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Review of "Man's Search for Meaning"

By Viktor E. Frankl
Beacon Press, 2006
Review by Bo Meinertsen, Ph.D. on Jan 16th 2007
Man's Search for Meaning

This classic by the great Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl could be described as one of the most important popular books of the 20th century. It has an extraordinary message about the meaning of life and its psychological importance.

The first part of Man's Search for Meaning, a book which now has sold more than 12 million copies worldwide, was originally published in German in 1946. It's Frankl's autobiographical account of his experiences of his three years in Auschwitz, Dachau and other concentrations camps, between 1942 and 1945. This part, along with a brief theoretical section, appeared in English in 1959 as From Death-Camp to Existentialism. The second part of the book is a synopsis of logotherapy, the major system of existential psychotherapy and psychology that Frankl went on to develop. The present edition, the sixth in English, includes a new foreword by the emeritus rabbi Harold S. Kushner, as well as a new biographical afterword by the philosopher, lawyer and psychoanalyst William J. Winslade.

The book's first autobiographical part provides unique and strong evidence for some of the principles of logotherapy summarized in Part II (this ranges from very philosophical ideas, such as the meaning of life, to descriptions of psychotherapeutic techniques, such as 'paradoxical intention'). This second part, which includes a paragraph for each of the important notions and principles of logotherapy, is highly condensed. Little wonder since it attempts to convey in a short space what required twenty volumes in German.

The autobiographical part isn't for the faint-hearted. For those who weren't sent to the gas chambers at the initial selection, the conditions in the camp were both physically and mentally extremely harsh. I shall only mention a fraction of them here. The prisoners faced horrible undernourishment whilst having to do hard manual labor for 12 hours a day. In winter, this would mostly be in sub-zero temperatures, yet they didn't have any winter clothes. They were threatened by death daily and hourly. And they had no news of their loved ones, who had either been sent to another camp or gassed immediately. (Frankl's parents, brother and pregnant wife all lost their lives.) As you would expect, the survival rate was very low -- only 1 in 28 survived, Frankl claims.

A lot of luck was required to survive. You had to avoid random killings. You had to avoid being selected for a work party with particularly hard labor or a particularly nasty foreman or Capo. You had to avoid getting frostbite in addition to the usual sores and abrasions. And similarly in countless of other cases.

But even with such luck, how did anyone manage to survive? It's here that Frankl's philosophy of life and human beings comes in -- in three stages. Firstly, Frankl often uses a quotation from Nietzsche: 'He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.' I suggest we call this view (1) 'Nietzsche's thesis of existential endurance'. Having this 'why', a 'why' for one's existence, is having meaning in one's life. Secondly, the drive towards having meaning in one's life, the will to meaning, as he calls it, is the primary motivation in humans. (Correspondingly, the frustration of it, 'existential frustration', is in his view the main cause of neuroses and psychiatric problems.) Evidence for this claim is indicated both by the camp experience and by several empirical studies mentioned in Part II of the book. I suggest we call this view (2) the 'primacy of the will to meaning'.

Thirdly, Frankl maintains that there are three sources of meaning. The first is love. This is exemplified strongly by the experiences in the camp. In Frankl's own case, it's clear that he refers to the relationships with the ones closest to him, and in particular his love for his wife. Frankl mentions other examples of prisoners who, he claims, were able to survive the extreme conditions because of their connection to a loved one.

The second source of meaning is work. This too is exemplified strongly by Frankl's own experience as a prisoner. He had brought the manuscript for his first book on logotherapy, but one of the guards confiscated it. Not only did this give him the chance of a very concrete meaningful activity (e.g. when in a camp in Bavaria he fell ill with typhus, he jotted down on little scraps of paper notes intended to enable him to rewrite the manuscript should he live to the day of liberation). It also gave him a 'why' for his existence.

Accordingly, Frankl summarizes the status of love and work as sources of meaning like this: 'A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the "why" for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any "how".'

It's hardly unusual to claim that love and work are important to meaning. However, it's with the third source of meaning that Frankl becomes remarkable. This source is suffering. (Frankl stresses that he's talking about unavoidable suffering; suffering that is avoidable is simply masochistic.) There are two reasons why suffering can be a source of meaning. Firstly, because our inner freedom -- our 'spiritual freedom', as Frankl occasionally calls it -- to choose the attitude we have to things is absolute, as it were, we can choose which attitude to take to suffering. Secondly, and closely related to this Stoic view, we can choose to see suffering as our 'task'. This 'task' of suffering, the 'task' of bearing one's cross, enables a human being to suffer 'proudly'. Frankl quotes Dostoevski: 'There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.' Further, it enables a human being to make suffering into 'an achievement' -- which 'transforms a personal tragedy into a triumph'.

The significance of this third source of meaning was also exemplified in abundance by the camp prisoners. Of course, they suffered immensely, and they could do nothing to avoid it. But what they could do was to use their 'spiritual freedom' to change their attitude to their suffering so as to make it into a source of meaning. Those who didn't do this (and didn't have either of the two other sources of meaning) would give up and become moribund: remaining in their bunks, lying in their own urine and excreta, disobeying all orders to get up, smoking their last cigarette, waiting for death.

I suggest we call Frankl's view on what provides meaning (3) the 'triadic source of meaning'. The conjunction of this with the two other main theses of Frankl's philosophy of life and human beings, i.e. (1) Nietzsche's thesis of existential endurance and (2) the primacy of the will to meaning, is the central message of Man's Search for Meaning. This isn't something Frankl himself maintains explicitly, and there's of course an element of interpretation to it (especially so, as the book generally is loosely structured and uses very informal language). But I believe it's well supported by a careful reading.

Harold S. Kushner, the author of the book's foreword, is a man whose life, sadly, has put him in a position that one would think should increase the chance of appreciating the book fully: he's been struggling to understand the illness and death of his son. However, he finds it significant that whereas the foreword to the 1962 edition was written by a prominent psychologist, Gordon Allport, the present foreword is written by a 'clergyman', as he calls himself: 'We have come to recognize that this is a profoundly religious book.'

I couldn't disagree more. Frankl was deeply religious and this is shown at many points in the book. But what in my view is the book's central message -- to repeat, the conjunction of (1) to (3) above -- clearly neither mentions nor necessarily implies religiosity in any form. Even if all of Frankl's religious views were removed from the book, its essence would be entirely unaffected.

And it's because of this that I can end with an evaluation which I dare say is a privilege for a reviewer of a book: no human being should fail to read it. Read it -- and hope that, unlike Frankl, you'll never exemplify its message in the extreme.


© 2007 Bo Meinertsen


Bo Meinertsen, PhD, School of Philosophy, University of Leeds.