Viktor Frankl Essay - Critical Essays

Frankl, Viktor


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."

Principal Works

Ein Psycholog erlebt das Konzentrationslager [From Death-Camp to Existentialism: A Psychiatrist's Path to a New Therapy; revised and enlarged edition published as Man's Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy] (nonfiction) 1946
Ärztliche Seelsorge [The Doctor and the Soul: An Introduction to Logotherapy] (nonfiction) 1947
Die Existenzanalyse und die Zeit (nonfiction) 1947
Logos und Existenz: Drei Vorträge (nonfiction) 1951
Theorie und Therapie der Neurosen: Einführung in Logotherapie und Existenzanalyse (nonfiction) 1956
Das Menschenbild der Seelenheilkunde: Drei Vorlesungen zur Kritik des dynamischen Psychologismus (nonfiction) 1959
Die Psychotherapie in der Praxis: Eine kasuistische Einführung für Ärzte (nonfiction) 1961
Der umbewusste Gott: Psychotherapie und Religion [The Unconscious God: Psychotherapy and Theology] (essay) 1966
Psychotherapy and Existentialism: Selected Papers on Logotherapy (essays and lectures) 1967
The Will to Meaning: Foundations and Applications to Logotherapy (essay) 1969
Meaninglessness: Today's Dilemma (essay) 1971
Anthropologische Grundlagen der Psychotherapie (collected works) 1975; also published as Der leidende Mensch: Anthropologische Grundlagen der Psychotherapie, 1984
The Unheard Cry for Meaning: Psychotherapy and Humanism (nonfiction) 1978
Der Mensch vor der Frage nach dem Sinn: Eine Auswahl aus dem Gesamtwerk (nonfiction) 1985
Die Sinnfrage in der Psychotherapie [with Vorwort von Franz Kreuzer] (essays) 1988
Das Leiden am sinnlosen Leben: Psychotherapie für Heute (nonfiction) 1989

∗The work includes contributions from James C. Crumbaugh, Hans O. Gerz, and Leonard T. Maholick.


Bruno Bettelheim (review date Autumn 1959)

SOURCE: "A Note on the Concentration Camps," in Chicago Review, Vol. 13, No. 3, Autumn, 1959, pp. 113-14.

[Bettelheim was an Austrian-born American psychologist, psychoanalyst, and educator whose works include A Good Enough Parent: A Book on Child Rearing (1987). In the following review of From Death-Camp to Existentialism, he examines the relationship between Frankl's concentration camp experiences and the development of logotherapy.]

This small book [From Death-Camp to Existentialism] consists of two parts, quite unequal in size. In the first 90 pages the author presents personal reactions to his experiences in German concentration camps. This is followed by barely 14 pages of sketchy comment on the particular type of existential psychoanalysis he practices, which he calls logotherapy. Both subjects—the concentration camp and existential psychoanalysis—have been dealt with much more adequately by other authors. The merit of this volume lies in the important connection he establishes between these two seemingly disconnected phenomena. Existentialism, in line with the author's profession (he is professor of neurology and psychiatry at the University of Vienna), is discussed mainly in terms of its influence on psychotherapy.

That the impact of the concentration camp can, as the author puts it, "strike out" the prisoner's "whole former life" is the experience that is crucial for understanding the connection between the camps and existential philosophy. For those who permitted themselves to respond to the experience rather than deny it, it soon transcended their own personal lives and led to the realization that the verities they had lived by up to that shock experience of "nothingness" were false gods. Whatever the person's calling had been, that is where the realization struck home most forcefully. Those active in...

(The entire section is 786 words.)

E. K. Ledermann (review date Autumn 1959)

SOURCE: A review of Das Menschenbild der Seelenheilkunde, in The International Journal of Social Psychiatry, Vol. V, No. 2, pp. 158-59.

[Ledermann, a German-born medical doctor who specializes in homeopathic medicine, is the author of Existential Neurosis (1972). In the following excerpt from a favorable review of Das Menschenbild der Seelenheilkunde, he examines Frankl's assertion that modern psychologism must recognize a spiritual dimension in human life.]

"A Criticism of Dynamic Psychologism" is the sub-title of this book [Das Menschenbild der Seelenheilkunde]. "—ism" stands for a weltanschauung. Psychology is a science and uses...

(The entire section is 293 words.)

Robert Hassenger (review date Autumn 1960)

SOURCE: A review of From Death-Camp to Existentialism, in Thought, Vol. XXXV, No. 138, Autumn, 1960, pp. 454-56.

[In the following review of From Death-Camp to Existentialism, Hassenger focuses on Frankl's assertion that logotherapy is a necessary supplement to current psychoanalysis.]

Dr. Frankl, of the Medical Faculty, University of Vienna, has penned a work which might well be required reading for anyone who would understand the metaphysical malady of our time. This brief yet gripping account of the author's three years in concentration camps [From Death-Camp to Existentialism] serves as a background against which he outlines the basic concepts...

(The entire section is 811 words.)

Harry A. Savitz (review date April 1961)

SOURCE: A review of From Death-Camp to Existentialism, in Jewish Social Studies, Vol. XXIII, No. 2, April, 1961, pp. 120-21.

[In the following positive review of From Death-Camp to Existentialism, Savitz focuses on Frankl's concentration camp experiences and discusses the psychological factors that enabled some people to survive such horrors.]

This small book [From Death-Camp to Existentialism] brings to focus many shocking scenes of human tragedy and at the same time it reveals a number of keen psychological observations worthy of serious contemplation. In these pages we hear the authentic, restrained voice of a victim of a Nazi concentration...

(The entire section is 1158 words.)

Stanley J. Rowland, Jr. (essay date 6 June 1962)

SOURCE: "Viktor Frankl and the Will to Meaning," in The Christian Century, Vol. LXXIX, No. 23, June 6, 1962, pp. 722, 724.

[Rowland is an American reporter, editor, and author of Hurt and Healing (1969). In the following essay, he examines Frankl's notion of the "will to meaning" as an essential supplementary element in modern depth psychology.]

Two elderly psychiatrists sat together at the round dining table opposite a young psychiatrist and a Methodist chaplain in his middle years. Between the two pairs sat two newsmen, Murray Ilson of the New York Times and myself. The subject was the meaning of human life, and the place of this question in...

(The entire section is 1349 words.)

Viktor E. Frankl (essay date 22 April 1964)

SOURCE: "The Will to Meaning," in The Christian Century, Vol. LXXXI, No. 17, April 22, 1964, pp. 515-17.

[In the following essay, Frankl explains the "will to meaning," focusing on self-actualization, personal responsibility, and the role of values in life.]

Central to my psychiatric approach known as logotherapy is the principle of the will to meaning. I counterpose it both to the pleasure principle, which is so pervasive in psychoanalytic motivational theories, and the will to power, the concept which plays such a decisive role in Adlerian psychology. The will to pleasure is a self-defeating principle inasmuch as the more a person really sets out to strive for...

(The entire section is 2355 words.)

A. H. Maslow (essay date Fall 1966)

SOURCE: "Comments on Dr. Frankl's Paper," in Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Vol. VI, No. 2, Fall, 1966, pp. 107-12.

[Maslow is an American psychologist, educator, and author of Dominance, Self-Esteem, Self-Actualization: Germinal Papers of A. H. Maslow (1973). In the following excerpt, he concurs with Frankl's theories on the "will to meaning," self-actualization, and the role of values and pleasure in life.]

I agree entirely with Frankl that man's primary concern (I would rather say "highest concern") is his will to meaning. But this may be ultimately not very different from phrasings by Buhler [Charlotte Buhler, Values in Psychotherapy] (1962), for...

(The entire section is 1523 words.)

Viktor Frankl with Mary Harrington Hall (interview date February 1968)

SOURCE: "A Conversation with Viktor Frankl of Vienna," in Psychology Today, Vol. 1, No. 9, February, 1968, pp. 57-63.

[In the following interview, Frankl discusses his concentration camp experiences and his views on existentialism and modern psychotherapy.]

[Hall]: You were already a psychiatrist in Vienna when Hitler marched into Austria. How did that affect you immediately?

[Frankl]: After Hitler came, I stayed in Vienna. My sister immigrated to Australia and my brother tried to get shelter in Italy. He was captured by the SS and taken with his wife to Auschwitz. I had been assigned to run the Neurological Department of the Jewish Hospital,...

(The entire section is 6104 words.)

Time (essay date 2 February 1968)

SOURCE: "Meaning in Life," in Time, Vol. 91, No. 5, February 2, 1968, pp. 38, 40.

[In the following essay, the critic discusses logotherapy, emphasizing Frankl's existential approach to psychoanalysis.]

Vienna has a habit of giving birth to schools of psychiatry and then putting them up for adoption in other countries. An exception is the latest Viennese system of mind healing called logotherapy, which has won quick acceptance in its native land and is gaining adherents in the U.S. and behind the Iron Curtain.

Dr. Viktor E. Frankl, 62, founder of logotherapy, is a lecturer at the University of Vienna, as was Freud. But Frankl has dismissed Freud's...

(The entire section is 1000 words.)

The Times Literary Supplement (review date 3 July 1969)

SOURCE: "Logotherapeutical Sermon," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 3514, July 3, 1969, p. 723.

[In the following unfavorable review of The Doctor and the Soul, the critic faults Frankl's notion of existentialism and charges that he neglects the contributions of Sigmund Freud and other psychoanalysts in the development of his logotherapeutic approach.]

The Doctor and the Soul purports to provide an account of a new kind of psychotherapy which is "to transcend the limits of all previous psychotherapy". It is Dr. Frankl's belief that psychotherapy has, to date, paid too little attention to "the spiritual reality of man". This defect he proposes to...

(The entire section is 636 words.)

Anatole Broyard (review date 26 November 1975)

SOURCE: "From Shrink to Stretch," in The New York Times, November 26, 1975, p. 27.

[Broyard was an American critic, essayist, memoirist, stort story writer, and educator whose works include Aroused by Books (1974) and Kafka Was the Rage (1993). In the following mixed review of The Unconscious God, he focuses on Frankl's call for the "rehumanization" of psychotherapy.]

While our behavior goes from bad to worse, our psychological image keeps getting better. At the turn of the century, when Western man was still a relatively orderly creature, Freud saw him as a hotbed of lust and aggression. Now, Viktor Frankl suggests that man's primary motive is the...

(The entire section is 914 words.)

David Cohen (essay date July 1977)

SOURCE: "The Frankl Meaning," in Human Behavior: The News Magazine of the Social Sciences, Vol. 6, No. 7, July, 1977, pp. 56, 58-62.

[Cohen is an American journalist, freelance writer, filmmaker, and founder of Psychology News. In the following essay, he discusses Frankl's attempt to connect his understanding of the spiritual dimension of humanity with psychotherapy and, in particular, the logotherapeutic approach.]

The titles of Viktor Frankl's books—Man's Search for Meaning, The Doctor and the Soul, The Will to Meaning—made me expect a gloomy man who could be the hero of one of Bergman's bleaker films. Frankl lives in the heart of Vienna's medical...

(The entire section is 5423 words.)

Robert L. Moore (review date March 1979)

SOURCE: A review of The Unconscious God, in Zygon, Vol. 14, No. 1, March, 1979, pp. 94-5.

[Moore is an American television producer, author of The Green Berets (1965), and several screenplays, including The French Connection (1971). In the following review of The Unconscious God, he praises the book's systematic organization but questions Frankl's presentation of the notions of religiosity and spirituality in an existential context.]

This little monograph [The Unconscious God: Psychotherapy and Theology] is a reissue in English of a book first published by Viktor E. Frankl in 1947. Frankl is of course the Viennese psychiatrist who...

(The entire section is 912 words.)

George Kovacs (essay date Fall 1982)

SOURCE: "The Philosophy of Death in Viktor E. Frankl," in Journal of Phenomenological Psychology, Vol. 13, No. 2, Fall, 1982, pp. 197-209.

[In the following essay, Kovacs examines Frankl's notion that death is a natural and integral part of living and that it contributes an understanding of the existential meaning of life.]

Human attitudes towards the insurmountable factuality of personal death are not simply a syndrome of behavioral mechanisms for coping with a situation of stress, but, more significantly, they express philosophical and ideological understandings of the nature of death from the perspective of human living. Existential phenomenology examines the...

(The entire section is 5537 words.)

Dan P. McAdams (review date February 1994)

SOURCE: "The Best of Us Did Not Return," in Contemporary Psychology, Vol. 39, No. 2, February, 1994, pp. 130-31.

[McAdams is an American psychologist, educator, and author of The Stories We Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self (1993). In the following review of Man's Search for Meaning, originally titled From Death-Camp to Existentialism, he focuses on the meaning Frankl's concentration camp experiences may have for a new generation of readers.]

In 1945, shortly after his release from a Nazi concentration camp, Viktor E. Frankl spent nine intensive days writing Ein Psycholog Erlebt das Konzentrationslager, a psychological...

(The entire section is 1918 words.)

Further Reading


Garfield, Charles A. "A Psychometric and Clinical Investigation of Frankl's Concept of Existential Vacuum and of Anomia." Psychiatry 36 (November 1973): 391-408.

Investigative study exploring "the identification and characteristics of the personal psychological state known as existential vacuum" and "the identification of the personal psychological state known as anomia."

Leslie, Robert C. Jesus and Logotherapy: The Ministry of Jesus as Interpreted through the Psychotherapy of Viktor Frankl. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1965, 143 p.

Argues that...

(The entire section is 128 words.)