What Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy Can Offer in the Anthropocene

Lambert here: I read Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning years ago, and found it quite helpful.

By Aeon. Cross-posted from Alternet.

With our collapsing democracies and imploding biosphere, it’s no wonder that people despair. The Austrian psychoanalyst and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl presciently described such sentiments in his book Man’s Search for Meaning (1946). He wrote of something that ‘so many patients complain [about] today, namely, the feeling of the total and ultimate meaninglessness of their lives’. A nihilistic wisdom emerges when staring down the apocalypse. There’s something predictable in our current pandemics, from addiction to belief in pseudoscientific theories, for in Frankl’s analysis, ‘An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behaviour.’ When scientists worry that humanity might have just one generation left, we can agree that ours is an abnormal situation. Which is why Man’s Search for Meaning is the work to return to in these humid days of the Anthropocene.

Already a successful psychotherapist before he was sent to Auschwitz and then Dachau, Frankl was part of what’s known as the ‘third wave’ of Viennese psychoanalysis. Reacting against both Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler, Frankl rejected the first’s theories concerning the ‘will to pleasure’ and the latter’s ‘will to power’. By contrast, Frankl writes that: ‘Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a “secondary rationalisation” of instinctual drives.’

Frankl argued that literature, art, religion and all the other cultural phenomena that place meaning at their core are things-unto-themselves, and furthermore are the very basis for how we find purpose. In private practice, Frankl developed a methodology he called ‘logotherapy’ – from logos, Greek for ‘reason’ – describing it as defined by the fact that ‘this striving to find a meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man’. He believed that there was much that humanity can live without, but if we’re devoid of a sense of purpose and meaning then we ensure our eventual demise.

In Vienna, he was Dr Viktor Frankl, head of the neurology department of the Rothschild Hospital. In Auschwitz, he was ‘number 119,104’. The concentration camp was the null point of meaning, a type of absolute zero for purpose in life. Already having developed his theories about logotherapy, Frankl smuggled a manuscript he was working on into the camp, only to lose it, later forced to recreate it from memory. While in the camps, he informally worked as a physician, finding that acting as analyst to his fellow prisoners gave him purpose, even as he ostensibly assisted others. In those discussions, he came to conclusions that became foundational for humanistic psychology.

One was that the ‘prisoner who had lost faith in the future – his future – was doomed’. Frankl recounts how even in the camps, where suicide was endemic, the prisoners who seemed to have the best chance of survival were not necessarily the strongest or physically healthiest, but those somehow capable of directing their thoughts towards a sense of meaning. A few prisoners were ‘able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom’, and in the imagining of such a space there was the potential for survival.

Man’s Search for Meaning is structured in two parts. The first constitutes Frankl’s Holocaust testimony, bearing similarity to writings by Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi. In the second part, he elaborates on logotherapy, arguing that the meaning of life is found in ‘experiencing something – such as goodness, truth and beauty – by experiencing nature and culture or … by experiencing another human being in his very uniqueness – by loving him’, not simply in spite of apocalyptic situations, but because of them.

The book has been maligned as superficial pop-existentialism; a vestige of middle-brow culture offering platitudinous New Age panaceas. Such a reading isn’t entirely unfair. And seven decades later, one might blanche at the sexist language, or the hokey suggestion that a ‘Statue of Responsibility’ be constructed on the US West Coast. However, a fuller consideration of Frankl’s concept of ‘tragic optimism’ should give more attention to the former rather than the latter before the therapist is impugned as overly rosy. When he writes ‘Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of. And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake,’ it’s hard to accuse him of being a Pollyanna.

Some critics accuse Frankl of victim-blaming. The American scholar Lawrence Langer in 1982 even wrote that Man’s Search for Meaning is ‘almost sinister’. According to him, Frankl reduced survival to an issue of a positivity; Langer argues that the book does a profound disservice to the millions who perished. A critique such as this has some merit to it, and yet Frankl’s actual implications are different. His book evidences no moralising against those who’d lost a sense of meaning. Frankl’s study doesn’t advocate logotherapy as an ethical but as a strategic response to tragedy.

When identifying meaninglessness, it would be a mistake to find it within the individual who suffers. Frankl’s fellow prisoners weren’t responsible for the concentration camps, just as somebody born into a cycle of poverty isn’t at fault, nor is any one of us (unless you happen to be an oil executive) the cause of our collapsing ecosystem. Nothing in logotherapy implies acceptance of the status quo, for the struggle to alter political, material, social, cultural and economic conditions is paramount. What logotherapy offers is something different, a way to envision meaning, despite things not being in your control. In his preface to the book’s 2006 edition, Rabbi Harold Kushner glosses Frankl’s argument by saying that: ‘Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.’

Far from being obsessed with the meaning of life, logotherapy demands that patients orient themselves to the idea of individual meaning, to ‘think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly’, as Frankl writes. Logotherapy – asking patients to clear an imaginative space to orient themselves towards some higher meaning – provides a response to intolerable situations.

Frankl writes that he ‘grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.’ It is easy to be cynical about such a claim, proving Frankl’s point. In our small, petty, limited, cruel era, it seems hard to come across much collective human affection, and yet our pettiness, limitations and cruelty are in their own way a response to the looming apocalypse. ‘Every age has its own collective neurosis,’ Frankl writes, ‘and every age needs its own psychotherapy to cope with it.’ If we’re exhausted, fatigued, anxious, enraged, despairing and confused at the collapse of our individual fortunes, our social networks, our communities, our industries, our democracy, our very planet, it’s no wonder we’ve developed a certain collective neurosis. Yet humanistic psychology has not been in vogue for decades; in its place, we have fashionable sociobiology and misapplied neuroscience in the form of the Panglossian Steven Pinker and the Svengali platitudes of Jordan Peterson.

In one of the book’s most remarkable passages, Frankl recounts how, when his work group was allowed a meagre few hours of rest, a fellow prisoner interrupted them and ‘asked us to run out to the assembly grounds and see a wonderful sunset’. With a prose style that tends towards the clinical, albeit with a distinct sense of the sacred, Frankl here gives himself over to the transcendent:

Standing outside we saw sinister clouds glowing in the west and the whole sky alive with clouds of ever-changing shapes and colours, from steel blue to blood red. The desolate grey mud huts provided a sharp contrast, while the puddles on the muddy ground reflected the glowing sky.

From this vision, here in a place whose very definition was the nullification of meaning, another prisoner remarked: ‘How beautiful the world could be!’ Such is the promise of logotherapy – not to ensure that there will be more sunsets, for that is our individual and societal responsibility. What logotherapy offers, rather, is the promise to be in awe at a sunset, even if it does happen to be our last one; to find wonder, meaning, beauty and grace even in the apocalypse, even in hell. The rest is up to us.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.

36 comments

    1. Wukchumni

      Yes, I too read it long ago, and it had a profound effect on me.

      I find solace hanging out with what comes as close to being immortal as anything on this orb, Giant Sequoia trees.

      Unlike our world, theirs is straightforward aside from a good many being crooked, and there’s meaning and quite often it’s a private investigation just me & the trees.

      You can find the same meaning anywhere in nature, it may attempt to deceive by coloration or similarity (a Gopher snake impersonating a Rattlesnake comes to mind) but it’s all on the up and up.

      A parallel world, where money doesn’t mean anything,

      Reply
  1. goingnowhereslowly

    Thank you for this.

    I have been struggling against nihilism and despair–as we all are–and my current personal answer has been to further cultivate my appreciation for crafts and to learn at least one well. I’m learning to sew, in order to maintain and expand my and my family’s wardrobes to be (at least in my eyes) beautiful, interesting, practical, and sustainable. I’m lucky in that I have the disposable income and time to do this and I can look forward to a not-terribly-distant retirement when I can devote a lot of time to it. I’m unlucky in that I have never been “crafty,” so all this is a bit new and intimidating. I am always the slowest person in the sewing class. But I am plugging away because I don’t think I can keep getting up in the morning without having this modest part-time pursuit of skill and beauty as part of my life.

    My husband and I are sorting through our ridiculously huge collection of books and trying to cull as many as possible. I think I discarded my paperback copy of Frankl because the (high acid) pages had turned brown and brittle with age. I should probably get a new copy.

    Reply
    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      When the internet goes dark for good, and only members of the Overclass and their Inner Minions are permitted to have computers . . . . which of your books will you wish you had kept?

      Maybe you should keep those books now.

      Reply
  2. jef

    No offence to the author but it is only when one is in a position where either there are few or no other concerns to contemplate, mostly the 1% or someone whose life is defined for them by incarceration or religious seclusion ( almost the same thing), that have the luxury of contemplating meaning of life. Those who work for money or work just so they and their family can survive (6+ billion of us) contemplate what it must be like to be able to contemplate the meaning of life.

    Reply
    1. leculdesac

      Not sure if you’ve read the book, but when Frankl developed his approach, he was hardly in a “position where either there are few or no other concerns to contemplate,” since he was living in a concentration camp watching his comrades be tortured and murdered and in constant fear of facing the same.

      His perspective shares a lot with liberation theologies, that evolve precisely because disenfranchised, abused, despairing people need to find one area in their lives that they can “control”–and you can call it God, neuroplasticity, Meaning, whatever–but radically committing to your relationship with this Higher Power helps you radically decolonize your brain from the messages of those in power and opens you up to radical new possibilities (aka “miracles” depending on one’s metaphorical framework). I’m purposefully repeating the term radical because it’s one of the few ways to put this powerful experience into words.

      I read Frankl at 16 and it really prepared me for the liberation theology inherent in the 12 step movement and Eastern mysticism. One can call it silly, but humans no matter how poor and/or abused face choices (a serenity prayer) in every moment, and it can be deeply empowering (and ultimately politically transformative) to locate that space where you have radical hope that isn’t limited by what those in power tell you is “real.” Just look at Gandhi’s or MLK’s movements–adjusting one’s locus of control is radically subversive, even when facing prison and death as Frankl did.

      Reply
      1. jef

        My point exactly. He was in a situation where all he was “free” to do was contemplate life.

        The meaning of life is life…all of it, not just humans. And since we are busy destroying all life on the planet obviously we don’t get “it”. Its all or nothing!

        It has been my observation that most of theology and philosophy is just coming up with rationalizations as to why we are killing everything on the planet and why we don’t/can’t do anything about it.

        Reply
        1. Basil Pesto

          I’m still not sure I can reconcile your point about people who “work just so they […] can survive” being incompatible with a guy who literally had to make himself useful via his labour or be killed if he didn’t. Recognising the actual enslavement of the latter as a difference, maybe I’m reading ‘survive’ too literally? Either way I’m not really sure I’m convinced by your argument. You argue that he was in a situation where all he was “free” to do was contemplate life. Not so; as the piece points out, suicide amongst the inmates was endemic.

          Reply
        2. Yves Smith

          Huh? Concentration camp detainees were starved and did hard manual labor until they died. What kind of bullshit is this that people in their ordinary lives have it worse? Even homeless people have more control.

          Reply
        3. Titus

          Jef, if it has been your observation that most theology and philosophy are about rationalizations, then I wonder what exactly are you reading and who are you discussing it with. It is my experience with both the neither are trying to rationalize much of anything. Explaining, yes. Both subjects are not something that should be taken by, alone by oneself. That would be like reading a book of on flying and then go and try it. Not recommended. As to finding time – one lives by more than bread alone. And if I may if the only prayer you ever say is “thank you”, it is enough.

          Reply
      2. jrs

        I don’t know if it’s much in the vein of Frankl, but I increasingly find Kim Domenicos writings at Counterpunch excellent, though more psychological than political. She’s a Jungian.

        https://www.counterpunch.org/2020/03/02/a-bourgeois-hero-would-be-something-to-see/

        Liberalism doesn’t offer us what we want. Even Democratic socialism doesn’t offer us the full of what we want, though of course it helps some suffering and is a start on the path (and btw I’m not a fool, I vote best I can, I don’t just stay home in an election). She’s right, we need another world. Whether or not it’s possible.

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      3. Krystyn Walentka

        Thanks for this.

        I find that there is a great deal of Nihilism hiding behind a veneer of Frankl’s thoughts. Very few people are faced with being so cornered that they find this locus of control.

        Reply
  3. eg

    I read “Man’s Search for Meaning” in a high school religion class. I imagine it would reward re-reading now that I have some actual life experience to bring to my understanding of it 40+ years on now

    Reply
  4. hoki haya

    ‘…not simply in spite of apocalyptic situations, but because of them.’

    The post is an essential counterpoint (as in harmony, not antithesis) to the CoV scare and current geopolitics. If I personally contracted the virus, I would of course embrace a quarantine, but if ‘social distancing’ means I have to forego responding to a neighbor in need or any serendipitous situation where a smaller or larger act may be of use, count me out. To surrender life to the fear of death is living death, not life.

    “Forces beyond one’s control…” usually DO take everything but the shirt on one’s back at least once in most people’s lives, and tho one would never wish such situations on oneself or another, especially situations born of ignorance and injustice, it’s true that there’s a strange freedom in realizing in such moments all one possesses is one’s dignity and intuition…some capacity that loves.

    Reply
  5. lyman alpha blob

    Thanks for this – another one to add to my reading list.

    I’ve come to the somewhat tautological conclusion that the purpose of life is to try to figure out what the purpose of life is. The ‘why’ of it all may be unanswerable, but we can still try to figure out the ‘how’ which might possibly lend some insights in to the ‘why’. Probably the reason I’m drawn to cosmology and why I plan to fight the dying of the light as long as possible. It’d be pretty disappointing to find out that someone found out the exact value of the cosmological constant or where mitochondria came from the day after I slough off the mortal coil ;)

    Reply
  6. Greg S

    A quote from Man’s Search for Meaning that I return to frequently – ” It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us”. Another from Antoine de Saint Exupery – “It is only when we become conscious of our part in life, however modest, that we shall be happy”. I found these to be especially helpful when I lost a dear loved one. One must make time to contemplate our place in what we see around us.

    Reply
  7. a different chris

    >It’d be pretty disappointing to find out that someone found out the

    Yes! This… there is always one more thing to learn, and one more after that, and I don’t care if they improve my bank account by a single cent. I just want to know them.

    Reply
  8. mistah charley, ph.d.

    I hope that people will not be offended by my non-theistic rewrite of the “Instrument of [Your] Peace” prayer/meditation, named in honour of Francis of Assisi but not actually written by him – not during his earthly life, at least. I wanted to emphasize the main points – that human feelings are important, that they are changeable, and that we have choices.

    My goal is to be an instrument of peace.
    Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
    Where there is injury, pardon;
    Where there is doubt, faith;
    Where there is despair, hope;
    Where there is darkness, light;
    Where there is sadness, joy.

    I seek not so much to be consoled, as to console;
    to be understood, as to understand;
    to be loved, as to love.

    For it is in giving that we receive.
    It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
    and it is in letting go of a smaller self that we are able to recognize our participation in all that is.

    Reply
  9. Oregoncharles

    ” When scientists worry that humanity might have just one generation left, we can agree that ours is an abnormal situation.”

    No, it’s (now) normal, and has been since 1945 – 70 years ago, over 3 generations, granted that it took a little while to sink in. My wife remembers hiding under her desk at school during nuclear-disaster drills. My parents designed a potential bomb shelter into their house. That sort of thing sort of drills it in.

    We’ve been living under the Sword of Damocles for quite a while now; we’ve even known that the climate would turn on us for nearly as long. This might explain a lot.

    Reply
  10. Oregoncharles

    “logos,” from Wikipedia, FWIW: ” “ground”, “plea”, “opinion”, “expectation”, “word”, “speech”, “account”, “reason”, “proportion”, and “discourse”.[1][2] It became a technical term in Western philosophy beginning with Heraclitus (c.  535 – c.  475 BC), who used the term for a principle of order and knowledge.[3]

    When I took Greek, we were told it means “word” or “speech”- not “logic,” though there’s an obvious derivation. Sorry to quibble, but in this case precise meanings become very important.

    Reply
  11. Susan the other

    Do wolves howl at the moon because they have a vague awareness of curiosity but are technically unscientific? Or because group howling is medicinal? Or they can’t sleep? They just enjoy their own strange harmony? Who knows. The American Indians used to advise their young to watch the wolves and do what they do. Interesting. Maybe that explains rock concerts.

    Reply
  12. Basil Pesto

    Calling the Statue of Responsibility hokey, while on the one hand kinda self-evidently true (of course, to me it seems to follow that a statue of liberty, conceptually, is no less hokey), it’s a bit unfair without giving it the full context of Frankl on this point. He writes (possibly paraphrasing): “there is no freedom without responsibility.” This to me is less a hokey observation than something that should be a lot more axiomatic than it apparently is. That said, and with the above quotation in mind, while one can appreciate the symmetry of the west coast suggestion, the putative statue might be better situated for effect on, say, Wall St.

    Reply
  13. Chauncey Gardiner

    Thank you for this post, Lambert. Inspiring to read about a factor that transcends other motivations commonly ascribed to human behavior. Also mindful of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, implicitly discussed above. That is what made this takeaway from Frankl’s work a tell IMO. It is hard for me to imagine a more difficult environment for the human spirit than that time and place.

    Reply
  14. Jonathan Holland Becnel

    My personal meaning for life after hitting rock bottom and mildly experiencing despair is to think about ways to unite the Worlds Working Class and finding alternative ways to power the planet.

    Reply
  15. xkeyscored

    Picture a bright blue ball just spinning, spinning free
    Dizzy with eternity
    Paint it with a skin of sky, brush in some clouds and sea
    Call it home for you and me
    A peaceful place, or so it looks from space
    A closer look reveals the human race
    Full of hope, full of grace, is the human face
    But afraid we may lay our home to waste

    The future’s here, we are it, we are on our own
    On our own, on our own, we are on our own

    If the game is lost, then we’re all the same
    No one left to place or take the blame
    We will leave this place an empty stone
    Or that shining ball of blue we call our home

    Grateful Dead- Throwing Stones

    Reply
      1. The Rev Kev

        ‘It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”’

        Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

        Reply
  16. witters

    I think Simone Weil nailed it when it comes to life-as-a-search/quest for meaning:

    From Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter:

    “A great famine had just begun to devastate China,” she writes, “and: I was told on hearing the news she [Weil] had wept; these tears commanded my respect even more than her philosophical talents. I envied her for having a heart that could beat right across the world. One day I managed to approach her. I don’t remember how the conversation began; she declared in no uncertain terms that one thing alone mattered in the world today: the Revolution that would feed all the people on earth. I retorted, no less peremptorily, that the problem was not to make men happy, but to find a meaning for their existence. She looked me up and down: “It is easy to see you have never gone hungry,” she said. Our relationship stopped there. (239)

    Reply
    1. JBird4049

      Everything is important. I get annoyed with people whining about various bigotries and prejudices, but brush off my complaints about hunger and homelessness. Just like how someone else could blow off my liking philosophy, because it is not “practical.” Or at least that’s what they think. But just focusing on these issues leaves one’s soul hungry. Being mind or soul hungry is not as fatal as actual starvation, but it can hurt just as much.

      Just look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

      Reply

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