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Man's Search for Meaning

by Viktor Emil Frankl

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Part II, “Logotherapy in a Nutshell” Summary

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In “Logotherapy in a Nutshell,” Frankl lays out the basic guiding principles of his theory of logotherapy, which he had already begun to develop before his arrest and imprisonment in the camps. Logos is Greek for “meaning,” and Frankl considers the search for meaning to be the primary motivation in an individual’s life. In logotherapy, the “will to meaning” takes precedence, as opposed to Sigmund Freud’s will to pleasure or Alfred Adler’s will to power. A will to meaning that becomes frustrated can result in “existential frustration,” which can result in “noogenic neuroses,” noos being Greek for “mind.” Frankl distinguishes noogenic neuroses from “psychogenic neuroses” by emphasizing that questioning the meaning of one’s life, or even despairing over an apparent lack of meaning, is not a symptom of mental illness, but an existential conflict—and a conflict that is not necessarily unhealthy. For Frankl, the suffering involved in such a conflict, suffering that arises from existential frustration, can actually be a kind of achievement. He regards the job of a logotherapist as that of helping a patient find the meaning, the logos, in his or her life.

Just as he refuses to see the suffering that arises from existential frustration as inherently pathological, Frankl sees the kind of mental tension that arises from “the gap between what one is and what one should become” not as something to be dispelled in favor of a calm equilibrium, but as a critical component of mental health. He refers to the tension between a meaning to be fulfilled, goal to be achieved, or task to be completed and the person who must fulfill, achieve, or complete it as “noo-dynamics” and exhorts logotherapists to encourage this tension in their patients by reorienting them toward the potential meaning in their lives.

Frankl then turns to examining the reasons so many people in his time were plagued by a sense of the ultimate meaninglessness of their lives, a state of mind which he refers to as the “existential vacuum.” While boredom is the most prevalent manifestation of the existential vacuum, depression, aggression, and addiction can all be attributed to it. People may also try to compensate for a frustrated will to meaning through the will to power, especially in the form of the “primitive” will to money, and the will to pleasure in the form of sex. The logotherapist’s purpose is to help patients fill the vacuum with potential meaning. For Frankl, there is no overarching, one-size-fits-all meaning to life. Rather, there is infinite potential meaning to be found in life no matter the circumstances; the meaning any one individual finds in his or her life is specific to that individual and can change from moment to moment. We are each of us, Frankl says, responsible for answering for our own lives, and this responsibility is the essence of what logotherapy is all about.

The logotherapist aims to help patients recognize their own responsibility to life. Frankl believes that the meaning of life must be discovered in the world rather than through isolated contemplation. He terms this principle “the self-transcendence of human existence” and declares that the “self-actualization” other psychologists write about can only occur as a side-effect of self-transcendence: forgetting the self by finding a meaning to fulfill, a cause to serve, or a person to encounter or love.

People can discover the meaning in their lives in three different ways: through work, deeds, or achievements; through experiencing something (nature, culture, art, beauty, goodness) or loving someone; and through—if necessary—bearing suffering with dignity and courage. However, Frankl is careful to point out that suffering is...

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not necessary for living a meaningful life. If suffering can be removed, it should be, but if suffering is unavoidable, there is an opportunity to find meaning in facing one’s suffering in the “right” way.

Logotherapy interprets love as a real, “primary” phenomenon rather than a kind of guise for sexuality. Love’s meaning lies in the idea that love is the only way to truly understand another person. By understanding the beloved, one can see their unactualized potential, and by seeing that potential one can help the beloved to fulfill it.

Perhaps the central idea in “Logotherapy in a Nutshell,” and the one which Frankl spends the most time exploring in “Experiences in a Concentration Camp,” is that meaning can be found even when one is confronted with unavoidable suffering. Indeed, finding a meaning in one’s suffering is the only thing that makes suffering bearable. For Frankl, the possibility of finding meaning even in suffering and up until the very end of life is evidence for the unconditional, infinite nature of life’s meaning. He recounts his most meaningful experience in the camps: grieving the loss of his manuscript and questioning if his life had any meaning anymore, he received the cast-off coat of an inmate who had died and found in its pocket a torn-out page containing the Shema Yisrael, the most important Hebrew prayer. Frankl saw this as a call to live the thoughts he had been writing down. Later, feeling that he would soon die in the camp, Frankl decided that his life was meaningful whether or not he survived, as the meaning of life was unconditional and did not depend on “happenstance”—otherwise there would be no point to living at all.

Frankl discusses not just a meaning to life, but a “super-meaning” that transcends human logic. Unlike many other existentialist philosophers, Frankl proposes that it is not the meaninglessness of life we must accept, but the existence of an unconditional meaning to life that cannot be understood in rational terms. “Logos,” he says, “is deeper than logic.” For this reason, Frankl is able to work with his patients’ religious beliefs in his effort to help them find meaning, as he did for a rabbi who lost his wife and children at Auschwitz.

Frankl next turns to discussing the transitory nature of life, which, in his view, adds to rather than detracts from life’s meaningfulness. The only things that are truly transitory, to the logotherapist, are the possibilities we must choose to fulfill or not, whereas everything we have already done and experienced achieves a kind of permanence once it is in the past. “Having been,” he says, “is the surest kind of being.” For this reason, the old should not envy the young—it ought to be the other way around.

Frankl believes that every era has its own “collective neurosis,” and he identifies the existential vacuum—which he describes as a kind of personal nihilism—as the collective neurosis of his time. He urges logotherapists to combat this nihilism by reminding patients that, though they may not be able to choose their circumstances, they can choose how they will act and what attitude they will adopt toward those circumstances. For Frankl, this “inner freedom” is what makes people more than simply a product of their biological, psychological, and sociological conditions. It allows human beings to decide who they want to be and how they will live their lives, to rise above even the worst of conditions, to change the world and, even more admirably in Frankl’s view, to change themselves. Human behavior is unpredictable. Frankl cites the case of a Nazi doctor known as the “mass murderer of Steinhof” (a mental hospital in Vienna) who later became known for his kindness and morality while imprisoned in Siberia.

Frankl makes sure to emphasize that inner freedom is not the “last word,” however—it is nothing unless complemented by responsibleness, which he sees as the most important idea in logotherapy. Freedom loses its meaning if the decisions we make are arbitrary ones; rather, the importance of inner freedom lies in our freedom to choose to be responsible for ourselves and our lives.

Central to Frankl's psychiatric practice is the belief that even patients afflicted by incurable mental illness retain their human dignity. He calls for a “humanized” psychiatry that sees patients and all people as more than their circumstances or conditions, that recognizes their inner freedom and essential human value. He regards his experiences in the concentration camps as evidence that human behavior depends finally not on outer conditions, but on inner decisions.


Part I, “Experiences in a Concentration Camp” Summary


Postscript: “The Case for a Tragic Optimism” Summary