Holocaust Survivor Viktor Frankl Explains Why If We Have True Meaning in Our Lives, We Can Make It Through the Darkest of Times

In one school of popular reasoning, people judge historical outcomes that they think are favorable as worthy tradeoffs for historical atrocities. The argument appears in some of the most inappropriate contexts, such as discussions of slavery or the Holocaust. Or in individual thought experiments, such as that of a famous inventor whose birth was the result of a brutal assault. There are a great many people who consider this thinking repulsive, morally corrosive, and astoundingly presumptuous. Not only does it assume that every terrible thing that happens is part of a benevolent design, but it pretends to know which circumstances count as unqualified goods, and which can be blithely ignored. It determines future actions from a tidy and convenient story of the past.

We might contrast this attitude with a more Zen stance, for example, a radically agnostic “wait and see” approach to everything that happens. Not-knowing seems to give meditating monks a great deal of serenity in practice. But the theory terrifies most of us. Effects must have causes, we think, causes must have effects, and in order to predict what’s going to happen next (and thereby save our skins), we must know why we're doing what we're doing. The deep impulse is what psychologist and psychotherapist Viktor Frankl identifies, in his pre-gender-neutrally titled book, as Man’s Search for Meaning. Despite the misuse of this faculty to create neurotic or dehumanizing myths, “man’s search for meaning,” writes Frankl, “is the primary motivation in his life and not a ‘secondary rationalization’ of instinctual drives.”

Frankl understood perfectly well how the construction of meaning—through narrative, art, relationships, social fictions, etc.—might be perverted for murderous ends. He was a survivor of four concentration camps, which took the lives of his parents, brother, and wife. The first part of his book, “Experiences in a Concentration Camp,” recounts the horror in detail, sparing no one accountability for their actions. From these experiences, Frankl draws a conclusion, one he explains in the interview above in two parts from 1977. “The lesson one could learn from Auschwitz,” he says, “and in other concentration camps, in the final analysis was, those who were oriented toward a meaning---toward a meaning to be fulfilled by them in the future---were most likely to survive" beyond the experience. "The question," Frankl says, "was survival for what?" (See a short animated summary of Frankl's book below.)

Frankl does not excuse the deaths of his family, friends, and millions of others in his psychological theory, which he calls logotherapy. He certainly does not trivialize the most unimaginable of in-human experiences. “We all said to each other in camp,” he writes, “that there could be no earthly happiness which could compensate for all we had suffered.” But it was not the hope of happiness that “gave us courage,” he writes. It was the “will to meaning” that looked to the future, not to the past. In Frankl’s existentialist view, we ourselves create that meaning, for ourselves, and not for others. Logotherapy, Frankl writes, “defocuses all the vicious-circle formations and feedback mechanisms which play such a great role in the development of neuroses.” We must acknowledge the need to make sense of our lives and fill what Frankl called the “existential vacuum.” And we alone are responsible for writing better stories for ourselves.

To dig deeper in Frankl's philosophy, you can read not only Man’s Search for Meaning but also The Will to Meaning: Foundations and Applications of Logotherapy.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Robert Pirsig Reveals the Personal Journey That Led Him to Write His Counterculture Classic, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974)

I well remember pulling Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance from my parents’ shelves at age twelve or thirteen, working my way through a few pages, and stopping in true perplexity to ask, “what is this?” The book fit no formal scheme or genre I had ever encountered before. I understood its language, but I did not know how to read it. I still don’t, though I’ve had decades to study some of Pirsig’s references and influences, from Plato to Kant to Dōgen. Is this memoir? Fiction? Philosophy? A meditation on machinery, like Henry Adams’ strange essay “The Dynamo and the Virgin”? Yes.

Pirsig’s countercultural classic, published in 1974 after five years of rejections (121 in total) was “not… a marketing man’s dream,” as the editor at his eventual publisher, William Morrow, wrote to him at the time. Nevertheless, it sold—“50,000 copies in three months,” writes the L.A. Times, “and more than 5 million in the decades since. The dense tome has been translated into at least 27 languages…. Its popularity made Pirsig ‘probably the most widely read philosopher alive,’ one British journalist wrote in 2006.’” Pirsig, who died this past Monday, only wrote one other work, the philosophical novel Lila: An Inquiry into Morals. But he will be remembered as an important, if quixotic, figure in 20th century thought.

Zen ostensibly recounts a motorcycle journey Pirsig took with his son, Chris, and two friends. They are shadowed by another character, Phaedrus, the author's neurotic alter ego. Pirsig poured all of himself into the book: his unorthodox philosophical and spiritual journey, his struggle with schizophrenia, his close and fretful relationship to his son (who later succumbed to drug addiction and was murdered at age 22, five years after Zen came out). It is a book “filled with unanswered and, perhaps, unanswerable questions.”

The kind of deep ambiguity and uncertainty Zen explores is not easy to write about, unsurprisingly, and in the NPR interview above from 1974, Pirsig describes his struggles as a writer—the distractions and intrusions, the self-doubt and confusion. Pirsig secluded himself for much of the writing of the book, and for much of it worked a day job writing technical manuals, which explains quite a lot about its intricate levels of technical detail.

Pirsig’s descriptions of the hard-won self-discipline (and exhaustion) that the writer’s life requires will ring true for anyone who has tried to write a book. He sums up his motivation succinctly: “this was really a compulsive book. If I didn’t do it, I’d feel worse than if I did do it.” But Pirsig found he couldn’t make any progress as a writer until he gave up trying to be “in quotes, a ‘writer,’” or play the role of one anyway. “It was always a separation of my real self from the act of writing,” he says.

His process sounds like the freewriting of Kerouac's road novel or the automatic writing of the Surrealists: “I could almost watch my hand moving on the page; there was almost no volition one way or the other, it was just happening.” What he identifies as the “sincerity” of the book's voice helps steady readers who must trust a very unreliable narrator to guide them through a philosophy of what Pirsig calls “quality”---a metaphysical condition that underlies religions and philosophies East and West. "One can meditate," he wrote, "on the fact that the old English roots for the Buddha and Quality, God and good, appear to be identical." Pirsig subjected all human endeavor to the scrutiny of "quality," including so-called "value free" science, a characterization he found dubious.

In the BBC radio interview above, you can hear Pirsig describe his personal and intellectual journey, which took him through a troubled childhood in Minnesota, a tour in the Korean War, an academic career, and eventually a central role in the “whole attempt to reform America” begun by "beatniks" and "hippies" in San Francisco. (Both words, he wrote, were "cliches and stereotypes... invented for the antitechnologists, the antisystem people.") Urged by a university colleague to pursue the question “what is quality?,” Pirsig undertook an obsessive investigation. His willingness and courage to follow wherever it led defined the rest of his life as a writer and thinker.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Discover the Creative, New Philosophy Podcast Hi-Phi Nation: The First Story-Driven Show About Philosophy

Let me call your attention to a new and quite different philosophy podcast. Created by Barry Lam (Associate Professor of Philosophy at Vassar College), Hi-Phi Nation is a philosophy podcast "that turns stories into ideas." Consider it "the first sound and story-driven show about philosophy, bringing together narrative storytelling, investigative journalism, and soundtracking."

Above you can watch a trailer that introduces Hi-Phi Nation, which is now available on iTunes, Google Play, Soundcloud and this website. Below, hear Episode 9 of Season 1, called "The Ashes of Truth." Among other things, it features filmmaker Errol Morris.

The first season of Hi-Phi Nation has been made possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities, The Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, the Humanities-Writ Large Fellowship, and other institutions. Learn more about the show by reading these write-ups by Vassar and Princeton.

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Philosophical, Sci-Fi Claymation Film Answers the Timeless Question: Which Came First, the Chicken or the Egg?

It’s a question that’s occupied our greatest thinkers, from Aristotle and Plato to Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye:

Which came first---the chicken or the egg?

The debate will likely rage as long as there’s a faith-based camp to square off against the evidence-based camp.

With that in mind, and the weekend looming, we’re inclined to go with the Claymation camp, in the form of Time Chicken, Nick Black’s 6-minute stop-motion meditation, above.


Described by its creator as a “philosophical-action-fantasy into the world of science, religion, knowledge and creation,” Time Chicken benefits from an appropriately bombastic original score performed by the Prague Symphony Orchestra and the seeming-eyewitness testimony of its admittedly clay-based, all-poultry cast.

Black’s copious cinematic references and science fiction tropes are every bit as delectable as a Mughal style egg-stuffed whole chicken slow cooked in a rich almond-poppy seeds-yogurt-&-saffron gravy.

Kudos to the filmmaker, too, for eschewing the uncredited dubbing that made fellow claymator Nick (Park)’s Chicken Run a crossover hit, trusting instead in the (unsubtitled) original language of his subjects.

Readers, watch this hilarious little film and weigh in. Which came first? The chicken? Or the egg?

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

An Interactive Visualization of Hegel’s Science of Logic (Available on Github)

In 1812, GWF Hegel published his Science of Logic. Two centuries later, one of his disciples put on Github an interactive visualisation of Hegel's work, which essentially takes the structure of the text and puts it into a visual map. Whether the visualization has any utility, I'm not sure. But it's fun to give it a quick spin.

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

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via Philosophy Matters

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5 Animations Introduce the Media Theory of Noam Chomsky, Roland Barthes, Marshall McLuhan, Edward Said & Stuart Hall

We watch it happen in real time, aghast as the media cannibalizes itself, turning reality into a parody of the kind we laughed at in goofy dystopian scenarios from Back to the Future, The SimpsonsIdiocracy. A brave new world of hypercredulity and monstrous disingenuousness arrived on our smart phones and TVs. It was gaudy and pernicious and lied to us like we couldn’t trust our lying eyes. We saw reality TV mainlined into reality. The response was to shout, “Fake News,” a phrase almost immediately redigested and spun into flimsy conspiracy theories. It now serves little purpose but to get the snake gnawing its tail again.

How?, many wondered in despair. Haven’t people read the theory? Noam Chomsky, Marshall McLuhan, Stuart Hall, Edward Said, Roland Barthes.... Didn’t we see them proven right time and again? But chances are if you know all these names, you’ve spent time in university English, Communications, or Media Studies departments.


You’ve hung around hip bookstores and coffeeshops in cities and puzzled over critical theory, pretending, perhaps, to have read at least one of these writers you hadn't. You gave up your TV years ago and kept your kids away from screens (or told people you did). You fit, in other words, a certain profile, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, it was, in the scheme of things, a pretty narrow niche, and an often pretty smug one at that.

Maybe academics, critics, and journalists need to be better at talking and listening to ordinary people? Maybe fashionable waves of anti-intellectualism need to be resisted with almost religious vigor…? Whatever the solution(s) for mass media illiteracy, we can treat the video series here from Al Jazeera as a step in the right direction. Called “Media Theorized: Reading Against the Grain,” the project takes as its subtitle a quote from Roland Barthes, the French philosopher and literary critic who distilled cultural studies into highly readable essays, dissecting everything from wrestling to tourism to advertising. Barthes showed how these genres constitute symbolic texts, just like romantic novels and morality plays, but purport to show us unmediated truth.

“Media Theorized” surveys five cultural critics who have, in five different ways, made similar analyses of mass media. Marshall McLuhan famously declared the medium as the message: its signal inseparable from its noise; Noam Chomsky demonstrated how popular consent is engineered by a narrow set of shady special interests with influence over the media; Stuart Hall showed how mass media manipulates discourses of race, class, gender, and religion to misrepresent outsiders and marginalized people and keep them in their place in the social imaginary; and Edward Said documented the long tradition of “Orientalism”---a totalizing Euro-American discourse that estranges, belittles, and dehumanizes whole countries, cultures, and religious communities.

While it’s impossible to do justice to the richness and depth of their arguments with quick summaries and pithy animation, what “Media Theorized” does well is to present this handful of academics as accessible and uniquely relevant to our current situation. This works especially well because the presenters are people used to putting theory into practice, communicating with the public, and critiquing mass media. Activists and journalists from all over the world, who have not only contributed short videos on YouTube, but thoughtful supplementary essays and interviews at the “Media Theorized” site (which also includes high resolution posters from each video.) The project is an invitation for each of us to take several steps back and ask some highly pertinent questions about how and why the stories we're told get told, and for whose benefit.

Millions of people have had enough and are demanding accountability from individual figures in the media---a positive development, to be sure, though it seems like too little too late. We need to understand the damage that’s been done, and continues to be done, by the systems mass media enable and sell. This series introduces “critical tools” we can use in our “everyday encounters” with such salesmanship.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Are We Living in a Computer Simulation?: A 2-Hour Debate with Neil Degrasse Tyson, David Chalmers, Lisa Randall, Max Tegmark & More

What do we live in: the only universe that exists, or an elaborate computer simulation of a universe? The question would have fascinated Isaac Asimov, and that presumably counts as one of the reasons the Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate took it as its subject last year. Though the so-called "simulation hypothesis" has, in various forms, crossed the minds of thinkers for millennia, it's enjoyed a particular moment in the zeitgeist in recent years, not least because Elon Musk has publicly stated his view that, in all probability, we do indeed live in a simulation. And, if you can't trust the guy who hit it big with Tesla and PayPal on the nature of reality, who can you?

Well, you might also consider listening to the perspectives of New York University philosopher David Chalmers, MIT cosmologist Max Tegmark, and three theoretical physicists, James Gates of the University of Maryland, Lisa Randall of Harvard, and Zohreh Davoudi of MIT. They, with moderation by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, dig into the simulation hypothesis for two hours, approaching from all different angles its origin, its plausibility, and its implications. Davoudi, who has done serious research on the question, brings her work to bear; Randall, who finds little reason to credit the notion that we live in a simulation in the first place, has more of an interest in why others find it so compelling all of a sudden.

Whether you believe it, reject it, or simply enjoy entertaining the idea, you can't help but feel a strong reaction of one kind or another to the simulation hypothesis, and Tyson contributes his usual humor to knock the discussion back down to Earth whenever it threatens to become too abstract. But how should we respond to the possibility of living in computed reality in the here and now (or "here" and now," if you prefer)? The Matrix proposed a kind of simulation-hypothesis world whose heroes break out, but we may ultimately have no more ability to see the hardware running our world than Mario can see the hardware running his. "If you're not sure whether you're actually simulated or not," says Tegmark, "my advice to you is to go out there and live really interesting lives and do unexpected things so the simulators don't get bored and shut you down." In these unreal times, you could certainly do worse.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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