Mans search for meaning

Frankl attains as high a level of humanism in his writing as one would think possible of any scientist. His psychology is based on empiricism. His experiences as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, stripped of everything but his bare existence, led him to explore the ultimate sense of meaning in human life. In own privileged western world we don’t have to struggle for life and its essentials, like food. Furthermore, there is plenty to keep us busy, whether it be work or other forms of entertainment. In such an environment it is easy to forget or procrastinate in the search for life’s meaning. In Frankl’s account, the search for meaning had life-and-death implications, like the need for food and water.
Having formed a theory so based on experience, Frankl is much less schematic or cerebral than even the most humanistic of psychologists. Some of his conclusions are not unlike those of Abraham Maslow and Erich Fromm. This is clear in the importance all three give to transcendence. He asserts that “the more one forgets himselfthe more human he is and the more he actualizes himself” (133). This assertion reminds one of Maslow’s definitions of “peak experiences” as those of transcendence. Maslow claims that it is possible to learn from such experiences in order to become more conscious of being. This idea firmly correlates with Frankl’s.
The main concern for mankind is fulfilling a meaning. It is in this point that Frankl’s humanism is most firmly established. Contrary to Freud’s rather mechanistic beliefs, this kind of meaning goes beyond the mere satisfaction of drives and instincts, reconciling the conflicting claims of id, ego and superego, or adaptation and adjustment to society and environment (125-126). It is the kind of meaning that is unique for every person, and is worth living or dying for.

Frankl does not deal with the subject of religion in a direct way. He does not point out the validity or lack thereof,of organized religion vs. naturalistic religion and the like. However, Man’s Search for Meaning has at its core the placement of humanistic values traditionally relegated to religion. Nor does Frankl completely shy away from intuitive, unexplainable, coincidental’ phenomena. He recalls of communicating with his wife very vividly while a prisoner, regardless of whether she was alive or not. He event points to her possible appearing in the form of a bird; “The feeling was very strong: she was there. Then, at that very moment, a bird flew down silently and perched just in front of me, on the heap of soil which I had dug up from the ditch, and looked steadily at me” (60-61). At another passage he mentions his finding of a paper with the central prayer in Judaism, as a sort of message received from life.
The most appealing idea in this book, one that is lacking in the writings of many other thinkers, is that ultimately we humans may not know what the ultimate meaning behind life and suffering is. “What is demanded of man is not, as some existential philosophers teach, to endure the meaninglessness of life, but rather to bear his incapacity to grasp its unconditional meaningfulness in rational terms” (141). This idea is present in Maslow’s Religion, Values and peak experiences, where he claims that the people who are serious about values dwell in a sort of perpetual question that is more important that the immediate finding of an answer.

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Bibliography: Frakl, Victor. Man’s Search For Meaning. Simon and Scuister, New York 1984


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