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Victor Frankl and Existentialism Essay

Viktor Frankl, psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor, is the man credited with “translating existential philosophy to practical reality” (Kottler and Brown, 2000). Frankl was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1905. He studied neurology and psychiatry at the University of Vienna, and in 1940 became director of the Neurological Department of the Rothschild Hospital in Vienna. Before the outbreak of World War II, Frankl had the chance to go to America.

He decided to stay in Vienna instead because of something his father had recovered from a synagogue recently destroyed by the Nazis–a block of marble bearing the first letters of the Commandment “Honor thy father and mother that thy days may be long upon the land. ” Frankl and his family were sent to Auschwitz in 1942. Frankl was the only one to survive (Scully, 1995). It was in Auschwitz that Frankl began to put together his existentialist ideas. He noticed that those prisoners who created personal meaning from this hellish experience were the ones most likely to survive.

Frankl himself came to realize that “suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete” (Frankl, 1946). In 1946 he published Man’s Search for Meaning, a book titled From Concentration Camp to Existentialism in its German editions. Frankl’s goal for the book is simple: “I had wanted simply to convey to the reader by way of concrete example that life holds potential meaning under any conditions, even the most miserable ones.

And I thought that if the point were demonstrated in a situation as extreme as that in a concentration camp, my book might gain a hearing. I therefore felt responsible for writing down what I had gone through, for I thought it might be helpful to people who are prone to despair” (Frankl, 1946). Frankl continued to work with existentialist theory throughout his life, developing a psychotherapy known as logotherapy. He also continued to write, publishing another 31 books. Frankl died in 1997. Frankl’s ideas regarding logotherapy grew out of the philosophy of existentialism.

This philosophy has its beginnings in the writings of Soren Kierkegaard and Martin Heidegger. Existentialist philosophy is difficult to explain, but “Basically the existentialist assumes that existence precedes essence, that the significant fact is that we and things in general exist, but that these things have no meaning except as we through acting upon them can create meaning” (Holman, 1972). Logotherapy, considered the Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy, “regards the search for meaning as the primary human motivation.

. . . A human being is not a mere puppet of biological, hereditary and environmental forces, but is always free to take a stand toward inner conditions and outer circumstances” (Viktor Frankl Institute). Logotherapy leads patients to discover meaning in their lives in one of three ways: “(1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering” (Frankl, 1946).

“Logotherapy amounts in nearly all situations to the advice, ‘Get to work. ’ Other psychologies begin by asking, ‘What do I want from life? Why am I unhappy? ’ Logotherapy asks, ‘What does life at this moment demand of me? ’” (Scully, 1995). There are definite difficulties with logotherapy. It is highly intellectual, and therefore not appropriate for those of low intelligence (Kottler and Barton, 2000). It requires a great deal of intellectual energy, even from those with very high IQ’s.

It also disregards possible biochemical connections associated with some forms of mental illness. But despite the criticisms, I find existential theory and logotherapy useful as guides for an attitude toward life. I first became interested in existentialism through literature. Then last fall, I read James F. T. Bugental’s Search for Existential Identity and became interested in how something I had studied as literary theory could be used as a method to treat patients. Researching for this paper has led me to the works of Viktor Frankl.

Existentialism and logotherapy are two areas I will continue to explore. References Frankl, Viktor. (1946). Man’s Search for Meaning. New York: Washington Square Press. Holman, C. Hugh. (1972). A Handbook to Literature. New York: Odyssey Press. Kottler, Jeffery A. , & Brown, Robert W. (2000). Introduction to Therapeutic Counseling. Stamford, CT: Brooks/Cole, Thomson Learning. Scully, Matthew. Viktor Frankl at ninety: an interview. First Things, 52, 39-43. Victor Frankl Institute. http://logotherapy. univie. ac. at/.


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