Meaning in existentialism is descriptive; therefore it is unlike typical, prescriptive conceptions of "the meaning of life". Due to the methods of existentialism, prescriptive or declarative statements about meaning are unjustified. The root of the word "meaning" is "mean", which is the way someone or something is conveyed, interpreted, or represented. Each individual has his or her own form of unique perspective; meaning is, therefore, purely subjective. Meaning is the way something is understood by an individual; in turn, this subjective meaning is also how the individual may identify it. Meaning is the personal significance of something physical or abstract. This would include the assigning of value(s) to such significance.
What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act. What matters is to find a purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I shall do; the crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die. (...) I certainly do not deny that I still accept an imperative of knowledge and that through it men may be influenced, but then it must come alive in me, and this is what I now recognize as the most important of all.
For Kierkegaard, meaning does not equal knowledge, although both are important. Meaning, for Kierkegaard, is a lived experience, a quest to find one's values, beliefs, and purpose in a meaningless world. As a Christian, Kierkegaard finds his meaning in the Word of God, but for those who are not Christian, Kierkegaard wishes them well in their search.
"Existence precedes essence" means that humans exist first before they have meaning in life. Meaning is not given, and must be achieved. With objects—say, a knife, for example—there is some creator who conceives of an idea or purpose of an object, and then creates it with the essence of the object already present. The essence of what the knife will be exists before the actual knife itself. Sartre, who was an atheist, believed that if there is no God to have conceived of our essence or nature, then we must come into existence first, and then create our own essence out of interaction with our surroundings and ourselves. With this come serious implications of self-responsibility over who we are and what our lives mean. For this reason, meaning is something without representation or bearing in anything or anyone else. It is something truly unique to each person – separate, independent.
Logotherapy is a type of psychological analysis that focuses on a will to meaning as opposed to a Nietzschean/Adlerian doctrine of "will to power" or Freud's "will to pleasure". Frankl also noted the barriers to humanity's quest for meaning in life. He warns against "...affluence, hedonism, [and] materialism..." in the search for meaning.
The following list of tenets represents Frankl's basic principles of Logotherapy:
- Life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most miserable ones.
- Our main motivation for living is our will to find meaning in life.
- We have inalienable freedom to find meaning.
We can find meaning in life in three different ways:
- by creating a work or doing a deed;
- by experiencing something or encountering someone;
- by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.
- Crowell, Steven (16 October 2017). Zalta, Edward N. (ed.). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University – via Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
- Kierkegaard, Søren. Howard V. Hong & Edna H Hong (ed.). Soren Kierkegaard's Journals and Papers, Part 1: Autobiographical, 1829--1848. p. 34.
- Kierkegaard, S. The Essential Kierkegaard, Eds. Howard and Edna Hong. Princeton, 2000. P. 10.
- Existentialism is a humanism, Jean-Paul Sartre, (L'existentialisme est un humanisme) 1946 Lecture
- Seidner, Stanley S. (June 10, 2009) "A Trojan Horse: Logotherapeutic Transcendence and its Secular Implications for Theology". Mater Dei Institute. p 5.
- "Tenets". Logotherapy Institute. Archived March 24, 2009, at the Wayback Machine
- "Viktor Frankl Institute of Logotherapy". www.logotherapyinstitute.org.