Viktor Frankl

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Viktor Emil Frankl (March 26, 1905 – September 2, 1997) was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist. He was the founder of Logotherapy and Existential Analysis, the "Third Viennese School" of psychotherapy. His book, Man's Search for Meaning, chronicled his experiences as a concentration camp inmate and describes his psychotherapeutic method of finding a reason to live. Frankl's own survival, and his insights into what allows human beings to survive the most intolerable and inhumane conditions, have inspired people worldwide for decades. Finding his "will to meaning" gave Frankl the power to overcome the horrors of the death camp, and his writings express the key component of true human nature: Love.


Before 1945

Viktor Frankl was born in Vienna, Austria, the second of three children. Frankl's interest in psychology surfaced early in his life. For his Matura (final exam) in high school he wrote a paper on the psychology of philosophical thinking. After he graduated from high school in 1923, he studied medicine at the University of Vienna, and later specialized in neurology and psychiatry.

From 1933 to 1937, he headed the so-called Selbstmörderpavillon (suicide pavilion) of the General Hospital in Vienna, and from 1937 to 1940, he practiced psychiatry privately. From 1940 to 1942, he headed the neurological department of the Rothschild hospital (at that time this was the only hospital left in Vienna where Jews were admitted).

In December 1941, he married Tilly Grosser. In autumn of 1942, he was deported, together with his wife and his parents, to the concentration camp at Theresienstadt. In 1944, he was transported to Auschwitz and later to Kaufering and Türkheim, two concentration camps adjunct to the Dachau camp. When he was sent to Auschwitz, his manuscript for The Doctor and the Soul was found and destroyed. His desire to complete this work (which he did on stolen pieces of paper), and his steadfast hope that he would some day be reunited with his wife and family, kept him from losing hope in the death-drenched environment. He was liberated on April 27, 1945, by the U.S. Army.

Frankl survived the Holocaust, but his wife, father, and mother were murdered in concentration camps (among his immediate relatives, only his sister, who had emmigrated to Australia, survived). It was due to his (and others') suffering in these camps that he came to the conclusion that even in the most absurd, painful, and dehumanized situations, life has meaning and, therefore, even suffering is meaningful. This conclusion served as the basis for Frankl's later creation of logotherapy.

After 1945

Liberated after three years of life in concentration camps, Frankl returned to Vienna. He finally reconstructed his book, The Doctor and the Soul and published it in 1945, which earned him a teaching appointment at the University of Vienna Medical School. In only nine days, he dictated another book, entitled Ein Psychologe erlebt das Konzentrationslager (in English entitled Man's Search for Meaning), wherein he tried to objectively describe the life of an ordinary concentration camp inmate from the perspective of a psychiatrist. Before he died, it sold over nine million copies.

In 1946, he was appointed to run the Vienna Poliklinik of Neurologics, where he worked until 1971. He remarried in 1947, to Eleonore Shwindt, who gave birth to his daughter, Gabriele, in December of 1947.

Viktor Frankl died September 2, 1997, in Vienna.


In the post-war years, Frankl published more than thirty books, including his bestseller Man's Search for Meaning. He is also well known as the founder of logotherapy. He gave guest lectures and seminars all over the world, received twenty-nine honorary doctorate degrees, and received numerous awards, including the Oskar Pfister Prize from the American Society of Psychiatry and a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.


Frankl called his form of therapy logotherapy, from the Greek word logos, which can mean study, word, spirit, God, or meaning. It is this last sense Frankl focused on, although the other meanings were never far off.

His theory and therapy grew out of his experiences in the Nazi death camps. Observing who did and did not survive, he concluded that the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had it right: “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how." He saw that people who had hopes of being reunited with loved ones, or who had projects they felt a need to complete, or who had great faith, tended to have better chances of survival than those who had lost all hope.

Logotherapy is considered the "third Viennese school of psychotherapy" after Freud's psychoanalysis and Adler's individual psychology. It is a type of existential analysis that focuses on a "will to meaning" as opposed to Adler's Nietzschian doctrine of "will to power" and Freud's "will to pleasure." According to logotherapy, meaning can be discovered in three ways:

  • By creating a work or doing a deed
  • By experiencing something or encountering someone
  • By the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering

The core tenets of logotherapy can be summarized as follows:

  • Life has meaning under all circumstances even the most miserable ones. Humans are called upon, on the grounds of their freedom and responsibility, to bring forth the best possible in themselves and in the world, by perceiving and realizing the meaning of the moment in each and every situation. Clients are aided in achieving the openness and flexibility that will enable them to shape their day-to-day lives in a meaningful manner.
  • The main motivation for living is a will to find meaning in life. When a person cannot realize his or her "will to Meaning" in their lives they will have an abysmal experience of meaninglessness and emptiness. The frustration of the existential need for meaningful goals will give rise to aggression, addiction, depression, and suicidal thinking, and it may engender or increase psychosomatic maladies and neurotic disorders. Logotherapy guides and assists in the realization of those meaning possibilities that clients have already detected.
  • People have freedom to find meaning in what they do, and what they experience, or at least in the stand they take when faced with a situation of unchangeable suffering. This freedom derives from the spiritual dimension of the individual, which is understood as the essentially human realm, over and above the dimensions of body and of psyche. As spiritual beings, humans are not just reacting organisms but autonomous beings capable of actively shaping their lives. This freedom plays an important role in psychotherapy as it allows the individual to cope with their symptoms and regain control and self-determination.

The typical method used in logotherapy is the "Socratic dialogue." Specific questions are directed at the client to raise into consciousness the possibility to find, and the freedom to fulfill, meaning in one's life. In the historical, philosophical setting this technique of guiding by questioning was introduced by Socrates, who characterized it as a sort of "spiritual midwifery."

Man's Search for Meaning

Viktor Frankl's 1946 book, Man's Search for Meaning, used as a standard text in high school and university courses in psychology, philosophy, and theology, is ranked among the ten most influential books in America (according to surveys conducted by the Library of Congress and the Book-of-the-Month Club).

This book chronicles his experiences as a concentration camp inmate, and describes his psychotherapeutic method of finding a reason to live. According to Frankl, the book intends to answer the question, "How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?" The first section of the book constitutes Frankl's experiences in the concentration camps, while the second half is an introduction to logotherapy.

In the first section of the book, Frankl recalls what he observed and experienced while in several Nazi camps. He then goes on to draw conclusions about life and human nature. Frankl asserts that the meaning of life is found in every moment of living: Life never ceases to have meaning, even in suffering and death. According to Frankl, someone is always looking down on humanity, be it a living or dead friend, family member, or even a God. Therefore, people should not disappoint them.

In the book, he also concludes that there are only two races of people: Decent and indecent. No society is free of either of them, and thus, there were "decent" Nazi guards and "indecent" prisoners, most notably the "Capo" who would betray their fellow prisoners for personal gain.

The final chapter concerns the mindset of the prisoners after liberation. While marching through the fields around their former prisons, the prisoners become aware that they are unable to comprehend pleasure. Flowers, kindness, and the sense of freedom given to them after their liberation seemed surreal and the prisoners were unable to grasp it. Even when he or she would return to "normal" life, a prisoner would feel disillusionment and bitterness. As time passed, however, the prisoner's experience in the concentration camp came to seem nothing more than a nightmare.

Key concepts

The following are the basic concepts of Frankl's psychology:

  • The human being is an entity consisting of body, mind, and spirit.
  • Life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most miserable.
  • People have a will to meaning.
  • People have freedom under all circumstances to activate the will to find meaning.
  • Life has a demand quality to which people must respond if decisions are to be meaningful.
  • The individual is unique.

On choosing one's attitude

"…We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: The last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way…"

On love

"A thought transfixed me: For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and is love."


Frankl used the Greek word noös, which means "mind" or "spirit," in his conceptualization. In traditional psychology, he suggested, a focus on “psychodynamics,” which sees people as trying to reduce psychological tension. Instead, or in addition, Frankl said one should pay attention to noödynamics, wherein tension is necessary for health, at least when it comes to meaning. People desire the tension involved in striving for some worthy goal.

The original issue which concerned Frankl, early in his career as a physician, was the danger of reductionism. Then, as now, the majority of medical schools emphasize the idea that all things come down to physiology. Psychology, too, promoted reductionism: Mind could be best understood as a "side effect" of brain mechanisms. Frankl set it as his goal to balance the physiological view with a spiritual perspective, and saw this as a significant step towards developing more effective treatment. As he said, "…the de-neuroticization of humanity requires a re-humanization of psychotherapy."


One of the major components in Viktor Frankl's scheme is conscience. He described conscience as a sort of unconscious spirituality, different from the instinctual unconscious that Freud and other psychologists emphasized. For Frankl, the conscience is not just one factor among many; it is the core of the human being and the source of personal integrity. He put it in no uncertain terms: "… (B)eing human is being responsible—existentially responsible, responsible for one's own existence."

Conscience is intuitive and highly personalized. Frankl referred to conscience as a "pre-reflective ontological self-understanding" or "the wisdom of the heart," "more sensitive than reason can ever be sensible." It is conscience that "sniffs out" that which gives our lives meaning.

Discovering meaning

"…meaning must be found and cannot be given." Meaning is like laughter, Frankl said: You cannot force someone to laugh, you must tell him a joke. The same applies to faith, hope, and love—they cannot be brought forth by an act of will, one's own, or someone else's. Tradition and traditional values are quickly disappearing from many people's lives. But, while that is difficult for some, it need not lead them into despair: Meaning is not tied to society's values. Certainly, each society attempts to summarize meaningfulness in its codes of conduct, but ultimately, meanings are unique to each individual.

Frankl believed it was the job of physicians, therapists, and educators to assist people in developing their individual consciences and finding and fulfilling their unique meanings.

Tragic triad

The "tragic triad” of pain, guilt, and death are an important aspect of logotherapy. Frankl’s "Case for a Tragic Optimism" uses this philosophy to demonstrate “optimism in the face of tragedy and in view of the human potential, which at its best always allows for”:

  • Turning suffering into human achievement and accomplishment
  • Deriving from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better
  • Deriving from life’s transitoriness and incentive to take responsible action.

Noögenic neurosis

Striving after meaning can be frustrated, and Frankl believed this frustration can lead to noögenic neurosis, what others might call spiritual or existential neurosis. He observed that people seemed more than ever to be experiencing their lives as empty, meaningless, purposeless, aimless, adrift, and seemed to be responding to these experiences with unusual behaviors that hurt themselves, others, society, or all three.

One of his favorite metaphors was the "existential vacuum." If meaning is what one desires, then meaninglessness is a hole, an emptiness, in one's life. Frankl suggested that one of the most conspicuous signs of existential vacuum in society is boredom. Frankl observed that many attempt to fill their existential vacuums with “stuff” that, because it provides some satisfaction, they hope will provide ultimate satisfaction as well.

People might also fill their lives with neurotic “vicious cycles,” such as obsession with cleanliness, or fear-driven obsession with a phobic object. The defining quality of these vicious cycles is that, whatever one does, it is never enough. These neurotic vicious cycles are the result of what Frankl referred to as anticipatory anxiety, in which a person may be so afraid of certain anxiety-related symptoms that the anxiety becomes inevitable.


  • "When we are no longer able to change a situation—just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer—we are challenged to change ourselves" (from Man's Search for Meaning).
  • Those who know how close the connection is between the state of mind of a man—his courage and hope, or lack of them—and the state of immunity of his body will understand that the sudden loss of hope and courage can have a deadly effect (from Man's Search for Meaning).
  • "Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him—mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp" (from Man's Search for Meaning).
  • "It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual" (from Man's Search for Meaning).
  • "The uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives a meaning to his existence has a bearing on creative work as much as it does on human love. When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude. A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the 'why' for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any 'how'" (from Man's Search for Meaning).
  • "If all men were perfect, then every individual would be replaceable by anyone else. From the very imperfection of men follows the indispensability and inexchangeability of each individual" (from The Doctor and the Soul).


Viktor Frankl wrote over thirty books, founded a school of psychotherapy, built an institute bearing his name in Vienna, lectured around the world, and saw Man's Search for Meaning printed in twenty-three languages and at least nine million copies.

When he was interviewed at 90 years of age, he described logotherapy this way,

Logotherapy sees the human patient in all his humanness. I step up to the core of the patient's being. And that is a being in search of meaning, a being that is transcending himself, a being capable of acting in love for others… You see, any human being is originally—he may forget it, or repress this—but originally he is a being reaching out for meanings to be fulfilled or persons to be loved.

Frankl's philosophy lives on, influencing many fields of psychology, such as humanistic, transpersonal, and depth psychology, and also the field of life coaching.

Alex Pattakos (2004), a former colleague of Viktor Frankl, predicted that Frankl's contributions to health and wellness, as well as to "good" government and business, would be profound. He demonstrated how, by applying the principles of logotherapy to work and life, people can realize their potential in all aspects of their lives and make a positive difference in the world.

Frankl was the rare intellectual that was called to live out his theories through his experiences in the concentration camps. He commented in his 90th year interview that the camps revealed man much as Freud and others had described him—a creature driven by ego and instinct and sublimated drives. But they revealed something even more fundamental—humanity's defining "capacity for self-transcendence."

"Man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those chambers upright, with the Lord's Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips." Frankl reminded modern psychology of one detail it had overlooked, the patient's soul.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Frankl, Viktor E. 1955. The Doctor and the Soul. From Psychotherapy to Logotherapy. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
  • Frankl, Viktor E. 1962. From Death-Camp to Existentialism. A Psychiatrist's Path to a New Therapy. Boston: Beacon Press.
  • Frankl, Viktor E. 1985. Psychotherapy and Existentialism. Selected Papers on Logotherapy. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  • Frankl, Viktor E. 1969. The Will to Meaning. Foundations and Applications of Logotherapy. New York: New American Library. ISBN 0-452-01034-9
  • Frankl, Viktor E. 1985. The Unconscious God. Psychotherapy and Theology. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • Frankl, Viktor E. 1997. Man's Search for Meaning. An Introduction to Logotherapy. Beacon Press. ISBN 0-8070-1426-5
  • Frankl, Viktor E. 1997. Viktor Frankl—Recollections. An Autobiography. Insight Books, Perseus Books Publishing. ISBN 0-306-45410-6
  • Frankl, Viktor E. 2004. On the Theory and Therapy of Mental Disorders. An Introduction to Logotherapy and Existential Analysis. Translated by James M. DuBois. New York: Brunner-Routledge. ISBN 0415950295
  • Pattakos, Alex. 2004. Prisoners of Our Thoughts: Viktor Frankl's Principles at Work. Berrett-Koehler Publishers. ISBN 1576752887

External links

All links retrieved May 3, 2023.


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