What is existentialism in Man's Search for Meaning?

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Existentialism is a philosophy which emphasizes people's freedom and therefore claims that people are free to pursue their own meaning in life. Man's Search for Meaning is all about such freedom.

Frankl recounts his interior and exterior experience in the concentration camps. He says that one's chance for survival seemed...

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Existentialism is a philosophy which emphasizes people's freedom and therefore claims that people are free to pursue their own meaning in life. Man's Search for Meaning is all about such freedom.

Frankl recounts his interior and exterior experience in the concentration camps. He says that one's chance for survival seemed random, whether one had something to hope for or not, but he felt that life could be endured if inmates had some purpose to carry them on—whether it be hoping to see a loved one again or to accomplish something should the camps be liberated. For his own part, Frankl's hope of reuniting with his wife and continuing his psychiatry work kept him going.

When someone has no meaning, life is over. Frankl recounts inmates who simply stopped trying to get by, who sat down and smoked and allowed the guards to beat them. They had no hope left, nothing to strive for, so they allowed themselves to die.

Frankl views meaning as something personal and relative to the individual's experience. Not everyone will find meaning in the same goals and tasks. For some, the meaning of life is helping others or caring for loved ones. Whatever one's goals are, Frankl feels that pursuing them gives one the strength to endure, even the most hopeless of situations in life.

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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.
 
 
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