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The Life and Theory of Viktor E. Frankl

DagherM By DagherM Published on March 18, 2016

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 In any field or profession, the present is always indebted to the past. Every field has its prodigies and luminaries, pillars of the profession who leave an impact so great that the course of the field is inarguably altered by their work. These names become so synonymous with the field that a conversation can rarely be had about that field without the names of these influential people eventually being brought up. For example, biology and Darwin, modern physics and Einstein, philosophy and Plato. Psychology is no exception to this rule. Freud, Watson, Skinner and many others have all left an impact on the field and influenced its development. One prominent psychologist of his day was Vicktor E. Frankl. Although he made significant contributions to psychology, he is a lesser known figure to most.

Viktor E. Frankl was born on March 26, 1905 to a Jewish family in Vienna. He was nine years old when World War 1 broke out. His family lived through the poverty of the world war, and occasionally, Frankl and his siblings would have to beg nearby farmers for food (Viktor Frankl Institut, n.d.). He began to show interest in psychology very early on in his life. By the age of fifteen, he was already fascinated with humanistic psychology and existentialist philosophy (Hatala, 2010). Frankl married his first wife, Tilly Grosser, in 1941. One year later, during World War 2, he was sent to a concentration camp along with his wife and parents. After eight months of being transferred from one concentration camp to the next, Frankl was liberated by US troops on April 27, 1945.

After returning to Vienna, Frankl discovered that he was the only member of his family to survive the atrocities of World War 2. He dealt with his grief, developed a successful professional career, and was remarried in 1947 to Eleonore Schwindt (Viktor Frankl Institut, n.d.). Frankl was the father of a therapeutic approach called logotherapy (often referred to as the “Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy”). Although he had been toying with the idea for many years, he completed the foundation of logotherapy in 1951. Frankl published many books and earned professorships at many prestigious universities around the world. He remained an influential force in the field of existential-humanistic psychology until his death at the age of 92 (Viktor Frankl Institut, n.d.).

Logotherapy was Frankl’s major contribution to the field of psychology. He coined the term from the Greek word “logos” which stands for “meaning” (Frankl, 1959). Logotherapy fits comfortably into the framework of existential psychology. It emphasizes that the main struggle faced by individuals is an attempt to find meaning in their lives, or a “will to meaning” (Sahakian, 1975). In Frankl’s (1967) own words, the definition of logotherapy can be simplified into its literal translation: healing through meaning. The logotherapeutic approach sees mental health not in terms of an equilibrium (as Freud did) but rather in terms of a dynamic relationship (“noo-dynamic”) between what an individual has accomplished and what that individual has yet to accomplish based on the purpose of life that he has set for himself (Frankl, 1959). Unlike most of the already existing therapies, logotherapy sees tension as something beneficial and not something inherently pathogenic. Frankl believed that the major cause of most psychological diseases is a lack of meaning in life, a condition he reffered to as “existential vacuum” (Frankl, 1959).

The aim of logotherapy is not to impose the therapist’s senses of meaning on the patients but to help them discover their own sense of meaning. In other words, logotherapy seeks to instill in the patient an awareness of their own free will (the freedom to make meaning) and a sense of responsibility for his own life (the responsibility to make meaning). According to Frankl, the free will of man and the responsibility of man complement each other and both should be viewed in light of the other (Frankl, 1959).

To summarize, logotherapy is based on the following pillars: (1) the free-will of man, (2) the will to meaning, (3) the responsibility of man to make meaning, and (4) the ability of man to make meaning of any situation no matter how bleak (Sahakian, 1975; Frankl, 1959).

It is a well known fact that a theory is greatly influenced by the theorist’s life. This is very evident in the development of Frankl’s logotherapy. There are three main areas of Frankl’s personal life that influenced his theoretical contributions to the field. The first is his experience and suffering in the concentration camps. The second is the academic atmosphere in which he was raised. Finally, the third is the socioeconomic atmosphere of his time.

In the concentration camps, Frankl witnessed horrible acts of violence and creulty. He experienced suffering to an extent that very few people ever will. Frankl had already been thinking about logotherapy before he was taken to the camps, so in many ways, his experiences there confirmed and validated his already existing hypotheses (Hatala, 2010). While in the camps, he observed that the individuals who were most likely to survive were those who had a reason to do so. That is, if they perceived their lives as having some sort of purpose/meaning, they were more likely to survive the ordeal (Frankl, 1959). This greatly strengthened Frankl’s belief that the ultimate struggle of life is the will to meaning and not the will to power or pleasure.

His experience in the concentration camps also solidified his conviction of the free-will of mankind. While in the concentation camps, some people kept their dignity and humanity while others gave in to the tyranny and the creulty of the surrounding environment. After seeing both possible reactions to the same situation, Frankl was even more sure that man has the potential to be both good and bad. This also proved to him that the factor that determines which path a person takes is an internal decision (the will) of the person and not the external or situational conditions (Hatala, 2010).

Frankl’s belief in free-will at this stage seems slightly paradoxical. How can he still believe in a free-will when he was forced into a concentration camp and made to suffer against his will? The answer lies in Frankl’s definition of free-will which in some ways can be considered a modification of existentialist philosophy. He believes in the subjectivity of man, that man has free will, but he also believes in the objectivity of the universe. He claims that the subjectivity of man’s will does not detract from or dimminish the objectivity of the world (Frankl, 1967). In other words, according to Frankl, there are situations that we have no control over and that no amount of will could ever change. This is illustrated in the case of what he refered to as unavoidable suffering. However, even in these cases, we retain the freedom to impose meaning on our suffering. We may not be able to change the external conditions but we always have the freedom to change our attitudes towards these conditions. In Frankl’s own words, “It is not a freedom from conditions, but it is freedom to take a stand toward the conditions” (Frankl, 1959).

Another part of Frankl’s theory that was strengthened in the camps was the idea that perhaps the best time to make meaning in life is during suffering or pain (Sahakian, 1975). He believed that suffering was one of the cases in which logotherapy should be used (Frankl, 1959). When Frankl discussed suffering, he was not just theorizing. He had expereinced first-hand the desperate search for meaning that accompanies intense suffering and loss. As such, he was able to convey his thoughts with conviction and clarity (Iyer, 1966).

The academic atmosphere in which Fankl worked, as well as his relationshp with his peers further influenced his theories. Fankl is accredited with founding the third Viennese school of psychotherapy (the first and the second are attributed to Frued and Adler respectively). Ironically, Fankl passed through both of these schools of thought before founding his own (Pytell, 2001). He was greatly influenced by Frued’s work from a very young age. In fact, Frankl’s first publication was a result of Freud sending one of Frankl’s papers to a journal without asking for Frankl’s cinsent (Hatala, 2010). Frankl’s close connection to Freudianism ended due to his unwillingness to acccept by Freud’s extreme biological reductionsim (Pytell, 2001). However, Frankl was greatly influenced by the psychodynamic paradigm of bringing unconscious material back into consciousness. He considered logotherapy to be just that: bringing the unconscious need for meaning to consciousness (Frankl, 1959).

As such, Frankl’s logotherapy can be seen as a reaction to Freudian psychoanalysis in two major ways. Firstly, Frankl’s emphasis on free-will arose as a counterargument to Freudian pandeterminism which viewed man as being enslaved to biological instincts and drives. Even the idea that life has meaning is in and of itself contrary to Freudian thought (Sahakian, 1975; Frankl, 1959). Secondly, logotherapy also provided an alternative to the pansexuality of Freudian psychoanalysis. Frankl disagreed with the notion that human behavior is governed by the will to pleasure. Logotherapy’s will to meaning provided a form of self-transcendence that psychoanalysis did not allow for (Sahakian, 1975).

After cutting ties with the Freudian school of thought, Frankl gravitated towards the Adlerian circle. Again, his stay in this second Viennese school of psychotherapy was not permanent. Whereas Frankl left the Freudian school of thought willingly, he was expelled from the Adlerian school by none other than Adler himself (Pytell, 2001). In logotherapy, we see a counterargument to one of the cornerstones of Adlerian thought: the will to power (Frankl, 1959).

Frankl’s split with Adler had another, more subtle effect. Due to the fact that Frankl was more or less kicked out of the Adlerian group, his academic career paths at that point were limited. He decided to work in youth counseling (Pytell, 2001) and spent the next few years working with troubled youths. This interaction with youths surely had an affect on his theories. During the adolescent years, people struggle greatly with their sense of identity, agency and purpose. They try to answer questions such as “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?”. These questions are manifestations of an underlying need: the need to make sense of life. Since Frankl was most probably exposed to this theme while he worked with youths, it is no surprise that it became a recurring theme in his work.

The social atmosphere during Frankl’s life also helped shape his theories. In the 1920’s, Vienna experienced a surge of social reform accompanied by the influx of more liberal and progressive ideas (Pytell, 2001). As a teenager at the time, Frankl witnessed the beginning of liberal politcal and social ideologies. He grew up at a time when homosexuality was beginning to become destigmatized and organizations began to advocate for women’s rights (Hatala, 2010). One thing that all these movements had in common is a theme of revolution against environmental and social conditions. At a time when people all around him were standing up for their freedom, the impressionable teenage Frankl internalized this mentality. As he grew older, it colored the way he interpreted and experienced later life events. It is not surprising, therefore, to see that this theme is clearly displayed in Frankl’s work. It manifests itself in his constant insistence that man has the right to stand up to his environement and assert his will over it (Frankl, 1967).

No man is a closed system, immuune to external input. We shape the world around us just as much as we are shaped by it. This bidirectional influence can be so significant at times that it becomes difficult to untangle an individual from his context. After exploring both Frankl’s personal life and theoretical contributions in depth, the connections between the two seemingly separate spheres become clear. It is naïve to think that any person’s theoretical contributions to any field could be purely a result of internal reasoning and not that of a constant interplay between the theorist and his surrounding environment, culture, and society (Hatala, 2010). Never was this more true than for Viktor E. Frankl.


Frankl, V. E. (1959). Man's Search for Meaning. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Frankl, V. E. (1967). Logotherapy and existentialism. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 4 (3), 138-142. doi: 10.1037/h0087982

Hatala, A. R. (2010). Frankl & Freud: Friend or foe? Towards cultural & developmental perspectives of theoretical ideologies. Psychology & Society, Vol. 3 (1)1-25.

Iyer, R. N. (1966). The self-actualizing man in contemporary society: Classical philosophical modes in a current psychological model. T.C. Greening (Ed.), Existential humanistic psychology (pp. 176-190). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Pytell, T. E. (2001). Viktor Frankl and the genesis of the third viennese school of psychotherapy. Psychoanalytic Review, 88 (2), 311-334. doi: 10.1521/prev.88.2.311.17672

Sahakian, W. S. (1975). History and Systems of Psychology. New York, NY: Halsted Press.

Viktor Frankl Institut. (n.d.). Life and work: Chronology. Retrieved November 15, 2014, from http://www.viktorfrankl.org/e/chronology.html

Psychology graduate currently pursuing a medical degree.

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