On the Purpose of Life


Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) and the purpose of life.

After a few months of idleness, I think it’s about time to add another short episode. Well, what am I going to talk about today? Today I’d like to talk about the purpose of life. Now, I know that this does not sound like one of the classical Theory of Knowledge topics, but who cares….. Why not do something different for a change. Why this topic?

A few weeks before the end of the school year a student came up to me and asked me, seriously, “What is the purpose of life”? We had a short conversation on the issue and I decided to pick this topic up during the last TOK lesson of the school year. I passed on this question to the rest of the class. Some of them looked back at me with surprised big eyes. In my view, one of the purposes of TOK is to make students ask questions that they normally would not ask, and by the response that I got many of my students really never asked themselves this question before, in that sense I reached my objective.

A discussion started. And it slowly started to crystallize out that there were two different approaches to the question. I like to call this the “absolutist” and the “relativist” approach. You see, I do feel inclined to throw in some TOK terminology here. One group of students, the absolutists, maintained that there must be some kind of external purpose of life. The purpose of life, in their view, does not depend on the individual. The purpose of life is absolute, is ultimate. I can imagine that a purpose of life which is defined over religion or spirituality goes into this direction.

The relativists, on the other hand, claimed that each individual has to define his/her own purpose of existance. There is no usiversally acceptable purpose which applies to all people, in their view.

One of the students had a particularely interesting view. She stated that it would be pretty sad if life had no absolute, “external” meaning. It would be pretty sad if the only meaning of life were the meaning that the individual defines as being the meaning of life. It’s like saying: “Life’s inhearantly pointless. So let’s start looking for a point to give it at least some kind of meaning.” Now, this can’t be it – according to her view. And I understand her point.

Somewhat to my surprise none of the students, yes, this is zero %, none of the students stated that the purpose of life is to earn a lot of money, to be rich. First it surprised me in a positive sense but then I had to think about it again. Because the most common response that I got, with a soft voice and a questioning look, was: “Maybe the purpose of life is – to enjoy life, maybe?”. As If they were asking me if the answer is correct. “Well, are you enjoying life?” – I asked them back. silence. Maybe we teachers kept the students studying so hard during the last couple of years that this prevented them from asking questions like this. After a lengthy conversation I wanted to conclude the lesson with the question: “Maybe the purpose of life is to look for the purpose of life.”. But somethiw they didn’t like this and I received some protest. And maybe they were not so wrong. According to psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, you have to stop looking for a meaning in life in order to find one. He addressed this issue and he came to a quite concrete conclusion.

According to Frankl, the purpose of life can be found in three different ways:

  1. by creating a work or doing a deed: some people make paintings, others write poetry and still others write a blog called TOKTalk. You can also find meaning in life by helping others.
  2. by experiencing something or encountering someone: this should be pretty self-explanatory.
  3. by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering: According to Frankl it is possible to find meaning by changing our attitude. We may not be able to change the situation, but we are able to change ourselves.

OK, now how should I conclude? I want to conclude by recommending a few online videos about Viktor Frankl. Here is a link to the Univeristy of Vienna, which offers several Videos for download: Frankl Videos Alternatively you can of course, also search for videos on Youtube by searching for “Viktor Frankl”: Here is a link.

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