Viktor Frankl (Michael Mendez & Isaidy Pinto)

Viktor Emil Frankl was born on March 26, 1905 in Vienna, Austria. He was born to a Jewish family of civil servants. At a very young age he showed interest in the medical field and even discussed his goal of becoming a doctor with family. Little did he know, The great impact he would have on the field of psychology and the influence he would have on the lives of many. While attending University of Vienna, he practiced as a brain surgeon, and throughout his coursework he learned about his passion for psychiatry and philosophy.

During his schooling he studied the works of Freud and Adler. During one occasion he even met Freud and discussed information about his theories. While studying their theories; He worked on a theory of his own; Logotherapy. At first, the reaction to his theory was not well received. Soon after, he received recognition from APA, which led to the receipt of dozens of honors and awards. According to the APA his work was “The most significant thinking since Freud and Adler.”

September 25, 1942 he, his wife and parents were taken to the Nazi Theresienstadt ghetto. He there organized a unit to help newcomers overcome the shock and adapt to conditions. He later started a suicide prevention unit. On October 1944, he & his wife were transported to Auschwitz concentration camp; where he was processed and the moved to Kaufeng. There he worked as a slave laborer for five months and was then transferred to Turkheim. At Turkheim he was given the opportunity to work as a doctor until April 27, 1945 when Americans liberated him. To his dismay, upon release he found out his wife parents, and family were all killed.  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.

It was due to his experience at the concentration camps that he was influenced to write one of his most famous books: Man’s search for meaning. The book is divided into two parts: the first part outlines his experiences in concentration camps, and the second part focuses on his development of logocentrism, a cognitive theory that focuses on a sense of purpose in life as a driving force.  Two emerging themes are visited in the concentration camp section.  One of these themes deals with a psychological numbing that takes place, as Frankl loses his manuscript, his clothes, and his wife.  Later in the text he likens it to an “existential vacuum” that is experienced by those who drift through life.  The second one is a sense of fate, presented in the form of the “death in Tehran” story.  Other psychological phenomena, such as the “delusion of reprieve,” are experienced and examined. 

            The first time that Frankl experienced “letting things take their course” was during selection.  He was told in what direction the sick would be directed, and in which direction those fit to work would be directed.  Perhaps here the metaphysical tone was set for feeling that fate would make the best decision for Frankl.  I recall reading in Freud’s work that he was superstitious about numbers, and hated this quality in him.  It is unclear whether Frankl felt that fate was a presence that could be “jinxed” by second-guessing, if he felt that God had a plan for him, or if he was so numbed by what was happening to him that he resigned himself to whatever lay ahead.   When working in the typhus ward, Frankl refuses a transport by the red cross-later they all find out those who accepted were killed and burned to death in huts. 

            After being selected, the men experience a stripping of identity and series of insults to their humanity designed to disorient them and acclimate them to being considered “less than.”  They are shorn of all their hair all over their bodies, as well as having their belongings confiscated.  Nicer SS guards try and convince them to give their things to them, and many do in hopes of receiving favors later.  Naked and robbed, the men do not recognize each other.  SS guards whip them for infractions.  Out of the forming detachment emerged curiosity and gallows humor.  One example of such humor was when Frankl smiled when he was told that he would be selected next for the gas.  Here, Frankl quotes Lessing, saying that absurdity is a normal response to absurdity. 

            Dr.Frankl was assigned number 119,104, and his job was to lay railroad tracks, until he was able to work in the medical tent with those afflicted with cholera right before the camp was liberated.  The other exception to these jobs was when Frankl had to dig a tunnel, for which he received coupons with which he could by cigarettes.  Working under conditions of freezing cold and near-starvation, Frankl discusses how he and others began to deteriorate.  For example, their shoes did not fit, and they developed frostbite and chilblains.  In the bunks, Frankl comments that he constantly surprised at the endurance of the human body.  His gums were healthy, he subsisted on little sleep, and cuts and wounds did not become infected. 

            Still, suffering is attenuated (as it is anywhere) by comparatively viewing how worse others have it.   Those working in the factories were luckier than those who worked clearing debris for a roadway.  A foreman could merely be a passive observer, rather than a sadist who liked to beat people.  Sadists, Frankl comments at the end of part one, would not even let you warm yourself by the fire.  Frankl encounters a fellow prisoner on a train, and begs them to allow him to look out the window at his hometown, but he is rebuffed and told that he has seen quite enough of it already. 

            From this account as well as other Holocaust literature, it is clear that everyone is starving to death.  Frankl describes two separate mindsets on consuming one’s bread: either delaying the gratification of eating it, or eating it right away in order to avoid theft or loss.  Frankl is in the first camp, because he uses the bread to soften the blow of unforeseen hardship.  Rations consisted of watery soup and the piece of bread, and “extra allowance” given daily, which may consist of jam, margarine, or synthetic honey. 

            Frankl also frequently mentions humanizing moments in the camp, as well as seeking affirmations of humanity through compassion, art, and aesthetics.   All of the workers come outside of their huts to admire a sunset, and one comments on how beautiful life could be.  Art took the form of music playing and a cabaret, although Frankl describes such art making as “grotesque.”  Someone dying under Frankl’s care takes comfort in a bough in blossom that she could view from her window, claiming that it said over and over to her, “I am alive.”   During a low point when everyone was fasting rather than giving up a guilty man, Frankl found himself in the position of mentor and comforter, encouraging everyone to keep their spirits up so that they could see their loved ones again.  Every day, Frankl comments, a prisoner must make the choice to retain his or her humanity. 

            This section of the book concludes with Frankl being asked and accepting a volunteer position working with typhus patients.  Although he is warned not to accept, he does so anyway, and this ultimately saves his life.  There is a small stove to stoke to keep him warm.  There is a shortage of medicine, and Frankl must ration a handful of aspirin to over fifty patients.   In this last horrible detail, he again sees how cheap life has become in the camp.  Bodies crawl with lice outside his window, and cartfuls of the sick are taken, dead or alive, to the next camp.  Frankl must also go through the absurdities of keeping the camp “clean” by making sure that stray bits of straw were up off the floor. 

            After being liberated, Frankl speaks about having to re-acclimate to freedom.  He encounters others who feel the same way, although they too feel guilty about admitting it.  The reasons could be survivor’s guilt, or perhaps returning from psychological numbing is a process that takes a long time.  At this point, Frankl may doubt what he is experiencing is real. 

            Dr. Frankl speaks of the “existential vacuum,” which is a state brought about by not having enough to occupy one’s time.  Those suffering from this state of ennui are more prone to suicide and feelings of boredom.  Frankl’s survey of both American and European students found that 60 and 25% of students, respectively, suffer from this state.  Surely the Presbyterian ethic of America could be responsible for feelings of aimless drifting if not engaged in productivity.  He also points to “Sunday neurosis” as evidence for tying these feelings to depression and even suicide, Sunday being the day when people are most removed from their purpose of work.  People who attempt to fill these inner voids with a will towards power, money, or sexual encounters all wind up in vicious cycles, never feeling sated (112). 

            Dr. Frankl seems to have his own neurosis in play, however.  Rather than encourage introspection and a sense of inner peace, such as someone operating out of an Eastern tradition might, he feels that the options are to find a “purpose,” or to have other people give you your purpose (either by conforming or obeying in the form of totalitarianism).   He also feels that conflict is not a bad thing in itself, and serves to combat these feelings of ennui.  (Perhaps this is the precursor for eustress.)  As such, Frankl says, the biological state of homeostasis should be avoided, and individuals should actively struggle for their goal or purpose. 

            Dr. Frankl’s sense of purpose is what he credits as getting him through the concentration camps.  He notes anecdotally that those with a purpose were more likely to survive than those who did not, or those who had their purpose thwarted lost their will to live and succumbed to infection.  His analytical framework is sometimes similar to Freud’s, in that he borrows the term neurotic.  Frankl states that “man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a ‘secondary rationalization’ of instinctual drives” (106).   He also illustrates this point with a diplomat whom he helps to realize that life can be better lived if one makes adjustments to be happy in the present, rather than engaging in past insults using psychoanalysis.  Frankl also stresses that meaning is subjective and personal, and can differ from person to person. 

            Similarly, it is not the purview of the therapist to impose a vision on the patient.  A logo therapist should instead encourage the patient to realize what he or she wants to accomplish instead, acting more like a ophthalmologist rather than a painter.   The patient should also be encouraged to view tomorrow as a fresh start.  However, Frankl then proceeds to proffer suggestions on how someone may best realize their life purpose.  They may do so through love, or more specifically through a heterocentric, romantic love with sexuality as supportive device.  (I make that first comment because Frankl commented there was no “perversion” in the camp because everyone was too tired or sick.)  Secondly, they can also realize a purpose through suffering, although they should not seek suffering out.  In part one, Frankl’s comments on page 49 that man’s salvation is through love and in love (of another person).  These reasons are described as “super reasons.” 

            Dr. Frankl seems to move the chess pieces around quite a bit, tailoring his purpose advice to those who seek him out.  To a women who had lost her child, he gets her to contemplate a scene where she is on her deathbed, dying in wealth but without any children.  Through this thought exercise, she realizes that she is indeed blessed.  For a man who is childless because his children died in the camps, he says not to worry; he will see them in heaven.  The man laments that they are innocent and he is full of sin, but luckily Frankl knows the mind of the deity, and says that the suffering the camp imposed has allowed him to wash himself of sin. 

            The Candied attitude continues with Frankl’s perspectives on time.  The logo centrist is encouraged not to see the waning calendar pages as discouraging, but rather as a diary of sorts by which someone can view their accomplishments.  Past sufferings are to be viewed as triumphs of the will.  This view of time can also help neurotic patients to avoid fear, and rather focus on the event itself.  Frankl’s case recollections for putting this theory into practice concern a young woman who was sexually abused.  Rather than recalling that event, Frankl gets her to re-orient herself onto her current partner, and orgasm occurred “spontaneously.”  Here Frankl introduces “paradoxical intention,” which tricks the person into losing their anxiety by having them try and manifest their symptoms with heartfelt gusto.  In the ending chapter, Frankl speaks of overcoming the “tragic triad” of pain, guilt, and death.  Even these things can be turned into an opportunity to overcome, to change for the better, and to use the transitory nature of life to rise to the occasion. 

From this point though, Frankl moves back to an overreaching critique of the nihilism of his age as well as functionalism.  Euthanasia would indeed be justified if the mind were merely a machine, but Frankl strenuously disagrees (we can certainly understand his viewpoint when we consider what he has endured, which would make considering the mind a bag of meat particularly discouraging).  He speaks of a “mass murderer” who sent psychotics to the gas chamber, but who became a dignified and compassionate person in the end.  Mankind has its agency, and can always choose to have dominion over its choices.  However, Frankl goes on to say that one must have a reason to smile, a reason to abstain from drugs. 

            Dr.Frankl’s book concludes with overcoming the “tragic triad” through optimism and grace in the face of suffering.  Depression and even suicide, he warns, can evolve out of feelings of shame and guilt, as well as ennui.  A few more case studies are explored, such as that of a young man who is paralyzed from the neck down, but who actively attends classes and uses a stick to type.  Older people, Frankl explains, are to be envied by the younger, since they have had a wealth of life’s experiences.  

             It is not so much man’s will for purpose as a longing for an abstract ideal that propels him or her forward, or so it seems.   Consider how many people spend their entire working lives longing for retirement.  While they are in retirement they reminisce and long for when their bodies were healthy.  Most people have a desire to get to a paradise as part of their religious beliefs.  So, it would seem that in a concentration camp, perhaps a tangible purpose does indeed encourage someone to give it one more day, but for the majority of people in non-life or death circumstances, it seems more likely that abstract ideals drive them to get out of bed each day.  As Zizek points out, desire can never be satisfied, and by extension we can conclude that it is a formidable drive that informs both survival and purpose (1997).  Lacan would call it lusting for an abstract ideal that could never be fulfilled.    

            Dr. Frankl  is distinct from Freud and behaviorists in that he feels that more than brain-based behavior drives one forward.  His assertion is strikingly similar to the cognitive behavioralist Edward C. Tolman, who felt that drives could not merely be reduced to observable stimuli, but rather could also be attributed to purpose (Baars, 1986). Frankl’s ideas have an appeal for mentalists who balk at the idea of reducing humankind’s drives to electrical impulses and biological constructs. 

            Having a purpose seemingly does have an impact on survival rates.  Consider breast cancer patients who have lost the will to live and suffer depression and helplessness/hopelessness.  Their attitudes lead them to a significantly lower rate of event-free survival (Tucker, 1997).  Perhaps on some somatic level they are in fact aware of the state of their cancer, and it would be better for healthcare as a whole to embrace a healthier attitude towards terminal cases.  Conversely though, despite outcome, a positive attitude and a sense of purpose would be a more ideal state for someone thusly affected.  Watson suggests cognitive behavioral therapy to improve mindset and sense of purpose.

            It was his lifelong experiences that made a impact on the Humanistic perspective of psychology, existential therapy and the now world-renowned Logotherapy.  
























Baars, B. (1986).  The Cognitive Revolution in Psychology.  Guilford Press. 


Tucker, J. B. (1999). Modification of attitudes to influence survival from breast cancer. Lancet,

     354(9187), 1320.


Zizek, S.  (1997).  The Plague of Fantasies



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2 responses to “Viktor Frankl (Michael Mendez & Isaidy Pinto)

  1. Id have to check with you here. Which is not something I usually do! I enjoy reading a post that will make people think. Also, thanks for allowing me to comment!

  2. this is a great write up! good point there.

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