Thursday, November 30, 2023

Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning (Reading Group notes, meeting #2)

This post is part 2 of my Philosophy Meetup reading group on Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning.  My summary from part 1 is here.

Part 2 of Man’s Search for Meaning is a summary of the main tenets of “logotherapy”.  “Logos” = meaning.  Frankl begins with a humorous story of an American doctor who asked him to summarize, in one sentence, the difference between logotherapy and psychoanalysis.  Frankl asked him to summarize the latter in just one sentence, to which the man responded “"During psychoanalysis, the patient must lie down on a couch and tell you things which sometimes are very disagreeable to tell." (p. 120).  Frankl then responded that in logotherapy the patient can remain sitting erect, but must hear things (vs tell things) that are disagreeable.  What Frankl means by this comedic summary is that psychoanalysis is primarily retrospective vs introspective. Logotherapy is future-oriented, and as such it disrupts the self-centered feedback loop typical of the neurotic.  Having the patient confront, and get reoriented towards, their meaning in life helps them break the feedback loops typical of neuroses. 

Later Frankl shares another example of the story that illustrates effectively the difference.  He recounts the time a high ranking American diplomat came to see him.  This person had previously received psychoanalysis for 5 years.  In those therapy sessions, the diplomat, who was unhappy about his career given the direction US diplomacy had taken, was told his unhappiness at work stemmed from unresolved anger towards his father (this anger was now being projected onto his superiors at work).  And thus the therapy involved digging deeply into his childhood and relationship with his father.  But Frankl responded, after a few sessions with this diplomat, that he did not in fact suffer any neurosis.  His vocation was impeding his “will to meaning”.  So the man gave up his job, thus resolving the conflict he felt. The future orientation of logotherapy, vs years of rumination and digging up memories from childhood, did the trick in this case.

Frankl contrasts logotherapy with other therapies as follows:

According to logotherapy, this striving to find a meaning in one's life is the primary motivational force in man. That is why I speak of a will to meaning in contrast to the pleasure principle (or, as we could also term it, the will to pleasure) on which Freudian psychoanalysis is centered, as well as in contrast to the will to power on which Adlerian psychology, using the term "striving for superiority," is focused. (p. 121).

So logotherapy begins from an assumption quite different than the one we may commonly begin with—that people are primarily motivated by being happy.  Of course, many people may in fact say that this is what they want out of life.  But such an aspiration is typically frustrated.  Happiness is an illusory aspiration.  Meaning is really what drives our motivations, and if we are unaware of this fact it can create many problems for our lives. 

In the example of the troubled diplomat, that person was experiencing what Frankl calls “existential frustration”.  Such existential frustration is not pathological.  A few pages later Frankl makes what I think is one of his most profound insights, that we ought not to strive to remove all existential tension. 

I consider it a dangerous misconception of mental hygiene to assume that what man needs in the first place is equilibrium or, as it is called in biology, "homeostasis," i.e., a tensionless state. What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task. (p. 127)

Rather than striving for a stress-free or tensionless life, what we need to do is re-orient ourselves towards a meaningful life.  This will no double strike many of us as a counterintuitive recommendation.  We strive to structure much of our lives in a fashion that eliminates or insulates us from different types of stresses and tensions- economic hardship, problematic relationships or people, unfulfilling work, etc.  Is Frankl suggesting we just let these hardships afflict us?  No.  But we must recognize that a fulfilled life entails striving and struggling for worthwhile goals vs a life of ease and comfort.  The primitive forms of the will to power (e.g. will to make money) and will to pleasure (e.g. sexual compensation) are mistaken orientations to take to one’s future.  And yet so much of our culture equates the good life with the amount of wealth and opportunities in the sexual market place one has.  It is not a coincidence that there is so much discontent in our contemporary consumerist culture.  

Frankl introduces the concept of the existential vacuum.   No instinct tells humans what to do, and this creates a challenge for our species.  In the 20th century Frankl believes there is a real risk that many will just do what others do (conformism) or what they are told (totalitarianism) (p. 128).   The existential vacuum manifests itself in a state of boredom (129).  He describes what he calls “Sunday neurosis” as the kind of depression that afflicts people who “become aware of the lack of content in their lives when the rush of the busy week is over and the void within themselves becomes manifest. Not a few cases of suicide can be traced back to this existential vacuum” (129).  He also notes this occurs with pensioners and aging people. 

Group discussion:  Have you had experience with the existential vacuum?  For me I think I have experienced this when (a) I experienced divorce (the ending of a romantic relationship that had extended from age 18 into my mid-40s) (b) the completion of large projects I have been working on for many years (e.g. writing a book, one of which took 15 years from start to finish); (c) during sabbaticals when I do not have any teaching or administrative duties; (d) death of family members, and (e) as my children got older, transitioning from dependent children to independent adults.  I do not really think I will ever retire from my career, though perhaps that is simply a coping strategy to delay acceptance of the existential vacuum that would create for me.

What is the meaning of life? (p. 130)  Frankl contends that there is no one answer to this question, it varies from person to person, day to day, and hour to hour.  There is no abstract meaning to life.  The insight that meaning in life is constantly in flux is a profound insight I think we often overlook.  The meaning we found in life decades ago may no longer be a fruitful source of meaning today (and this can cause us significant anguish in the present context).  In such cases we really are “living in the past” vs “living in the present/future”.

Frankl contends that we have the responsibility to discover/determine the meaning of our lives (it is not something others can answer for us).  This emphasis on the responsibility to attend to our meaning is captured in the following statement which Frankl takes to be the categorical imperative of logotherapy, what I will refer to as “The Counterfactual Test (CFT)”:

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!"    

Group exercise:  Try imagining CFT.  You are actually living your life for a second time, up to the point today.  Is there anything you would do differently from this point on? 

What is the purpose or benefit of CFT?  Well, firstly it requires us to see the present as the past.  Furthermore, the past is construed as something that is malleable- subject to change.  This helps amplify our responsibleness.  Logotherapy is not preachy or teaching.  Frankl argues that the therapist does not tell the person how to interpret their life.  He draws the following analogy between a painter and an eye specialist.  A painter tries to convey a picture of the world as he sees it.  Logotherapy does not try to do this, the therapist is not to prescribe what a person should believe about their life.  Instead, the therapist is like an eye specialist, helping to widen and broaden the patient’s field of vision.  

Frankl stresses the point that the true meaning of life is discovered in the world vs in ourselves or our mind.  This is what he calls the “self-transcendence of human existence” (p. 132).  “The more one forgets himself - by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love - the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself” (p. 133).

Frankl identifies 3 ways we discover meaning in life:

(1)   By creating a work or doing a deed.

(2)   By experiencing something or encountering someone (e.g. beauty, truth or love).

(3)   By the attitude we take to unavoidable suffering (. (p. 133)

 A lengthy quote from Frankl on love from p. 134


Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.

And his remarks on suffering (elaborating on 3 above):


We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed. For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one's predicament into a human achievement. When we are no longer able to change a situation - just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer - we are challenged to change ourselves. (p. 135)

To illustrate the case of finding meaning in suffering he recounts the story of a grieving husband who was suffering prolonged bouts of depression after his wife had died two years earlier.  Rather than tell the husband any advice on how to redress the predicament Frankl instead asked him to consider what would have happened to his wife had the husband died first vs his wife?  The grieving husband replied that if he had died first it would have caused severe torment for his wife.  So, in a way, the husband’s suffering was the price he paid to prevent his wife suffering an even more significant pain had she survived her husband.  Once he could see his suffering as a sacrifice it had a meaning, and this helped him move on.  In such a circumstance the therapist can not change the circumstances of a person’s death, but what they can help to change is the attitude towards this unalterable fate. 

Frankl goes on to note that suffering is not of course necessary for meaning, and we should try to prevent suffering and misfortune when we can.  His point is that when such suffering is inevitable, then attending to one’s attitude about interpreting that suffering can help them orient towards meaning vs neurosis.

An exercise Frankl describes on p. 140, which he used on a suicidal mother who had lost her son, is to imagine you are on your death bed in advanced life, reflecting on your life.  Let us call this the Deathbed Reflection Exercise (DRE). 

Group Discussion:  Try doing the Deathbed Reflection Exercise.  Imagine you are at the end of the human lifespan, but still possess the cognitive capacity to reflect upon the life you have lived.  How would you narrate the story of your life?  What were your accomplishments?  What did you contribute to life (e.g. your family, your workplace, your society, humanity, etc.)?  What did you learn and enjoy in life?

In the section on “Super-Meaning” Frankl discusses how religious beliefs can play a part in a person’s sense of meaning.  I wonder what the atheists among us thought about this section?  Are we missing out on a comforting, shorthand experience of meaning?

Life is transitory, experiences and people come into our lives and (eventually) go.  Does this make life meaningless?  Frankl answers “no”:

…the transitoriness of our existence in no way makes it meaningless. But it does constitute our responsibleness; for everything hinges upon our realizing the essentially transitory possibilities. Man constantly makes his choice concerning the mass of present potentialities; which of these will be condemned to nonbeing and which will be actualized? Which choice will be made an actuality once and forever, an immortal "footprint in the sands of time"? At any moment, man must decide, for better or for worse, what will be the monument of his existence. (p. 143) 

Another insightful passage on this same issue:


Logotherapy, keeping in mind the essential transitoriness of human existence, is not pessimistic but rather activistic. To express this point figuratively we might say: The pessimist resembles a man who observes with fear and sadness that his wall calendar, from which he daily tears a sheet, grows thinner with each passing day. On the other hand, the person who attacks the problems of life actively is like a man who removes each successive leaf from his calendar and files it neatly and carefully away with its predecessors, after first having jotted down a few diary notes on the back. He can reflect with pride and joy on all the richness set down in these notes, on all the life he has already lived to the fullest. What will it matter to him if he notices that he is growing old? Has he any reason to envy the young people whom he sees, or wax nostalgic over his own lost youth? What reasons has he to envy a young person? For the possibilities that a young person has, the future which is in store for him? "No, thank you," he will think. "Instead of possibilities, I have realities in my past, not only the reality of work done and of love loved, but of sufferings bravely suffered. These sufferings are even the things of which I am most proud, though these are things which cannot inspire envy." (p. 144)

With respect to overcoming fear, Frankl describes the technique of “paradoxical intention”.  He provides a few examples- a man with a fear of perspiring, another person who was obsessive with cleaning, another with sexual dysfunction, a person with writer’s cramp, a stutter, anxiety about sleeping, etc.  In each of these cases what paradoxical intention prescribes is the patient actually do the opposite of what they are anxious about.  For example, for the man with a fear of perspiring it was recommended he try his hardest to show people how much he could sweat!  Fear is replaced by a paradoxical wish.  This is often achieved through humour (e.g. “watch me sweat a quart of sweat this time!”).  This, Frankl argues, “takes the wind of the sails of the anxiety” (p. 147).  The cure in such cases is self-transcendence- not taking ourselves so seriously/ fixating and obsessing about one’s neurosis- which then helps relax the fear/anxiety response.

Frankl also addresses Collective Neurosis, something which plagues every age.  I think is very timely insight for today.  Our age suffers many persistent neuroses.  Despite the risks of disease and death being at unprecedented historically low levels, many people navigate the world with stress and anxiety levels more befitting of living through World War III.  The news and social media no doubt help stoke these anxieties, coupled with boredom and the brain’s appetite to find things to worry about, even if that means inventing /exaggerating risks to active the fear/anxiety responses.

Frankl also critiques what he calls “pan-determinism”.  And this discussion will segue nice into the Winter reading group meeting on the topic of determinism.  Frankl states his position on this debate as follows:


Man is not fully conditioned and determined but rather determines himself whether he gives in to conditions or stands up to them. In other words, man is ultimately self-determining. Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment. (p. 154)

We cannot predict what a person’s future actions will be because every person has the freedom to change at any instant.  He gives the example of “Dr. J”, who committed mass murder atrocities during the war but was changed after the war before we died of cancer.  Frankl claims that “a residue of freedom, however limited it may be, is left to man in neurotic and even psychotic cases.” (p. 156).  The Dr. J. example was based on hearsay, and is just one case, but the broader issue of free will is worth considering in our discussions.

Group Discussion:  Do you agree with Frankl we can “change at any instance”?  Or are we more hardwired/determined than actually free?  Do you agree with the following statement from Frankl:

A human being is not one thing among others; things determine each other, but man is ultimately self- determining.  What he becomes - within the limits of endowment and environment - he has made out of himself. In the concentration camps, for example, in this living laboratory and on this testing ground, we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions. (p. 157) 

In particular I would question Frankl’s assumption that, because people responded differently to the adversity of the concentration camp (some giving up while others found meaning and growth), this variation was caused by “attitudes they could choose to adopt” vs differences in personality arising from environmental/genetic variations.   

Tragic Optimism covered in his 1984 Postscript

This is an optimism that persists in spite of the reality of (1) pain (2) guilt and (3) death.  Frankl describes this optimism as:

an optimism in the face of tragedy and in view of the human potential which at its best always allows for: (1) turning suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment; (2) deriving from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better; and (3) deriving from life's transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action. (162)

He stresses that this optimism cannot be forced.  In this 1984 Postscript he expands on mass neurotic syndrome, identifying 3 facets of this syndrome which I think are very relevant to the problems of today (what are called “deaths of despair”):

(1)   “the existential vacuum”-  feeling of emptiness and meaninglessness (depression)

(2)   Aggression   

(3)   Addiction

Frankl repeats his point that suffering is not indispensable to meaning (we should try to avoid it when possible), but that meaning is possible in spite of, and through, suffering. 

Group discussion:  have you found meaning (e.g. growth and development) through suffering?

Looking forward to our discussions.