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Man's Search for Meaning

by Viktor Emil Frankl

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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.

Life in a Concentration Camp

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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 effect. No one could extricate them. There was a link, Frankl found, between their loss of faith in the future and this dangerous giving up. Some inmates, however, were able to discover meaning in their lives, if only in helping one another through the day. These discoveries gave them the will and strength to endure.

For Frankl, the only meaning in his camp life was to help his fellow inmates restore their psychological health. He believed that he had to learn himself and teach the despairing men that it did not matter what he expected from life but rather what life expected from him. He described a day when he became disgusted with the fact that his mind was totally preoccupied with the trivialities of camp life. To overcome this preoccupation, he forced himself to think of another subject: He imagined giving a lecture on the psychology of camp life. “Both I and my troubles became the object of an interesting psychoscientific study undertaken by myself.” One way that Frankl helped others was to attempt to prevent suicides. Nazi jailers forbade prisoners from interfering with a suicide attempt. For example, no one could cut down a man attempting to hang himself....

(This entire section contains 771 words.)

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Therefore, Frankl’s goal was to prevent the act before the attempt. Healthy prisoners such as Frankl would remind the despondent person that life expected something from them. For example, perhaps a child waited for the individual outside prison, or work remained to be completed. Thus, healthy prisoners taught others not to talk about food when starvation was a daily threat and to hide a crust of bread in a pocket to stretch out the nourishment. They urged others to joke, sing, take mental photographs of sunsets, and replay valued thoughts and memories.

Frankl maintained that it was essential to keep practicing the art of living, even in a concentration camp. “We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life but instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life, daily and hourly. Our answer must consist not in talk and medication, 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.”

The third stage began at liberation. Initially, although most inmates experienced total relaxation when they learned they would be released, they were not particularly pleased or joyful. They had lost the ability to experience these emotions and had to relearn them slowly. One continuing danger was to their moral and spiritual health. Finally free, some inmates thought that they should use their freedom licentiously and ruthlessly. Two other dangers to their moral and spiritual health were bitterness and disillusionment upon returning to former lives.


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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 helped him live through the rigors of concentration camp life.

Conversely, Frankl believed that existential vacuum was a widespread phenomenon of the twentieth century. One reason for this vacuum is the loss of basic animal instincts, which provide security. Because these instincts are lost, people have to make choices. Further, people have suffered the loss of traditions to buttress their behavior. No instinct tells people what to do; no traditions tell people what they ought to do. Evidence of this vacuum is boredom. Boredom causes more psychological troubles than distress. For example, “Sunday neurosis” is a kind of depression that afflicts people who become aware of the lack of content in their lives when the rush of the busy week is over and the void within themselves becomes apparent.

In the search for meaning, abstract answers are irrelevant. Everyone has a specific vocation, or mission in life, to carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment. Logotherapy sees the very essence of human existence in responsibility and tries to make patients fully aware of their responsibility. Therefore, the logotherapist imposes no value judgments on patients and refuses to let the patient pass the responsibility of judging to the logotherapist. Patients must decide whether to interpret life’s task as being responsible to society or to their own conscience. The logotherapist’s role is to widen and broaden the visual field of the patient so that the whole spectrum of potential meaning becomes conscious and visible.

According to logotherapy, people can discover the meaning in life in three ways: first, by creating a work or doing a deed; second, by experiencing something or encountering someone; and third, by adopting an appropriate attitude toward unavoidable suffering. The first way is self-explanatory. The second way may involve experiencing a quality such as goodness, truth, or beauty or something concrete such as nature and culture. Additionally, it may involve experiencing the uniqueness of another human being and loving that person. Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being without loving that person. Love enables people to see the essential traits and features of the beloved person as well as that person’s potential. Love fosters actualization and enables potentialities to become realities. The third way involves bearing witness to the uniquely human potential at its best by transforming a personal tragedy into a triumph and turning one’s predicament into a human achievement.

One procedure that Frankl advocated to accomplish his goals in logotherapy was to make use of the specifically human capacity for self-detachment. This basic capacity to detach, called paradoxical intention, enables patients to put themselves at a distance from their neuroses. The use of this technique is demonstrated in Frankl’s treatment of a bookkeeper. This man had previously been treated extensively but unsuccessfully for writer’s cramp, which had become so severe that he was in danger of losing his job. The logotherapist recommended that instead of trying to write neatly and legibly, he should write with the worst possible scrawl. Paradoxically, he was unable to do so, because as soon as he tried to write in this way, his writer’s cramp disappeared.

Unlike many European existentialists, Frankl was neither pessimistic nor antireligious. On the contrary, he took a surprisingly hopeful view of people’s capacity to transcend their predicament and discover an adequate guiding truth. His widely critically acclaimed book, Man’s Search for Meaning, helped broaden postwar thinking and exploration in psychology. It introduced logotherapy as a new existential approach to psychotherapy and focused on the spiritual dimension of the human psyche, previously ignored by most psychotherapists. It challenged people to face their problems and find meaning in their individual lives. Discovering meaning is what gave concentration camp inmates the will and strength to endure and is what Frankl recommends for all people.


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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.