The Concept of the Human Person Based on Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning

The Concept of the Human Person Based on Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, David Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature, and Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontent

            The issue of defining the human person does not merely entail the definition of the primal characteristics that all human beings possess. In other words, it does not merely involve specifying the basic aspects of human nature. Such is the case since it requires a deeper understanding of the human being, one that exceeds his primitive desires and capacities. It requires an understanding of an individual’s capacity to recognize his separateness as well as his oneness with other human beings and with the world. In line with this, the following discussion provides an analysis of Victor Frankl, David Hume, and Sigmund Freud’s conception of the human person.

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            Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning provides us with a fertile ground for investigating the concept of the human person. In a very general way, it can be said that Frankl’s work seeks to account for the concept of the human person by linking it with a basic human predicament, that is, the need to find meaning to one’s existence. Implicit in Frankl’s work is the idea that a fuller understanding of the human person entails an initial understanding of the most basic facts about human nature and human existence as well as the world’s function in defining and redefining our conceptions of ourselves. Frankl claims, “The true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche” (115). This statement manifests the idea that our dealings and experiences with the people and things around us or with the world, pave the way for a more thorough understanding of our own humanity and ourselves.

In a seemingly rationalistic fashion, Frankl characterizes the human person as a being who possesses autonomy, without which, the practice of human dignity cannot be established. In addition to this, he also implicitly states that it is precisely because we are autonomous beings who are capable of rational deliberation that we assent to the idea that human choice is valuable and deserves to be respected.  This is evident as he states, “Man has a choice of action…Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress” (Frankl 74). The foregoing discussion suggests that man’s capacity to practice his autonomy, which refers to his mental and spiritual freedom, is a fundamental characteristic of human nature.

            Aside from the concept of autonomy, human beings are also characterized by their temporality. This is to say that we are bounded by time. This very characterization explains why life is indeed valuable. Indeed, privacy and death are necessary components of human life (Frankl 76). This meaning, however, as Frankl correctly notes, is not something, which can be defined in a general way. He states, “[T]he meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment” (Frankl 85). In other words, as one goes through life one can make sense of or find meaning in the things that we experience at different points in our lives. In the final analysis, life is there to be lived and as Frankl notes, “(B)eing human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself-be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter” (115). It is in this network of relationships and interrelationships where one finds the meaning of life and the unity of existence.

            Unlike Frankl’s views, Hume articulates a rather skeptical view on the question of the self in A Treatise of Human Nature. It is important to note that Hume’s epistemological theory plays a crucial role in understanding his view of the human person or of the self. In Hume’s epistemological theory, ideas are said to be mere copies of impressions (203). Hume provides us with an idea as to how we can know whether an idea is authentic or not. To test whether an idea is authentic, what needs to be done is to trace the underlying impression from which the idea supposedly comes from. Now, most of us will have to agree that we have an idea of the self. The idea is so basic that it is difficult to articulate a sustained and forceful argument against it. If Hume is correct, if this idea of the self is authentic, we must be able to identify its corresponding impression. The task, however, is a difficult one and on Hume’s prescribed standards, most of us will have to accept defeat. Hume’s crucial point is that our inability to identify the corresponding impression of the self makes it dubious.

            Hume’s skeptical attitude towards the project of defining the self or the human person and identifying the underlying reality which persists and remains the same through time stems from a deep understanding of the operations of the mind. For Hume, our idea of the existence of a human person is caused by our misleading propensity to think that self is “a succession of related objects” that are linked together by resemblance (203). To further this point, it would be helpful to consider Hume’s actual remarks on the issue. At some point, he suggests that the self is “nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in perpetual flux and movement” (Hume 200). In fact, Hume’s empiricist inclination renders personal identity “a fictitious one” which springs from the “operation of the imagination” (206). This is because for Hume, even if we are able to recall certain experiences and link them together, it would be a mistake to think that there is a “real connexion” between and among the objects because it is a mere habit of the “association of ideas” (207).

            Given Hume’s misgivings on the prospect of defining or characterizing the self is, it is understandable that his conclusion is a skeptical one since as he states, the issue “can never possibly be decided” because we lack the standards to inform our decision and to make it possible (209). Let me quote Frankl once more to illustrate a significant difference between the two views on the human person discussed so far. Frankl claims, “The true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche” (115). Although Hume would not vehemently argue against Frankl’s emphasis on the world, he would consider the significant role played by the human psyche in terms of discovering that world. As it appears in the foregoing discussion, the only reason as to why we think there is a subject that persists and remains the same through time is an operation of the mind.

As opposed to both texts mentioned above, Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontent deals more with the concept of happiness than with the concept of the human person. Indeed, Freud declares that his work consists of enumerating “the methods by which men strive to gain happiness and keep suffering away” (732). It is, however, important to note that happiness is a human pursuit so how we understand the concept of happiness reveals a lot about who we are as human beings. Aside from investigating various methods by which we can gain happiness, Freud also makes a fierce attack on religion as it restricts “choice and adaptation, since it imposes equally on everyone its own path to the acquisition of happiness” and draws human beings into “mass-delusion” (734-735).

Freud makes it clear that in our pursuit of happiness, we are guided by the pleasure principle. He states, “As we see, what decides the purpose of life is simply the programme of the pleasure principle” (Freud 729). What does Freud mean when he said that it is the pleasure principle, which decides the purpose of life? What he means is that our actions are, from the very beginning, guided by the pleasure principle. Actions are done with the purpose of achieving a desired end. In the case of human beings, most of us will have to agree that ultimately, all our actions are directed towards achieving happiness. Freud’s proposal takes love (e.g. sexual love) as its model. Satisfaction is still conceived of as “internal mental processes” but unlike religion, “it does not turn away from the external world” (733). Freud believed that the path to understanding happiness springs from a primordial need of man (733). He states:

I am, of course, speaking of the way of life which makes love the centre of everything, which looks for all satisfaction in loving and being loved. A psychical attitude of this sort comes naturally enough to all of us; one of the forms in which love manifests itself –sexual love –has given us our most intense experience of an overwhelming sensation of pleasure and has thus furnished us with a pattern for our search for happiness. (Freud 733)

From the foregoing discussion, one may thereby infer that Freud conceives the human person as a being who is affected by his perceptions, the interpretations of which are dependent on his human psyche. The human person for Freud is thereby an entity who is capable of unifying his bodily desires with his psychological beliefs. A problem with this view however lies in its initial inability to recognize that one’s psychological desires are also partially determined by one’s perceptions. Such is the case since our ideas of what is pleasurable or painful, for example, is also a result of our initial understanding of these concepts in relation to specific perceptual stimulus.

To a certain degree, Freud’s views also bear similarities to both Hume and Frankl’s perspectives regarding the human person. Freud’s view is similar to Hume in as much as Hume also considers the effects of perceptions in the definition, in Hume’s context rebuttal, of the existence of the human person. In terms of Frankl’s views, on the other hand, Frankl also recognizes the effects of the environment or perceptual stimuli in the development of an individual’s conception of his identity or self.

An analysis of their views however shows that Frankl provides the most persuasive account of the human person. Such is the case since he goes beyond the physical and psychological aspects of the human being in determining the concept of the human person. As was mentioned in the initial part of the discussion, this is apparent as Frankl defines the human person in line with his interaction with the world. Such a definition of the human person has great implications in terms of our conception of our self-image, freedom, moral responsibility, and love. In Frankl’s framework, one’s self-image is  deeply intertwined with the world and as such since each individual is a member of the world due to our participation in life it follows that each individual would have greater respect for his freedom as well as the freedom of others. This respect for freedom leads each of us to carry a moral responsibility not only towards ourselves but also towards our fellow human beings, which in itself is a manifestation of our love for ourselves and for others as well.

Works Cited

Frankl, Victor, Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy. India: Ratna Sagar, 2006. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontent. Michigan: U of Michigan P., 2008. Print.

Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature. London: Penguin Classics, 1984. Print.


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