Viktor Frankl on all people’s freedom to find their lives meaningful

Human Affairs 29 (4):379-386 (2019)
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According to Viktor Frankl, although people are not always free to choose the conditions in which they find themselves, they are always free to choose their attitude towards these conditions and, thus, are always free to find their lives meaningful. This basic tenet of Frankl’s theory is also often repeated approvingly in the secondary literature. I argue that the claim is wrong; not all people are free to find their lives meaningful. Counterexamples include people who suffer from severe depression or people who, due to lack of sufficient intelligence, ability to focus, or determination cannot profit from psychological counseling (including logotherapeutic counseling). I also criticize Frankl’s oft-repeated argument that some people’s success in finding their lives meaningful in the concentration camps shows that all people are free to find their lives meaningful. Frankl’s discussion of the noetic dimension and its relation to other dimensions of the human personality is also insufficient for defending his claim about all people’s freedom to find their lives meaningful. Frankl’s theory of the noos suggests that all people’s lives are meaningful. But since not all people’s lives are meaningful, Frankl’s claims about the noos seem incorrect: either some people do not have (or are not also) a noetic dimension or the noetic dimension does not always endow life with meaning. Further, the claim that, thanks to all people’s noetic dimension, all people’s lives are already meaningful is in tension with the claim that all people can wrest meaning from life. I suggest that understanding Frankl as only claiming that all people have a potential for meaningful lives is also unhelpful. Finally, I discuss the implications of my criticism for Frankl’s theory at large. I argue that much in this very helpful theory can be retained, but identify those aspects of the theory that need to be modified.

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Iddo Landau
University of Haifa

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