistic doctrines, and then even more damaged by psychodynamic and behavioristic theories of personality. Gradually, by common efforts, they turned a human being into a mere arena for the fight of various impulses, drives, and instincts, a weak creature whose behavior, emotions, and thoughts are determined and predicted, and reactions are caused intentionally by deliberate stimulation.

There was no more space for the spiritual aspects of a personality, no opportunity for free decision and freedom of spirit. The image of a human as a God’s child disappeared and thus people acquired the right not to be responsible for their own deeds and life. They denied Christianity and its imperatives, such as, “Our lives should honor God” (Colossians 3: 17). It seems as though Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s statement has turned to be true, the statement, which claims that one needs only to take the belief from the man that eternal life exists and everything will be allowed, including crime.

Viktor E. Frankl (2006) elaborated a theory called logotherapy, which proved to be a decent alternative to all the aforementioned theories that demonstrated their ineffectiveness and caused damage to the psychological state of the human citizens on the planet Earth. Frankl (2006) and his book Man’s Search for Meaning, the subject of the present paper, has a huge impact on people because the author has managed to revive human spirituality. The present review focuses on the exploration and reflection on the principles and ideas, arguments, and evidence-based judgments in favor of the strong willful quality of personality, which are revealed in the book by Viktor E. Frankl.

Description

Man’s Search for Meaning combines the autobiographical story (the first part of the book) and the psychological, psychosocial, and philosophical analysis of the events and their meaning in human life (the second, theoretical part). However, it is not an ordinary account of autobiographical facts: first, they take place in the Nazi concentration camp, and the author is one of the inmates.

Additionally, Frankl (2006) does not simply depict a frightening picture of camp horrors, as many had done before him. On the contrary, he focuses on “small torments”, as he calls them, and describes sufferings and death not of “great heroes and martyrs”, but rather of “an army of unknown and unrecorded victims”. Second, it is not a mere report of events narrated in chronological order. Rather, as the author himself puts it, it is an attempt to express the “personal experiences” of millions of prisoners and describe the ways of how those awful circumstances were reflected in their minds.

In brief, the book strives to present a complete theory of human personality, its attitudes, values, and beliefs about life, absolute moral foundations, which cannot be destroyed by hardships and sufferings, even in “a daily struggle for life itself” (Frankl, 2006). Moreover, the author aims at describing a constructive attitude to life. However, it is not a psychological personality theory in its classical meaning, with structural components, like Freudian id, ego, and superego, and the precise account of mechanisms and factors, which influence and determine the human behavior on every stage of development.

On the contrary, Frankl (2004) presents rather a philosophical concept of an individual as an undetermined being capable of rising over all drives or external conditions, even as severe as in a Nazi camp, growing beyond them in one’s own spirituality, and making a conscious, willful decision about life and its meaning.

The book Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl consists of two major parts. In the first, autobiographical, part, “Experiences in a Concentration Camp”, the author divides the perceptions and psychological reactions of sufferers at the camp into three distinct stages. The first stage is associated with the shock caused by the admission to camp, the major initial reactions being fear, panic, and despair, although combined with illusions and last shreds of hope, which are called in psychiatry “delusion of reprieve” (Frankl, 2004, p. 23). Next, the author defines the second stage as a period when the campers are “well entrenched in camp routine” (Frankl, 2006, p. 22).

The illusions are all destroyed and complete apathy combined with emotional death sets in. The third stage deals with the psychology of a prisoner after liberation that needs a particular psychotherapeutic help because of one’s “bitterness”, “disillusionment”, and “depersonalization” (Frankl, 2006). The second part called “Logotherapy in a Nutshell” is dedicated to a more profound explanation of Frankl’s (2004) own therapeutic doctrine, based on the existential philosophical and psychological tradition since it deals with the human existence and its “logos”, or meaning.

The major problem that Frankl (2004) is trying to solve in his book is the problem of a man’s search for meaning, “the will to meaning” as one’s principal driving force, or motivational factor. In this regard, there appears an opposite problem of the so-called “existential vacuum”, or lack of meaning in life. This key term of Frankl’s psychotherapeutic theory called “logotherapy”, or treatment by meaning, will be discussed in detail later in the paper.

In particular, the author is striving to solve the problems of freedom, responsibility, and value of life. He discusses in detail the arguments proving that life in itself is worth living without conditioning this absolute truth by the outer or inner factors. He asks and answers the question of the sense of life being guided by inhuman conditions, seemingly robbing the life of its meaning, and forcing it to lack any purpose or future, as in sorrow, fatal disease, or imprisonment. The above-stated problems will be the focus of the discussion in the next part of the paper.

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Interpretation

Within the paradigm meaning – lack of meaning, Frankl (2006) presents the main concepts of his “logotherapy”, namely “the will to meaning, or logos” versus “existential frustration” and “existential vacuum”. The search for meaning motivates a person:

  • to create;
  • to experience beauty, love, and truth, or even;
  • to find value in sufferings (the three ways of fulfilling life meaning, according to Frankl (2006).

In contrast, the lack of meaning, or “existential vacuum”, which ensues when the will to meaning is frustrated, results in neuroses. Finally, it is reasonable to admit that the author does not consider “existential frustration” pathological or pathogenic. He admits that it causes distress because it is associated with the so-called “existential despair” but not a mental disease. In fact, distress turns out to be better than total indifference, apathy, and loss of hope. The author proves this idea by giving an example of a prisoner who lost the hope to be released on the 30th of April and died on the 31st.

In brief, the state of lost hope, lack of meaning, and boredom, in which the “existential vacuum” frequently manifests itself, causes the body’s loss of resistance to illnesses and lower immunity. Logotherapy assists an individual in finding “hidden logos” of his/her existence, acquiring the desire to live and the ability to bear any hardships, and turning the crisis into growth and development. Besides, Frankl (2006) poses spiritual sphere, love, and past experiences, of which a person cannot be robbed, as the rescuing straws in the struggle for living in the world, “which no longer recognizes the value of human life or of human dignity”.

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Further, the author contemplates the problem of the right place where it is reasonable and effective to look for meaning, either inside oneself or outside, in the outer world. In such a way, he asserts that to be happy, a person must direct his/her attention not inside but outside; introspection and self-reflection are not productive. On the contrary, they can lead to psychological, neurological, or noological problems (Frankl, 2006).

A human being, whose attention is directed at the objects in the external world, finds proper meaning. This idea is at the core of the principal logotherapeutic technique (called “paradoxical intention”) that grounds on the process of “dereflection”, when an individual’s “hyper-intention”, or excessive attention to oneself is defocused on the object – something or somebody in the world.

The next significant term, “spiritual freedom”, is relevant to Frankl’s (2006) striving to solve the eternal problem of freedom, which was discussed by all the existing psychological as well as philosophical theories. He discussed it in relation to the human potential capacity to rise beyond conditions and make a willful conscious choice concerning one’s own attitude to those conditions. Moreover, the person becomes automatically responsible for one’s own decisions and choices whereby the problem of responsibility rises in the book.

In general, Frankl (2006) describes the problem of freedom and responsibility in opposition to the concept of “pan-determinism”, which is interpreted by him as an erroneous and even dangerous assumption that a human being is incapable of resisting internal and external conditions and is wholly predictable in one’s behavior. Frankl (2006) argues that not only “personality is unpredictable” but also, “Man does not simply exist but decides what his existence will be”. The author abundantly supports this statement with reasonable arguments, vivid examples, evidence of “great heroes” and “martyrs” from the camp that have chosen to rise over their own desire for food and shared their warmth and bread with the distressed.

So, the person always has the choice and free will to decide whether to be determined by psychological, biological, or sociological conditions or to determine on one’s own whether to give in or stand up to them. A person actually can find the meaning even in the gravest sufferings, turning negative aspects into constructive ones and in such a way demonstrate “tragic optimism” instead of losing hope, the ability to “be worthy of [one’s] own sufferings” as Fyodor Dostoyevsky put it (as cited in Frankl, 2006).

Criticism

Logotherapy presents a complete existential, psychological theory, which gives answers to the principal questions about human nature, life, and personality. Besides, it pays considerable attention to such merely human aspects as the spirituality of people and their capacity to influence their own destiny. Frankl (2006) presents reasonable arguments in support of his view that the person is free to rise over any circumstances.

It is logical to conclude that the decent human behaviors of real saints among the prisoners of the Nazi camp and their capacity to put such terrible circumstances under control and emerge stronger are worthy role models. After all, it becomes evident that spirituality is the dimension, which must be cherished by all people more than any pleasure, money, or gained authority. Otherwise, humanity will not differ from other creatures on the Earth.

It seems reasonable to reflect critically on Frankl’s (2006) conceptions associated with the motivational sphere of personality. Since a human being is frequently regarded in the research as a complete synergistic energy system, motivation can be seen as a directing power of human resources. For this reason, it is difficult to overstate its role in determining a person’s behavior and the value of a true concept of the principal motivating factors. Frankl (2004) asserts that the most powerful driving force is the human will to live, as opposed to Freudian will to pleasure or Adlerian will to superiority.

In my view, at least the will to meaning seems more human and close to people’s spirituality, which was ignored by many theories of the 20th century. Overall, such theories as psychodynamic or behavioristic ones robbed the human being of one’s spiritual nature and higher capacities. Psychoanalysis puts one’s inner drives, subconscious impulses in the focus of attention, and fosters concentration on self, its inner processes, and mechanisms through introspection and retrospection. In contrast, Frankl (2004) argues that the “self-centeredness” of a person can cause problems to his psychological being and stresses the importance of looking into the future, finding hope, and realizing the existence of many new potential meanings awaiting there.

Logotherapy helps the individual to search for meaning in the outside world and makes one actualize the potentialities for their own progress that lie in outer situations or other people. Hence, it is evident that it prevents a person from unnecessary concentration on oneself and instead, motivates the individual to create and be optimistic in any circumstances.

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This emphasis of logotherapy on the central significance of a person’s transcendence beyond own being brought Frankl’s (2006) theory to a clash with the humanistic theories as well, although logotherapy comes close to them in that it is an existential theory. Thus, the central concept of self-actualization as the highest human need and motivator makes up the central idea of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In other words, the most significant goal in the life of every person must be the realization and actualization of their own capacities, talents, and abilities.

In contrast, Frankl (2006) argues that self-actualization and success must not be pursued but rather “ensue” as by-products of the realization of meanings in the world, as side-effects of self-transcendence.

Another valuable point for discussion concerns the views of the author and some other basic psychological doctrines on the homeostasis or heterostasis of human motivation. While Sigmund Freud in his psychoanalytical theory claims that an individual constantly strives for the full satisfaction of one’s needs and achievement of complete pleasure, Frankl (2006) argues that a person continually strives for new meaning and “existential tension”. This constant process never seizes as it is vital for a person to find definite meanings in specific situations, here and now, as the existential motto declares.

Every moment, every new day brings new opportunities and at the same time demands from a person to search for the most appropriate meanings. The point is that a person must consciously and correctly respond to the expectations of life itself, to understand what life demands, and what potentialities in the world one has to actualize in every particular moment.

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Integration of the Academic and the Personal

Frankl (2006) presented a great number of valuable ideas that are able to change people’s perceptions and consequently lives. I find the author’s view on the problem of life value precious for me personally and modern people in general. The author poses the question of how “to say yes to life” in spite of all tragedies and asserts that “life is potentially meaningful on any condition.” Here, he also raises the question of an individual’s valuable ability to turn negative, even tragic events into constructive experiences that promote personal growth, motivate deeper understanding, and facilitate spiritual development.

The task of every person is to make sense of any adversity and derive the opportunity “to change oneself for the better”. By giving examples from the camp as well as from modern life (e. g., a woman whose son died, and her another son, being in a wheelchair, happened to love life), he proves that life has meaning in itself unaccountable on outer circumstances. Here, Frankl (2006) refers to “Supermeaning”, or upper meaning, and God who preserves all the person’s tears and claims that all suffering will not be in vain. A person is responsible for the choice of meaning, so he/she must remember that in the future, there might be the meaning waiting for him/her even though it seems there is no value in life.

This idea comes close to the Bible itself, which says that “Christ is the reason for life” (Philippians 1:21). This question in Frankl’s (2006) book is revealed through the use of such linguistic units as “meta clinical problems”, “self-transcendence”, and “life transitriness”. Even the semantic loading of the aforementioned terms transfer the idea of meta sense and certain higher divine influence in a human life, which goes beyond psychology, even philosophy, into a sacred, supernatural sphere exceeding human finite mental capacities.

Another valuable idea presented by Frankl (2006) concerns the concept of “spiritual freedom”. In today’s life full of distress, incurable diseases, and uncontrollable accidents, the concept of free choice of one’s own attitude as salvation from despair seems valuable and full of significance. This concept of freedom and control over any situation gives hope that in the face of any distress, a human being has an opportunity not to lose one’s own human nature. Besides, as the Bible asserts, “God protects those who are helpless” (Psalm 12: 5).

Moreover, it is claimed in the Bible that “belief in God should be accompanied by action” (Deuterenomy27: 10), Frankl’s (2006) ideas claim that we should demonstrate our understanding of meanings by deeds, love, or actions, and not in any case by mere words. Finally, Frankl (2006) refers to the God inside, and inspiringly claims that no suffering or inhuman conditions can deprive an individual of inner happiness and harmony. Here, I see hope and inspiration for our generation since preserving spirituality and human values is of major importance for human beings to be alive.

Frankl (2006) also expresses his views on the problem of success, which, without exaggeration, has become an idol of the twentieth century. The proofs of its popularity and significance for the human minds can be found everywhere, from the media with its success stories to the emergence of numerous complete theories and practical guides on how to achieve this ephemeral idol. Frankl (2006) answers this question very originally and unexpectedly in my view, and also reasonably.

Thus, he asserts that success and happiness must not be pursued; success must ensue, while happiness must happen. In other words, they occur automatically as side effects, as by-products, and not a principal set goal, in the process of a person searching “for a reason to be happy”, through actualizing not one’s own self but the potential meaning in the outer world peculiar to a given situation.

Conclusion

The paper presented a review of the ideas highlighted in the book Man’s Search for Meaning by a famous psychiatrist, existential psychologist, and philosopher Viktor E. Frankl. His major principles were discussed and critically reflected in relation to the examples from Frankl’s (2006) autobiographical account of concentration camp experiences. The theorist proved by theoretical logic and undeniable vivid examples that a human being has the freedom to choose one’s own destiny and the capacity to preserve its human essence in any circumstances. Moreover, the principal motivational power of human strivings is the will to meaning, in contrast to outer mechanisms influencing human behaviors.

Man’s search for meaning constitutes the foundation of logotherapy that proved to be effective in the treatment of various types of neuroses. Additionally, the meaning, or “logos” of life assists a healthy person undergoing a conflict to make sense of their existence and bear all the events happening to him/her, notwithstanding the degree of their severity. As Frankl’s (2006) favorite statement of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche claims, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how”.

The opposite concept to the sense of life is a meaningless or existential vacuum, which has been highlighted and interpreted in the paper from the point of view of its significance in the life of modern citizens. Their inability or unwillingness to search for meaning frequently results in aggression, crime, suicide, or addiction. Finally, it is necessary to emphasize the significant impact the book by Frankl (2004) had on the readers internationally and its enormous popularity in many countries, specifically in the USA. It is the book that is able to change the worldview and perception of the very essence of one’s existence.

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