Viktor E. Frankl, M.D., Ph. D.

Dr. Frankl three years before he died on September 2, 1997.

"Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."

Personal Life

Viktor Emil Frankl was born in Vienna on March 26, 1905, and spent most of his life in the city he loved. After becoming a medical doctor in 1930, he spent several years counseling students to reduce student suicides during grade distributions. He then continued on to council depressed women and helped stop many from committing suicide. When the Nazis invaded Vienna, as a Jewish neurologist and psychiatrist Frankl was restricted from counseling Aryan patients. In 1942, he and his family were sent to the Theresienstadt Ghetto. When 1944 arrived, he and his family were sent to Auschwitz to be eliminated, but he survived. After a year, he was sent without his family to one of two subsidiary camps of Dachau where he was detained for another two years. During his time at the camps, he observed prisoners as an objective psychiatrist. He began focusing on prisoners and relied on his previous skills as a social worker and humanitarian to help reduce the suffering of those around him. The work he did while at the camps helped to demonstrate his theories and hypotheses and continued to influence his life's work.

After his release in 1945, he published the first of 39 books that helped define his career. The first English translation book was published as, Man’s Search for Meaning. Four years after his release, he attained a doctorate in philosophy. His launch into “existential analysis” had officially begun. By the end of his life, Dr. Frankl had received 29 honorary doctorates, 4 professorships including the University of Vienna and Harvard University, 20 professional awards, and honored with founding the third Viennese school of psychotherapy, logotherapy, shortly after Freud’s psychoanalysis and Adler’s individual psychology.


Frankl had been a student of Dr. Sigmund Freud as well as had a friendship Dr. Alfred Adler and while all three men’s psychological theories disagreed, Frankl thought of them both as geniuses. Freud believed that the “will to pleasure” or seek sexual gratification was the ultimate motivation for humans. Adler believed that humans sought a “will of power” or to possess power. Frankl disputed both and believed to find a meaning in one's own life, or the “will to meaning,” was the universal human motivation. He believed that without meaning people would fall into despair. “D = S–M. Despair is suffering without meaning.” He spent his years, both in and out of the concentration camps, advising others to search for their meaning and choose a unique path beyond the tribulations they faced.

Frankl also challenged the contemporary French existential ideas that were published by Camus and Sartre after the war. He disagreed with Sartre’s idea that we must accept the ultimate meaninglessness of life. Frankl stated that we must accept the “incapacity to recognize the ultimate meaning within rational or logical terms.” Yet, we may still believe in life’s meaning itself. He also disagreed that man creates his own essence. Frankl was determined that the essence of a man arrived when he achieved transcendence, which is also where human values resided. A simple analogy may be that the transcended state lies above humanity and the state is universally the same for each man. But, to obtain his own significance he must embrace his suffering and choose to rise above it while behaving responsibility. It may be one of the most daring statements in personal responsibility and demonstrated tolerance within the volumes of existential theories. It does not boast or deny any form of religious belief system, yet it demonstrates the capacity of any man to reason through whatever torture may befall him without submitting to absurdity or despair. The idea also demonstrates tolerance of each other and acknowledgement of the other’s suffering and struggles. Some have said it seemed to be a form of “panacea,” but Frankl was firm that it was not. He reiterated the point in one of his last books translated to English, Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning. His determination to follow the ideals and his successful treatment record led to a popular interest in his work after WWII. The impact of the will to meaning seems to remain a silent undercurrent in modern European culture.

The Threes

Frankl set down ideas that many things in life were done in triads. Many interactions were done between two people and logos, or meaning. The three parts of the human condition were physiological, psychological, and the psyche or spiritual portion. There are also three elements of a human being, the hereditary element, situational history, and the decisions the human has made over the course of their past, which all resulted in the currents that made them a unique individual. There are three necessary components to find meaning: the initial will to find the meaning, the freedom to wield the will of meaning, and the arrival of transcendence, or the ability to find meaning in all aspects of life. Even human limitations were subject to triples. The first, death is inescapable. Second, one cannot act on opportunities that are not currently present and the third, one cannot respond responsibly without an expressed set of circumstances. Finally, he believed that humans are naturally responsible and naturally relational, and each person could respond to the “otherness” of another. Humans are capable of understanding their actions and reactions as well as seek direction towards something other than oneself, all while respecting the qualities of others. These ideas became the foundation of Frankl’s existential analysis.

Philosophical Structure of Logotherapy

Frankl believed that there was a meaning held within the universe and it was up to each individual to find it and to discover his or her own distinctive significance. Each condition or situation that a human faces contains the three parts: the physiological or physical state, the psychological or mind state, and the psyche or spiritual state. Each plays a role in helping the individual to make choices. He believed that many of the leading psychologists of his time were neglecting the third state and simply reducing the human to physical and psychological states. Neglecting the spiritual state of a patient, he believed, did them a great disservice.

The choices one makes, however, are not free from the confines of any of the three previous components, which would result in limited freedom. Frankl thought that absolute freedom would result in chaos; every human having the ability to choose whatever, however and whenever would culminate into nothing less than mayhem. Limited freedom rests in the world outside of the human and thus, influences the restrictions of certain opportunities. Yet, those limitations do not control the person or the person’s ability to be relational, responsible or rational. The individual has the freedom to choose how they wish to prioritize or how they wish to respond to the situation or opportunity. Although, this freedom is possessed only by the human and it may be given away or lost. The human himself may not be aware of his ability to regain his internal freedom to choose his response to his situation, thereby resulting in lost freedom.

Frankl’s idea of transcendence was not transcendence as stated by previous philosophers into heaven, to a religious deity, or into absurdity. Instead, it was the individual’s transcendence to become more than they believed they were allowed to be or could be. He believed that man as a rational being could choose how he coped with the suffering he endures. Frankl’s idea that man was able to cope with some necessary suffering was the way he began his journey into himself for the meaning in his own life. “Self-transcendence . . . is the essence of existence; and existence, in turn, means the specifically human mode of being.”

Re-direction is the second portion of logotherapy that requires the most strength because it requires the responsibility to reorient one’s own focus, regardless of how strong the pull may be toward negativity. Re-reflexion is the process of the sufferer to stop focusing on the suffering or perceived suffering itself and directs the attention toward a more healthy focus. The shift in attention makes it possible for the sufferer to then evaluate the situation and choose an alternate path instead of simply falling into despair or desperation. Freedom, transcendence and re-direction are the powers that combine in order for a human to suffer and result personally triumphant.


Some critics have argued Frankl denounces the progress made by Sigmund Freud and Adolf Adler in the field of psychology and therefore, created his own form of therapy. Frankl remained steadfast in his appreciation of their minds and theories, but disagreed with them respectfully. Others believe that he neglected the spiritual realm all together. However, that is not a valid argument against Frankl. He argued the other forms of therapy reduced the human existence to biological and physiological factors. He deeply believed in self-transcendence and of the psyche of his patients. Frankl himself was not able to responded to such criticisms as they were noticeably voiced after his death.

Works Cited

  • De Klerk, J.J. (2005). Motivation to Work, Work Commitment and Man’s Will to Meaning. Diss. University of Pretoria, 2001. University of Pretoria, etd. 2005. PDF.
  • Frankl, Viktor E. (2000). Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing. Print.
  • Kimble, M.A., and Ellor, J.W. (2000). Logotherapy: An Overview. Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press. Reprinted from Viktor Frankl’s Contribution to Spirituality and Aging. Journal of Religious Gerontology, Vol. 11, Nos. 3 & 4.
  • Ridgway, I.R. (2007). Theory & Practice 1: Lecture 11 – Viktor Frankl. PDF Document. Retrieved from Online Lecture Notes:
  • Viktor Frankl Institute. (n.d.) Life and Work. Retrieved November 28, 2010 from <> Website.
  • Yecto, A. (2007, 24 September). Interview With Viktor Frankl, Part I. Retrieved from (2010, 28 November). Video File.