Viktor Frankl, who happened to be one of the top pioneers of psychoanalysis in the 20th century alongside Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler, argued that the search for “meaning” as well as the search for both the purpose and truth behind one’s existence is at the core of everyday human struggles and strivings. For our intent and purpose, “meaning” and “purpose” can be used interchangeably. Moreover, the search for meaning, purpose, and truth has its roots in antiquity as well as in religious and traditional philosophies, which are for the most part theocentric. As a result, meaning, purpose, and truth in a traditional sense are derived from worship of a deity or a set of deities, along with the attainment of an ideal state in an afterlife.
There are perhaps material factors which prompted the theocentric objectives of philosophy and religion in the past. For one, lifespans were at times shorter in the pre-modern period than in the modern period, which is why issues such as God and an afterlife were addressed with a sense of urgency. But with the advent of modernity and a sea change of material conditions that came with modernity, proponents of liberalism – which is the predominant ontological state in modern times – and modernity flipped the logic of traditional philosophies on its head and thus adopted the belief that economic and scientific progress will eventually enable the fostering of “heaven on earth,” which in turn would stall religious concerns pertaining to eschatological and theological matters. Although truth is central to the intellectual pursuit of liberals, preoccupation with the advancement of living standards here on earth would delay concerns pertaining to God and an afterlife to a certain extent.
Thus, with the advent of modernity and the rise of living standards which accompanied the focus on life here on earth, theocentric explanations for why people had to live and struggle lost their magnanimity. We no longer had to struggle for a place in the afterlife if we could mitigate the struggle for survival here on earth by fostering ideal conditions of living through economic progress and scientific advancements. Prolonged lifespans in a modern world meant that people no longer had to rush towards God and the afterlife as was done in the past.
One of the early prophets of modernity, Sir Francis Bacon, heralded scientific progress and technology as the means by which humanity would foster a “New Atlantis,” which equates to a utopian world in which moral perfection would be established. More recent proponents of modernity such as Yuval Noah Harari have gone as far as arguing that once mankind overcomes war and poverty, it will attain “immortality, bliss, and divinity.” Although war and poverty have been overcome to a large extent, there is no concrete path towards “immortality, bliss, and divinity” afforded to us by science as of yet, nor will there ever be such a path due to the flawed nature of our existence and of our world. Whether life became more tolerable due to the advent of liberalism and modernity is still a matter of debate. What was certain, however, was that a return to a traditional ontological state based on culture and religion became all the more difficult due to Durkheimian “Anomie” and Weberian “Disenchantment” which stem from modernity.
Also, the modern project ignored the most fundamental question of any philosophical tradition, which is the question of why we exist. As Emile Durkheim argued, the more one knew about the nature of our existence, the more prone one became to suicide and existential crises. Modernity and tradition each carry their own peculiar set of problems, thus the need for solutions through the employment of either philosophy or religion. For one, Rousseau’s prescription for overcoming the problems of modernity was a rather radical one, which was a return to a “state of nature” that is perhaps unfeasible in modern circumstances. Nevertheless, a reckoning with nature has been put forth as a prescription not only by Rousseau in the past, but also by other philosophers and scientists as well. In sum, the truth can be found through an exploration of nature.
What resulted from an existential void that has yet to be filled by liberalism and modernity was a strand of philosophy that still remains prevalent in this day and age, namely, existentialism. Soren Kierkegaard is credited with having pioneered the existentialist movement in the Western world. Existentialism is generally defined as ‘a form of philosophical inquiry that explores the problem of human existence and centers on the lived experience of the thinking, feeling, acting individual.” What prompts existentialist thought is primarily anxiety in the face of what appears to be a meaningless and absurd world. Anxiety moves us to pursue meaning, purpose, and truth in a world that provides no resolute aid, compass, or guide for such an endeavor.
Although Kierkegaard placed an emphasis on faith as a means of filling the existential void left by liberalism and modernity, his view was by no means monolithic within the existentialist movement. As suggested by Nietzsche, faith, morality, and theism have succumbed to the hypocrisy, materialism, and nihilism of modernity, and as a result there are alternative sources of meaning that had to be explored. “God is dead” meant that theism – as well as faith and morality – were confounded by novel circumstances stemming from a nihilistic age. Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Heidegger all said the same thing, which was that aesthetics and art were the only means by which one could overcome the challenges posed by modernity and technology. On the other hand, Camus and Sartre’s “absurdism” meant that the void created by nihilism in a modern age had to be filled by the subjective will of the individual, given that there are no external sources of meaning available for recourse.
Psychoanalysis was essentially a last-ditch effort to shed light on the issue of meaning and purpose that underlies all human behavior and thought. Although theories put forth by Freud and Adler stressed the centrality of sex and power as the primary drivers of human behavior and thought respectively, the “logotherapy” of Frankl would eventually deem the drivers of Freud and Adler as means to an end. But in the end, Frankl merely echoes the French Existentialists such as Camus and Sartre when he suggests that the aim of psychoanalysis is to merely enable the individual to find his or her own meaning, purpose, and truth. What is essentially sought through “logotherapy” is actually the noumenon which constitutes reality, but as it appears, reality is defined subjectively.
Irvin Yalom explains why subjectivity is at the heart of the search for meaning within the existentialist fold by stating:
“An existential position holds that the world is contingent – that is, everything that is could as well have been otherwise; that human beings constitute themselves, their world, and their situation within that world; that there exists no “meaning,” no grand design in the universe, no guidelines for living other than those the individual creates.”
Given these circumstances and realities, what could fill the existential void that plagues virtually all of humanity? Yalom suggests that meaning is derived either through an aim, purpose, function, or task that an individual needs to fulfill, or through a spiritual design or ordering of the universe that is beyond the individual, namely, God. In sum, our modern-day weltanschauung has failed to efface actual meaning, which happens to be perennial and timeless.
Thus, there is either “terrestrial meaning” or “cosmic meaning” associated with an individual’s existence, based on Yalom’s perspective. How one is to decipher either the terrestrial or cosmic meaning of their existence is anyone’s guess. Education and life experience may aid one’s pursuit of terrestrial or cosmic meaning. Through education and life experience, one traverses through both opinion and reason, only to arrive at intuition towards the journey’s end. What is counterintuitive, however, is dropping everything in order to do what it takes to develop one’s intuition and thus decipher the meaning, purpose, and truth behind one’s existence.