Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) was an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, psychotherapist, and Holocaust survivor. He was the founder of logotherapy, a form of existential analysis. The basis of his theory was that the primary motivation of an individual is the search for meaning in life and that the primary purpose of psychotherapy should be to help the individual find that meaning.
While in his teens, Frankl began a correspondence with Freud, who sought permission to publish one of his papers. After graduating from the University of Vienna Medical School in 1930, Frankl joined the staff of the Am Steinhof psychiatric hospital in Vienna. He became chief of neurology at Vienna’s Rothschild Hospital in 1938. Yet, anti-semitism was gaining force, and in 1942 Frankl and his family were sent to the concentration camps, where his mother, father, and wife were killed (Encyclopædia Britannica).
In the camps, Frankl and fellow prisoners made an effort to alleviate the despondency they observed in other inmates. In an effort to prevent suicide attempts, Frankl and others encouraged other inmates facing severe depression to reflect on positive memories, scenes, and thoughts.
Frankl used his experiences in the camps to develop his theory of logotherapy, sometimes referred to as the ‘Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy’, because Frankl came after Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler. As he observed the brutality and degradation around him, Frankl theorised that those inmates who had some meaning in their lives were more likely to survive. He believed that even in the midst of dehumanising and atrocious conditions, life still had meaning and that suffering had a purpose. He thought that during extreme physical circumstances, a person could escape through his or her spiritual self as a means to survive seemingly unbearable conditions. He believed the spiritual self could not be affected by external forces (GoodTherapy.org).
After the liberation, Frankl returned to Vienna, where he was appointed head of the neurological department at the Polyclinic Hospital. He also produced the classic book Man’s Search for Meaning (1946), which he dictated to a team of assistants in nine days, and which went on to sell over ten million copies in 26 languages. Frankl also taught at the University of Vienna until 1990 and held chairs at a number of American universities. He spent much of his later career studying existential methods of therapy. A few months before his death, he published Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning and Recollections: An Autobiography (Encyclopædia Britannica).
To purchase Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning, click here. To listen to an interview with Frankl, as well as a lecture of his, click here.