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The Search for Meaning

Frankl & Sartre in Search of Meaning

Georgia Arkell compares logotherapy and atheistic existentialism.

Both born in 1905, Viktor Frankl and Jean-Paul Sartre were two of the twentieth century’s most influential thinkers about the human condition. Frankl was the father of logotherapy and Sartre of atheistic existentialism. While both rooted their thought in existentialist philosophy, sharing several key foundation-stones such as the centrality of human freedom, they had contrasting perspectives on the origins and implications of those shared ideas, and so reached diverging explanations of human existence. The purpose of this article is to summarise their ideas and compare how their thoughts converged and diverged over certain existential questions.

Comparing logotherapy and atheistic existentialism is particularly interesting because these two philosophical currents are the product of two minds which lived in the same historical period yet experienced it in dramatically different ways. This was partly by virtue of them belonging to different ethno-religious groups.

Existentialists Together & Apart

Viktor Frankl (1905-97) was a psychiatrist and neurologist from Vienna. He was the founder of logotherapy (from the Greek logos = meaning and therapeia = healing), a radical psychological doctrine based on the conception of meaning being the primary human motivational and (so) therapeutic force. Frankl was also an Austrian Jew, who in 1942 was deported with his family to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, where his father died of starvation and pneumonia. He spent the remaining three years of the war as a prisoner in four different camps. He was finally liberated on April 27, 1945, by which time his mother and brother had been murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and his wife Tilly had died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen.

Frankl provides a brief introduction to logotherapy in his masterwork Man’s Search for Meaning (1946), in which he describes his experiences in the concentration camps. He outlines the chief theories of his philosophy and psychology in that light. It should be made clear that Frankl’s psychological doctrine was not born of his personal experience in the camps; he had devised logotherapy as early as the 1930s. However, his experience of Nazi atrocities and of the struggle of humans to survive and support each other in terrible circumstances served as a testing ground, and indeed a confirmation, for his ideas. Even beyond the gas chambers and shootings by the Nazis, the camps had a very high mortality rate. Frankl noted that the prisoners who appeared to have the highest chance of survival were those with some aim or meaning directed beyond themselves and beyond day to day survival. Following Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis and Alfred Adler’s individual psychology, logotherapy came to constitute the third Viennese school of psychotherapy. Yet it opposed itself to the other two through its key concept of ‘the will to meaning’, in contrast with the Freudian ‘will to pleasure’, or the Nietzschean ‘will to power’ upon which Adler’s doctrine is grounded. On the contrary, Frankl’s thought is centered upon the belief that the primary driving force of each human being is the will to find meaning; through their actions, through love, or by enduring suffering. This deeply rooted will requires a conscious recognition of the human potential to determine one’s destiny (a.k.a. free will), and with this one’s moral responsibility. Indeed, “man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked… Each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible” (Man’s Search for Meaning, p.113). This idea is one of the building blocks of existentialism, a philosophical current of which Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80) is widely regarded as a leading exponent.

Jean-Paul Sartre: a one-man search for meaning
Continuous line Sartre © Arturo Espinosa 2013 Creative Commons 2.0

Emerging to public consciousness in the aftermath of the Second World War, existentialism is deeply concerned with the question of human freedom and responsibility. French philosopher and novelist Sartre explored these ideas in his major philosophical work Being and Nothingness (1943), as well as in a renowned lecture he delivered in 1945, which became the foundation for his book Existentialism Is a Humanism (1956).

In this latter work Sartre asserts that ‘existence precedes essence’ – a claim that challenges a traditional belief according to which the nature of people is set. No, said Sartre: people continually create who they are through their own freely chosen actions. Sartre’s atheistic existentialism is an ardent exaltation of human dignity through the vindication of radical freedom, self-reliance, and responsibility. Devoid of any inherent or set identity or value, man is capable of creating his own identity and set of values through his own self-awareness and choices.

Sartre and Frankl are both considered atheistic existentialists, since, while the former advocates for a more philosophical approach and the latter a more psychiatric one, they ultimately both reject determinism, instead emphasizing the fact that man defines his being through his freely-chosen actions, for which he is entirely accountable. In this sense both thinkers ground their discussions on the idea that man is essentially a ‘self-determining’ being, only partially influenced by biological and social conditions. The freedom of man consists specifically in rising above any preset conditions in order “to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances” (Man’s Search for Meaning, p.75), and, ultimately, shape the course of his existence. Frankl goes as far as arguing that even when giving into external influences or internal psychological pulls, man is doing so with conscious intent. As he powerfully writes:

“Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis, it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner-decision and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally then, any man can, under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him – mentally and spiritually.”

It is evident that Frankl’s existential doctrine is not totally devoid of spiritual depth. Spirituality, or as Frankl calls it, the ‘noölogical dimension’ (from the Greek noös meaning ‘intellect’ or ‘spirit’), is a congenitally human trait which he identifies as part of the will to meaning. Every human being possesses within their consciousness the potential to search for and determine an existential purpose. Failure to do so inevitably leads to what Frankl calls an ‘existential vacuum’ – a pervasive feeling of emptiness and nihilistic apathy which closely mirrors Sartre’s concept of meaninglessness.

Meaning & Suffering

Frankl further argues that finding meaning in life necessarily implies finding meaning in suffering, inasmuch as suffering is an inextricable part of life. Echoing this thought, the American psychologist Gordon W. Allport writes in the preface of Man’s Search for Meaning: “to live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in the suffering. If there is a purpose in life at all, there must be a purpose in suffering and in dying” (p.9). This idea had been widely shared by the Stoics and by the prominent precursor of the atheist existentialist movement, Friedrich Nietzsche, who in 1887 wrote, “Man, the bravest animal and most prone to suffer, does not deny suffering as such: he wills it, he even seeks it out, provided he is shown a meaning for it, a purpose of suffering” (On the Genealogy of Morality, p.120).

It is interesting to note that, while both Frankl and Sartre acknowledge the importance of human suffering, they ultimately diverge on the premises which determine their broader discussions. Indeed, the foundational grounds upon which the thinkers’ doctrines are built are polar opposites. Frankl believes humanity’s existential malaise is a direct consequence of the failure to recognise meaning in one’s life, and it is thus a curable condition, while Sartre deems it to be a permanent and irretrievable byproduct of being human. The French philosopher believes there are no tools to fight against the existential vacuum because at its core existence is intrinsically and inexorably meaningless. In this world of chaos and absurdity, man bears on his shoulders the weight of the responsibility stemming from his freedom. Indeed, the radical freedom which accompanies the human condition does not come without a cost. It is both man’s blessing and curse, for he cannot escape from it. Man cannot evade his condition. He is inescapably and ineluctably subject to it. He is “condemned to be free” (Being and Nothingness, p.134). This idea is symbolically reflected in the sensation of ‘nausea’ experienced by Roquentin, the main character of Sartre’s 1938 novel La Nausée. Roquentin’s crippling sense of nausea is due to the absence of necessity that characterizes the meaninglessness of human existence.

As a product of his time, amidst the anguish and disillusionment that harrowed humanity in the wake of the Second World War, it is no surprise that Sartre defined the world as a meaningless abyss. In an age where the God of intrinsic meaning has been killed, Sartre seeks to confront the disillusionment of humanity paradoxically, by reassuring man that there is no meaning or value to pursue, yet he can realize meaning as a human being. This self-actualization is achieved by confronting one’s condition and reorienting consciousness from one’s self to the existential experience of the world – in other words, by ‘transcending his ego’. In this sense, Sartre’s complex and paradoxical existentialism conceals a glimpse of hope, and can by all means be defined as ‘a doctrine of action’, for it empowers man to act in a world devoid of a predetermined destiny. There is no objective and unchangeable reality, except that of human consciousness and freedom.

Logotherapy similarly advocates for the ‘self-transcendence of human existence’ through the rechanneling of one’s aspirations towards ‘something or someone other than oneself’ (Man’s Search for Meaning, p.115); but here one does so by absorbing a wonderfully hopeful and empowering message grounded on the belief that “the transitoriness of our existence in no way makes it meaningless.” In this respect, Frankl overtly distances himself from traditional atheistic thought, insofar as he asserts that “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. Logos is deeper than logic” (p.122).

Frankl’s unwavering optimism stems from his recognition of human potential in every situation. His unique and noble genius is capable of transcending not only his own existence but the entirety of the human condition. He truly defies the notion of man being a product of his time, as that would imply that he was entirely subject to the socio-political forces of his age and environment; but he wasn’t.

Frankl could have been a product of any time: If the concentration camps failed to shatter the firmness and dignity of his spirit, surely no other historical event or catastrophe could have. Herein lies his extraordinary singularity and unrivaled greatness.

© Georgia Arkell 2024

Georgia Arkell is a British-Italian translator and editor with a strong passion for languages, philosophy, and mountaineering.

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