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Viktor Frankl: biography of an existential psychologist

Viktor Frankl: biography of an existential psychologist

May 6, 2021

Viktor Frankl is one of the most untouched figures in the history of psychology. As creator of the logotherapy , Frankl approached the treatment of mental alterations from an existentialist perspective that decades later served to reinforce a current known as Humanistic Psychology, to which Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow belonged among others.

Very focused on phenomenology and the subjective, Viktor Frankl's speech therapy is hardly comparable to forms of psychotherapeutic intervention whose efficacy has been demonstrated in independent studies, and currently his scientific status is seriously questioned . But, to understand the origins of Viktor Frankl's work well, one must take into account the historical context in which they occurred.


Viktor Frankl and the existential struggle

Pain and sadness are two of the phenomena most studied by psychology, for good reason. There are many paths of life that seem to lead to them, and when we experience them all that we feel and do tends to revolve around the fact that we feel bad. In some cases, even, restlessness can have so much power over us that it prevents us from enjoying life and can play an important role in suicide. That is why one aspect of psychology has turned to the treatment of these problems, and numerous therapeutic proposals have been developed to alleviate suffering.


But not all these therapies are based on some philosophical assumptions that seek to cover all aspects of how we live our lives: some are intended to be useful in very specific contexts and not others and use criteria for measuring results that may be too rigid . That is why among supporters of using a psychology more based on philosophy than in the natural sciences, great respect is felt for Viktor Frankl , a Viennese psychiatrist born at the beginning of the 20th century, built a therapeutic approach based on his experiences as a survivor in the concentration camps of the Nazi regime.

The beginnings of the young Viktor Frankl

Viktor Frankl was born in a Viennese Jewish family in 1905, when Sigmund Freud's psychoanalysis was gaining popularity among European psychiatrists. That is why during his youth, when he became interested in psychology and mental health, his self-taught training on the subject included many texts on psychoanalysis.


But nevertheless, also from a very young age he began to develop a remarkable interest in philosophy , a characteristic that would define his personality and his way of asking existential questions about the meaning of life. In fact, being a minor he began to give his first talks in which he shared some of his reflections.

The university and its specialization in psychiatry

When Viktor Frankl entered the University of Vienna to finish specializing in psychiatry in the mid-20s, Freud's work on mental health and the functioning of the psyche had gained so much notoriety that the young student had no problem moving around like a fish in the water in a discipline that combined the study of the organic (the nervous system) with the use of a meta-psychology very close to the philosophy that so much interested Frankl.

However, He ended up distancing himself from orthodox psychoanalysis, considering it too reductionist and began to train in the psychodynamic current of Alfred Adler . This perspective was not marked by the pessimistic view that each person is tied to the unconscious forces that emerge from their mental structure, and that is why it fit better with the way Viktor Frankl understood life.

The importance of philosophy in the pursuit of happiness

Because the young Frankl knew that suffering and conflict exists, but he believed that through a combination of philosophy and knowledge in psychology it is possible to achieve an adjustment between what is experienced and the way in which you think about it so as not to fall into unhappiness. During his years of training among the followers of Adler, Viktor Frankl came into contact with Rudolf Allers, which would lead him to develop a type of existential psychology that we know today as logotherapy.

Thus, although Viktor Frankl ended his academic relationship with Adler years later, the idea that well-being and mental health have much to do with the way in which life is given meaning was deeply rooted in the philosophy of this psychiatrist. But what would lead him to reaffirm his convictions was a terrible and potentially traumatic experience: his passage through the Nazi concentration camps.

Viktor Frankl as a holocaust survivor

During his years as a student, Viktor Frankl had many opportunities to get acquainted with the pain. In fact, we wanted to specialize in the study and treatment of depression and the prevention of suicide, which led him to offer support services to students with excessive stress and, during the 1930s, he treated many patients at risk of committing suicide. From 1938, however, began to be increasingly cornered by the rise of Nazism.

In 1942, after being forced to work in the only hospital in the area where Jews could work, Viktor was deported to a ghetto, and from there to a series of concentration camps, including Auschwitz . Most of his family, including his wife, died in the network of extermination camps, and Viktor Frankl had to work in conditions of slavery until the camp he was in was released in 1945.

Man's Search for Meaning

After the end of the war, Viktor Frankl he discovered that many of the people he loved had died, but he found a way to fit these losses . According to him, the simple fact of discovering the meaning of suffering makes it experience in a much more bearable way, causing it to become incorporated into the narrative of one's life story as another element, something that does not stop it from happening page and can be pulled forward.

This idea, which in fact coincides in large part with the principles of the existentialist philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre and other thinkers, was shaped by Viktor Frankl in his best-known work: The Man in Search of Meaning, published in 1946, which also is a book that serves as an introduction to speech therapy.

The theories of Viktor Frankl, today

Viktor Frankl's work draws on influences that can be traced back to hundreds of years ago, when Eastern religious leaders talked about how to deal with suffering by changing the way people think about him and when the ascetics of ancient Greece taught to give up Preconceived ideas about what generates desire and what does not. In fact, his contributions to psychology are less important the more we stick to the idea that psychology must be a science based on measurement and experimentation.

However, the intellectual filter that Viktor Frankl supposed has not had logotherapy as his only product: it can also be considered that his first works on existential analysis have laid the foundations of humanistic psychology popularized by people like Carl Rogers or Abraham Maslow and that more recently has illuminated the positive psychology , oriented to investigate topics such as self-realization, the attainment of vital goals and happiness.

You can consult the books that Viktor Frankl wrote through this link.


Viktor Frankl: Logotherapy and Man's Search for Meaning (May 2021).


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