Reading Notes by Lisa Blasch, edited by Mark Unno

Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning

These notes focus on the second section, which is devoted to explaining logotherapy as a method for discovering meaning in the complexity of human experience. The desire for meaning, which Frankl terms ‘the will to meaning,' provides us with the capacity to endure - and potentially transcend - the seeming irrationality of suffering in an otherwise meaningless world. This is not simply a mechanism for survival; as he notes, hopefulness quite often remains present even in the most hopeless of circumstances. Rather, it is a constructive path to achieving a life of significance. I will begin by reviewing Frankl's description of meaningfulness in human life, in which functioning as a free person consists of actively establishing a relationship to the world in which one lives. Next, I will discuss how this meaning becomes obstructed, thereby producing an existential vacuum. Finally, I will consider the possibilities for self-actualization through the transcendence of human alienation.

The Meaningful Life

Even in the most horrible circumstances, life holds out the possibility to disclose meaning. This disclosure is effected through the individual exercise of freedom to determine what life will consist of. This initially appears as a paradox between revealing meaning and making meaning. To begin to see through the paradox we begin by recognizing a complex "always-already" relationship between the individual and the world he or she inhabits. On the one hand, because the question of life's meaning cannot be asked abstractly, the particular life of the individual provides the only context for determining the normative claims that demand attention and ground freely chosen activity. Within each of us there is a desire and a corresponding capacity to find some form of meaning substantial enough to compel us to reconcile the life we have led up to the present moment with our desire to become something more in the future. At the same time, this is not a purely solipsistic enterprise, because the human psyche is not a ‘closed system' unto itself. Each individual will always find him or herself embedded in social complexities which constrain possibilities for self-development even as they make development possible.

Oftentimes, external circumstances appear to be so insoluble that a person may conclude that there is no possibility for rational hope. The force of despair at encountering substantial resistance to our desire to become what we wish to be is very powerful. Still, Frankl's response is to deny that we are ever so completely over-determined by externalities - rather, being self-determining consists of making a choice to take a position in relation to our circumstances. This chosen relation in turn provides us with some form of significance worth holding on to. Even the activity of deliberately embracing the simple fact that we have lived at all is a sufficiently self-determining relation to the frustrations of life's transitoriness.

The Existential Vacuum

The fact that we are prone to fall into despair when confronted by the apparent meaninglessness and cruelty of the world stems from the very nature of what it means to be human in the first place. The process of becoming human has involved a ‘twofold loss.' At first we find ourselves free from animalistic instincts which would otherwise determine our behavior, causing us to face the uncertainty of having to choose for ourselves how to live. As historical creatures, we experience the continual loss of the traditions which have helped us make sense of our lives. I would add that this second loss becomes more acute with the approach of modernity, in which appeals to both eternally transcendental and socially-established meanings are equally viewed with suspicion.

The double-loss inherent in the human condition often results in our having no idea how to proceed in life. Frankl notes two alternate versions of this uncertainty which appear to me to reflect the psychological categories of late capitalism and state-communism. The conformist resolves uncertainty by desiring to imitate those around him, while the totalitarian response is to submit one's behavior to the demands of others. In either case, a dependency upon external authority for direction obstructs the development of the self. This lack of coherent meaning produces a feeling of purposelessness or alienation. Those who suffer from this condition may compensate for an otherwise incomplete life by becoming absorbed in the pursuit of superficial goods such as power over others, various sundry pleasures or material wealth.

Self-Actualization through Transcendence

Frankl suggests that we only establish meaning in our lives through a relation to some form of otherness, which may consist of anything from a collection of values to another human being. In the act of transcending the self by establishing its relation to otherness, the self is actualized in the process. This process of relating oneself to otherness, however, is much different than the psychological dependence upon externality which characterizes the person suffering from the crisis of the existential vacuum. The difference in attitude begins with the recognition that each of us has some particular mission to fulfill. In this way, we are called upon to take responsibility for the relationship we establish between ourselves and the world around us.

This call to individual responsibility involves a categorical imperative to act as if our lives have already been lived once, but may be transformed through a second opportunity to live. Frankl describes this as "[a confrontation with] life's finiteness as well as finality of what [we] make out of both [our] lives and [ourselves]." When we decide what we are ultimately responsible to, we transcend the self as an empty, unmotivated, isolated unit and establish it instead as more fully human, more meaningful by virtue of its determinately chosen relationships. Frankl describes three possible means for this self-discovery. The first is through the work that we do, our accomplishments and what we create. The second is through the choice to be receptive to what the world offers to us, to experience our surroundings and other human beings. Love is a particularly transformative experience: a person who experiences the love of another is encouraged to realize and actualize what is best in themselves. However, there is not always opportunity to find meaning in activity and experience due to the constraints our situation imposes upon us. In this case all that remains is to cultivate the only capacity that cannot be taken away from us by choosing for ourselves how we will comport ourselves to our situation. By cultivating a noble attitude toward suffering, the individual who is faced with the impossibility of transforming a tragic situation is called upon to transform themselves instead.


I'd like to preface this question section by expressing my frustration with my inability to put my finger on precisely what my question is.

I have some difficulty clarifying the central thesis of this work, that the individual invariably has a will to meaning and the freedom to actualize it. I understand that Frankl is throwing into relief a basic capacity we often witness in people to continue to want to live even under the most extreme circumstances, but he himself points out that he is doing more than describing a mechanism for survival. He is making claims about the nature of meaning, freedom and desire based on a conception of the self whose composition does not seem to be substantially impacted by societal forces. However, it seems reasonable to argue that the psychological constitution of the individual is to a large extent determined by the particularities of the organization of human life itself. A project which relies so heavily upon a transcendental category of self-determining individuality may be too insensitive to the way in which a pathological society produces an entirely different kind of person. In this case, is it possible to distinguish between those who chase false ends for the purposes of survival and those who have made/disclosed authentic meaning in the world?