Viktor Frankl was a neurologist, psychiatrist, existential philosopher, and Holocaust survivor, who devoted his life to studying, understanding, and promoting “meaning.” His famous book, 'Man’s Search for Meaning', tells the story of how he survived the Holocaust by finding personal meaning in the experience, despite the circumstances. His fundamental belief is that no matter what challenges you face in life, you always have the ultimate freedom to choose your attitude and your response to what is happening to you. His many ideas about the human quest for meaning have influenced millions of people around the world.
Viktor Emil Frankl (1905 – 1997) was born in Vienna, Austria. In his high school years Frankl attended public lectures on Applied Psychology, and this is where his fascination with philosophy, psychology, and meaning developed. At the age of 15, Frankl offered his first public lecture, On the Meaning of Life. His sensibility for social inequality lead him to become a functionary of the Young Socialist Workers. He started a correspondence with Sigmund Freud as a teenager and sent him a manuscript which was later published in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis.
In 1924, Frankl studied medicine at the University of Vienna Medical School and later specialised in neurology.
He strived to explore the frontier between psychotherapy and philosophy, focusing on the fundamental question of meaning and values – a topic that was to become the central subject of his life work.
During the course of his studies, he presented public lectures and in 1926, he presented the idea of a meaning-centered approach to mental healing, using the term 'Logotherapy', based on the Greek word 'logos' for meaning.
In 1930, Frankl organized a special counseling initiative at the end of the school term. In
consequence, the number of student suicide droped significantly. From this, he gained
international attention: Wilhelm Reich invites him to Berlin, the universities of Prague and Budapest want him for lecturing.
In 1939, his paper 'Philosophy and Psychotherapy' was published in a Swiss medical journal. In it he coined the expression "Existential Analysis," the philosophical foundation of Logotherapy.
Watch a video biography of Viktor Frankl:
In 1942, Frankl was deported to a Nazi concentration camp along with his wife, parents, and other family members. He spent time in four camps in total, including Auschwitz, from 1942 to 1945, and was the only member of his family to survive, except for one sister who managed to emigrate to Australia.
He started writing the first version of his book The Doctor and the Soul (Aerztliche Seelsorge) in which he layed down the foundations of his system of psychotherapy, Logotherapy and Existential Analysis. Later, upon arrival at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, he was forced to throw away the unpublished manuscript.During the course of his time spent in various concentration camps, he reconstructed this manuscript on slips of paper stolen from the camp office.
“When I was taken to the concentration camp of Auschwitz, a manuscript of mine ready for publication was confiscated. Certainly, my deep desire to write this manuscript anew helped me to survive the rigors of the camps I was in.”
“We needed to stop asking ourselves about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life-daily and hourly . . . . Therefore, it was necessary for us to face up to the full amount of suffering, trying to keep moments of weakness and furtive tears to a minimum. But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.”
In this audio recording of a TV Interview from 1985, Frankl discusses how he was able to bear through the horrors of the concentration camps by the cultivation of meaning and having one freedom: The freedom to decide what attitude he was going to have. He was suffering for a meaning (seeing his wife again and reconstructing his book), and that made all the difference.
“The lesson one could learn from Auschwitz,” he says, “and in other concentration camps, in the final analysis was, those who were oriented toward a meaning—toward a meaning to be fulfilled by them in the future—were most likely to survive” beyond the experience. “The question,” Frankl says, “was survival for what?”
In 1947, Frankl married Eleonore Schwindt and they had a child called Gabriel, who is now a Doctor of Logotherapy at the Frankl Institute in Vienna. He went on to later establish a new school of psychotherapy called logotherapy, based on the premise that man’s underlying motivator in life is a “will to meaning,” even in the most difficult of circumstances.
During his career as a professor of neurology and psychiatry, Frankl wrote 39 books, lectured at 209 universities on five continents, and was the recipient of 29 honorary doctorates from universities around the world. He went on to later establish a new school of psychotherapy called logotherapy, based on the premise that man’s underlying motivator in life is a “will to meaning,” even in the most difficult of circumstances.
During his time in concentration camps, he saw the human condition at its worst, with people behaving in unimaginably intolerable ways. But he also saw human beings rise to heights of compassion, caring, unselfishness, and transcendence. Through his life and work, he reminds us that we all have important work to do, that whatever we do is important, and that meaning can be found everywhere, all the time. Moreover, he left a legacy that can help everyone, no matter what their situation, find deeper, richer meaning in their lives.