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Frankls Descartesian Approach To Meaning Essay, Research Paper

Viktor Frankl’s Descartesian Search for Meaning

In his autobiography “Man’s search for Meaning”, Viktor Frankl describes his experiences as a prisoner in the Nazi Concentration Camps during World War II. He depicted situations and places that showed little regard for humanity. People were dehumanized through techniques of slave labor, torture and loss of identity through identification numbers. As a whole, people in the camp were treated without regard to their mental or physical well being. How could anyone find knowledge in these horrible conditions? According to rationalistic philosophies, people possess knowledge about the cosmos and their meanings inside them. These inner ideas are waiting for the environment to shape them and give them meaning. Rene Descartes, a seventieth century philosopher, devised four epistemological rules in which a human could deduce knowledge of the cosmos. Viktor Frankl searched for meaning in the atrocities the Holocaust. He uncovered meaning for his life, for his pain and most of all for his suffering by using techniques that paralleled Descartes’ rules in acquiring knowledge. Frankl determined his distinct inner idea and then built an epistemology from his most understandable idea by deducing reason from insanity.

Rationalists like Descartes believe that every human has innate ideas that serve as the building blocks in developing an understanding of the world around them. These incorruptible ideas are always present in humans and are essential to understanding Descartes’ epistemology. According to his philosophy, people have meaning in their being somewhere, even if they are incarcerated unjustly like the prisoners of the camps. Their underlying meanings are simply waiting for the right time to arise and be formed by the environment. Frankl used this concept to describe why each person has a meaning; people have a special quality that should allow them to persevere through any circumstances. For example, he remembered learning of two men, one man had a young child waiting for him in another country and another man had important scientific work to complete. Frankl himself had his dear wife to remember (Frankl 79). All of responsibilities gave meaning to that particular individual. Frankl continually states that if a person had a “why” to live, then that should outweigh any “how” (Frankl 101). Frankl portrays his feelings of this concept in his thoughts concerning human responsibility.

When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude. 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 throw his life away. (Frankl 101)

Frankl reveals his belief that humans have inner qualities that make each individual unique; the affection of a father, the responsibility to the scientific world and the love of a husband are all irreplaceable. These concepts that are all intrinsically right in people and give them a meaning in their lives. After establishing that these human prisoners had an inner meaning to survive, Descartes’ then uses this mathematical approach to deduce knowledge, which can be applied to the manner in which Frankl found knowledge in the camps.

Descartes first rule of epistemology demands people not to accept anything to be true which is not clearly recognized as true and to believe only those things that are “clear and distinct” (Hakim 319, 325). In the context of the concentration camps, the only thing that was certain in the daily routine of the prisoners was that nothing was certain. Assurance of one’s physical and mental safety was virtually shrouded by the consistent deception of the camps. Even though the daily life of the people was unpredictable, the inner strengths that each human possessed remained a beacon for salvation. The love for his wife enabled Frankl to transcend his daily pain and suffering. Even the fact that she was not present with him in the camps did not matter as long as he was able to hold onto the love, which they each shared. It also was of no consequence whether his wife was dead or a live; the fact that their love was incorruptible and immutable by the conditions of the camp gave him courage and will to survive the duration of the pain. The love of a husband for his wife went “beyond the physical person of the beloved” (Frankl 58). Guards could beat him, humiliate him, and even try to kill him but they could not corrupt his feelings of love for his wife. The clear and distinct love that bonded them enabled him to deduce all the other truths in the camp. Regardless of how much he loved her, his feelings of love were often obscured by other emotions concerning the camp. Each prisoner was perplexed by the many emotions that raged inside them. The way to defeat this surfeit of emotion was to progress through the second rule of Descartes.

Divide up each difficulty into as many parts as possible was the second Descartesian rule of epistemology. Prisoners constantly struggled with multiple emotions while enslaved in the camps. Guilt, suffering, confusion and love confused many of the inmates of the camps. One of the most complex emotions was trying to find an explanation for their suffering. Frankl quotes Dostoevski saying ‘there is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings’ (Frankl 87). He portrays his particular confusion of an explanation for his unjust sufferings. According to Descartes, however, the only way to obtain knowledge would be to separate each distinct emotion and evaluate them as a specific emotion. Frankl continually struggled with this notion throughout his stay in the camps. During his incarceration, his meaning seemed escape him at times; he could not break down what was important in his life, what made him want to survive. The camps had deprived him of almost all his physical dignity and confused him mentally. After having the revelation about the love for his wife, he discovers the truth that “whether or not he is actually present, whether or not he is still alive at all, ceases somehow to be of importance” (Frankl 58). Through all of his suffering and confusion, love remained a steadfast beacon in which he could return to find himself and discover knowledge to overcome any of his physical suffering. The simplicity of his love for his wife was crucial for the deduction of the more complex meanings of the knowledge of suffering and pain.

Both Frankl and Descartes would agree that simpler ideas are easier to understand than more complex ones. This provides the foundation for Descartes’ third rule: determine the simplest idea and then build on it in order to come to a suitable answer. Again, for Frankl, this concept has a close relation to the previous two rules. Frankl states, “I was struggling to find a reason for my sufferings, my slow dying” (Frankl 60). He could not find a reason why he had been chosen to suffer under such horrible conditions. His suffering was his most difficult thought to comprehend at the time of his incarceration. The many injustices of the camp caused him to form a complex understanding in which he could not determine the meaning. Even though his idea of suffering was obscured and intricate, his idea of love was simple and direct. Through his simple and deep understanding of love, he formulated a path to understand suffering. Frankl thought of suffering as a necessary ingredient and without this aspect of life, people would not live complete lives.

What is suffering? It is simply another emotion like love or hate. “Emotion which is suffer, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and concise picture of it” (Frankl 95). This relates to the Descartes first rule that says to accept only that is immutably clear and distinct. However painful and horrific the conditions in which Frankl went through, he knew suffering and could master it through his transcendent knowledge of the love for his wife. Through his knowledge of love he could develop a “why” to exist that would outweigh any “how” to exist which is the emotions and feelings of a being. Just like the ideas of Descartes, Frankl took the simple concept of love and built a path in which he could find the knowledge of his complex suffering. He believed that “one could make a victory of those experiences turning life into an inner triumph” (Frankl 93). Frankl embodied the very essence of this statement. By taking an emotion that was undoubtedly positive and using it to overcome the negative emotion of suffering, Frankl triumphed over the horrid conditions which came close to stripping him of his very existence.

Frankl used the final step of Descartes epistemological approach to develop his psychological technique of logotherapy. In his final step to attaining knowledge, Descartes states that individuals must “make enumerations so complete and reviews so general that I should be certain of having omitted nothing” (Hakim 325). This indicates that, for Frankl, individual search for knowledge was too specific and could not be applied to everyone in general. However, he applied the method in which he ascertained his knowledge to many of his psychological patients. First, people must see that they have a responsibility to life. Frankl demonstrates his belief in this concept in his statement: “it did not really matter what we expected from life but rather what life expected of us” (Frankl 100). In order to find meaning, humans must believe and understand that there is a reason and meaning for everyone included those who were incarcerated in the death camps in Europe. In his logotherapy, patients look towards the future in order to find “logos” which is Greek for meaning. Patients find a “will to meaning” which is specific to each person and only they are able to find it (Frankl 121). In his logotherapy approach to psychology, Frankl effectively generalized his knowledge and completed the Descartesian rules to acquiring knowledge.

Frankl’s means to understanding came through a long period of trials that forced him to take a long look at his life introspectively. Upon looking at his life in the context of the camps, he came upon the revelation that the Nazi’s were be able to take away his physical strength but they could not touch his soul and moral dignity. Descartes coined the phrase “Cognito ergo sum” or “I think, therefore I am” (Hakim 319). This one phrase encapsulates all four rules of Descartesian epistemology and parallels that which was previously discussed about Frankl. Regardless of their attempts, the guards of the camps could not deprive him his ability to say, “I am.” Furthermore, the Nazi’s could not take away his ability to say, “I love” and his hope for a deeper existence. With this enlightened view of suffering, Frankl was able to overcome the terrible actions committed by the Germans during World War II. His Descartesian approach to epistemology allowed him to systematically develop a way through which people can overcome suffering and obtain hope and meaning. In his psychological approach to the human ability to find meaning, Frankl developed a technique which relies on self-importance and hope in the future. Armed with these powerful tools, Frankl was able to find meaning in his world for his individual existence.

My first reactions to Frankl’s recount of his Holocaust experience were that of pure admiration. The positive outlook that he takes when it came to his experiences astonished me. Many survivors of the holocaust are simply bitter and never attempt to search for meaning or reasons in their sufferings. Frankl, however, chooses to find meaning in his life using, as I have said, Descartesian epistemology. By never losing his hope, he is able to comprehend a higher meaning to his existence that will carry him through any of the mental or physical obstacles. Not only does he escape the camps with his life; he escapes them with a new outlook on the nature of human beings. In his development of logotherapy, he creates a therapy that gives hope and meaning in other peoples’ lives. Through his extreme suffering, he develops a way to help others who suffer from mental conditions that parallel his mental state. His methods are used to inspire self-importance in everyone and find meaning in people’s lives. When they will realize that they cannot be replaced, they will realize that they can endure anything that might trouble them in life. I cannot express the amount of respect that I have for this man who survived such conditions and came out with such a positive outlook on humanity.


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