What is existentialism in Man's Search for Meaning?

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Existentialism is a complex philosophy which is closely associated with the works of Jean-Paul Charles Aymard Sartre (1905-1980), a French philosopher, playwright, novelist, political activist, biographer, and literary critic. Existentialism has been briefly defined as

A philosophical theory or approach that emphasizes the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will.

Viktor Emil Frankl (1905-1997), a prominent neurologist and psychiatrist who spent three years in a Nazi concentration camp, based his entire approach to psychotherapy on assisting his patient to find "existential meaning" in his life by "determining his own development through an act of the will." Existentialism became a popular philosophical theory after World War II. The horrors of the war, including the horrors experienced by millions in Nazi concentration camps, caused many people to doubt the existence of God and consequently to doubt the existence of any meaning to life. Frankl's therapeutic approach, which he called "logotherapy" (finding meaning through logos or reason), was largely shaped by his personal experience as a concentration-camp prisoner and his observations of other prisoners during the long and agonizing imprisonment which he describes in his widely read and extremely influential book, Man's Search for Meaning. The search for meaning in a godless and brutal world is the foundation of all existential thought.

The following excerpt from the enotes study guide to Man's Search for Meaning helps explain Frankl's approach to psychotherapy as well as the central existentialist message of his book.

Logotherapy attempts to offer solutions to human concerns as they exist in the moment rather than trying to locate their roots in the past as in Freudian psychiatry. A central tenet is that to live is to suffer and to survive is to find meaning in the suffering. Further, each person must find a purpose; no one can tell another what this purpose is. Each person’s meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by that person alone; only then does it achieve a significance that will satisfy the individual. If one succeeds at this task, one will continue to grow in spite of all indignities.
Man's Search for Meaning is extensively covered in the enotes study guide. Please refer to the reference links below for a comprehensive discussion of the book.
pashmina1 | Student

Existentialism, the philosophy of existence of oneself. Existentialism emerge after WORLD WAR II, people became completely numb after seeing such a height of cruelty and which has been arise many questions regarding the existence of human being. Who ARE WE? ARE WE BELONG TO SOME SORT OF GOD ? WHO IS GOD? WHERE IS HE? IF WE BELONGS TO GOD THEN WHY HE IS NOT HELPING US? WHY HE IS SILENTLY WATCHING THIS? similarly many questions covered the minds of people and they began to think like this that there is no one before us , no one after us ,we are only responsible of ourselves. Man is in search of Himself.