By Dr. A.J. Drenth
For nearly all personality types, experiencing life as meaningful is almost a given, as meaning is derived from a number of sources (e.g., religion, work, family, etc.). However, for one personality type—the INTP—an enduring sense of meaning and purpose is harder to come by. Consequently, INTPs can easily fall prey to cynicism or nihilism, the sense that life is ultimately meaningless or absurd.
INTPs’ meaning issues can be traced back to two main sources. The first is the fact that many INTPs feel that little, if anything, can be known with absolute certainty. As discussed in my book, The INTP Quest, many INTPs eventually reject traditional religion / theologies as intellectually untenable. It’s not that INTPs don’t want to find something to believe in. To the contrary, many spend their lives searching for a bulletproof source of truth and meaning. Despite their good intentions, the skeptical and doubting nature of their mind usually manages to find some problem with nearly any theory or belief system. Thus, when it comes to meaning, INTPs are in many ways their own worst enemies. Eventually, this compels them to explore ways of circumventing their own doubt, of outsmarting themselves if you will, in hopes of reaching a place of conviction and certainty. They know that where there is conviction, there is apt to be a deep sense of truth, meaning, and purpose.
The second contributor to INTPs’ meaning problem is their relative deficit of feeling. This is well explained typologically. Namely, because thinking (T) and feeling (F) are dichotomous opposites, INTPs’ status as dominant thinkers means their feeling function will be repressed. Put differently, if thinking (Ti) is their most conscious and accessible function, their feeling function (Fe) will be least conscious and accessible. This disconnectedness from the world of feeling is easily confirmed in the INTP’s own experience, which includes being estranged from a deep sense of value and meaning. Indeed, INTPs often fail to experience meaning in situations where other types find it bountiful. This paucity can engender a sense of emptiness, boredom, and restlessness in INTP, urging them to escape into their own minds and search for meaning abstractly. They sense that if they can just clarify their self-identity and/or philosophy of life that a cascade of meaning and purpose would ensue. In other words, they feel that finding the right conceptual lens will render all of their experiences more meaningful.
Exploration & Creativity: A Possible Solution for the INTP?
With that said, it is important for INTPs to consider whether a static, “once-and-for-all” philosophy would really make them happy. My research and work with INTPs suggests they actually enjoy the process of seeking and exploring more than they do knowing or disseminating answers. No sooner after discovering an answer are they looking for a new problem to explore. It is the process of exploration that INTPs enjoy most, as this process engenders a sense of tension they find satisfying and meaningful; when they lose themselves in exploration, their meaning problem essentially disappears. In Notes from Underground, Dostoevsky makes a similar observation:
Man loves creating…But why does he so passionately love destructions and chaos as well?…Can it be that he has such a love…because he is instinctively afraid of achieving the goal and completing the edifice he is creating? How do you know, maybe he likes the edifice only from far off, and by no means up close; maybe he only likes creating it, and not living in it…
Although Dostoevsky was not an INTP but an INFP, the path to typological integration is in many respects very similar for these two types. As discussed in my post, INTP vs. INFP, the optimal path to growth for INPs runs through their auxiliary function, Extraverted Intuition (Ne). In conjunction with their tertiary function, Introverted Sensing (Si), Ne helps bridge INPs’ T and F functions. It is largely through exploration and creativity (Ne) that INPs can experience the sense of integration they are seeking.
What about Motivation?
But what about motivation? Where can INTPs find the motivation to explore and create? After all, creation for its own sake is bound to seem pointless to the INTP. Doesn’t there need to be some overarching reason or purpose for exploring and creating? And if the INTP has concluded that life is absurd, doesn’t this negate any reason for doing anything? This is the problem that existentialist thinkers (e.g., Camus, Nietzsche, Sartre), many of whom were atheists, agnostics, or absurdists, set out to solve. They ventured to cultivate meaning in a world they saw as bereft of pre-given meaning. For the existentialist, meaning is not an objective thing to be discovered, but something that must be cultivated subjectively by the individual.
This leads us to another common INTP issue: INTPs have a strong need to link truth (T) and meaning (F), but if they were to adopt a subjective approach to meaning, must they do the same with respect to truth? Is it realistic to believe that their problems could be solved through the creation of some sort of subjective fantasy world completely divorced from external reality? While INTPs typically consider this an unsatisfactory solution, striving for objective certainty doesn’t really seem tenable either, as INTPs are naturally dubious of the human mind’s ability to achieve an unbiased / objective view of reality (see Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason for more on this). Thus, the key for INTPs would seem to involve finding the “sweet spot” between the subjective and the objective approach to truth. Typologically, this means finding the proper balance between their Ti (which, like Fi, is a subjective function) and Fe (which, like Te, is an objective function).
We’ve already touched on how this can be accomplished. Namely, INTPs must employ Ne and Si to form a bridge between their Ti and Fe (i.e., Ti-Ne-Si-Fe). If INTPs can find the optimal means and context for exploring / creating (Ne) in combination with recollecting (Si), then their Ti and Fe, at least in theory, will become better integrated. However, if these bridge functions are not adequately incorporated, Ti and Fe will remain divided and at odds with each other. This approach can be applied to INTP careers, as well as their relationships. Career wise, INTPs must find work that affords them plenty of autonomy (Ti) and freedom to explore / create (Ne) in a meaningful (Fe) way. Similarly, INTPs are best off in partnerships where they can regularly explore and discuss their ideas (Ne), thereby bridging the gap between their inner world (Ti) and their need for love and connection (Fe).