Viktor Frankl, a concentration camp survivor and the founder of Logotherapy, is most known for his classic book Man’s Search for Meaning. The construct of meaning forms the core of his philosophy. He identified an important framework that’s not as widely known — his laws of dimensional ontology.
Although sounding esoteric, it’s fairly fundamental, and helps explain a common mistake we make in work and life. What were his laws of dimensional ontology, and how can they help?
Laws of Dimensional Ontology
Frankl's work differentiated the three domains of physical, mental, and "noological" (spiritual) aspects of human existence. He highlighted problems caused by focusing exclusively on only one of physical or mental aspects.
To illustrate these challenges, he used a framework based on what he called dimensional anthropology and ontology. Essentially, it uses the geometrical concept of dimensions to show how focusing on one "dimension" causes blindspots in others, or misinterpret what's actually going on.
In The Will to Meaning , Frankl gives two laws of dimensional ontology.
First law of dimensional ontology
One and the same phenomenon projected out of its own dimension into different dimensions lower than its own is depicted in such a way that the individual pictures contradict one another.
Imagine a cylinder, say, a cup. Projected out of its three-dimensional space into the horizontal and vertical two-dimensional planes, it yields in the first case a circle and in the second one a rectangle. These pictures contradict one another.
What is even more important, the cup is an open vessel in contrast to the circle and the rectangle which are closed figures.
Second law of dimensional ontology
Different phenomena projected out of their own dimension into one dimension lower than their own are depicted in such a manner that the pictures are ambiguous.
Imagine a cylinder, a cone, and a sphere. The shadows they cast upon the horizontal plane depict them as three circles which are interchangeable. We cannot infer from a shadow what casts it, what is above it, whether a cylinder, a cone, or a sphere.
Implications of the laws
According to the first law of dimensional ontology, the projection of a phenomenon into different lower dimensions results in inconsistencies, and according to the second law of dimensional ontology, the projection of different phenomena into a lower dimension results in isomorphies.
Once we have projected man into the biological and psychological dimensions we also obtain contradictory results. For in the one case a biological organism is the result; in the other one, a psychological mechanism. But, however the bodily and mental aspects of human existence might contradict one another, seen in the light of dimensional anthropology this contradiction no longer contradicts the oneness of man.
The openness of a cup necessarily disappears in the horizontal and vertical dimensions. Well, man, too, projected into a dimension lower than his own seems to be a closed system, be it of physiological reflexes or psychological reactions and responses to stimuli.
The primary thrust of Frankl’s argument was that human beings exist in the "noological" (spiritual) dimension that sits higher than the psychological and biological. The moment we reduce ourselves to lower dimensions, it causes inconsistencies, contradiction, and confusion.
Science cannot cope with reality in its multidimensionality, but must deal with reality as if reality were unidimensional. However, a scientist should remain aware of what he does, if for no other reason than to avoid the pitfalls of reductionism.
What is dangerous is the attempt of a man who is an expert, say, in the field of biology, to understand and explain human beings exclusively in terms of biology. The same is true of psychology and sociology as well. …
What we have to deplore, I would say, is not that scientists are specializing but that the specialists are generalizing. … those who cannot resist the temptation to make overgeneralized statements on the grounds of limited findings.
All challenges we face, are intricately complex. What attracts us to silver bullets and “proven” methods is their promise of simplification. However, this simplification comes at a cost — the loss of true understanding and real engagement.
Just as with human beings, organizations are also treated as closed systems where managers and leaders act “on” the system, often forgetting that they are as much part of the system. True separation is simply not possible.
While assuming teams and organizations as systems helps in understanding them, forgetting that it is, in fact, a reduction and abstraction from reality is a mistake.
It is interesting to note just how Newtonian most organizations are. The machine imagery of the cosmos was translated into organizations as an emphasis on material structure and multiple parts. Responsibilities have been organized into functions. People have been organized into roles. Page after page of organizational charts depict the workings of the machine: the number of pieces, what fits where, who the most important pieces are.
The 1990s revealed these deeply embedded beliefs about organizations as machines when “reengineering” became the dominant solution for organizational ills. Its costly failures were later acknowledged to have stemmed in large part from processes and beliefs that paid no attention to the human (or living) dimensions of organizational life... .
William Bygrave, a physicist turned organizational theorist, comments on how many management theorists either were engineers or admired that profession...— a lineage that continues to the present. There has been a close connection, he writes, between their engineering training and their attempts to create a rational, structured approach to organization
— Margaret Wheatley 
Fallacy of the dominant dimension
Frankl used his dimensional ontology framework to illustrate the importance of meaning. But for this article, I want to focus on more mundane applications. One example is assessing the kind of help and advice we seek.
Consider two basic questions that lead us to look for answers:
- How do I become more effective at leadership (or any domain)?
- How can my team/organization be more effective?
For the person with a hammer, everything is a nail to be hammered. Similarly, the answers to our questions will depend on which “expert” we ask. This sounds obvious, but we mostly forget this basic fact.
- For the question on leadership it can be: mental models, mindfulness, emotional intelligence, meditation, habits, time management, authenticity, transformational leadership, and so on.
- On the second question of teams and organizations it can be: corporate reengineering, restructuring, value stream mapping, lean methodologies, agile frameworks, OKRs, MBOs, or TQM, amongst many others.
Notice how many of these have overlaps, and often lead to similar solutions — it's “isomorphism” and “inconsistencies” in play.
There’s always a fad that’s in vogue, and we keep falling for them. Why? Fads become that way for a reason — at some level they work well, until they don’t. The underlying promise is always the same — "we’ve figured it out, so you don’t have to". Of course, real life application turns out to be anything but.
Peter Drucker  called this the fallacy of the dominant dimension — an over reliance on one method or approach, at the cost of other equally relevant aspects:
These dimensions of working — the physiological, the psychological, the social, the economic, and the power dimension — are separate. Each can — and, indeed, should — be analyzed separately and independently. But they always exist together in the worker's relationship to work and job, fellow workers and management.
They have to be managed together. Yet they do not pull in the same direction. The demands of one dimension are quite different from those of another. The basic fallacy of our traditional approaches to working has been to proclaim one of these dimensions to be the dimension.
Applying Frankl's laws
Just as Wall St. pushes the latest mutual fund promising easy riches, the leadership industry pushes the latest fad promising to change organizations overnight. Same for the personal development space.
The trick is to recognize that almost always, no one person or approach has all the answers or the silver bullet. Treating them that way, is a sure fire way of being disappointed, or worse, causing regression instead of progress.
Understanding and adjusting for this proactively, ensures that we look for the parts that actually work for us. More importantly, it means paying attention to the nuances and unique challenges of our own experience, and building on them.
Just think of the maxim that when you have a hammer, the entire world turns into things that need to be nailed. Take that one step further. If you drop your hammer, then the world is no longer a world of mere nails.
— Karl Weick 
We are essentially "dropping our tools" to see things fresh and differently. Instead of relying solely on some expert, we learn what works, and build our own system.
In light of Frank’s laws, it's useful to keep in mind:
- Contradictions. You will often find that experts contradict each other. For example, “follow your passion” vs “focus on what works” — both are correct, and frequently in tension with each other. This will happen between different approaches, and also within a given method.
- Uniqueness. When learning and applying a technique, we find that our own situation is annoyingly unique that doesn’t map onto what the experts proposed. This is not a flaw on our part, but rather a limitation of the method itself.
- Approximation. All methods are abstractions removed from the context of our situations, and thus lack nuance. This means we don’t necessarily know how things will play out, and that experimentation and adaptation are important. The value of the method might be more in that it spurs actions, rather than it being the "right" one.
- Human "science". Most methods will claim to be “proven” or “research-backed”, but when operating in the human domain, these claims are questionable. This doesn’t mean they won’t work, but that more than likely, we'll have to make adjustments to make it work for ourselves.
- Requisite Variety. Our reality and the challenges we face are multi-faceted. No one system or solution is going to solve it. What’s required is a wide repertoire of approaches.
- Game conditions. Many supposed “problems” are not necessarily so, they are simply the nature of the game. Also common, are paradoxes that cannot be solved away — constraints that we have to learn to operate within.
- Causality. Most methods will emphasize "if-then" linear causality — if (you do this) then (you get what you want) — but most of the time circular-causality is more likely in play. Everything influences each other — it’s more interconnected than what these methods make you think. This makes things more complex, but also opens up other avenues to take action.
- Meaning. We have stimuli-based tendencies (behaviorism) but we are also meaning-seeking and meaning-making creatures. Both have to be considered. Behaviorism is easy to understand and sell, but not as sustainable.
- Upstream. We have to differentiate between upstream strategies and downstream tactics; separate the symptoms from the root causes. Tactics have to follow from strategies, not the other way around. For example, what looks like a “habits” or “process” problem, might actually be due to a lack of purpose or engagement.
- Reductionism. Every method or model disregards many dimensions for the sake of simplicity. This means, by definition, it ignores more aspects than it actually addresses. Looking at our challenges from as many different angles as possible, increases the chances of success.
📚 HBR 100 Best Reads: You also get a curated spreadsheet of the best articles Harvard Business Review has ever published. Spans 70 years, comes complete with categories and short summaries.
- The Will to Meaning by Viktor Frankl
- Leadership and The New Science by Margaret Wheatley
- Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices by Peter Drucker
- Weick, Karl E., Perspective Construction in Organizational Behavior (March 2017). Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, Vol. 4, Issue 1, pp. 1-17, 2017, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2947645