Thoughts on Logotherapy

Thoughts on Logotherapy

Viktor Frankl is known both for surviving the horrors of the concentration camps of World War II and for developing a psychotherapeutic framework he dubbed logotherapy. Often referred to as the Third Viennese School, this framework departs from previous approaches to psychoanalysis by appealing to the centrality of the search for meaning in human life. In contrast to the Freudian[1] claim that people are primarily motivated by the will to pleasure and Adlerian[2] claim that they are primarily motivated by the will to power, Frankl maintains that the “striving to find meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man”[3] and that this “will to meaning” is essential to human nature.  Unlike other creatures content with mere survival, humans are compelled to find some kind of λογος (reason or meaning) for their lives. And when this will to meaning is thwarted, it gives rise to a host of psychological problems.[4]

            Logotherapy is thus more in line with the humanistic tradition than its predecessors were. For, instead of reducing our desire to find a meaning in life to a “secondary rationalization of instinctual drives” via “reaction formation and sublimations”, logotherapy holds this desire to be fundamental to who we are as humans.[5] Frankl even describes his theory as an attempted rehumanization of psychiatry[6] and as a daring attempt “to enter the specifically human dimension.”[7] Indeed, he even goes on to criticize the reductionist program as rooted in an underlying baseness of character: “the only thing that the ‘unmasking psychologist’ really unmasks is his own ‘hidden motive’—namely, his unconscious need to debase and depreciate what is genuine, what is genuinely human, in man.”[8] Frankl believes that by recognizing the genuinely human dimension of psychological suffering, the logotherapist can provide better care for his or her clients. For example, Frankl describes one diplomat who had struggled for years in psychoanalysis and learned to view his dissatisfaction with his job as a manifestation of his Oedipal conflict with his father. After a few sessions with Frankl, the man realized that his real problem was the obvious one: he simply no longer found meaning in his work. After coming to this insight, he went on to a different career and a more satisfying life.[9]

            According to Frankl, a life’s meaning is uncovered in one of three ways: “(1) by creating a work or doing a deed, (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone, and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.”[10] Frankl believes that the first way is straightforward—people find meaning in their lives by making things or accomplishing goals. For example, Alexander the Great may have found meaning by conquering the known world and Marcel Proust may have found meaning by writing In Search of Lost Time. The second way is similarly straightforward for Frankl. We can find meaning through our encounters with people, the wider world, or even ideas. One might, for instance, define his life through the people that he loves or through his encounters with Goodness, Truth, and Beauty. In contrast, it is the third way, the way of suffering, that Frankl finds hardest to explain. In the way of suffering one is rendered incapable of achievement and cut off from life giving encounters with others and the world. Instead, all one can do is choose to hold up bravely under torment. Frankl explains:

“We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed. For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement. 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.”[11]

In short, man finds meaning in suffering not by changing his circumstances but by changing his attitude.

            Frankl contends that by encouraging the search for meaning, especially meaning in suffering, logotherapy can not only help individuals but can also cure the collective neuroses of our age. He claims that our era is characterized by what he calls an “existential vacuum” in which people no longer are aware of a sense of meaning in their lives. According to Frankl, this vacuum (i) was created by the loss of traditional structures through which people once made sense of their lives[12] and (ii) now reveals itself in a boredom metastasizing into depression, addiction, and violence.[13] By treating the underlying disease of meaninglessness, one can thereby also alleviate these other secondary symptoms. Additionally, Frankl contends that logotherapy’s acceptance of suffering can help to alleviate the superfluous suffering generated by the American injunction to happiness.[14] He even argues that, if carried to its logical extreme, the command to be happy—where happiness is defined as equivalent to usefulness within a capitalist economy—would logically result in a demand for mass extermination.

“This usefulness is usually defined in terms of functioning for the benefit of society. But today’s society is characterized by achievement orientation, and consequently it adores people who are successful and happy and, in particular, it adores the young. It virtually ignores the value of all those who are otherwise, and in so doing blurs the decisive difference between being valuable in the sense of dignity and being valuable in the sense of usefulness. If one is not cognizant of this difference and holds that an individual’s value stems only from his present usefulness, then, believe me, one owes it to personal inconsistency not to plead for euthanasia along the lines of Hitler’s program, that is to say, ‘mercy’ killing of all those who have lost their social usefulness, be it because of old age, incurable illness, mental deterioration, or whatever handicap they may suffer.”[15]

Frankl claims that to avoid the latter injunction to euthanasia, we must reject the former injunction to happiness and adopt logotherapy’s call to find meaning in suffering.

            Within Frankl’s framework, a psychotherapist’s primary task is to help his or her clients find meaning in their lives. Though Frankl is not always clear as to what exactly this kind of therapy is supposed to look like, there appear to be four key principles that a logotherapist must adhere to. First, a logotherapist must be concerned with helping clients uncover the concrete, rather than abstract, meanings of their lives. Frankl doesn’t believe that the question of the meaning of life can be answered in general terms.[16] “For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.”[17] He compares asking for a general answer to the question of the meaning of life to asking what the best chess move is. The question is meaningless apart from a particular context and opponent.[18] “The same holds for human existence. One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.”[19]

The second principle of logotherapy is similar. The therapist should not be concerned with helping his clients understand the meanings of their lives considered in their entirety, but only with particular episodes therein. He explains as follows:

“I would like to clarify that, in the first place, the logotherapist is concerned with the potential meaning inherent and dormant in all the single situations one has to face throughout his or her life. Therefore, I will not be elaborating here on the meaning of one’s life as a whole, although I do not deny that such a long-range meaning does exist. To invoke an analogy, consider a movie: it consists of thousands upon thousands of individual pictures, and each of them makes sense and carries a meaning, yet the meaning of the whole film cannot be seen before its last sequence is shown. However, we cannot understand the whole film without having first understood each of its components, each of the individual pictures. Isn’t it the same with life? Doesn’t the final meaning of life, too, reveal itself, if at all, only at its end, on the verge of death? And doesn’t this final meaning, too, depend on whether or not the potential meaning of each single situation has been actualized to the best of the respective individual’s knowledge and belief?”[20]

While Frankl does not deny that there might be a meaning to the total life of an individual, he thinks that a therapist cannot address it  since it would emerge only after that individual’s life ends. Moreover, whatever the total meaning of a life may be, Frankl believes that it supervenes on the particular meanings assigned to the episodes within it.

            The third principle of logotherapy is that the therapist should not make value judgments. Frankl claims that doing so would rob the client of the responsibility of making sense of his or her own life.[21] “It is… up to the patient to decide whether he should interpret his life task as being responsible to society or to his own conscience.”[22] Frankl imagines the therapist to be more of an ophthalmologist than a painter. For while the painter paints his own viewpoint, the ophthamlogist tries to make sure that the eyes of his patients are healthy. In the same manner, “the logotherapist’s role consists of widening and broadening the visual field of the patient so that the whole spectrum of potential meaning becomes conscious and visible to him.”[23]

            Finally, the fourth principle of logotherapy is that the therapist must confront his or her clients with their responsibility to Life. For Frankl, human dignity is ultimately rooted in freedom, and freedom entails responsibility. Unlike previous psychoanalysts who took a deterministic view of human behavior, Frankl affirms that freedom is absolutely fundamental to human nature. “Man is not fully conditioned and determined but rather determines himself whether he gives in to conditions or stands up to them. In other words, man is ultimately self-determining. Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment.”[24] Even in the worst of conditions it us up to us whether we will behave like swine or saints.[25] Frankl believes that this core of freedom remains even in the most criminal and mentally disturbed, and that this freedom brings with it the responsibility to change for the better.[26] Frankl thus contends that the central question of logotherapy isn’t really about the meaning of life, but rather about who Life demands us to be. “In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible. Thus, logotherapy sees in responsibleness the very essence of human existence.”[27] He even goes on to formulate a categorical imperative for logotherapy: “Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now.”[28]

            There is much to admire about Frankl’s logotherapeutic approach. Its concern for human meaning and values makes it stand out in a field that is today all too often controlled by the interests of the pharmaceutical and insurance industries. Nonetheless, I found myself with a few lingering questions about Frankl’s approach.

  1. Is the therapeutic question of meaning of life really fundamentally concrete as the first principle of logotherapy suggests? It is not obviously necessary to take this approach. Past philosophers and religious traditions have attempted to account for the meaning of a particular life by appealing to a general account of the meaning of the universe. Boethius’s The Consolations of Philosophy is a noteworthy example of such an approach. In this work, Boethius recounts how he found solace during his unjust imprisonment by contemplating the abstract order of reality. Not only is it not clear that Frankl’s concrete approach is necessary, one might worry that it isn’t even possible. While Frankl attempts to motivate his approach by drawing an analogy to the game of chess, this analogy is not only dubious (against whom is one playing the game of life?) but it is also unclear whether it supports his position at all. For even the game of chess has an abstract set of rules which one must grasp in order to play it.
  2. Can Frankl’s third way of meaning making, the way of suffering, occur apart from the second, the way of experience? It is not clear that the choice to suffer well makes sense apart from one’s experience of other people or values in the world. While it is true that sometimes external circumstances are so out of control that one must ultimately take refuge in internal resources—it still seems as if those internal resources are understood in terms of the experience of some value or person (e.g. being pleasing to God, being pure of heart, being a beautiful soul etc.). This problem even suggests itself in Frankl’s formulation when he claims that the fundamental question of existence doesn’t concern the meaning of life but instead what Life demands of us. By personalizing Life in this way, it plays the role of another individual or of God and thus seems to be include the second way of meaning making.[29] This brings to mind the Hegelian worry about the ultimate vacuity of Stoicism. “Die Freiheit im Gedanken hat nur den reinen Gedanken zu ihrer Wahrheit, die ohne die Erfüllung des Lebens ist, und ist also auch nur der Begriff der Freiheit, nicht die lebendige Freiheit selbst.” [“Freedom in thought has only pure thought as its truth, a truth lacking the fullness of life. Hence freedom in thought, too, is only the notion of freedom, not the living reality of freedom itself”].[30] If we, “living in a time of universal fear and bondage”[31] constrain our idea of freedom to the control of only internal thoughts and attitudes, then it appears that we lose all substantial content regarding what that freedom might consist in. “Auf die Frage an ihn, was gut und wahr ist, hat er wieder das inhaltlose Denken selbst zur Antwort gegeben: in der Vernünftigkeit soll das Wahre und Gute bestehen. Aber diese Sichselbstgleichheit des Denkens ist nur wieder die reine Form, in welcher sich nichts bestimmt; die allgemeinen Wrte von dem Wahren und Guten, der Weisheit under der Tugend, bei welchen er stehenbleiben muss, sind daher wohl im allgemeinen erhebend, aber weil sie in der Tat zu keiner Ausbreitung des Inhalts kommen können, fangen sie bald an, Langeweile zu machen. [“To the question, What is good and true, it again gave for answer the contentless thought: The True and the Good shall consist in reasonableness. But this self-identity of thought is again only the pure form in which nothing is determined. The True and the Good, wisdom and virtue, the general terms beyond which Stoicism cannot get, are therefore in a general way no doubt uplifting, but since they cannot in fact produce any expansion of the content, they soon become tedious.”][32]
  3. Can the future orientation of logotherapy stand up under scrutiny? On the one hand, some would argue that there are many cases in which one’s future cannot be adequately dealt with prior to coming to terms with one’s past. For example, the Freudian might claim that the options one considers for the future are determined by subconscious structures that have been shaped by one’s childhood. Or again, somatically oriented therapists might argue that trauma must be processed by the body before one can attain the mental clarity to rationally consider the future.[33] There are thus worries that the future orientation of logotherapy can occur only after significant work has been done to process one’s past. On the other hand, I also wonder about the coherence of Frankl’s position. For he claims that logotherapy must be future oriented, but also argues that the meaning of one’s life considered as a whole cannot be discerned until death. Here we come into the realm of what Heidegger calls the impossible possibility of death. For the meaning of one’s whole life as to emerge it must be over, but once it is over there is no longer a concrete subject for whom that life has meaning. This claim about the future oriented fulfillment of meanings also seems to conflict with what Frankl says about accumulating a set of actual accomplishments as one ages, since the meaning of those accomplishments would always be open to revision, and hence would not be fully actualized until one’s life was over.

Peter Yong, Ph.D.


[1] i.e. the First Viennese School.

[2] i.e. the Second Viennese School.

[3] Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy 4th ed, trans. Lasch. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 104.

[4] He labels the thwarting the will to meaning “existential frustration” and the resulting pathologies “noogenic neuroses” (with the word noogenic derived from the Greek work νους / mind). Ibid., 106.

[5] Ibid., 106.

[6] Ibid., 134.

[7] Ibid., 108.

[8] Ibid., 106.

[9] Ibid., 108.

[10] Ibid., 116.

[11] Ibid., 116.

[12] Ibid., 111.

[13] Ibid., 112.

[14] “To the European, it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy’.” Ibid., 140

[15] Ibid., 151.

[16] Ibid., 113.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., 145.

[21] Ibid., 114.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., 115.

[24] Ibid., 133.

[25] Ibid., 134.

[26] Ibid., 134.

[27] Ibid., 113-114.

[28] Ibid., 114.

[29] Indeed, this divine perspective is explicitly introduced when Frankl talks of super meaning. “The question was whether an ape which was being used to develop poliomyelitis serum, and for this reason punctured again and again, would ever be able to grasp the meaning of its suffering. Unanimously, the group replied that of course it would not; with its limited intelligence, it could not enter into the world of man, i.e., the only world in which the meaning of its suffering would be understandable. Then I pushed forward with the following question: ‘and what about man? Are you sure that the human world is the terminal point in the evolution of the cosmos? Is it not conceivable that there is still another dimension, a world beyond man’s world; a world in which the question of an ultimate meaning of human suffering would find an answer?” 122.

[30] Hegel, Phänomenologie des Geistes (Frakfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1986), 158. Miller trans. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977) ¶ 200.

[31] PhG Miller trans. ¶ 199.

[32] PhG, 158-159. Miller trans. ¶ 200.

[33] See, for example, Peter Levine’s In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness.

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