Viktor Frankl – an Overview of Logotherapy Essay

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 20 October 2016

Viktor Frankl – an Overview of Logotherapy

The term ‘Logotherapy’ can be described as taken from the Greek meaning of ‘logos’ and ‘therapy’. ‘Therapy’ is the treatment which is given to heal a disorder. Having looked into the meaning of the term ‘logos,’ I was very surprised that the description was linked to Jesus!

According to Wikipedia, John’s Gospel identifies the ‘Logos’ as the one through which all things are made, and further to this describes Jesus as being the ‘incarnate Logos’ (incarnate meaning to be embodied in flesh or taking on flesh)(1)

The Greek word ‘logos’ traditionally meant ‘word’, ‘thought’, principle, or speech. Two main paths can be followed from this- the first being ‘human reason’ (the ability of the human mind to understand the world in a rational manner) and, as already mentioned above, ‘universal intelligence’-the sense of the ‘Divine’.(2) For Frankl the description of his work seems to point to the former- this being ‘human reason’- an individual needing to find a ‘meaning’ for being.

In his book ’The will to meaning’(3), Frankl is trying to describe the way psychologists/psychiatrists might try to understand the many facets of a human expressing or finding meaning in the world. He is expressing the different ideas given by psychoanalysis; Adler; and other individuals.

The dimension (he speaks of humans as having many dimensions- and that by trying to embrace these one is able to get a full picture of who they are), of ‘logos’ in the scope of logotherapy, implies ‘meaning’, and also implies ‘spirit’ (as mentioned above). Frankl says this is without any primary religious connotation. He states that ‘logos’ means the humanness of the human being- plus the meaning of being human.(3)

So what I gather from his writings; Frankl desired his ‘logotherapy’ to embrace all of what it means to be human and also the meaning of being human. (my own understanding)

Introducing Dr Viktor Frankl

Viktor Frankl was the founder of logotherapy In ‘Mans search for meaning’(1959) the introduction describes it as the ‘third Viennese school of psychotherapy’- after Freud’s psychoanalysis and Adler’s individual psychology(4).

Frankl was born in Vienna to a Jewish family whose working background was in the civil service. Frankl took another path- he studied medicine at the University of Vienna, where he specialized in neurology (a study of disorders of the nervous system) and psychiatry. The topics he was most interested in were depression and suicide.

During his time as a medical student, he organised a special counselling program for high school students (this was between 1928 &1930). One well known psychologist, Charlotte Buhler, was involved. The success of this program resulted in no students committing suicide in Vienna in 1931.

His completed his neurology and psychiatry training in Vienna in 1937 and afterwards set up a private practice.

When the Nazi’s first occupied Austria, Viktor had the opportunity to flee to America, as he had been granted an immigration visa. He couldn’t decide whether to go and pursue his work in logotherapy, or to remain with his parents and face the Nazi regime.

He explains in ‘Man’s search for meaning’ (1992)

‘It was then I noticed a piece of marble lying on a table at home … (his father) had found it on the site where the National Socialists had burned down the largest Viennese synagogue..…..One gilded Hebrew letter was engraved on the piece; my father explained that this letter stood for one of the commandments…’Honour thy father and thy mother that thy days may be long upon the land.’(p13)

This was the moment that he decided to remain in Vienna with his parents and let his visa lapse.

Experiences of life in concentration camp

Although Frankl had already begun to formulate ideas of logotherapy before the war, it was the time that he spent in concentration camps that really cemented his ideas together and persuaded him that his ideas had a very practical use .

His experiences of this time are described vividly in his book ‘Man’s search for meaning; the classic tribute to hope from the Holocaust’. This was first published in German in 1946 and later in English as ‘From Death-Camp to Existentialism’. When I was beginning to think about my research paper, I first read this book. It gave me such insight into the basis of his work and also of the power that it had to alter the course of an individual’s life.

That he continued to find meaning during this time; despite losing his wife, brother, mother and father in the Holocaust; I think is a testament, both to his strength of character, and to the value of his work. The only surviving member of his family was his sister Stella, who had managed to immigrate to Australia.

The major theme, I took from his book; was in the struggle found by individuals as they tried to survive prison camp life, both within the confines they found between each other (as fellow prisoners) and when facing the Capos (prisoners who were given special privileges), and finally the SS guards. What stood out to me was that Frankl found – despite the Capos being Jewish prisoners, that they were comparable to the SS guards and the camp wardens, on a psychological basis. (5).

I took from the book that, the reality of prison life seemed, not only a war against the Nazi’s; but against individuals, and about the resources that could be found within and between each other to survive the environment. The situation crossed over normal boundaries and meant that people were placed in situations that meant they were stretched three ways: emotionally, physically and psychologically. Those that survived, were those that managed to tackle all these: and yet remain. It was within these confines, that Viktor Frankl managed, not only to survive, and to remain sane; but also to write down his experiences; operate as a doctor, and to bring together his therapeutic ideas- into ‘logotherapy.’

I want to bring into this paper a fundamental element of his experiences in the concentration camps- as to me it was such powerful reading; it spoke strongly of what Frankl followed on to focus his work on. It also has a clear message for anyone who faces suffering.

The beginning of the book clearly says that it was not meant as an account of facts or events – but that it was an attempt to make sense of the experiences that were faced by the prisoners that Frankl was a part of. (6). I translate this to mean that it is not important to look into the detail of the book, but to take from it the very essence of the reality of living in such extreme conditions as a German run concentration camp in the 1940’s.

.Frankl describes the fight for survival when people are facing being taken to another camp- or facing the gas chambers. The first vivid description of trying to survive, was in the face of the decision between those who were considered as worthless (not fit to work; weak or ill) – who would be sent directly to major camps to the gas chambers) and those who tried to appear well and able to carry on. In his book, Frankl explains that the fight was major, and that prisoners tried all sorts of methods to stay alive- even arranging for another person to take his place in the transport. Frankl concludes that the best of the people did not remain alive. (7)

Frankl tries to explain that he cannot place his story as an objective description of what happened; he also tries to explain that many people, who had experienced such awful, atrocious times in a death camp, would not want to relive them. He says that he wanted to publish the book anonymously, but realised that this would mean it lost most of its value- so he agreed to all of it being published, even though he didn’t want any of the credit. (8)

Existentialism and logotherapy

Frankl began to use the term ‘Existenzanalyse’ as early as the 1930’s. American papers translated this term as ‘existential analysis’ ; but they also translated the work of Ludwig Binswanger in the same way- in German his work was called ‘Daseinsanalyse’.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines ‘existentialism’ as


‘A philosophy that emphasizes the uniqueness and isolation of the individual experience in a hostile or indifferent universe, regards human existence as unexplainable, and stresses freedom of choice and responsibility for the consequences of one’s acts.’(8b)

An alternative definition is

‘Existentialism is a philosophical way of thinking that is very different from other philosophical ideas. It sees humans, with will and consciousness, as being in a world of objects which do not have those qualities. The fact that humans are conscious of their mortality, and must make decisions about their life is what existentialism is all about.’[8c]

My own understanding of ‘existentialism’ is that as human beings, as individuals, we need to deal with life, and this results in the need to make choices. It recognises the moral dynamic and the need to rationalise actions and their consequences.

Because Frankl’s work embraced the concept of existentialism, initially the same definition was given. However Frankl did not feel that his theory was as such: he explains in the introduction of his book ‘Psychotherapy and Existentialism’ (1967), why he uses the term ‘logotherapy’ rather than ‘existential analysis’.

‘Logotherapy represents one of the schools in the field of psychotherapy, and, more specifically, is considered by various authors to fall under the category of ‘existential psychiatry….they (American writers) used the same term to cover the teachings of the late Ludwig Binswanger…Thus existential analysis became an ambiguous notion. In order not to add to the confusion…I decided to use only the term ‘logotherapy’ and to refrain as much as possible from using its synonym, existential analysis, as a translation of Existenzanalyse.’(Foreword viii)

What is the basis of Logotherapy?

In his paper ‘The Philosophical Foundations of Logotherapy’ (1963) (9) Frankl discusses the basis of Logotherapy. He explains that logotherapy goes further than existential analysis because it is not only concerned with being or reality (the Greek term- ‘ontos’), but also ‘logos’ or meaning. It is not just an analysis of a subject, but it also has an application as a therapeutic technique.

The roots of Logotherapy rely upon a particular philosophical look at life; Frankl describes this philosophy as having ‘three fundamental assumptions’ (10).

• Freedom of will

• Will to meaning

• Meaning of life

Freedom of Will

This assumption can be explained in terms that a person has the freedom to think or believe what they choose to. One exception to this is the schizophrenic patient who experiences delusions and voices that can overcome their mind, and sense of reality.

A person is free to think; but this is limited by the conditions in which they live- whether this is biological, sociological or psychological. The freedom that is always available however is the choice a person is able to make about his attitude to the circumstances or situation he faces. (11)

Will to meaning

Frankl distinguishes between ‘instinctual drives’ or ‘needs’ described in Freudian terms and ‘meaning’: the desire of man to reach out to other people and attempt to find meaning.

If meaning was a ‘need’ (as instincts are), then it will result in the individual trying to satisfy them. The difference with ‘meaning’ to life is that it is achieved when a person finds a purpose through relationship with others. The distinction here is that the focus is on the other person and not on the individual seeking meaning. In simpler terms, the first one is selfish and the second is unselfish.

Frankl considers self- actualisation as being a good thing, but only in that it can be achieved in terms of how much a person finds meaning and purpose in life. It is another ‘side-effect’.

In ‘Psychotherapy and Existentialism’ (1967), Frankl gives a valuable description of human existence. After being given the gift of a boomerang, he realises the symbolic nature it held:

‘Generally, one assumes that a boomerang returns to the hunter; but actually I have been told in Australia, a boomerang only comes back to the hunter when it has missed its target, the prey. Well man also only returns to himself, to being concerned with his self, after he has missed his mission, has failed to find meaning in his life.’(p9)

He explains further that man finds identity only as long as he is working for some cause or purpose, which is beyond himself, or greater than himself.

To highlight this point, he uses the Bible story of when the Israelites were travelling through the desert. God’s glory went before them as a cloud, and showed them the way to go. If the cloud had been among the people, they would have been blinded and got lost. In the same way, if meaning is sought after within a person, then it will be clouded; whereas if meaning is separate or greater than a person, then it can provide direction. (12)

In logotherapy, a person is confronted with the meaning of their life, and as such, who or what they are responsible to/for. This can be society, God, his conscience, humanity. This is the next step in helping him to find meaning to life.

The Meaning of Life

What is meaning? Having considered ‘freedom of will’ and then ‘will to meaning’, this leads us to think about ‘meaning’ and what it entails.

Frankl describes life as meaningful in three ways

• In what we can give to life (our creativity)

• In what we take from the world (experiencing value)

• In the attitude we take in facing something we cannot change (such as a fatal disease, loss, in fact any suffering)

All humanity faces pain, death and guilt, and Frankl believes that logotherapy can help us face these and still find meaning. (13)

Following on from this, we can sometimes face what Frankl describes as ‘meaning frustration or existential frustration’ (14). He finds that this presents itself in people who feel that their life has no meaning, especially when they experience a void which he describes as an ‘existential vacuum’. This he finds present in many students who have committed suicide.

At the end of his paper, Frankl referred to Goethe and stated that he was the sort of realist that agreed with the following statement:

“If you treat an individual as he is, he will remain how he is. But if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.” ― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

What is different about Logotherapy to other theories?

In his book ‘Man’s search for meaning’(2004) Frankl explains one of the main differences of logotherapy to psychoanalysis.

‘logotherapy in comparison to psychoanalysis, is a method which is less retrospective and less introspective.’(p104)

In contrast to psychoanalysis, which deals with a person’s past and possible explanation for how they are; logotherapy concentrates a person on their future and seeks to find a sense of meaning or purpose for their life in the present.

Psychoanalysis is based on the principle that man will ‘seek pleasure’- that is his fundamental drive in existing.

Individual psychology (as described by Alfred Adler) is based on the principle that man will strive for ‘power’ or a sense of ‘superiority’ (as opposed to feeling inferior).

Logotherapy focusses on a ‘will to meaning’; the belief that man’s main drive in existing is to find meaning and purpose.

In the paper ‘Beyond self-actualisation and self-expression’(1959)(15) Frankl discusses why human existence is much more than just trying to meet needs and achieve satisfaction/equilibrium. He explains that if all humans were just trying to sustain their existence, then they would end up viewing everything in the world around them as just a means of satisfying their needs. Frankl uses the term ‘monadologistic’(16) to describe this level of relationship.

In this paper he considers two common issues- the seeking of pleasure, and seeking peace of mind. If a person were to strive purely for pleasure, Frankl sees that it is almost always going to fail. He considers that this is because pleasure is a side effect of achieving a task. It is almost as if the pursuit of pleasure alone actually destroys it (the pleasure) in the process. In the same way he sees that a person gains peace of mind as a side effect of his lifestyle, and not by making it a goal.

‘It is a tenet of logotherapy that the more one aims at pleasure, the more he misses it’(17)

Logotherapy and my own ‘way of working’

The more I have studied logotherapy, the more I feel drawn to the concept of people needing to have a meaning for ‘being’. Having faced severe depression and suicidal thoughts; it has always been the desire for me to focus on why my life is worthwhile. Even during times when I couldn’t ‘feel’ worthwhile, the knowledge that I was needed and mattered to others, always spurred me on to continue living. It is from this basis, that I feel the ideas behind logotherapy are very important.

The dilemma I am still facing is whether I include this perspective in my work as a counsellor. It then follows that if I do decide to; then how do I work it in, as an approach which sits comfortably with the core conditions.

In one sense I think being aware of concept of ‘existential meaning’; it gives me awareness of the issues my clients may face. If this issue is raised then I could explore it in a very person centred way; always focussing on what they find meaningful.

To give an example; if a client was facing trauma from difficult relationship issues, I would work with them; this may or may not touch on their ‘meaning for living’, unless it linked into their ‘conditions of worth’, that they only felt worthwhile by remaining in the relationship at whatever cost to themselves. This might touch on their own feelings of what they saw their purpose in life was- and so by staying focussed on what they were bringing into the room; it might lead into them exploring their feelings around what they felt they desired for their own life , and what they felt was most important. I guess by understanding Victor Frankl and his whole theory, it will forever help me to see the need in my clients to realise their meaning and sense of purpose. As a Christian, I very much sign up to this, as the very nature of being a child of God means that I am valued, not only because I am unique, but because He has created me to fulfil only those roles and situations that I am best designed to fulfil- this is what gives me meaning in my life.

Logotherapy- an added meaning to psychoanalysis.

In his book ‘The Will to Meaning’(18); Frankl describes in detail the different ways of looking at theories and ideas of well-known psycho-analysists and psychologists. Throughout his work he is extremely respectful of the work of Freud; of Adler and of other well known theorists of his time. He uses very simple images of a cylinder- (see figure 1) He explains that the image of the cylinder can be seen in 1 2 dimensional way as either a rectangle or a circle. Neither of these images gives a complete picture of the cylinder. This Frankl likens to our own concept of human existence. We are made up of body, mind and soul. In Freuds terms we are seeking to find pleasure in our existence. In ‘Adlers terms we are seeking power. Frankl uses the illustrations to show that , yes we have these points of existence, but unless we look at the whole picture, we do not see humans in the whole sense. The missing sense for Viktor Frankl is that as human beings , we need to feel a sense of meaning or purpose for being; this is different to other theories, because by seeking meaning, it almost gives the other purposes ‘life.’

He goes on to describe the importance of being aware that man has different dimensions- especially when treating a person for a neurosis. He explains three different types of neurosis (which are likened to the three circles on the figure 2). The first being a neurosis caused by a clinical disorder (brain chemistry); the second being caused by a physical disorder, such as hyperthyroidism and finally the third he calls ‘noogenic neurosis’ caused by spiritual/moral dilemmas. Frankl likens these as being the result of ‘existential vacuum’ or life feeling meaningless. The main symptoms of this type of vacuum are boredom and apathy.

Using the example of the three circles, Frankl explains that the reasons behind a neurosis, will not always be known- the important point is for the therapist/psychiatrist to be aware that there are other dimensions to a human.(19)

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