Values are not relative

This post will be devoted to answering the following blog comment that I received:

“I’ve been reading Frankl for about a year now and this is also my question; how can one know what is true meaning?

In his book The Will to Meaning, Frankl (pg. 63-65) seems to be saying that the only way this can be ascertained is through one’s conscience (He explains this more in depth in his book Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning, but I have to read it again). I.e. that ONLY one’s conscience can DISCOVER meaning. In other words true meaning exists and is not invented or subjective. But on the other hand each man must find it on his own and renew that discovery every instant of his life in relation to each situation he meets.

But (it seems) he can NEVER REALLY be sure if he was right or not (pg. 66) save what his conscience ‘tells’ him.

On the other hand Frankl seems pretty clear that this TRUE meaning can found in the Ten Commandments (pg. 64) and is not happy about people leaving the absolute values found therein (bottom of 64-top 65).

I haven’t seen Frankl mention this but according to Chassidic teachings one way you know you have true meaning is if you feel happy and fulfilled doing an act you believe to be true (like how Abraham took Issac to sacrifice him).

I’d be happy to hear comments.”

First I will restate what you’ve said. You seem to be asking three questions:

1) If meaning is something objectively true, how is it at the same time something you can only discover with your own conscience, especially when you can’t be sure whether or not your conscience is right?

2) If conscience is the vehicle for discovering meaning does this contradict considering the Ten Commandments as true?

3) Is there a sign for knowing you’ve discovered true meaning?

Two simple statements come to mind as a direction in answer to your questions:

a) For Frankl values are not relative

b) Meanings and values are situational

Values are not relative

Frankl brings an example of a psychologist whose client refused to pay his bills. The psychologist explained that he did not discuss his own values because values are relative rather than absolute. Frankl disagrees with this psychologist and he brings this case in order to make clear his point that values are not relative. (Will to Meaning p. 52)

Frankl writes: “We do not just attach and attribute meanings to things, but rather find them; we do not invent them, we detect them. On the other hand, however, an unbiased investigation would also reveal a certain subjectiveness inherent in meaning. The meaning of life must be conceived in terms of the specific meaning of a personal life in a given situation.” (Psychology and Existentialism, p. 17)

Frankl’s “on the other hand” is confusing. I believe he’s trying to say yes, there is something personal about meaning but not in the way you think. Personal meaning is not whatever meaning I arbitrarily assign to reality. What is personal is that the reality is addressed to me personally. Both values and meanings come from a sphere beyond the person.

As Frankl says, “If meanings and values were just something emerging from the subject himself – that is to say, if they were not something that stems from a sphere beyond man and above man – they would instantly lose their demand quality. They could no longer be a real challenge to man, they would never be able to summon him up, to call him forth.” (Psychotherapy and Existentialism, p. 64)

Meaning is the opportunity/challenge/demand/invitation/requirement/call/question life asks (pick the word you prefer) for a unique individual within a unique situation to fulfill values.

We find a parallel to this in Jewish texts. For example, on the verse And now what does God want from you the Chofetz Chaim explains: “Specifically now, meaning at every moment think about what God is asking from you.” (Gemilut Chasadim Part 2 Ch 11 footnote).

Similarly Rav Wolbe in Pirkei Kinyan Da’at says “God distinguishes between the holy and the profane, light and darkness…and in this same way we need to distinguish between the different situations in our lives, so that with every change of conditions we know how to behave in this new situation.” (See also Ishbitzer [Mei Shiloach] Vol I end of parshat Mas’ei)

This is the meaning of conscience. I prefer saying we listen through and not “to” our conscience because Frankl calls conscience the “vehicle” by which to discern what we’re called upon to do.

Thus in order to help the person recognize the potential value fulfillment in a given situation the logotherapist “should enable the patient to see the world as it is” (Psychotherapy and Existentialism, p. 64) – that is, to see the not so obvious possibilities for value fulfillment.

Meanings and values are situational

There is no conflict between the truth of the Ten Commandments and meaning being found by conscience, for two reasons:

a) Now that we’ve defined meaning as the call or demand made on a specific person in a specific situation, we can understand that meaning is situational.

Frankl writes the following, “His responsibility is always responsibility for the actualization of values: not only “eternal” values, but also “situational values.” Opportunities for the actualization of values change from person to person just as much as they change from hour to hour. The requirement that values be actualized – a requirement that radiates from the world of values into the lives of men – thus becomes a concrete demand for every single hour and a personal summons to every single person. (Doctor and the Soul p. 105)

About conscience he writes: “It is the task of conscience to disclose to man the unum necesse, the one thing that is required. This one thing, however, is absolutely unique inasmuch as it is the unique possibility a concrete person has to actualize in a specific situation…which cannot be comprehended by any universal law… Only conscience is capable of adjusting the “eternal,” generally agreed-upon moral law to the specific situation a concrete person is engaged in.” (The Unconscious God p. 34-36)

This is similar to a rabbi giving two different directives in Jewish law to two different people because their circumstances are different. The objective truth of the law is one thing; determining reality is another.

b) Frankl believed personally in the Ten Commandments but he didn’t tell people in therapy what their values should be. Logotherapy is an approach to healing, not a religion. In discussing the influence of religion on responsibility, Frankl first says that everyone is responsible to someone or something and that a “significant” number of people see themselves as responsible to God. He then adds, “Logotherapy, as a secular theory and medical practice must restrict itself to factual statements, leaving to the patient the decision as to how to understand his own being responsible…Logotherapy must remain available for everyone.” (“Psychotherapy and Existentialism p. 13)

Furthermore on the same page you’ve quoted from in The Will to Meaning (bottom of 64-top 65) Frankl refers the reader to the “ten thousand commandments arising from the ten thousand unique situations of which his life consists” even in an age where the Ten Commandments seem to have lost their validity for many people. This means to say that whether a person accepts the absolute value of the Ten Commandments or not, everyone alike is busy with the ten thousand commandments that spring out of the situations life brings them at every moment.

Frankl answers the second half of your first question by saying we can never be sure but we have to try our best. “Anyone’s conscience, as anything human, is subject to error; but this does not release man from his obligation to obey it…I prefer to live in a world in which man has the right to make choices, even if they are wrong choices, rather than a world in which no choice at all is left to him.” (Psychotherapy and Existentialism p. 13)

This leads to your third question. Is there any way to know? This is what logotherapy is about – helping people develop that sensitivity. But I will answer again with a quote from Frankl. “He finds himself only to the extent to which he loses himself in the first place, be it for the sake of something or somebody, for the sake of a cause or a fellowman, or “for God’s sake” …as dedication and devotion to something beyond his self, to something above his self.” (Psychotherapy and Existentialism.p. 82)

Does this stimulate more thoughts and questions for you? I’d like to hear.

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2 Responses to Values are not relative

  1. mike lowy says:

    Batya – this is complicated stuff! I certainly don’t have the deep and systematic understanding of Frankl that you have, and cannot pretend to speak for or against his comments. I’m not even sure if i understood your dilemma completely. For me I need to have the questions simplified. Here perhaps is an example:
    Let’s be concrete for a moment and take a look at a real question of meaning: “What is the meaning of the Holocaust?” If you were to ask that question to say, Rav Yisrael Meir Lau, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Hassan Nasrallah, you would get three passionate, different, almost mutually exclusive responses. All are meaningful to their proponents, but can you ascribe “authenticity” or “realness” to one meaning and not to another? Perhaps our only criterion in evaluating the responses can be ” מדבר שקר תרחק”. Practically everyone infers meaning from the Holocaust – those who survived it, those who perpetrated it, those far away, those who were born later, those who have any kind of social, economic, political or religious agenda, regardless of their personal experience of the Holocaust; is everybody right in their understanding? Is everybody wrong? Am only I right? This is a difficult issue.
    Personally I regard meaning as a kind of greater truth, which a person can experience on different levels, as one’s experience of life deepens. Shlomo Hamelech was looking into similar life phenomena at different stages in his life and came out with different meanings and perspectives in Shir Hashirim, Mishlei and Kohelet. One person’s meaning may equally enrich or trivialize another’s.

  2. logogroup says:

    Thanks for your comment Mike. I find it hard to respond to because I think what I need to do, as you’ve said, is to go back and take apart what I wrote and explain each piece with greater clarity. That said, I also think that part of the reason it’s so hard for people to understand Frankl is that he uses words in ways that people are not used to hearing them used and he thinks in ways people are not used to thinking. I hope you’ll continue to challenge me!

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