Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Outline of the book

In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Dr Frankl splits his book into two parts: his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp and an outline of his theory of logotherapy.


Part I

In Part I, Frankl discusses his time in concentration camps. He purposely avoids anything graphic, suggesting that there are already numerous works available to read about the realities of life inside a Nazi prison camp. During his time in concentrations camps, Frankl observed that many of those who died whilst there, did so because they had lost all hope for the future (they had nothing to live for). Although he concedes in his book that many factors, outside of one’s control were also to blame, he also believes that keeping hope alive helps one to keep on living. Frankl kept himself alive by summoning up thoughts of his wife and the prospect of seeing her again, and by dreaming at one point of lecturing after the war about the psychological lessons to be learned from the Auschwitz experience.


Part II

The second part of Frankl’s book expands on his psychological theory, which he calls ‘logotherapy’ (‘logos’ being a Greek word denoting ‘meaning’). The basis of logotherapy is the belief that the search for meaning is the most important thing in human existence): the greatest task for any person is therefore to find meaning in life. Those who focus on the pursuit of pleasure or materialistic success are in effect barking up the wrong tree.

One important phrase used to demonstrate the above (which Frankl plucks from the writings of Nietsche) and which is frequently cited in the book, is the following: “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How”.

The above quote emphasises that once one has found a meaning for existence, the process of actually living becomes much easier. It is the above words of Nietsche that have greatly influenced the content and direction of this site.

Frankl saw three possible sources for meaning: in work (doing something significant), in love (caring for another person), and in courage during difficult times.

He suggests that suffering in and of itself is meaningless, and that we give our suffering meaning by the way in which we respond to it: forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.



The author of the preface states: ‘I have known successful businessmen who, upon retirement, lost all zest for life. Their work had given their lives meaning. Often it was the only thing that had given their lives meaning and, without it, they spent day after day sitting at home, depressed, “with nothing to do.”’

‘I have known people who rose to the challenge of enduring the most terrible afflictions and situations as long as they believed there was a point to their suffering. Whether it was a family milestone they wanted to live long enough to share or the prospect of doctors finding a cure by studying their illness, having a Why to live for enabled them to bear the How.’


The Causes and Problems in Modern Society

Frankl believes that many popular theories about how we live are wrong: people focus too much on the pursuit of happiness and the idea that a state of equilibrium is a good thing. He believes that one does not need a ‘tensionless state’ but instead a state of ‘striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal’. For more on the ‘tensionless state’, the pursuit of happiness and evolutionary theory, please follow the link.

As suggested by other philosophical writers, the twentieth century has been a difficult time for many individuals. This is recognised also by Frankl by what he calls the ‘existential vacuum’. People in society are no longer ruled by basic instinct, as for most of us, our primary motivations (food & shelter) have been met. In addition, the twentieth century has broken from the tradition from much of the past. Many people are no longer brought up affiliated to a particular religion (and instead are surrounded by a multitude of different religions and cultures); strict Victorian values and the Protestant work ethic have become less prominent; in addition, the modern world and the growing middle class has opened up unending work opportunities, so there is no longer a simple choice to make. Many people do not know what they wish to do with the result that some simply wish to do what others do (‘conformism’) or what others wish him to do (‘totalitarianism’).

Sometimes the frustrated will to meaning is vicariously compensated for by a will to power, including the most primitive form of the will to power, the will to money. In other cases, the place of frustrated will to meaning is taken by the will to pleasure. That is why existential frustration often eventuates in sexual compensation. We can observe in such cases that the sexual libido becomes rampant in the existential vacuum.


The Meaning of Life

Ah, the long sought out answer to the meaning of life. Frankl cleverly sidesteps the question like a politician and suggests that what matters is not the meaning of life in general but the specific meaning of a person’s life at any given moment. He believes that everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life which demands fulfilment. In that way, he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.


He also encourages people to seek meaning in life out in the world, rather than within oneself or one’s own psyche. Perhaps this should be taken to mean that meditation alone is unlikely to provide you with meaning. It can also be used as a warning – too much time pondering over philosophical questions and not enough connection to the real world can send you crazy – a la Nietzsche!


Useful Advice

‘Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time aswrongly as you are about to act now!’.


How to Discover Meaning in Life

According to logotherapy, we can discover meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.

The Meaning of Love

‘In logotherapy, love is not interpreted as a mere epiphenomenon of sexual drives and instincts in the sense of a so-called sublimation. Love is as primary a phenomon as sex. Normally, sex is a mode of expression for love. Sex is justified, even sanctified, as soon as, but only as long as, it is a vehicle of love. Thus love is not understood as a mere side-effect of sex; rather, sex is a way of expressing the experience of that ultimate togetherness which is called love.’

The Meaning of Suffering

‘We may find a meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed. One must turn one’s predicament into a human achievement. When we are no longer able to change a situation (e.g. we have inoperable cancer) we are challenged to change ourselves.’


My viewpoint

Frankl’s idea of logotherapy is one which I can happily follow. To summarize, it can be applied as follows: there is no grand ‘meaning of life’ suitable for all. The best we can do is to create a meaning for each individual. Therefore, stop worrying about the grand scheme of where we fit into the universe and instead create a goal to aim for (which, if you really are obsessed by the cosmos and our place in it, would allow you to focus on more tangible targets such as being a professor of philosophy/astrophysics or to author some books on evolutionary biology).


The idea seems great to me, as it takes some weight off our shoulders. We can stop worrying about the pointlessness of existence and instead focus on achieving a goal in life: inventing something to live for. Whilst in a sense I have adopted this theory as part of my approach to life, acceptance of this theory will never dampen my inquisitiveness about the true nature of our existence.

Whilst I enjoy the theory, my only minor irritation is with the section Frankl writes on the ‘Meaning of Love’. Although I agree with the majority of his views, the subject of love is one where we differ. In my eyes, this tie-in between love and sex, and that sex is an expression of love is all a bit wishy-washy and romantic to me. I tend to favour the approach put forward in evolutionary biology: sex is for producing offspring; pleasure encourages us to pursue it; contraception allows us the pleasure but without the offspring (and was an unpredicted move as far as evolutionary biology goes); love helps us to pick suitable partners to produce healthy offspring and to protect them from others who may wish to impregnate them. That is my view in a nutshell; I have of course expanded on this elsewhere.

Recommend some other good reads on Auschwitz, the 2nd World War in general and information about making a trip to visit there.


Read Full Post »