[This article appeared in the February 1974 issue of The Occasional Review, pp. 129-142.  The editor apparently took issue with the concluding portion, though, and had dropped it.  After Murphey protested, the Review agreed to run the conclusion in its next issue, and that appeared in the Autumn 1974 issue, pp. 153-155.  Both portions are included here.]


Murphey considers this article particularly important among his writings, since it shows the philosophically pretentious claims made for all social and moral philosophies that assert a foundation in something other than human preference.  The article relates most directly to the claims made by three psychologists who have propounded theories of “the meaning of life,” but its applications necessarily extend to many other philosophical systems as well. 


Three Contemporary Psychologists and the Meaning of Life 

Dwight D. Murphey


            It will be our purpose here to examine from an epistemological point of view the metaphysical suppositions concerning human values that lie at the heart of the theories of three prominent but widely disparate contemporary psychologists—Abraham Maslow, Viktor Frankl, and Nathaniel Branden.  Each of these men, though a psychologist, seeks to penetrate one of the most important questions in philosophy: the source of values and the meaning of human existence.  Surprisingly, in light of their diverse backgrounds, they come very close to making the same answer.  But in each case the answer is subject to an unfavorable epistemological critique, a critique that goes to the very center of their theoretical superstructure even though it does not destroy the validity of every insight, many of them exceedingly valuable, that these men have put forward.

            I cannot assume that all readers will be familiar with these authors.  Even if they were, they could not know the manner in which I myself perceive these authors’ writings.  It will accordingly be important to set out in sufficient detail the point of view of each of them, with particular attention to their assertions about the metaphysical source of the meaning of life, as a preliminary to the critique I will make.

            In Toward a Psychology of Being Abraham Maslow attempts to establish a scientific source of human values.  He says that “historically, we are in a value interregnum in which all externally given value systems have proven to be failures.”[1]  From this rationalistic and secular beginning he wishes to reconstruct a value system that will be “scientific” and “empirical.”  He says that it must look to a standard that will come from within man rather than having “the necessity of recourse to authority outside the human being himself.”[2] 

            Maslow stresses the “scientific” nature of the value system he will describe.  He refers to it as “empirically normative”[3] and says that it is something that we may “discover” rather than merely “invent.”

            The key to this empirical inquiry is essentially this: that there are men who are fulfilling their “full humanness,” especially during their “peak experiences”; that we can empirically differentiate these “healthy” individuals from the remainder of men; that such differentiation is not itself difficulty; and that the “scientific value system” can be arrived at by an empirical study of the characteristics of these individuals whom denotatively we know to be healthy.  Not surprisingly, Maslow already can suggest a number of their characteristics.

            Once these qualities are empirically known from an examination of persons denotatively pointed to, they are said by Maslow to constitute “self-actualization” or “full humanness” or an expression of “biological destiny.”  They are alleged to be based upon a “biological inner nature.”  He says further that this inner nature is either good or neutral and, borrowing heavily from Rousseau, that human evil must be the result of a warping produced by the culture in which the person lives.[4]

            Maslow looks upon his psychological theories as part of a “Third Force” in modern psychology, as part of a large school that is to be differentiated from the Freudian and the experimental-positivistic-behavioristic schools.  He identifies Adlerians, Rankians, Jungians, neo-Freudians, Gestalt theorists, and many existential psychologists with this “Third Force.”[5]  Were he asked, he might well reply that he considers the other two psychologists discussed in this essay, Frankl and Branden, to be part of that school.

            But now that we have reacquainted ourselves with his argument, what are we to think of it?  I will number my comments to make them more distinct:

            1.  Although it is heretical in the contemporary milieu to say so, it seems clear to me that what Maslow is actually doing has no relation to the claims he is making about it.  He purports to be setting up something objectively sound, something rooted in man’s “biological destiny.”  It is this biological soundness rather than his own preferences that he intends to have serve as the legitimizing principle that will lend authority to the ethic.  There are, however, at least three readily apparent problems with this:

            First, he has offered no proof for his concept of a “biological destiny”; nor has he even bothered to define it.  There is nothing in his proposed empirical method that will fill this gap, since it is clearly inappropriate for such a purpose and is not in fact intended to relate to such a demonstration.  Secondly, he has made no showing that his own preferences, by virtue of which he hopes to be able to point denotatively to “healthy” individuals, are necessarily in keeping with this supposed biological destiny.  Thirdly, he has not shown us why this destiny, if it exists, possesses a claim to serve as the standard for the human race.  He has not addressed himself to the questions: Why should we lend obeisance to that?  Why ought we not to be able to modify that destiny if we see fit?  Obviously these questions are logically prior to his proposed standard and must be answered by reference to some other standard before the one he advocates can have authority.  This requirement does not lead us in infinite regress from one standard to another; it merely leads us back to some teleological source, since ultimately it is only an intelligence that can serve as a final standard.

            Because of these three failures, Maslow has fallen far short of making his philosophical case.  His theory, laid bare, is seen to amount to little more than a pretension.  He need not, however, feel too embarrassed; he is among illustrious company.

            2.  It is interesting to note the role “empiricism” plays in Maslow’s thinking.  His approach is given the outer garb of empiricism.  It is not, however, empirical in any of its more important components.  The empiricism is merely a functional addition, a method of elaboration.  Actually, his entire theoretical framework is smuggled in, or assumed, without any proof whatsoever.  Although he has distinguished his school of thought from that of the positivists, he has nevertheless sought to maintain a façade of empiricism.  It is a façade and nothing more.

            3.  From an epistemological standpoint it is fascinating that Maslow rarely offers proof for anything he asserts.  When he says that men have a biologically based inner nature and that the expression of this would constitute “full humanness,” he does not address himself to the question of how he has come to know what this inner nature is, or even that there actually is one.  It is as though it were enough merely to assert it as fact, as though that were a substitute for proof.  (There will be much argument about what type of “proof” could be adduced, and yet an author must concern himself with substantiating his assertions.)

            Again he makes no effort at proof when he asserts that this inner nature of man is either neutral or good and does not itself contain evil.  He posits this as true and leaves it there.  He does not put it forward as merely a hypothesis; he puts it forward as established truth.

            Still later, he is making a statement that he has not substantiated when he asserts that the inner nature of man will best be actualized by “free development.”  We can easily imagine another thinker saying just the opposite: that the inner nature of man is best actualized when it is carefully disciplined and nurtured by those who are older and wiser.

            4.  As a separate, though associated, problem from the failure of Maslow to adduce evidence to support his conclusions, one of the serious objections to his theory is that the concepts themselves lack clarity.  Maslow refers to such concepts as “biological destiny,” “self-actualization,” “authentic person,” and “higher and lower pleasures.”  But how is Maslow to defend his own concepts against the many other thinkers who also speak as though they know what man’s “inner nature” and “cosmic destiny” are?  It is not enough for a thinker to talk about “humanness” and to expect that others will know what he means.  Such a concept cannot be taken for granted; it requires definition and justification.

            Maslow uses a number of additional concepts, and in each case one comes away perplexed by them.  Again the fault lies in his failure to give reasons for conclusions or justified definitions for concepts.  He speaks of a person’s “capacities.”  Along these lines he writes that “people of intelligence must use their intelligence, people with eyes must use their eyes, people with the capacity to love have the impulse to love and need to love in order to feel healthy.  Capacities clamor to be used.”[6]   But what does this concept amount to when examined?  A person with muscles may have a capacity to use them, but so far as capacity is concerned it can be a capacity to perform gymnastics or play a piano or break a man’s back.  We are told nothing about the potential direction of a functional ability by the concept of “capacity,” although Maslow and various other thinkers endow the concept with a more specific significance without showing how.

            At still another point, Maslow writes that “healthy people” have as a “clinically observed characteristic” a “democratic character structure.”[7]  He has specifically stated that his norms are based on man’s deeper nature and are not culturally relative.  If they are not, then we must ask how he can make such a judgment about a “democratic” character.  Does he mean to say that all of the aristocrats of history have been “unhealthy”?  What of genial old Sam Johnson in the eighteenth century?  He was hardly a democrat, but it would be interesting to read an explanation of why he was not healthy.

             These examples are sufficient to demonstrate Maslow’s failure to define his basic concepts and his further failure to undertake a justification of them.  What we see after such an analysis is that Maslow has spun an extensive speculative and subjective theory, without the humility to admit it.  He has certainly fallen short of establishing a metaphysical standard possessing objective validity by which men and their actions may be judged.  He has not arrived at a “scientific value system” as he has claimed, but only a statement of his own personal preferences. 

            Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is one of those books that loom large, the reading of which is one of life’s great experiences.[8]  He is a Viennese psychotherapist who was during World War II an inmate in Auschwitz and later in a camp affiliated with Dachau.

             His book is a powerful description of the death camps and of the human beings within them.  For purposes of this paper, however, we are concerned with its philosophical content and its epistemological validity.  There is some similarity to Maslow’s theory, though the differences are also important.  A merit of Frankl’s writing as compared with Maslow’s, however, is that Frankl is far less pretentious; his statements are less sweeping and dogmatic.  Although his basic theory has epistemological difficulties, he is not given to creating non sequiturs.

            Frankl believes that each age has its own neuroses and that the modern age suffers deeply from an “existential vacuum,” from a frustration of the “will-to-meaning.”  The meaning of life has itself been thrown into question, and man cannot live satisfactorily without a sense of meaningfulness.  While Freud spoke of a “will-to-pleasure” and Adler of a “will-to-power,” Frankl believes that the fundamental problem of our own time lies in the failure to achieve meaning, in a nihilism that results in boredom and perhaps in sexual and power-seeking compensations.  He admits, however, that not all neuroses are the product of this particular problem.

            He points out that the word “Logos” meant “meaning” and accordingly calls his approach “logotherapy,” since he seeks to bring his patients to a discovery of meaning in their lives.  But this raises the primary intellectual question of what Frankl means by “meaning” and of what he says to be the source of it and why.  Here we are face to face with the same question to which Maslow sought to give an answer by pointing to “self-actualizing” men and then establishing them as the basis for an empirically normative science.

            For his part, Frankl adopts a non-specific answer.  He asserts that the world imposes a standard that a man must discover.  He remarks, in an admission that is intellectually important, that as to life man has an “incapacity to grasp its unconditional meaningfulness in rational terms.”[9]  By so saying, he states what one has by that time already begun to suspect: that his assertion that the world itself imposes a standard that a man must discover is really founded on an implicit mysticism.  The meaning is felt to have objective existence, though it cannot be rationally explained.  But before commenting on this, let us see more specifically what he says.

            “I think the meaning of our existence is not invented by ourselves, but rather detected,” he writes.[10]  “The true meaning of life is to be found in the world rather than within man or his own psyche.”[11]  “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked.  In a word, each man is questioned by life….”[12]  He repeatedly refers to “life’s tasks” and to “being responsible” to life’s demands.  “Life is still expecting something from them,” he says of two men.  Thus, life itself poses an external standard to which men should measure up.  The standard does not arise out of their own preferences, but out of something much bigger than the individual human being.  “The meaning of life embraced the wider cycles of life and death, of suffering and of dying.”[13] 

            But he does not believe it possible to formulate a theoretical statement of what life demands of man.  Rather, meaning arises only in concrete situations applicable to specific people.  “One should not search for an abstract meaning of life.  Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment.  Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated.  Thus, everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.”[14]  In this statement he is reiterating his stress on a man’s specific situation and on “life’s” giving a man a “mission” that involves a concrete “assignment.”

            Much of this language appears, at least in its form, to assign to life a teleological role.  The word “assignment” implies a conscious assignor; it is a term that relates to a conscious being.  We would hardly think, say, of writing that “the rock over there just gave me an assignment.”  When Frankl uses this language with regard to “life,” it is in its form imputing consciousness to life or to existence.

            We ought not, however, to take this too literally.  I take it that he intends this purely by way of metaphor; he is not really stating a theory that the world “lives.” There is not really a teleological assignment of duties to man, at least so far as I read Frankl.  The language he uses is intended as an approximation, as a way of expressing something virtually inexpressible.

            There is a point at which he expresses a view that involves no teleology as such and that may give us the key to his meaning.  “Does not death completely cancel out the meaning of our life?” he asks as a rhetorical question.  “By no means.  People seem to me to forget that what is past is not lost, but on the contrary, stored and saved from transitoriness… Having been is also a kind of being, perhaps the surest kind… Time that has passed is certainly irrevocable, but what has happened within that time has become unassailable and inviolable.”[15]  What remains is the fact that a man lived.  Perhaps that fact is written nowhere or remembered by no one, but nevertheless the fact is ineradicable.

            I have often thought the same thing myself, but I have not thought it possible to state it as a sound metaphysical base for human life, precisely because I have realized its essential mysticism.  It is a happy thought, a consoling one.  Just the same, we are forced to ask, “What does it mean to say that a fact continues to exist outside of anyone’s consciousness of it?”  The key word here is “exist.”  If a fact can exist separately from someone’s cognition and long after the event to which it refers has taken place, we are back to Plato’s independently existing ideas.  But still, what does it mean to say that it “exists”?  Does it occupy space?  Is it an entity, either physical or spiritual?  Is it anything at all, except a nice thought in my or in Frankl’s mind while we are still alive to think it?  No, Frankl’s view is reminiscent of Miguel de Unamuno’s eloquent exhortation: “If it is nothingness that awaits us, let us make an injustice of it; let us fight against destiny, even though without hope of victory; let us fight against it quixotically.”  Except that Frankl is trying hard to avoid admitting oblivion.

            If then this is the key to Frankl’s view, which is that life is itself a standard that determines “what is demanded of man,” and we conclude that he is not setting up life as itself a teleological being, but rather is setting it up as a silent, unconscious reservoir, what are we to think of it?  The epistemological problem lies precisely in Frankl’s own confession that his view is not susceptible to rational understanding and justification.  The theory violates Aristotle’s second law of thought, that something cannot at the same time be both A and not A.  The “world” cannot be both nonteleological and the source of judgment over human lives.  Something is either dead and unconscious, and hence non-judgmental, or it is not.

            Because of the logical contradiction in what Frankl posits as the source for the meaning of life, it would appear that he has done something very similar to what Maslow did—he seeks to objectify his own values.  He does it with less pretension, because he makes fewer claims about it.  He also involves himself in less dogmatism by virtue of his willingness to let each individual discover for himself what “life demands of him”; Frankl does not himself dictate what that meaning is to be.

            There is an intellectual problem again, however, even in this libertarian attitude.  How would Frankl resolve it if someone were to see his life’s “mission” in a way that Frankl thought repugnant?  What, for example, would Frankl have said to Hitler if Hitler had been his patient and had asserted that his mission was precisely to establish concentration camps?  True, this would be repugnant to Frankl, but he has provided no measure by which he could establish that Hitler had misunderstood his “mission.”  There is a palpable ambiguity in Frankl’s concept of the “assigned task.” 

            Not long ago, an editor at a conservative publishing house expressed to me his opinion that “Ayn Rand is a marvelous popularizer, but she isn’t much of a philosopher.”  The comment had been evoked by my having made a few favorable observations about the Randian philosophy in a manuscript I had submitted to him.

             His comment surprised me.  I am critical of Ayn Rand’s position in several connections and will repeat some of that criticism in my discussion of Nathaniel Branden’s The Psychology of Self-Esteem, but I would hardly write off Ayn Rand as a philosopher.  One of the persistent complaints throughout history about the bourgeoisie, the social class that is largely identifiable with classical liberalism, has been that it is intellectually and spiritually bland.  By addressing herself to the heroic potential that inheres in free men, Rand has given much-needed attention to one of the areas in which classical liberalism has been most vulnerable.  She has reinvested classical liberalism with an ideal, giving it spiritual and intellectual meaning far beyond what superficially seems to be the “dullness of the market place.”  Through her, classical liberalism retains its moral impetus.  It is no wonder that her philosophy inspires so many people today.

            Despite the criticism I will be making, her emphasis on rationality, on the full focusing of the mind, seems to me to be very valuable.  It points up the fact that a great many of the problems of mankind over the millennia have been due to epistemological weakness; men have not lived like thinking beings.  A full recognition of this fact, with all its ramifications, is fundamentally important to understanding human behavior.

            Nathaniel Branden, author of The Psychology of Self-Esteem, was long the intellectual associate of Ayn Rand.  We may surmise that the thinking expressed in his book is shared with her, although it is possible that in some things she may differ.  As to its direction, the Brandenian psychology is similar to Frankl’s.  For his part, Branden speaks of a “will to understand.”  It is a focused mind, performing its function of cognition, evaluation, and regulation of action, that is primary to Branden.  An “unbreached rationality” leads to self-confidence and self-respect, both elements of a larger self-esteem.

            A person with such a “psycho-epistemology” (a term Branden uses for “habit of mind”) is said by Branden to develop the following traits: he has consistent values, faces up to reality, is able to think in principles about himself and others, lives a “human manner of existence” that entails responsibility for his own life and actions, enjoys the benefits of long-range planning and of the emotional stability that follows from keeping ones context in mind.  He also is confident of his ability to function mentally, has a strongly integrated identity, is able to have pride in his past achievements, admires rather than envies others who are successful, suffers no pathological anxieties, possesses a “sense of life” that expresses his own feeling of competency, and lives for his own sake and not merely as a reflection of others.

            By recounting these qualities, we have described the image that Branden holds of the ideal man.  This ideal is important to the Objectivist philosophy.  The philosophy is, however, based on certain additional points of a metaphysical nature.  It, too, seeks to establish a standard, separate from individual caprice but yet not based on a teleological theology, by which human life may be judged.  With Branden and Rand, “life” is again said to be the standard, by which they mean “life appropriate to a rational being.”  Each living species is said to have a life appropriate to itself if it is to survive and flourish.  It is this appropriate form of life that, Branden argues, logically has to constitute the metaphysical standard; if anyone were to choose not to live according to what is necessary to attain that appropriate form, such a person would in effect be making an anti-life or anti-human decision that is itself not susceptible of justification, since anti-life cannot logically constitute a standard for living things.

                        “The cardinal principle at the base of the Objectivist ethical system is the            statement that ‘it is only the concept of “Life” that makes the concept of “Value”      possible.  It is only to a living entity that things can be good or evil.’… For each          living species, the course of action required is specific; what an entity is determines what it ought to do.

By identifying the context in which values arise existentially, Objectivism refutes the claim—especially prevalent today—that the ultimate standard of any moral judgment is ‘arbitrary,’ that normative propositions cannot be derived from factual propositions.  By identifying the genetic roots of ‘value’ epistemologically, it demonstrates that not to hold man’s life as one’s standard of moral judgment is to be guilty of a logical contradiction… If life—existence—is not accepted as one’s standard, then only one alternative standard remains: nonexistence.  But nonexistence—death—is not a standard of value: it is the negation of values.  The man who does not wish to hold life as his goal and standard is free not to hold it; but he cannot claim the sanction of reason; he cannot claim that his choice is as valid as any other.[16]

            Accordingly, we see that Branden is holding up life, existence, as the ultimate standard and says that there is only one alternative, nonexistence, which if chosen as ones preference could not constitute the choice of a value at all, but rather would be an abjuring of all values.  By this argument Branden has sought to demonstrate that his proposition is indeed axiomatic and that disagreement with the axiom does not demonstrate the axiom’s invalidity, but merely constitutes a comment by someone who has made himself mentally irrelevant to the question of values.

            All of this is of central importance to the main body of Objectivist thought, since Rand and Branden argue that the remainder of their philosophy is deducible from this beginning—including the qualities of their ideal man and even the tenets of laissez-faire capitalism.  It is because of this strictly deductive process that they can suppose that the philosophy as a whole is constantly in touch with objective reality and that other points of view are the products of an unfocused mentality.  This carries with it the disciplined semantic framework characteristic of so many young “students of Objectivism” and the black-versus-white dichotomization that rules out all gray areas, insisting only on a clear deductive truth.

            My critique of the Objectivist metaphysical base necessarily involves a number of separate, though related, observations:

            1.  It is surprising that Rand and Branden would make “life” or “existence” a standard in itself.  In most things, they show a great respect for the individual human mind.  When they conclude that someone who would choose a life-style different from that “appropriate to a rational being” is thereby choosing a logically irrelevant point of view that cannot be made a standard, they are speaking of “life” as something different from the specific choices that individual human beings may make.  By “life” they intend something much more general, something inhering in but distinguishable from each individual man.  They are using the term virtually in the sense that Frankl means it.

            Much of Ayn Rand’s thinking on economics and politics seems based on Ludwig von Mises’ writing.  It is because of this that I am surprised by her treatment of the concept of “life.”  Mises has time and time again stressed the epistemological invalidity of a holistic approach, an approach that treats human aggregates as though they were conscious beings, as distinguished from an approach that adopts a “methodological individualism” and appreciates that it is always individuals who think and judge and act.  But Objectivism adopts what is precisely a holistic metaphysical base.  It attempts to make “life,” as divorced from individual human minds, the standard.  But “life” cannot be the standard for anything unless it is adopted by conscious individuals as a standard, and then it is a standard by virtue of their adoption of it rather than constituting a standard separately.  What would it mean to say that it is a “standard” if no human beings were to acknowledge it as such?  We would find ourselves back where we were with Frankl; we would see that we have been trying to make something a teleological source of judgment when in fact it is not a conscious entity.

            2.  Even if the “life” standard were not insupportable because of its holistic nature, there would be real difficulty in treating it as a norm.  Branden says that each species has certain things it must do to survive: a chameleon must change its color, a porcupine must use its quills and a skunk its odor.  For his part, man must use his rational faculty; man must think to survive.

            Thus far, so good.  But man’s survival is not just a simple physical thing!  It is exceedingly complex.  While most, if not all, men would agree that rationality as a broad category is needed for man’s survival, they will hardly agree about the direction in which that rationality must lead man for survival’s sake.  They certainly would not agree that a given life-style or a given type of man is necessarily more prone to survival than others.

            This takes on even more force when we see that Rand and Branden are speaking not simply of “survival,” but of living a “life appropriate to a rational being.”  If the dictates of bare human survival are non-specific, the dictates of survival in a form “appropriate to a rational being” are even more so.  Rand and Branden assume, but they do not prove, that the twin tests of “survival” and of “life appropriate to a rational being” point definitively in a certain direction, to a certain direction [sic], to a certain kind of man.  But if these tests are said to imply a specific cultural result, one that is selective and involves profound value-judgments about what men ought and ought not to prefer as life-styles, they can hardly be asserted as “axiomatic” to all thinking men.

            The ancient Greeks had a concept of arete that was a concept of a man’s ideal personality.  The conception of what best constitutes a man’s arete changed from generation to generation.  The ideal man was one thing in Homer’s time, something else in Plato’s day.  But which would be closest to a “life appropriate to a rational being”?  We might give an answer, but we could hardly expect that all other rational men would agree with us about it.

            3.  I am mortified by any suggestion that the world is made up of a few who have Truth, on the one hand, and a mob of self-deceiving irrationalists on the other; I have cringed when Ayn Rand has written disparagingly about “existentialists” or “solipsists,” taking them as a whole and thinking of them generally as irrationalists.  There is a gigantic pretension involved in claiming that one has reason entirely in ones own corner.  Human reasoning simply is not that definitive.  The plain fact is that the issues that have divided men for three thousand years and more are difficult.

            Our own civilization has for several centuries been divided over fundamentals.  I am myself persuaded that the rivalry between the intellectual subculture and the bourgeoisie is basic to that division.  In that rivalry the intelligentsia has persistently sought out the “have-nots” as allies.  The conflict has run exceedingly deep, amounting in fact to a disagreement over every aspect of modern culture.  In the context of that conflict in which all the values of our civilization are in perpetual dispute, I find it exceedingly unhelpful for someone to stand off self-righteously and shout “irrationalist” at the other side.  What is required is, instead, a sensitive comprehension of what all the competing parties have been saying.

            4.  In applying their “survival” and “life appropriate to a rational being” tests, Rand and Branden assert that the tests require a distinct individualism.  First, they abjure all parasitism.  Second, they go further and abjure all interdependency among human beings, even where not parasitical, as we will see in the more detailed discussion that follows.

            When they abjure all parasitism, we may well agree with them insofar as the value judgment is concerned, but there are those who will disagree about whether such a result follows either from a “survival” test or a “life appropriate” type of test.  A hippie may fare very well indeed through a lifetime of, say, ninety-five years, first living off his wealthy parents and then off the taxpayers.  It is hard to say that he will not have “survived” and it may be almost as hard to say that he did not live a life appropriate to a rational man; he may, indeed, have spent his life in reading, in poetry, and in the contemplation of nature.

            I have said, however, that they seem to be against more than just parasitism; they seem to be against any form of interpersonal dependency, other than perhaps what may be involved in the impersonal division of labor in a market place.  As an example of this, Branden sees no difficulty in denouncing as a form of “social metaphysician” (a person who is spiritually dependent on others) a person who would seek an answer to the question of “what will make me happy?” among “the standard values of his culture: respectability, financial success, marriage, family, professional competence, prestige, etc.”  He calls such a person a “conventional social metaphysician.”[17]  But this person has not been shown to be a parasite; he has only been described as having strong interpersonal connections and as being existentially a part of his own culture.

            This commits the same epistemological error as is involved in Watson’s behaviorist psychology or in the determinist view that man is “nothing but” a collection of colliding molecules: it seeks to exclude a major part of the data of human existence.  There is no reason to assume that man’s survival or man’s “appropriate” sense of personal identity is best served by a radical and existential autonomy.  Although I am among those who cherish individualism, I would never think it intellectually sound to drop the individual from his social context; nor would I think individualism best served by doing so.

            I might say in passing that this position of “radical autonomy” taken by Rand and Branden necessarily separates them from much classical liberal thought.  One type of classical liberalism puts total stress on the individual and his rights to autonomy, and this leads to an individualism that is very difficult to defend; another type of classical liberalism puts stress on the role of personal responsibility, ethics, the family, and seeks an optimization of the voluntary choices of the individual within a true community where the rights and obligations of the individuals are orchestrated by an entire social and legal structure that is supportive of a classical liberal society.

            If we are to think intelligently about the “meaning” of life, we have to know what that, too, means.  Until we have faced up to this, we are bound to travel in wide intellectual circles, in that endless sort of debate that can never be resolved.

             I have suggested previously in this essay that “meaning” is, by definition, teleological.  There can be no meaning in a dead sense; meaning is always “meaning to someone.”  The world has no meaning to a stone; it had no meaning to me before I was conceived.  If someone were to define meaning in a nonteleological sense, that also would be fine, except that we would need to know that he would be talking about something very different from what we ourselves ordinarily take to be involved in meaning.

            This does not seem to be quite so clear with the word “standard,” and yet it seems to me that again, as with meaning, we come back to the question of “for whom is it a standard (or for whom does it have meaning)?”  We may say that a standard exists for human life quite separate from anyone’s individual preferences, but we are left with the potential dialogue: “But why should I recognize that as being the standard?”  “Because it is the standard.”  “But who says it is the standard and why should I lend obeisance to it as being a standard?”  For this last question, there is no answer except to stand pat on the unsupported “axiomatic” basis of the putative standard.  Since I find this unsatisfactory because anybody can posit anything as axiomatic without a justifying basis, I suggest that we come back to where we were with the word “meaning”: that standards, if they are to make any sense, must be teleological.

            If, then, we speak of these terms as being teleological, we are left with two alternatives, each of which seems extremely objectionable to many modern thinkers: (a) there is a God (or gods), which provides a non-human consciousness as the source of teleological judgment; or (2) each individual human consciousness as it actually values the subject-matter of its life is the teleological source of judgment.

            For reasons that have been discussed exhaustively in countless other places and that would take us far beyond the limits of this essay, many modern thinkers do not believe in God and abhor the thought of finding the “meaning of life” in a theological answer.  Needless to say, for those of an opposite persuasion their belief in God can provide an answer, although they must answer for themselves the question of “why should the meaning God assigns to life be the same as the meaning that I assign to it?; that is, why should I subordinate my consciousness to His?”  To a believer, however, the answer to this last question may seem self-evident.

            For his part, the secularist is most often unwilling to admit, with thinkers such as Sartre, that there is no metaphysical meaning to life, that its meaning is entirely dependent upon the meaning that men, individually or collectively, choose to give it.

            And so it is that thinkers such as Maslow, Frankl, and Branden go on their vain search for a third alternative, since teleology demands a conscious intelligence and we have exhausted the possibilities when we have pointed to God and man.  What these thinkers often think to be a third alternative actually turns out to be no more than an objectification of their own personal preferences.


Up to this point, a reader (and the editor) would have been inclined to think that Murphey, the essay’s author, would himself embrace the God-oriented source to meaning.  The article could be taken, with nothing more, as a criticism of all non-God-oriented philosophical systems.  The remainder of the essay, however, goes directly contrary to this.  For reasons that were not explained to Murphey, the editor dropped that final portion.  When Murphey complained to the publisher, the Review graciously ran the following in its next issue:


[We sincerely regret having left out of our previous issue the closing paragraphs, printed below, of Professor Murphey’s article “Three Contemporary Psychologists and the Meaning of Life,” and we thank him for his understanding and generosity. – The Editor] 

            The reader will recall that in my article in the first issue of The Occasional Review I criticized three contemporary psychologists—Abraham Maslow, Viktor Frankl and Nathaniel Branden—for their respective metaphysical assumptions about the source of values. I argued that life has meaning and values have their source necessarily in some consciousness; that it is nonsense to say that our lives, say, have meaning to a rock or to a cloud.  I argued that if meaning is teleological, then we must determine, and decide from among, the relevant consciousnesses.  In this context, the alternatives were the consciousness either of a God (or gods) or of individual human beings.  When Maslow, Frankl and Branden each seek to posit a source of values on something separate from these, they make a serious error.

            At this point (at which a good many readers will undoubtedly have surmised that I was about to argue for the theistic alternative), my concluding section in which I stated my own views was deleted.  I have asked the editor to publish it in this Postscript so that my intellectual position will be made clear, since I desire to be known as a secular classical liberal rather than as one of our Burkean authors (as excellent as they are).  My concluding section was:

            In my own opinion, there is no reason to consider it catastrophic to acknowledge that life has no meaning separate from that which we give it.  When a man reaches such a conclusion the sun does not cease to shine, the shrubs in front of his house do not wither and die; no, life continues just as before.  And in that life there is much to love, much to give us exhilaration and joy,  much to disgust and tire us.

            If we ask two young lovers “What is the meaning of life?” they will laugh and say good-naturedly, “We are the meaning of life.”  No man who has ever loved a wife or a child can ever doubt the meaning of life.  It arises spontaneously out of the strange fact of our existence; we are human beings, and hence we value.  And in this connection, it is just as human to detest life as it is to cherish it.  Neither is a “non-human” thing to do, except that we might say that our life-force causes us to want to have reasons to affirm life’s beneficent nature rather than to deny it.

            I know that this leaves us naked metaphysically.  I know that it takes away all possibility of setting a given view of life upon a pinnacle as though it has a source outside of our own preferences.  But I would urge the reader to consider the benefits as well as the burdens of such a nakedness.  Such an awareness could serve us well.  It could lead to a new affirmation, built on humility and a genuine reverence for life for its own sake.  It need not lead us to nihilism, and the relativism it entails need not be that inane sort of relativism that seeks always to undercut any chosen cultural pattern.  It would now be apparent that “of course all things are relative; but, so what?  It constitutes no valid attack on what we cherish to say that it could be done some other way.”

            Perhaps we have been subconsciously convinced for too long that life is empty when we get to the bottom of the bucket, and perhaps we have sought every possible way to avoid that realization.  But life is not empty, and there is no reason to avoid seeing what is there.  Those existentialists who have said that there is nothingness at the core of the human soul have plainly not looked into my soul.  There is meaning in life through our own affirmation as living beings of its value to us, and we can arrive at the heroic dimension with Frankl and Rand without the need for anything more metaphysically pretentious than that affirmation.



[1]   Abraham H. Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being (Princeton: Van Nostrand, 1962), p. 192.

[2]   Ibid, p. 141.

[3]   Ibid, p. iii.

[4]   This position, which is well known to modern thought, is implicit in his entire discussion on pages 3-4.

[5]   Ibid, p. vi.

[6]   Ibid, p. 144.

[7]   Ibid, p. 24.

[8]   Note in 2007: This very favorable impression of Frankl’s book changed for me when I reread the book years later for use in a university class.  On that second reading, I was struck by (1) how totally vague Frankl’s descriptions really were (despite the impressions I first had as reported in the first sentence of the next paragraph of the text here) of his surroundings, experiences and associates in the concentration camp; and (2) how little interest he showed in the well-being of anyone other than himself, despite being a physician.  It led me to a conclusion of inauthenticity.

[9]    Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970), p. 120.

[10]   Ibid, p. 101.

[11]   Ibid, p. 112.

[12]   Ibid, p. 111.

[13]   Ibid, p. 78.

[14]   Ibid, p. 110.

[15]   The quotation here is taken from the earlier, somewhat shorter, version of Frankl’s book, From Death Camp to Existentialism (Boston: Beacon Hill Press, 1959), p. 106.  A similar statement is made by Frankl in the expanded version, Man’s Search for Meaning (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970), p. 122.

[16]   Nathaniel Branden, The Psychology of Self-Esteem (Los Angeles: Nash Publishing Corp., 1969), pp. 218, 219.

[17]   Ibid, p. 176.