On Victor Frankl, and logotherapy

We who have come back, by the aid of many lucky chances or miracles – whatever one may choose to call them – we know: the best of us did not return.

I have just finished reading Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor E. Frankl. The book is written in two parts. The first part is an account of Victor Frankl’s experiences in several concentration camps, during WWII. The second is an account of Frankl’s system of therapy, called logotherapy, a humanistic variety of psychotherapy centered around the importance of finding meaning in your life. As Frankl says, in the first part, quoting Nietzsche,

He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.

What ties the two parts together is the fact that, in relating his concentration camp experiences, Frankl focuses, beyond the bare fact of the abuses to which he and other Jews were subjected in the camps (those few who did somehow survive), on the psychology of being a concentration camp prisoner, both for worse (the decline, from constant hunger and weakness as much as anything, into numbness and apathy) and for better (where did prisoners find the resilience to keep going in the face of that horror). These sources of resilience include relishing brief moments of respite (a stolen potato or the chance to remove lice) or beauty (a sunset or a song), the memory of particular lines of literature and philosophy that speak to Frankl (Nietzsche, Lessing, Dostoevsky), hanging onto memories of the past (for Frankl, especially, the image of his wife, who would eventually prove to have died in another camp), humor, and seeking sources of meaning (for Frankl, an attempt to reconstruct, on scraps in shorthand, a manuscript that had been taken from him at Auschwitz, and a fantasy of a future Frankl, having survived, giving a lecture on the psychology of prisoners in concentration camps). That and a sheet of paper with the Shema Yisrael, received in the coat pocket of one who had already died, in place of the manuscript that had been taken from Frankl. When Frankl titles a postscript after his second part “The Case for a Tragic Optimism,” the fact that he has surely earned the “tragic” part of that case makes me trust the “optimism” part more.

Logotherapy, the school of psychotherapy that Frankl founded, and which he describes in the second part of his book, is a third school of Viennese psychotherapy, after Freud’s psychoanalysis and Adler’s individual therapy. In contrast to Freud’s will to pleasure, or Adler’s will to power, Frankl centers his psychotherapy on a will to meaning.

There are some ways in which this second section is dated. Frankl wrote the first edition of his book in 1959, at a time when only a couple of effective psychiatric medications were on the market. As a result, he speaks of treating suicidal patients mainly by seeking to help them find meaning in continuing to live; now any psychotherapy of such severe depression tends to be accompanied by medications to try to place a floor under your moodswings. At the same time, we do still have psychotherapy in addition to drugs, and I can see the ways in which modern psychotherapy draws on ideas like Frankl’s. It’s the humanistic school (Rogers, Maslow), of course, that owes the most to him. But Frankl’s present and future focus (replacing lengthy investigation of past traumas) has something in common with cognitive behavioral therapy, and his emphasis on seeking the positive and finding grounds for optimism (however tragic) has something in common with Seligman’s positive psychology. I could see his existentialism fitting well with mindfulness.

The techniques Frankl describes are a mix of philosophical observation (“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!”), psychodrama (“No, you are not thirty but instead eighty and lying on your deathbed. And now you are looking back on your life …”), and techniques for particular symptoms (he recommends “paradoxical intention,” an approach where “the phobic patient is invited to intend, even if only for a moment, precisely that which he fears,” as a remedy for certain anxieties).

As I both believe in the value of hope and meaning, and trust hope more when it fully faces up to tragedy, I found Frankl’s thoughts well worth reading.


Married for half my life to someone who lives with bipolar disorder. I live in California and work with computers.