Why Existentialism Needs Sociology

self-help-graphic-007“Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself.”
Jean-Paul Sartre

“…it is society which, fashioning us in its image, fills us with religious, political and moral beliefs that control our actions”
Émile Durkheim

Is man self-made, or made by society? Does he have free-will to guide his own destiny, or is his fate dictated by larger social forces? These questions have divided existentialism and sociology for decades. Existentialists such as Sartre stand strong on the side of radical individualism (as seen in the quote above), whereas Sociologists such as Durkheim talk about “collective currents” having the potential to sweep individuals into religious fervor, or  on the other hand, drive them to commit suicide.

The existential perspective has gained recent popularity in the personal-development field. Tony Robbins fully embraces the existential theme of individual autonomy in his books, Unlimited Power, and Unleash the Giant Within. On the other hand, the sociological perspective has gained recent popularity in social movements such as Occupy Wall Street and Idle No More.

Strong adherents to the existential perspective often view the sociological perspective as a way to avoid taking responsibility for one’s problems by blaming a part of society (e.g. the rich or the government). On the other hand, strong adherents to the sociological perspective often view the existential perspective as failing to get to the root of a problem (e.g. focusing on one’s own success while neglecting unjust structural relations).

Personally, I am deeply invested in both of these perspectives and believe they are complimentary. Sociologist and avid personal-development genre fan, I’ve often felt like I’ve been living in two different worlds. Although I felt these perspectives were complimentary, I had not been able to articulate how until reading the work of Victor Frankl.

Victor Frankl, an Existential Psychologist, survived three Nazi concentration camps and lived to write about the experience in his book, The Will to Meaning. In the first half of the book he details his experience in the concentration camps, stressing his unshakable drive to survive so that he could publish the manuscript he had written before his captivity. In the second half he describes his perspective on the human psyche, building on the prevailing psychotherapeutic theories of Freud by asserting the need for a “logotherapeutic” approach to psychological despair.

Frankl claims despair is suffering without meaning. In order to fix an individual’s psychological despair, that individual must find meaning by serving a cause outside of one’s self. It is the individual’s responsibility to come to that meaning themselves, and logotherapy was designed to assist the individual in their search. When an individual acquires this sense of meaning, the suffering does not go away, but it no longer leads to despair – one may say the suffering becomes a “labour of love”.

Frankl repeatedly emphasizes the need of the individual to take responsibility for one’s attitude: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Although his commitment to the ideals of existentialism are clear, Frankl is highly cognoscente of the problem with ‘meaning’ in  the Modern West; he calls this “the existential vacuum”.

Frankl Defines the existential vacuum as the diminishing importance of tradition in the Modern West. No longer being told what to believe by tradition, individuals are left to find their own personal meaning in life. The growth of cultural freedom must be balanced with responsibility for one’s own existential well-being. Frankl states: ““I recommend that the Statue of Liberty be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the west coast.” Although this call to individual responsibility may echo the individualism of Jean-Paul Sartre, Frankl disagrees with Sartre’s belief that men can create their own standards. In his book, Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning, he states:

“The self cannot be its own lawgiver… Sartre believed that man can choose and design himself by creating his own standards. However, to ascribe to the self such a creative power seems to be still within the old idealistic tradition.”

So where do these standards come from, if not from the self? Frankl’s answer is an “unconscious religiousness,” and he goes on to discuss a transcendent source, using the word “God” or “spiritual source”. It is at this point in his argument I believe Frankl could benefit from a sociological perspective. Rather than following the transcendent line of thought, I believe Durkheim’s social realism picks up the pieces where Frankl leaves off in his discussion of the source of our standards.

Like Frankl, Durkheim also believed the source of our standards were ‘religious’ in nature. The difference is that for Durkheim, “God” is a society’s reflection of itself and religion is a social institution that functions effectively for integrating and regulating individuals into meaningful moral collectives. Spirituality for Durkheim, rather than a transcendent mystical thing, is the experience of collective effervescence – a word he uses to describe the “high” an individual may experience when engulfed in collective action. In The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Durkheim states:

Howsoever complex the outward manifestations of the religious life may be, at bottom it is one and simple. It responds everywhere to one and the same need, and is everywhere derived from one and the same mental state. In all its forms, its object is to raise man above himself and to make him lead a life superior to that which he would lead, if he followed only his own individual whims: beliefs express this life in representations; rites organize it and regulate its working.

This is Durkheim’s answer to Frankl’s spiritual source of our standards: our standards come from society itself. Since each individual actor contributes to the production of society, we can technically say we are creating our own standards, but this is very different than Sartre’s idea that each individual can simply create their own.

In The Division of Labour in Society, Durkheim expands on his belief that our moral regulations are necessarily social by considering the rise in occupational groups that will take the place of religion as a source of integration and regulation in the modern context. This, I believe, is the key to Frankl’s own sense of meaning. Fixated on finishing his psychological manuscript, he maintained psychological resilience while in the concentration camps. But the value of finishing the manuscript was far from his own creation; the value laid in the fact that it represented a significant contribution to the field of Psychology, advancing human knowledge, and helping countless generations after the war. His sense of purpose was directly bound up with his social role as a psychologist, and the meaning he saw in his work was bound up with the social value it held.

To conclude, I want to relate this to my previous post on how veterans experience anomie. Defined as a lack of social regulation, anomie can be directly tied to one’s inability to find meaning in a social context. Veterans who experience a radical shift in their perceptions about what is important in life – and therefore meaningful – may experience an existential vacuum in transition to civilian life.  Since we cannot invent our own moral standards, veterans  must find this meaning in what may at first seem like a meaning-barren context.

Veterans are not exempt from Frankl’s existential call to responsibility for one’s sense of meaning, rather, they feel a stronger will-to-meaning than ever before. Perhaps they have found a sense of meaning in the military that is unrecognized in the civilian world. Whatever the case, alienation from meaning in the transition to an anomic civilian context is an existential problem directly tied to a social problem. Individual veterans do their part by taking responsibility for their lives, making meaningful decisions on what their next endeavor will be. As a society, we need to recognize that the abrupt cultural transition may produce an existential vacuum (at least temporarily for many). Just as Frankl invented logotherapy to help individuals regain a sense of meaning, we need to promote programs that do the same for our veterans.

Here are some programs that are successful in this regard:

Treble Victor Group: http://www.treblevictor.org/
Team RWB: http://teamrwb.org/
Team Rubicon:  http://teamrubiconusa.org/
Squadbay: http://www.squadbay.org/


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4 thoughts on “Why Existentialism Needs Sociology

  1. Beautifully executed essay. How rare to find these days: a strong foundation, consistent argument, and a leap to a current context. Camus moves beyond Sartre as far as the human condition. The doctor in La Peste persists despite the “nonsensical” events unfolding.

  2. Thank you for sharing your experience! I find it interesting how Eastern collectivist societies often preach philosophies of detachment in their spirituality, whereas Western individualistic societies often preach attachment and duty in their spirituality.

  3. I haven’t ventured very far into the weeds of existentialism, but this makes a lot of sense. Sociology and existentialism appear to be more compatible than most people think. Adhering to an ideal that is both outside of and above oneself seems to be the best way to achieve personal growth and development. For a lot of people, that ideal comes from religion.
    I recently had a short holiday in India that really opened my eyes to the possibility of what could be found, not by searching religion, but by searching the self. I had a chance to practice yoga under a genuine yoga swami and sadhu. I ended up learning a lot about myself in a short time. Now I completely understand how people can spend a few months in India and emerge a totally new person (Steve Jobs, for example).
    As it turns out, the Yoga Vedas cover a variety of philosophical topics that include existentialism and even atheism. One core idea that got stuck in my brain during my trip is this: “Feel compassion for everything, but attach yourself to nothing. If you can be happy with nothing, then no one can take your happiness from you.” I will definitely be going back.

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