Viktor Frankl Essay

Viktor Frankl 1905–

(Full name Viktor Emil Frankl) Austrian nonfiction writer and essayist.

The following entry presents an overview of Frankl's life and career.

A world-renowned psychiatrist, Frankl is the originator of logotherapy, a system of psychological treatment he unexpectedly tested and found validation for while imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. Often called the Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy—Sigmund Freud's psychoanalysis and Alfred Adler's individual psychology being the first two—logotherapy incorporates Frankl's belief that man possesses an innate "will to meaning" and that the search for significance in one's life is a psychologically beneficial process. Frankl introduced logotherapy in Ein Psychology erlebt das Konzentrationslager (1946), which was translated into English as both From Death-Camp to Existentialism and Man's Search for Meaning. His subsequent writings continue to elaborate on various aspects of this theory. Frankl has written: "As logotherapy teaches, even the tragic and negative aspects of life, such as unavoidable suffering, can be turned into a human achievement by the attitude which man adopts toward his predicament."

Biographical Information

Born and raised in Vienna, Austria, Frankl studied medicine at the University of Vienna, graduating as a medical doctor in 1930. Attracted to the psychoanalytic work of Freud and Adler, Frankl began the study of psychoanalysis under Adler and became director of the department of neurology at the University of Vienna. In 1942 Frankl and his family—who were Jewish—were arrested and sent to concentration camps, where his wife and parents were killed; Frankl himself spent three years at Auschwitz, Dachau, and other camps. Following the war, he wrote about his death-camp experiences and about his logotherapeutic system in Man's Search for Meaning. In 1947 he remarried and returned to the University of Vienna as a professor of neurology and psychiatry, where he continued to teach and write about logotherapy. Frankl also lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe between the 1950s and the 1980s. He has received numerous awards and honors, including the Austrian State Prize for Public Education, the Austrian Cross of Honor, and several honorary degrees, including an L.L.D. degree from Loyola University in Chicago.

Major Works

The largely autobiographical Man's Search for Meaning, which introduces the psychotherapeutic theory of logotherapy, incorporates Frankl's observations about the way human beings coped with life in concentration camps during World War II. In Ärztliche Seelsorge (1947; The Doctor and the Soul), Die Existenzanalyse und die Probleme der Zeit (1947), and Theorie und Therapie der Neurosen (1956), Frankl continues to expound his logotherapeutic theory by focusing on the spiritual dimension of the human psyche, the use of exhortation to challenge people to face their problems, and the importance of "willing" a meaning to life. Das Menschenbild der Seelenheilkunde (1959), in particular, focuses on spiritual aspects of the human psyche as contributing factors in any effective system of psychotherapy. Der umbewusste Gott (1966; The Unconscious God), Psychotherapy and Existentialism (1967), and The Will to Meaning (1969) continue to explore the philosophically existential characteristics of logotherapy, especially the search for meaning and its compatibility with religion and theology.

Critical Reception

Critical reaction to Frankl's works has been very favorable among American psychologists, existential philosophers, and Christian theologians. Although most critics praise the existential characteristics and spiritual aspects of Frankl's logotherapeutic theory, others criticize as essentialist and reductive his insistence on the "will to meaning"—like Freud's "will to pleasure" and Adler's "will to power"—as the underlying motivational force governing all human behavior. Some critics reject logotherapy as inadequate and charge that Frankl is unable to deal with people who have found life to be meaningless. Nevertheless, as Dan P. McAdams observed upon the 1992 reprinting of Man's Search for Meaning, Frankl's writings continue to underscore the idea that "'man's search for meaning' can sustain human life even under the most harrowing and depraved conditions."

Viktor Frankl

Neurologist, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor are three of the terms that could have been used to describe Viktor Frankl. The founder of logotherapy, the driving force of one’s life, was born to Jewish parents and under Nazi imprisonment during World War II. Interested in psychology from a young age, he was not allowed to treat any of the Aryan patients due to his Jewish identity, but ended up working in the concentration camps as a practitioner in a Nazi ghetto. Later in life, having survived the holocaust, Frankl continued to live and practice in Vienna, Austria. This was especially significant for Frankl in his quest to understand the drive for human existence given that he spent three years of his life witnessing some of the most inhumane and dehumanizing events transpire in human history.

The experiences Frankl undertook as a concentration camp prisoner helped develop his profession from the experience of witnessing pure evil in front of his own eyes. Even with the amount of suffering taking place all around him, he helped people undertake the will to want to survive and see a better day. The three principles under logotherapy were to find life’s meaning even in miserable situations, to find one’s will in finding this meaning of life and to take into account the freedoms we do have to find this will for survival. This therapy has been used to help treat the clinically depressed, the overly anxious, schizophrenics, obsessive compulsive disorder and the terminally ill.

Frankl’s existential views helped bring logotherapy to the forefront of science in the late 1940’s. The main correlation of existentialism is that humans are not alone in the world because they feel the need to have human connected interactions; a way to have meaning or to validate their existence. This gives humans the freedom to choose and embrace the path they draw for themselves.  Existentialists connect their human ties and communication through the physical, social, psychological and spiritual world that surrounds them every day. As people learn to connect to their environment, they will realize that the freedom of their individual choice will determine their life’s development. Only the individual can be the catalyst for change in their own life both philosophically and literally.

Although Frankl passed away in 1997, his legacy lives on as a proponent for the why of life. In order to fully grasp what it is that our life’s purpose is, logotherapy continues to serve as an excellent tool for the continuation of mankind. As a life’s purpose is determined, logotherapy is there to guide that internal determination for betterment.

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