However much people believe that they have transcended Freud they continue to search for meaning.
Freud founded psychoanalysis by asserting that he could help people to discover the meaning of their dreams. The meaning, he said, lay in wish fulfillment. It did not really cure anyone of anything, but it convinced a large number of people that psychoanalysis could help them to understand their motives, intentions and aspirations.
In truth, Freudian theory does not explain anything. It does not offer any true insights into how the mind works. It indoctrinates people in one specific narrative. As “overpriced storytelling” it is a sleight of hand, one that persuades people that they have understood something about themselves when they haven’t.
Of course, psychoanalysis has also convinced people that understanding is transformative and curative. It has never really done so, but convincing people that it is has produced placebo cures.
For those who remain unaware, I have discussed these and many similar issues in my book The Last Psychoanalyst.
Since the therapy culture, as they say, has evolved, most people today associate the search for meaning with one Victor Frankl. Where Freud believed that the meaning lay in the desire, Frankl saw it in a less eroticized version of love.
Yet, Frankl is not as strong a thinker as Freud so his thought tends to be muddled.
At the very least, the notion that you should be spending your life searching for meaning is misleading. At worst, it is confusing.
Frankl’s reflections derive from his experience as a concentration camp survivor. His was an extreme situation. Extremes do not and should not make the rule.
Examine one of his salient thoughts:
A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth — that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I 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. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way — an honorable way — in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, 'The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.'
Salvation through love? Now where have I heard that before?
Of course, this resembles a religious conversion experience. Well and good. Yet, promoting the elements of religion without offering membership in a congregation will ultimately lead people to join cults.
No one is going to begrudge Frankl or anyone else whatever consolation he may find in a situation of extreme “desolation.” No one is going to begrudge him his epiphany either. One does not know whether or not he could have performed a positive action, but, outside of extreme situations, we can and do perform positive actions.
Surely, Frankl does not want us all to live as though we were interned in concentration camps. Or does he?
Examine another of Frankl’s notions:
In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.
Freud could not have said it better.
Yet, it isn’t true. Discovering a meaning might make the suffering more tolerable, but if, for example, you believe that someone is making you suffer because he loves you or because he hates you, will that really make the suffering cease to be suffering? Or better, if you come to believe that you are suffering because you did someone wrong—thus that you deserve it—will that make it cease to be suffering?
Obviously, the concept of suffering that ceases to be suffering sounds clever, but is ultimately empty of meaning.
In a recent column David Brooks did an excellent job of debunking the idea that we need to live meaningful lives. He did not mention Frankl, but clearly Frankl is the presiding genie of this movement.
Brooks quotes a man named John Gardner, someone who has clearly drunk the Kool-Aid of meaning:
And then, at the end, he goes into a peroration about leading a meaningful life. “Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you. ... You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life.”
Gardner puts “meaning” at the apogee of human existence. His speech reminded me how often we’ve heard that word over the past decades. As my Times colleague April Lawson puts it, “meaning” has become the stand-in concept for everything the soul yearns for and seeks. It is one of the few phrases acceptable in modern parlance to describe a fundamentally spiritual need.
Clearly, Brooks is correct.
Continuing, Brooks defines what most people mean when they go on a search for meaning.
First, in using this term we mean that life should be about more than material success.
Second, in using the term we are saying that we prefer a meaningful life to a happy life. This is slightly more controversial. It is even more controversial if we ask whether both should be superseded by a good life.
Brooks defines what its proponents call a meaningful life:
… a meaningful life is more satisfying than a merely happy life. Happiness is about enjoying the present; meaning is about dedicating oneself to the future. Happiness is about receiving; meaningfulness is about giving. Happiness is about upbeat moods and nice experiences. People leading meaningful lives experience a deeper sense of satisfaction.
If this is what it means to live a meaningful live, Brooks continues, it involves attaining a state of enlightened consciousness and also a state of moral superiority. You may not know what to do; you may not know what you should or should not do; you know what it all means.
Next, Brooks offers a trenchant critique of the concept.
Yet it has to be said, as commonly used today, the word [meaning] is flabby and vacuous, the product of a culture that has grown inarticulate about inner life.
Let me put it this way: If we look at the people in history who achieved great things — like Nelson Mandela or Albert Schweitzer or Abraham Lincoln — it wasn’t because they wanted to bathe luxuriously in their own sense of meaningfulness. They had objective and eternally true standards of justice and injustice. They were indignant when those eternal standards were violated. They subscribed to moral systems — whether secular or religious — that recommended specific ways of being, and had specific structures of what is right and wrong, and had specific disciplines about how you might get better over time.
Meaningfulness tries to replace structures, standards and disciplines with self-regarding emotion. The ultimate authority of meaningful is the warm tingling we get when we feel significant and meaningful. Meaningfulness tries to replace moral systems with the emotional corona that surrounds acts of charity.
The search for meaning is an empty enterprise. It teaches people to ignore the structures, standards and discipline that define actions in the world, the better to replace them with a bath in one’s “own sense of meaningfulness.”
Within the psycho world, a world where people believe that self-esteem is something like a panacea, those who are trafficking in meaning are really offering a “self-regarding emotion,” a “warm tingling” in your gut and the “emotional corona that surrounds acts of charity.”
It is worth repeating that, by the definition offered by Frankl, among others, a meaningful life is a life devoted to charity. Surely, this is a religious concept, but its more secular form—government programs that provide all of life’s necessities—is alive and well.
Brooks closes thusly:
Because it’s based solely on sentiment, it is useless. There are no criteria to determine what kind of meaningfulness is higher. There’s no practical manual that would help guide each of us as we move from shallower forms of service to deeper ones. There is no hierarchy of values that would help us select, from among all the things we might do, that activity which is highest and best to do.
Because it’s based solely on emotion, it’s fleeting. When the sensations of meaningful go away then the cause that once aroused them gets dropped, too. Ennui floods in. Personal crisis follows. There’s no reliable ground.
The philosophy of meaningfulness emerges in a culture in which there is no common moral vocabulary or framework. It emerges amid radical pluralism, when people don’t want to judge each other. Meaningfulness emerges when the fundamental question is, do we feel good?
Real moral systems are based on a balance of intellectual rigor and aroused moral sentiments. Meaningfulness is pure and self-regarding feeling, the NutraSweet of the inner life.
Again, Brooks is right.
If your moral being is defined by whether or not you know the meaning of your life, no one else can judge you.
But, why should one kind of meaning be better than another? There are, Brooks states, no criteria by which we can differentiate right from wrong meanings.
And obviously, nothing about a philosophy based on meaning tells us which actions we should take and which ones we should not take. If they are all meaningful, it does not make any real difference.