Viktor Frankl's Logotherapy: The Search For Purpose and Meaning

By Daniel Devoe
2012, Vol. 4 No. 07 | pg. 1/3 |


Equivalent parts biographical and theoretical, this paper provides a discussion of the main historical events and contributions of Viktor Frankl. Frankl's intellectual development began with a brief immersion in Freud and Alder’s teachings in the early 1920s. He began to formalize the tenets of his theory and therapy, logotherapy, while assisting unemployed Viennese in the Great Depression. Logotherapy maintains that a human’s principal motivation is not to search for power or gratification, but to discover the purpose of existence. Various existential ideas are discussed including the notions of a noölogical dimension and existential frustration. The paper concludes that logotherapy has many applications in the modern medical, psychological, and business sectors.

Viktor Frankl, 1965The search for purpose and meaning in life has become a megatrend of the 21st Century. One practitioner attributes this trend to a shift in consciousness, which has permitted humanity to focus on what they believe really matters in their daily lives (Pattakos, 2009). Dr. Viktor Emil Frankl (1905-1997), a Viennese psychiatrist and neurologist, is characterized as the pioneer who promoted the idea that the primary motivational force in life is to find meaning (Zaiser, 2005). Frankl is most famous for his best-selling novel Man’s Search for Meaning, which has sold over 11 million copies in 20 different languages (Boeree, 2006). The original title of Frankl’s book in German is Trotzdem Ja Zum Leben Sagen which actually translates in English to mean “Saying yes to life in spite of everything.” His book outlines his horrific experiences in the concentration camps and provides a basic introduction to his therapeutic practice of logotherapy. Frankl was subjected to four different Nazi camps and was dehumanized to a mere number: 119,104 (Benvenga, 1998). Moreover, Nazis murdered his wife, mother, father, and unborn child, yet Frankl was able to find a purpose for living in all his sufferings (Frankl, 1959).

Frankl insists that humanities primary concern is not to search for enjoyment, or supremacy, but to discover the meaning of existence (Ponsaran, 2007). Frankl denies that humans can be reduced to the Freudian life and death drives but rather promotes the idea that humans have the “freedom of response,” even if the situation is calamitous (Cowen, 2005). Philosophers and spiritual leaders postulate that Frankl’s logotherapy will gain wider acceptance in therapeutic practice because people are asking more existential questions, for example “what is the meaning of life?” (Pattakos, 2009). Literally, logotherapy means therapy through meaning, however logotherapy is more than helping clients find meaning in life (Hoffman, 1995). For example, logotherapy as a psychotherapeutic technique helps patients with insomnia, impotence, and anxiety (Zaiser, 2005). Undoubtedly, Frankl’s early life experiences and unimaginable suffering are clearly emulated in his formulation of logotherapy.

Timeline of Viktor Frankl

Early Years (1905-1937)

Viktor Emil Frankl was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1905 (Frankl, 1997). In his early years Frankl was heavily exposed to his ancestral religion Judaism. In fact Frankl learned the Torah so well that members of the local synagogue tried to recruit him to be a cantor, one who chants the liturgical portion of a service. However, during his adolescent years Frankl had decided to pursue a career as a medical professional (Hoffman, 1995). For Frankl, this career aspiration was accompanied by the rejection of Judaism as he claimed that during puberty he passed through an atheistic phase (Cowen, 2005). In the years to follow, Frankl attended the same Viennese secondary school as had Sigmund Freud years earlier. This was where Frankl became intrigued by the psychological principles of Freudian psychoanalysis and began corresponding with Freud (Hoffman, 1995). However, Frankl’s fascinations soon faded and he departed from Freudianism claiming Freud’s thinking was too dogmatic and reductionistic to explain the whole of human behaviour (Cowen, 2005). Frankl particularly disagreed with Freud’s idea that sexual impulses could explain the majority of human behaviour (Hoffman, 1995).

Thus, Frankl became increasingly interested in Alfred Adler’s individual psychology, which focused more on environmental and societal factors to explain behaviour (Frankl, 1997). In the late 1920’s Frankl became a devoted Adlerian publishing and lecturing on the principles of individual psychology for several years (Hoffman, 1995). In 1925 Frankl published an article in Adler's journal, which discarded the Freudian perspective that the unconscious was the source of neurosis and promoted Adler’s interpretation of neurosis as a form of compensation. Ironically, Frankl abandoned Adler’s inner circle in 1927 claiming that individual psychology endorsed the same sort of psychological reductionism that Freudianism promoted (Pytell, 2003). It became evident that fragments of Frankl’s faith were reinstated with his departure from Freud and Adler. He began utilizing theological terminology such as geist meaning human spirit in German to explain psychological phenomena. Furthermore, Frankl began to regard the human spirit as the highest faculty of the human being and more importantly the pursuit of meaning (Cowen, 2005).

Frankl graduated from the University of Vienna’s medical school in 1930 specializing in neurology and psychiatry (Hoffman, 1995). He was soon promoted to the head of the suicide pavilion at the General Hospital in Vienna. There he treated over 3,000 women prone to suicide and depression. In addition, Frankl developed a low-cost counseling private practice for people when the Great Depression shook Austria’s economic foundations (Frankl, 1997). In his private practice he noticed numerous people pursuing therapeutic treatment because of the loss of work. More importantly Frankl noted that people seemed to be suffering not from loss of employment but from a loss of meaning in their lives. Frankl prescribed the peculiar treatment of volunteer work to reinstate purpose into patients’ lives. This treatment proved to be highly efficacious as most of his patients claimed that their depression had disappeared (Hoffman, 1995).

Annexation of Austria and Concentration Imprisonment (1938-1945)

However, during the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany in 1938 Frankl was forced to give up his private practice. He was relocated to the Rothschild Hospital were his title of doctor was invalidated and he was given the designation “Jewish specialist,” meaning he could only treat Jewish patients (Pytell, 2003). Frankl watched in horror as the Nazis enforced the extermination of his Jewish patients, whom were suffering from brain injury and psychological illness, through the Nazi euthanasia program (Hoffman, 1995). In desperation he began to falsify medical documents in order to save mentally ill patients from euthanasia (Boeree, 2006). Thus, the climate in Vienna had become increasing hostile towards Jews so Frankl sought emigration papers from the United States. Upon approval he denied his visa, as he had discovered that his elderly parents were to be left behind (Pytell, 2003). In 1941 Frankl married his first wife, Tilly Grosser who later that year was forced to have an abortion by the Gestapo to prevent Jewish overpopulation (Viktor Frankl Institute, 2010). In 1942 Frankl, his wife and parents were relocated to the Theresienstadt Ghetto were his father was laid to rest due to starvation and exhaustion (Pytell, 2003). Frankl’s wife and mother were then murdered in the gas chambers at Auschwitz (Viktor Frankl Institute, 2010).

Over the next three years, Frankl was subjected to the horrible conditions of the concentration camps. During his imprisonment in the concentration camps Frankl dug ditches, set up a suicide prevention program, and volunteered at the typhus ward (Frankl, 1959). To avoid losing hope and to instill meaning in his life, Frankl would often begin reconstructing his book manuscripts on slips of paper stolen from the camp office and sneak outside to give pretend lectures on the psychological conditions of people subjected to the camps (Boeree, 2006). It has been noted that in Frankl’s camp writings it was evident he had already put the horrific experiences of the camp behind him because he wrote it in the third person and in past tense. Later in his career he described his camp writings as his spiritual child, which aided him in avoiding delirium (Pytell, 2003).

Post Concentration Camp (1945-1997)

Shortly after being liberated from the camps in 1945 Frankl published his best selling book Man’s Search for Meaning (Viktor Frankl Institute, 2010). This book describes his experiences in the concentration camps and promotes his theory of logotherapy (Frankl, 1959). Early in 1947 Frankl married Eleonore Schwindt and by December their daughter Gabriele was born. In 1948 Frankl was promoted to Associate Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry at the University of Vienna were he remained for several years. In the postwar years Frankl authored over 38 books on psychology and his camp experiences. His last two books are Man's Search for Ultimate Meaning and Viktor Frankl - Recollections both were published in 1997. Viktor Frankl died from heart failure on September 2, 1997 (Viktor Frankl Institute, 2010).

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