Just as science has its philosophical component, philosophy has its scientific component. And when a psychiatrist speaks of meaning in life we see meaning as shared territory between science and philosophy. Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl observed during his years as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps that meaning in life is a vital human need. In those unthinkable conditions, prisoners would nourish themselves on bits of philosophy and poetry; they appreciated the beauties of nature as never before; their religious life was very real; and many found strength to keep going from devotion to a loved one in another camp, even though they did not know whether the beloved was still alive. But if a prisoner gave up, let go of what gave life meaning, death would usually come within a few days.
Considering meaning philosophically, we find two aspects. First, meaning is something real that is discovered. That is the way we naturally think of meaning when intuition dawns; the insight comes clear: Eureka! I have found it! Second, meaning is something that we interpret; we naturally connect the idea of meaning with interpreting when studying some text whose meaning is debated or when we are aware that truth is many-sided, and differing interpretations may each contain truth. Taking the first side, meaning as discovered, in isolation leads to dogmatism, making an absolute of one’s point of view. Taking the second side, meaning as interpreted, in isolation leads to relativism, a kind of skepticism, according to which whatever anyone believes is the truth for him or her, and that there is no higher standard of truth, since every claim to a higher standard merely represents another opinion. We move beyond dogmatism and relativism by affirming a higher standard while acknowledging that our insight into truth is relative to the length, breadth, and depth of our experience.
Think of where you find meaning in life. Think of one or more of the realities–and concepts–that are most meaningful to you. Given the fact that others interpret such things differently, you can recognize that you are indeed interpreting. Just as experiment is needed to discover the truths of science, and faith is needed to appropriate the truths of religion, so interpretation is needed to grasp meaning. The meaning may seem so obvious that we have no occasion to recognize our interpretation. We may interpret excellently or hastily, but interpret we do. If you think otherwise, please say so (with an example). If you agree, how would you express the thought in your own words (example, please)?
Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy , trans. Ilse Lasch (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962). http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/f/fe/Viktor_Frankl2.jpg/109px-Viktor_Frankl2.jpg