Man’s Search for Meaning & Introducing Existentialism

Viktor Frankl was a doctor who spend several years during the second world war in concentration camps and forced labour camps, including Auschwitz. He writes about his experiences in the camps and about how camp life affected people — both the prisoners and the guards.

I had intended to read this book for years, and I was finally prompted to do so while reading a quirky book called Introducing Existentialism by Richard Appignanesi. This book takes us on a journey into existentialism via the ideas of various writers and philosophers. It’s quirky because these existentialist thinkers appear throughout the book, illustrated in dialogues with each other and with the author of the book. It’s fun seeing him discuss ideas with Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus et al as he struggles to understand how their work can help reveal meaning in our painful and meaningless existence.

Viktor Frankl appears as a central figure in the book; or at least his boots do. He appears a few times amid discussion of some of his ideas; one of his stories mentions the worn-out boots he had to wear in one of the concentration camps. This is echoed in a lyrical description of a van Gogh painting of a pair of peasant’s boots. The description was written by the hugely influential yet problematic philosopher and Nazi sympathiser, Martin Heidegger. For the rest of the book, the central existentialist figure Edmund Husserl is invariably portrayed wearing Frankl’s boots. Is Husserl walking in Frankl’s footsteps here? It’s not completely clear. But it’s a neat motif anyway.

The story of existentialism is woven together with many other currents of world history in the first part of the 20th century. So many people suffered so terribly: existentialism helped some people to make sense of it all. I’m glad that some good came out of it through the writing of Frankl and others like him.

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