RM Yoga

By Ruth McNeil (2019).

In this essay I submit three key influences that inform Frankl’s philosophical stance which support the tripartite schema of values where “meaning in life can be found in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering”(Mans Search for Meaning p.115). These influences are firstly, the evolution of existential psychiatry versus the theories of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), secondly, Frankl’s own experiences as a holocaust survivorand thirdly, the philosophies of Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)FriedrichNietzsche (1844-1900), Max Scheler (1874-1928),Karl Jaspers (1883-1969)Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)[1].

Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) was a neurologist and psychiatrist who survived imprisonment in four Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War where his wife and most of his family perished. In his memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning (MSM, 1946) he recounts his imprisonment and gives the central tenets of his own therapeutic/analytic method of existential psychiatry, logotherapy, a “meaning centred psychotherapy” that is neither retrospective or introspective but focuses instead on the future (MSM,p.104).
Logotherapy emphasises the responsibility of the individual to find “hidden logos”(meaning) of his/her existence that is unique to them (p.108, MSM).

On arriving at Auschwitz, Frankl describes his “deepest” experience as the loss of the manuscript of his first book. This confronted him with desolation, the possibility that neither a physical nor “mental child” would survive him (MSM,p. 118). Frankl was faced with his life being potentially void of meaning yet chose to rise to the challenge of living his thoughts instead of putting them on paper, thus applying his philosophy to his particular situation i.e. fulfilling his first value, creating a work/doing a deed. Frankl had the unique experience of rewriting his book after his release a posteriori, having applied the three values that gave his own life meaning via the experience of his survival. Logotherapy is therefore both existential yet optimistic, its goal of enabling human triumph over suffering (no matter how dire the circumstances) achieved via a hermeneutical approach to self-actualisation.

To illustrate his existential perspective Frankl gives three foundations of logotherapy. These are:

1) The freedom of will. Frankl opposes pan-determinism, “man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment” (MSM,p.133). This follows Jaspers “what man is, he has become though that cause which he has made his own” (in Frankl, Will to Meaning (WM),p.23). Indeed, it was Jaspers philosophy ofExistenzthat gave life to Existentialism, defined by Frankl as existence itself (as a mode of being), the meaning of existence and the ability to find concrete meaning in personal existence (MSM, p.106).

2) The will to meaning, following and opposing Alfred Adler’s will to power (after Nietzsche) and the will to pleasure (after Freud’s pleasure principle). Meaning, to Frankl, is a primary motivation rather than a secondary rationalisation of instinctive drives. Frankl rejects the view that meanings and values are merely defence mechanisms, sublimations and reactions and deems them supremely powerful, “man is able to live and even to die for the sake of his ideals and values” (MSM,p.105). Evident here is influence of Kierkegaard and his concept of the subjectivity of truth, “the thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die”(Journals, 1835).

3) The meaning of life. Frankl contrasts relativism to subjectivism and explores life’s “supra-meaning”, (self) transcendence and religion.It is relevant that Frankl’s change of perspective on arriving at Auschwitz due to the loss of his manuscript was directly preceded by his discovery a copy of the Shema Yisrael, described by Frankl as the most important Hebrew prayer (MSM,p.119). I contend that within Frankl’s work there is a schism between the mundane and secular meanings of life as illustrated with the tripartite schema, in contrast with the importance Frankl gives to metaphysics and religious beliefs in logotherapy.

Existential thought was shaped by Jaspers who connected Nietzsche and Kierkegaard as philosophers who both “articulated the impending calamity” of devaluing existence (Flynn, 2006, p.44). Nietzsche’s proposition that “God is dead” signalled a seismic shift in philosophical thought where, in the later years of the nineteenth century, the veracity of Western moral, social and religious traditions were not only brought into question but dismantled, bringing about a “new dawn…at long last the horizon is free and open” where “some ancient and profound trust had been turned round into doubt”  (Nietzsche, 1977, p.209), To Frankl, these “crumbling and vanishing traditions” denote a decline in universal values where the “ten commandments have lost their unconditional validity” (WM,p.xi). Frankl claims that the feelings of meaninglessness that result give rise to an “existential vacuum” where the individual is bound by either conformism or totalitarianism and with more leisure time than ever before is, as expressed by Schopenhauer, “doomed to vacillate between the two extremes of distress and boredom” (MSM,p.110). Frankl perceives that this gives rise to an existential frustration and creates neuroses that he terms noögenic[2](as opposed to conventional psychogenic/somatogenic neuroses).Their origin is not in the psychological but what he terms the noölogical dimension of human existence (MSM,p.106).

Nietzsche’s maxim “he who has a why to live can bear with almost any how” functions as a guiding motto for survival repeated frequently in Man’s Search for Meaning (p.9,84,88,109).To Frankl, these words not only bolstered his resolve to live and maintained his faith in a future goal during imprisonment but also crystallised a key theory and one that counters Freud; that tension and challenge are fundamental to man’s development and growth.

It would be pertinent here to briefly acknowledge Frankl’s place within the psychoanalytical milieu of the 20th century, logotherapy became the “3rd School of Viennese Psychotherapy” (WM,p.130) after Freud and Adler. I will now examine Frankl’s lack of concord with key Freudian concepts, however, he makes it clear how sincerely indebted he is to Freud (WM,p.xix+p.xx). Frankl is more dismissive with the work of Adler and suggest that his psychology is “not nullified by logotherapy but rather overarched by it” (WM,p.83).

For Frankl, a tensionless state is not what is required for robust mental health, and he perceives that challenge is key for a reorientation towards meaning in one’s life (MSM,p.109). This opposes Freud’s concept of homeostasis where the “nervous system is an apparatus having the function of abolishing stimuli” (Freud, 1915). To Freud it is key that desires are spent; powerful emotions are seen as disturbances to homeostasis so that “striving to bring about the satisfaction of instinctive needs (are) subject to the observance of the pleasure principle”(Freud, SE, XXII.73). Frankl argues that the pleasure principle is self-defeating and the pursuit of happiness is what thwarts it.

To Frankl, pleasure is an epiphenomenon of achieving a goal. The emphasis place by Freud on pleasure (the will to pleasure) Frankl finds echoed in Adler’s emphasis on status (the will to power) and deems both “mere derivates of man’s primary concern…his will to meaning” (WM,p.20). Frankl argues that the will to pleasure and the will to power are ineffective compared to the will to meaning and suggests that their dominance gives rise to feelings of meaninglessness transformed into rampant libido and a thirst for money in the existential vacuum of contemporary life (MSM,p.112).

Let us now examine the differences between Frankl and Freud in respect of sex and love. Central to Freud’s work was the idea that the repression of sexual desires were the cause of neuroses “what ever case and whatever symptom…in the end we infallibly come to the field of sexual experience” (SE,111.199).  Moreover, to Freud, sexual satisfaction was the key to happiness, whereas love, simply a sublimation of sex, was denigrated as “the normal prototype of the psychoses” (Freud, 1913). Frankl disagrees. His experience in the concentration camps was that man, devoid of normality and with only inadequate sustenance, possessed very little sexual urge (MSM,p.44). Conversely, love was an elevating principle, not only in a relational sense, “the capacity which enables him to grasp the other human being in his very uniqueness” (WM,p.6) but as a mode of salvation, the “highest goal man can aspire to” (MSM,p.49). Frankl believes that the capacity for self-transcendence, made possible via the phenomenon of love, is characteristic of human existence, equivalent to his second meaning fulfilling value “by experiencing something or encountering someone”.

Frankl’s perceptions of love echo those of Scheler, who viewed love[3]as a way of understanding the other and where,

“love is that movement wherein every concrete individual object that possesses value achieves the highest value compatible with its nature and ideal vocation; or wherein it attains the ideal state of value intrinsic to its nature” (Scheler, 1954, p.161).

Scheler’s analysis of ethics and the experience of value in Der Formalismus,became “a kind of guide text “ to Frankl (Brenico,2014). Scheler’s theories concerning the oneness of man and the openness of human existence, where a personal/spiritual central axis was surrounded by biological and psychological layers (schichten) influenced Frankl to the extent that he perceived logotherapy “the result of an application of Scheler’s concepts to psychotherapy” (WM,p.9).

Significant too for Frankl are Scheler’s concepts on temporality, meaning and the future, “the sense and worth of the whole of our life still come…within the freedom or our action” (Scheler, p.40, 1960). Frankl’s experience of the concentration camps was that looking to the future was paramount to survival; prisoners dwelled in a provisional existence of an unknown limit. The only way to find inner freedom and therefore survive, according to Frankl, was to see an end of this provisionality. Those who could not, those who “ceased living for the future”, were doomed (MSM,p.82). Frankl believed that man would decline without a future goal. He witnessed that suicide prevention was successful among his fellow prisoners when they were told that something in the future was expected of them, a recognition of their potentiality coupled with a recognition of their past “having been is a kind of being, and perhaps the surest kind” (MSM, p.90). To Frankl, the transitory quality of existence was not perceived as meaningless, to him the recognition of the finiteness of life enables an activistic quality, the ability to choose ones attitude regardless of circumstances was, therefore, man’s ultimate freedom and responsibility.

Similarly, to Heidegger, a better understanding of oneself was inextricably linked to freedom:

“the human being is essentially in need of help because he is always in danger of losing himself and of not coming to grips with himself. This danger is connected with the human being’s freedom”. (Zollikon Seminars, 2000).

Heidegger’s concept of Daseinor “being-in-the-world” was key in the development of existential psychiatry as it allowed for the quality of existence of the patients themselves to be taken into consideration by their therapists. For Heidegger Dasein was a way to explore what is to be human phenomenologically. Frankl shared Heidegger’s hermeneutical approach to understanding life but was less concerned with phenomenology and ontology, for him, meaning was paramount, “logosis deeper than logic” (MSM,p.122). Frankl objects to the usage of “being-in-the-world” as a trope of existential psychiatry and existential philosophy. He believes that there was misconception, that “being-in-the-world” had become “mere subjectivism” as if the world was a self-expression of the human self. This, he believed, was in part due to limitations of language, which was unable to “express thoughts and feelings hitherto unknown” (WM,p.xiv). For Frankl it is self-transcendence “which logotherapy considers the essence of human existence” (WM, p.127).

If self-transcendence is the essence of existence what is there beyond the realm of the subjective experience? I suggest that there is a discontinuity here within Frankl’s logotherapy from the tripartite schema. Frankl makes it known that he is keen to avoid the religious connotations of “spiritual” so that dimensions of somatic and psychic phenomena remain within a human dimension (WM,p.5). However, he believed he received a “hint from heaven” to stay with his parents rather than emigrate before being sent to Auschwitz, so was clearly religious himself. Adding to this confusion, Allport describes Frankl as not being anti-religious in his “search to discover an adequate guiding truth” (MSM,p.10). Evidently, as a psychiatrist, Frankl purports to maintain professional neutrality on religious matters, it would appear that he aimed to keep logotherapy secular in its values, “the psychotherapist must not be concerned with the religious life of his patient” (WM,p.110). Unlike Freud, who considered religion a “neurosis of mankind”, Frankl upholds that religion contributes to good mental health, providing a “spiritual anchor and a feeling of security” (WM,p.110). It is relevant to this point of view that Frankl had witnessed both the sincere religious interests of his fellow prisoners, where the riches of inner spiritual freedom made it possible for them to withstand their terrible situation (MSM,p.47) as well as the tenacity of religious beliefs in his psychotic patients “to all appearances religion is indestructible and indelible” (WM,p.105).

The question then remains, if logotherapy does not prefer theism to humanism (WM,p.108) how is it possible for there to be an ultimate or supra-meaning to life where believing overrides thinking and it is through faith that trust in an ultimate being is found? To Frankl, there is a dimensional difference between the human world and the divine, and faith is the mode by which reaching out for ultimate meaning is found (WM,p.112). I find this troublesome as logotherapy initially appears secular with its quest for life’s meaning but, according to Frankl, when life’s supra-meaning is unpacked there is a metaphysical religiosity at its core.

Perhaps Einstein’s sentiment is relevant here, “mere thinking cannot reveal to us the highest purpose” which Frankl used to illustrate man’s inability to understand the ultimate meaning of human suffering (WM, p.111).
The attitude we take to unavoidable suffering is the last of Frankl’s meaningful values and the one he considers most important in the tripartite schema. Suffering is symptomatic of Frankl’s “tragic triad” of pain, guilt and death and he asks how is it possible to say yes to life in spite of these uncomfortable and unavoidable truths? For Frankl, it is turning suffering into “human achievement and accomplishment” (MSM,p.139). He found that the prisoners who did not turn their backs on suffering were ennobled by it, though unable to change their circumstances, it was their attitude to their suffering that informed their existence. For many it was the disillusionment and bitterness experienced on returning to life after release where suffering proved to have no limits because futures they had desired were no longer possible (MSM,p.90). Frankl acknowledges that though they were not hoping for happiness, “they were not prepared for unhappiness”. To Frankl, to encounter unhappiness and view this as discouraging is incorrect, “it should provide an added stimulus”. (MSM,p.90).

It is relevant here to consider Schopenhauer who states,

“so long as our consciousness is filled by our will, so long as we are given up to the throng of desires with its constant hopes and fears, so long as we are the subject of willing, we never obtain lasting happiness of peace…without peace and calm, true well being is absolutely impossible”. (The World as Will and Representationp.196).

Schopenhauer presents an opposing view to Frankl on the subject of desire. To Frankl, desiring a future goal and maintaining hope were fundamental features to bolster the spirits of prisoners, thus desire was key in mitigating the effects of suffering and creating a vestige of well being within the camps. To Schopenhauer, it is this desire itself that creates suffering and he contends that for meaning to be found, desire must be transcended. Schopenhauer is therefore implying a disengagement from will. The “peace and calm” Schopenhauer describes contradicts Frankl’s notion of challenge being optimal for man. Frankl considers that what matters in life is “achieving something” (WM,p.93), Schopenhauer, I contend, would disagree and support the idea that this desire to achieve is directly responsible for creating suffering.

As we have seen, freedom, for Frankl, is man’s ability to choose his actions whatever his circumstances. Sartre disagrees, “man is…forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside himself…man is condemned to be free” (1946,p.12). Frankl is critical of Sartre’s “nihilistic philosophy” (WM,p.70) whereby everything is meaningless. To Frankl, for existential psychiatry to be of value patients must have “unconditional faith in unconditional meaning” (WM,p.120).

Finally, the idea of discovering meaning is perhaps problematic in itself. There is an implication that life is not meaningful unless one is engaged in process underpinned by desire; that there cannot simply be being. Frankl’s views correspond with Einstein “the man who regards his life as meaningless is not merely unhappy but hardly fit for life” (WM,p.33). Perhaps though, the emphasis on meaning is too great and reflects a tension in Frankl’s work whereby logos supersedes ontos because of the need to create a secular existential realm. However, when we look more closely at Frankl’s own standpoint we see that religious beliefs are in fact fundamental to him and transcend man’s ability for self-actualisation.


[1]This is by no means an exhaustive list but I aim to give an overview of key philosophical influences. Also fundamental to the development of Frankl’s ideas (though not limited to) is the work of psychiatrists and psychologistsOtto Binswanger, Charlotte and Karl Bühler and Max Wertheimer.

[2]Noös means “mind” in Greek.

[3]This is love in the form of agape (a giving love) rather than as eros (a desiring love). Also as distinct from Freud’s use of Eros to indicate the life instinct.


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