Faith & Thought

The Existential Vacuum Is The Neurosis of the Present

Rereading Viktor Frankl’s book, “Man’s Search for Meaning” (Simon and Schuster, A Clarion Book, 145 pp.) has been a very enlightening experience for me. I was recently stunned by his description of a societal problem that he wrote about more than 60 years ago. Frankl wrote the following: 

“Every age has its own collective neurosis, and every age needs its own psychotherapy to cope with it. The existential vacuum which is the mass neurosis of the present time can be described as a private and personal form of nihilism; for nihilism can be defined as a contention that being has no meaning. 

“As for psychotherapy, however, it will never be able to cope with this state of affairs on a mass scale if it does not keep itself free from the impact and influence of the contemporary trends of a nihilistic philosophy; otherwise it represents a symptom of the mass neurosis rather than its possible cure. Psychotherapy would not only reflect a nihilistic philosophy but also, even though unwillingly and unwittingly, transmit to the patient what is actually a caricature rather than a true picture of man. 

“First of all, there is a danger in the teaching of man’s ‘nothingbutness,’ the theory that man is nothing but the result of biological, psychological, and sociological conditions, or the product of heredity and environment. Such a view of man makes him into a robot, not a human being. This neurotic fatalism is fostered and strengthened by a psychotherapy that denies that man is free” (p. 131). 

I think Frankl’s insights are very important. Philosophers claim that there are two dimensions to every person. One they call facticity, which is very easy to understand. The other they call subjectivity, which is impossible to understand completely. Facticity refers to all the facts about a person such as height, weight, nationality, skin pigmentation, right up to where the person is now working or residing. Some of the facts change frequently. 

Subjectivity is the unique conscious freedom that each person is. Not even the individual person can understand himself or herself completely. What Frankl names “nothingbutness” was important when he wrote his book. 

Obviously Frankl thought it was very important then. It may be even more important to recognize it today. It means either denying a person’s subjectivity or overlooking it and reducing the other to his or her facticity. Hence it means reducing the person to “nothing but” some fact or facts about the person. 

For example, it means treating a person as though he or she is nothing but a person of color, or a Jew, or a female, or a secretary, or a janitor. Frankl is warning that a psychotherapeutic approach that reduces persons to “nothing but” their facticity will actually be promoting nihilism instead of combating it. 

My guess is that Frankl thought that Freud had slipped into “nothingbutness” by reducing people to their sex or aggressive drive and denying their freedom. 

What has made the lengthy quotation from Frankl so interesting to me is that what he described as the “existential vacuum” more than 70 years ago when he wrote his book may be even more of a problem today. 

Many contemporary writers whom I read seem to be describing the “existential vacuum” in which many people, perhaps especially people of high school and college age, seem to be adrift. 

But the vacuum is not limited to young people. The vacuum seems to be what Walker Percy in his novels, especially in “The Moviegoer,” identified as the “malaise” which I take to be the inability to make a commitment to anything bigger and larger than yourself. 

Percy looked at many in the contemporary world as adrift, as unable to make a commitment that might motivate and inspire them and help them to give their lives a significant center and direction. 

I wonder if Frankl were alive today whether he would conclude that matters are worse than they were when he wrote his book. I am amazed that Frankl spotted the “existential vacuum” when he did, and I hope reading his book will help me and others to do what we can to help others to confront the “existential vacuum” and transcend it. 

Teaching philosophy to students at a large Catholic University has helped me to see the special challenges that I and others have to deepen our own life commitments and to bear witness to those commitments in our daily lives. 

Those of us who think we have transcended the “existential vacuum” should live our commitments so that our lives bear witness to the deepest truths about the human person. Our lives should be an obvious rejection of nihilism and an embrace of meanings that are profoundly beautiful, challenging, and fulfilling. 

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.