A version of this largely autobiographical book was originally written while Viktor Emil Frankl was director of the Department of Neurology at the University of Vienna. The book was lost when he was forced into a concentration camp, and he re-created the book by writing notes on pilfered strips of paper while he was imprisoned for three years in four different Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Dachau. The book consists of two parts: a description of life in the concentration camps and people’s reactions to that life and an explanation of logotherapy.
In the first part of Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl describes the daily humiliation and violence that stripped many people of their dignity and their very humanity in the concentration camps and of his own struggle to maintain a sense of meaning in the face of such brutality. He did so primarily by focusing on his wife, with whom he held imaginary conversations; on the work he hoped to resume after leaving the camp; and on the rare acts by some of those in charge that demonstrated, if not kindness, at least a relative absence of malice. Along with these personal recollections, Frankl presents the inmates’ reaction to camp life during its three phases: the period following incarceration, the period of becoming entrenched in camp routine, and the period following release and liberation.
Following incarceration, most inmates suffered from shock. In some cases, shock preceded the formal incarceration, and it was often accompanied by delusions of reprieve. As all illusions were destroyed, most inmates were overcome by a grim sense of humor. Another common sensation was curiosity; the inmates’ minds somehow detached from their surroundings, which came to be regarded with a kind of objectivity. Most people entertained the thought of suicide, at least briefly.
During the second phase, when inmates became entrenched in camp routine, they often descended from a denial of their situation into a stage of apathy and the beginning of a kind of emotional death. As their illusions dropped away and their hopes died, they watched others perish without experiencing any emotion. At first, the lack of feeling served as a protective shield. Then, however, many prisoners plunged with surprising suddenness into depressions so deep that the sufferers could not move, wash themselves, or leave the barracks to join a forced march. No entreaties, no blows, no threats had any...
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In the second part of the book, Frankl sketches his view of psychotherapy, which he termed “logotherapy” from the Greek word “logos,” or “meaning.” Logotherapy focuses on the meaning of human existence and on people’s search for such meaning. It teaches that even the tragic and negative aspects of life, such as unavoidable suffering, can be turned into a human achievement by the attitude that people adopt toward their predicament.
Logotherapy attempts to offer solutions to human concerns as they exist in the moment rather than trying to locate their roots in the past as in Freudian psychiatry. A central tenet is that to live is to suffer and to survive is to find meaning in the suffering. Further, each person must find a purpose; no one can tell another what this purpose is. Each person’s meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by that person alone; only then does it achieve a significance that will satisfy the individual. If one succeeds at this task, one will continue to grow in spite of all indignities.
A person’s “will to meaning,” or will to find meaning, can be frustrated so that the person experiences what Frankl termed “existential frustration.” Existential frustration in itself is neither pathological nor pathogenic. For example, an American diplomat came to see Frankl after five years of treatment with an analyst in New York. The analyst attributed the patient’s continuing problems with U.S. policy to the fact that the patient viewed the U.S. government and his superiors as father images. Consequently, the analyst believed the patient’s job dissatisfaction was due to his unconscious hatred toward his father. After seeing Frankl for a few sessions, the patient changed jobs. Frankl viewed this treatment as neither psychotherapy nor logotherapy. This patient actually longed to be in some other kind of work; he remained contented in his new occupation more than five years later, when Frankl made his final follow-up. Frankl’s view was that not every conflict is neurotic. Similarly, suffering is not always pathological, especially if the suffering flows out of existential frustration.
Because the goal of logotherapy is to help individuals find the hidden meaning in their life, it is an analytical process. The search may arouse inner tension rather than inner equilibrium. This tension is inherent in the human being and is an indispensable prerequisite of mental health. What people need is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task. For example, Frankl believed that the goal of recreating his manuscript should he ever be liberated was a force that...
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Sources for Further Study
Fabry, Joseph B. The Pursuit of Meaning: Viktor Frankl, Logotherapy, and Life. New York: Pocket Books, 1968. Rev. ed. Foreword by Viktor Emil Frankl. New York: Harper & Row, 1980. Fabry, a fellow concentration camp survivor and founder of the Viktor Frankl Institute of Logotherapy in Berkeley, California, writes cogently about Frankl’s life and work.
Frankl, Viktor Emil. Viktor Frankl Recollections: An Autobiography. Translated by Joseph Fabry and Judith Fabry. New York: Insight Books, 1997.
Gould, William Blair. Viktor E. Frankl: Life with Meaning. Pacific Grove, Calif.: Brooks/Cole, 1993. An important treatment of Frankl’s contributions to philosophy.
Graber, Ann V. Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy: Method of Choice in Ecumenical Pastoral Psychology. Lima, Ohio: Wyndham Hall Press, 2003.
Hoeller, Keith, ed. Readings in Existential Psychology and Psychiatry. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press International, 1992. The volume begins with basic theoretical considerations and proceeds immediately to the practice of psychotherapy. The chapters deal with major issues raised by existential psychology and are arranged in alphabetical order from “Anxiety” to “Will.” It is meant to serve both as an introduction to the field and as a refresher for the expert.
Klingberg, Haddon, Jr. When Life Calls Out to Us: The Love and Lifework of Viktor and Elly Frankl. New York: Doubleday, 2001.
Lantz, James E. Existential Family Therapy: Using the Concepts of Viktor Frankl. Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson, 1993. This volume consists of twelve revised classic papers on existential family therapy, Franklian family therapy, and family logotherapy that were published in the fifteen years before the book’s publication. The book is intended for mental health practitioners who wish to help families discover the meaning of life as a primary part of the treatment process.
“Obituary: Viktor Frankl.” The Economist 344, no. 8035 (September 20, 1997): 99.