Originally published in 1959, Man’s Search For Meaning, has been an influential text as it combines an autobiographical recount of Viktor E. Frankl’s time in Nazi concentration camps, a philosophical reflection upon the importance of meaning in life, and a psychological argument for Frankl’s theory called Logotherapy, which desires patients to actualize meaning through action. By drawing on his personal story, Frankl demonstrates his belief that meaning is discovered by the sharing of story.
And how does a human being go about finding meaning? As Charlotte Buhler has stated: “All we can do is study the lives of people who seem to have found their answers to the questions of what ultimately human life is about as against those who have not.”
Drawing on his extreme experiences in the concentration camp, Frankl is able to provide a unique perspective to humanity’s quest for influence and meaning in life.
Frankl’s own experience underscores the power of losing everything because he was stripped of his clothes in a shower within Auschwitz, given a number in place of his name, separated from his wife, and sewn into his jacket was his life’s manuscript that was ultimately burned in the incinerators. Literally, Frankl lost his family, his job, his identity, his life’s work and yet managed to discover a richer and deeper meaning within his existence. Frankl witnessed firsthand his claim that “the sudden loss of hope and courage can have a deadly effect” and so tried to discover hope amidst the holocaust.
In contrast to Freudian psychology that unpacks past events, Logotherapy is forward-looking “striving to find a meaning in one’s life [which] is the primary motivational force in a man” (Frankl, 99). This approach allows a patient to find value even in everyday, mundane activities because suddenly these seemingly non-events hold the power to direct, or possibly misdirect, from their primary force of actualizing a life’s purpose.
Frankl’s seminal work, however, rests heavily upon his horrendous experience within the concentration camp. Drawing upon those experiences, that such few survived, makes it challenging to critique his work because not only is it such a unique experience, but also he possess a unique determination. His implication that suffering is one of the main providers of meaning may not be shared by other Holocaust survivors.
In the end, however, Man’s Search For Meaning provides a strong case that meaning is located not through abundance, pleasure, achievement or even self-discovery, but through the engagement–service–with the world: “the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche…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” (Frankl, 111).