Man’s Search For Meaning: A Not-Quite Review

I’ve been in heavy dialogue with existentialism lately, as my post from yesterday clearly indicates.  It interests me, confuses me, irritates me, and yet comforts me all in the same breath.  Though I have not done a very heavy study of the self-titled existentialists such as Sartre, Heidegger, Buber, Camus or Jaspers, I have done at least a semblance of studying Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Dostoevsky, who never called their works “existential,” but certainly indirectly lent their thoughts to inspire the men and women who came after them.

Victor Frankl is one of those men, though not entirely…I don’t think (but I’m probably very wrong there). It’s quite clear that logotherapy is existential in nature insofar that its focus is man’s will to meaning, or desire to find and hold meaning in his life as it exists. It is perhaps more open to theistic understandings than some existentialists are (Sartre in particular), but it’s existential pretty much the whole way around.

Anyway, I’m talking about logotherapy without defining it.  Logotherapy is a form of psychiatry which focuses more on helping the patient find meaning in one’s life based on present and/or future purpose or vocation, over against traditional psychoanalysis, which is primarily introspective and retrospective in nature.  Frankl develops this theory not only from psychological study and result, but also from his own personal experiences as an inmate of four different concentration camps in Germany during WWII. The first section of MSM deals entirely with these experiences. The second and third sections unpack logotherapy and even give some examples of logotherapy in action.

It’s a very cool book, very accessible, especially for what is more or less a psychology text. His rather objective views of the camps and his experiences there is slightly eerie sometimes, almost like he’s cold to them, but at the same time he’s showing you what he saw, and that’s what a good author should do.  It’s not all about the horrible things that happened in the camps, but about how prisoners react to such situations (if you want more information, read the book). It raises questions and provides answers very well.

I don’t always know what to do with the information Frankl presents, though. I’m no psychiatrist; I took one class on psychology in college and that was all that was required of me.  I guess what I mean is the existential idea of self-determination. As I said in my post yesterday, I understand what the existentialists had a problem with.  Nietzsche despised the church for its prevention of self-determination, for its prevention of men and women becoming what they could be, and I get that. My trouble is what to do with all the rampant individualism existentialism has sparked.  It’s a good thing, for no two people exist for the exact same reason; our vocations are only something that we can choose for ourselves for any number of reasons.  I’m worried though that this has caused two things:

1) A lack of dependence on community.  Sure, people talk about coming together and uniting, but for what?  Most of the time, when this happens, we just wind up with groups of individuals, not communities.  Communities consider each other, and how what they’re doing benefits one another in their actions and words.  It’s hard to do that as an existentialist (though I’m sure Frankl would look for an interdependent philosophy between individualism and communal life).  Community involves putting others before oneself, whereas existentialism promotes the self.

2) In a world of people searching for meaning, we’re quickly running out of individual meanings.  We’re all trying to so hard to be individuals that it’s very hard not to wind up copying each other despite our fear of doing so (Frankl would call this paradoxical intention). Where does individuality end, and more universal truth begin?  Are they synonymous, or at least synergistic?

I don’t know.  Obviously, this book made me think, and I’m a big supporter of that.   Check it out!  Thinking is good!


2 thoughts on “Man’s Search For Meaning: A Not-Quite Review

  1. You’re the second person to mention Frankl today so I am going to check him out. As far as your post goes, of course it’s complex, but I think moderate individualism and community can and should exist at the same time.

  2. I have done at least a semblance of studying Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Dostoevsky, who never called their works “existential,”

    Wha? :)

    Afsluttende uvidenskabelig Efterskrift til de philosophiske Smuler. Mimisk-pathetisk-dialektisk Sammenskrift, Existentielt Indlæg

    In English:

    Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments: A Mimical-Pathetical-Dialectical Compilation, An Existential Contribution

    PS, Walter Kaufmann was insane. That is not meant as an insult, A. Hannay agrees

    “The moment I take Christianity as a doctrine and so indulge my cleverness or profundity or my
    eloquence or my imaginative powers in depicting it: people are very pleased; I am looked upon
    as a serious Christian. The moment I begin to express existentially what I say, and consequently
    bring Christianity into reality: it is just as though I had exploded existence—the scandal is there
    at once.” (Kierkegaard, Journals. Dru, p. 174, 1849)

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