Viktor Frankl: Father of Logotherapy

What is it about Frankl’s “Healing through Meaning” that makes it so attractive to Jewish thinkers and clinicians?

By Rabbi Reuven P. Bulka

Say “Logotherapy,” and many people will not know what you are talking about.  Say Man’s Search for Meaning and they will say “Yes, I know that book.”  Indeed, this book was recently voted one of the ten most influential books of our generation.  It was written by Viktor Frankl, who passed away last Elul.  But it is by no means his magnum opus.  He has authored many books spelling out his philosophy and psychology, known as Logotherapy.

Frankl always felt that he was not accorded a respectful reception within Jewish academic circles, to the point that he actually avoided these gatherings.  He recalled attending an academic meeting at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and how the day before he walked in the Israeli desert.  In his own words, he felt “more lonely at the university than in the desert.”

In his own mind, this was due to the fact that the scholars there venerated Freud even more than Moses, and therefore were cool to him and his views, which were very different from Freud’s.  I would often tell Frankl that his book was very popular in the yeshivah world, and that since his main concern was with the “man in the street,” this should be of more than adequate comfort. And it was.

Why were Frankl’s views so welcome in the Orthodox circles?  What is it about Logotherapy (Healing through Meaning) that makes it so attractive to Jewish thinkers and Jewish clinicians?

Frankl asserts that “Every school of psychotherapy has a concept of man, although this concept is not always held consciously.”1   Logotherapy is no exception to this rule, and its philosophy is quite explicit.  The foundation of Logotherapy consists of three fundamental, interrelated assumptions: 1) freedom of will; 2) will to meaning; and 3) meaning of life.

According to Frankl, we possess a natural bent towards an objective goal in transcendent space.  Frustration of this natural inclination may lead to what Frankl has termed “noogenic neuroses.”  Freedom of will is seen as the absence of any factor which impedes our flight into noetic space, including instinct, inherited disposition, and environment.

With regard to instincts, Frankl asserts:  Certainly man has instincts, but these instincts do not have him.  We have nothing against instincts, nor against a man’s accepting them.  But we hold that such acceptance must also presuppose the possibility of rejection.  In other words, there must have been freedom of decision.  We are concerned above all with man’s freedom to accept or reject his instincts.2

Concerning inherited traits, Frankl counters that predisposition is an indication, rather than a negation, of freedom.  He cites the evidence of identical twins who evolve differently from the same predisposition:  Of a pair of identical twins, one became a cunning criminal, while his brother became an equally cunning criminologist.  Both were born with cunning, but this trait in itself implies no values, neither vice nor virtue.3

The difference between the criminal and the criminologist is the difference in how each decides to translate the cunning.

Frankl takes a similar approach with regard to the environment.  All depends on what one makes of the environment, on one’s attitude toward it.4

Instinct, heredity, and environment become, in Frankl’s view, partial and potential determinants.  They are partial determinants in that they establish the specific boundaries of human behavior.  Within these limits, we are free to decide.  These factors are potential determinants in that we can accept, reject, or transmute them according to our will.  We have the ability to rise above psychic and somatic determinants into a distinctly human dimension, the spiritual, or noological.  In this dimension, we can look down at the forces which tend to dehumanize us, and decide the extent to which we will be steered by them. In the noological domain, we exercise the distinctly human phenomenon of self-detachment, detaching the self from one’s self and becoming the arbiter of the future.

Frankl argues that freedom is interrupted only by factors which prevent our natural bent to reach specific values.  Frankl believes that no such factor exists, for with the potential of a determining factor is necessarily attached the ability to reject it.  Frankl goes so far as to consider one’s destiny, or the conditional factors, as prerequisites for freedom:  Freedom without destiny is impossible; freedom can only be freedom in the face of a destiny, a free stand toward destiny.  Certainly man is free, but he is not floating freely in airless space.  He is always surrounded by a host of restrictions.  These restrictions, however, are the jumping-off points for his freedom.  Freedom presupposes restrictions, is contingent upon restrictions5…

Freud once said:  Try and subject a number of very strongly differentiated human beings to the same amount of starvation.  With the increase of the imperative need for food, all individual differences will be blotted out, and, in their place, we shall see the uniform expression of the one unsatisfied instinct.”6

The concentration camps, in Frankl’s view, proved Freud wrong.  The camps proved that we cannot be reduced to a function of heredity and environment, for at the same time that some inmates degenerated into the innate camp bestiality, others exhibited the virtues of saintliness.  A third variable is the decisive factor in human behavior, choice or decision.  “Man ultimately decides for himself.”

Sforno, commenting on the words “…God formed him in the likeness of God” (Bereshit, 5:1), explains this as meaning that the human being is master of choice.  Free will is a Divine ingredient.

“Everything is foreseen but the right (of choice) is granted” (Talmud, Avot, 3:15).  God’s foreknowledge and our free will are not mutually exclusive.  Since faith in God is what gives life purpose, having faith in meaningful existence and in purposeful creation are inseparable concepts, and, as faith, have value in spite of seeming incomprehensibility.  Without free will, however, life itself loses meaning; so that meaningfulness, and faith in it, are predicated on free will.

The Franklian notion of freedom as dependent on destiny is a striking parallel to the Talmudic statement that “Everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven” (Talmud, Berachot, 33b).  Rashi explains that whether one is tall or short, poor or rich, wise or stupid, depends on pre-destination; the only choice left is whether we will be righteous or wicked.

As the logotherapist would interpret it, environment, social conditions, and biological makeup are, of necessity, predetermined; but the attitude to these conditions remains untouched by determinism.  Social condition may prevent one from attaining certain vocational objectives, biological makeup may restrict social development, but no factor impedes the quest to realize meaning.

The second major philosophical tenet of Logotherapy is the “will to meaning.”

The notion of the primariness of pleasure (Freud) or power (Adler), is challenged by Frankl.  Frankl espouses a unique form of experiential philosophy, combining his experiences as a doctor and concentration camp inmate with his existentialist leanings.  He establishes as a yardstick the properly functioning human being, function here taken in an existential sense.  Life’s goals and aspirations are judged according to their utility in attaining and maintaining proper functioning.  The will to pleasure, for Frankl, “is a self-defeating principle inasmuch as the more a man would really set out to strive for pleasure the less he would gain it.”7

Moreover, most cases of sexual neuroses result from striving directly for pleasure.  In healthy reality, pleasure is merely a byproduct of fulfillment.  The will to power is really the tools manipulated by people in order to achieve some goal.  There is a higher principle guiding life, the will to meaning:  In the last analysis, it turns out that both the will to pleasure and the will to power are derivatives of the original will to meaning.  Pleasure, as mentioned above, is an effect of meaning fulfillment; power is a means to an end.  A certain amount of power, such as economic or financial power, is generally a prerequisite of meaningful fulfillment.  Thus we could say that the will to pleasure mistakes the effect for the end; while the will to power mistakes the means to an end for the end itself.8

Frankl is not hereby denying that people aim for pleasure or power.  That such striving is the underlying cause of certain neuroses leads Frankl to reject them as absolute goals in a properly functioning human being; the properly functioning human being serving as the model, or construct, of Frankl’s philosophy.

The striving to find a meaning in one’s life has been categorized by Frankl as will to differentiate from drive.  We are not driven toward meaning, for then our behavior would be symptomatically equivalent to the homeostatic urge involved in the pleasure principle.  Meaning would lose meaning, and would become a tool through which we satisfy the desire for equilibrium.  Moreover, will admits of choice, whereas drive implies an irresistible inner force, compelling a certain behavior.

The full force of this idea comes through in Frankl’s discussion of religion.  In his book, The Unconscious God, Frankl argues that “There is, in fact, a religious sense deeply rooted in each and every man’s unconscious depths” (p. 10).

He clarifies what he means by unconscious.  Since both deciding and discerning are spiritual acts, again it follows that these spiritual acts not only can be but must be unconscious — unconscious in the sense of being unreflectable” (p. 32).

Frankl, while crediting Jung with having discovered distinctly religious elements within the unconscious, criticizes him for making the mistake of, failing to locate the unconscious God in the personal and existential region.  Instead, he allotted it to the region of drives and instincts, where unconscious religiousness no longer remained a matter of choice and decision.  According to Jung, something within me is religious, but it is not I who then is religious; something within me drives me to God, but it is not I who makes the choice and takes the responsibility (p. 64).

Frankl rejects the idea of a religious drive:  But what sort of a religion would that be — a religion to which I am driven, driven just as I am driven to sex?  As for myself, I would not give a damn for a religiousness that I owed to some “religious drive.”  Genuine religiousness has not the character of driven-ness but rather that of deciding-ness (p. 64).

The spiritual element of choice is the key.  This gives a profound perspective to the Torah imperative — “choose life…” (Devarim, 30:19).

Self-realization and self-actualization are seen as side effects of the more primary search for a meaning outside of one’s self:  The true meaning of life is to be found in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system.  By the same token, the real aim of human existence cannot be found in what is called self-actualization.  Human existence is essentially self-transcendence rather than self-actualization.  Self-actualization is not a possible aim at all, for the simple reason that the more a man would strive for it, the more he would miss it.  For only to the extent to which man commits himself to the fulfillment of his life’s meaning, to this extent he also actualizes himself.  In other words, self-actualization cannot be attained if it is made an end in itself, but only as a side effect of self-transcendence.9

The observation by Frankl that the more a person sets out to strive for pleasure the less he will gain it, is more clearly alluded to in the following:  No one departs from the world with half their desire gratified.  If one has a hundred, one wants to turn them into two hundred, and if one has two hundred, one wants to turn them into four hundred. (Kohelet Rabbah, 1:13)

The idea of the will to power as a means rather than an end is clearly congenial to the Judaic view, which places so much responsibility on the one with means, and calls the various forms of charity tzedakah, implying that sharing wealth is just and equitable, not philanthropic.  The power gained through wealth becomes the means through which to actualize the meaning values entailed in possession.

Frankl proposes the will to meaning as the primary motivational force.  One senses almost intuitively that the term “meaning” employed by Frankl is closely akin to what is intended by the term “Torah.”  Thus, the statement “every man is born for toil” is explained as meaning “that one was created to labor in the Torah” (Talmud, Sanhedrin, 99b).  Torah becomes the vehicle for meaning.

The third major philosophical tenet of Logotherapy is the meaning of life.  Logotherapy conceives the person as one who wills.  To conceive the human as one who wills, as one who is “pulled by meaning,” is to conceive of a world filled with objective meaning.  Frankl rejects the subjectivization of all values, the reduction of meaning to mere self-expression.  We oscillate between the subjective “I am” and the objective “I ought,” and insofar as we strive for the ought, we transcends the self and actualize responsibleness.  In Frankl’s view, “existence falters unless it is lived in terms of transcendence toward something beyond itself.”10

Frankl offers no proof that objective values exist.  That these values are objective follows necessarily from Frankl’s worldview.  The human model, the properly functioning person, is directed towards meaning.  If meaning were subjective, the dynamics of transcendence would be destroyed and existence would falter.  Therefore, meaning must be objective.

No circular argument, this principle as well as others in Frankl’s system is derived from the premise that truth is perceived in utility.  We are at our best when indulging in self-transcendence, thus testifying to the validity of the concept of self-transcendence.  Since self-transcendence demands objective values, objective values are as real as existence, the tools needed to achieve our mission in life.

In Frankl’s notion of objective values is salient an unshakable faith in the unconditional meaning of existence.  It is this faith in unconditional meaning which is the hallmark of Logotherapy.  The three basic philosophical tenets of Logotherapy are emanations from this faith.  Meaningful existence means we choose; we are not driven to choose, rather we will the choice.  The choice, however, is the result of a confrontation with objective values.  We decide whether to say yes or no to these values.

Frankl categorizes three types of values.  They are: 1) creative values, or what we give to life; 2) experiential values, or what we take from the world via experience; and 3) attitudinal values, or the stand we take toward an unchangeable aspect of existence.

Attitudinal values are central to Logotherapy, for they are directly linked to the concept of unconditional meaningfulness.  Frankl insists that even when choked by tortuous suffering, one can still exercise humaneness.  Thus, life has a meaning to the last breath. For the possibility of realizing values by the very attitude with which we face our unchangeable suffering — this possibility exists to the very last moment11

Life is judged not on a quantitative basis, but on what we make of the life situation, a qualitative judgment.  The meaningful question is not “what,” but “how;” not what was accomplished, rather how was life lived, how were the singular opportunities that total one’s existence used?

It is not from the length of its span that we can ever draw conclusions as to a life’s meaningfulness.  We cannot, after all, judge a biography by its length, by the number of pages in it; we must judge by the richness of the contents.  The heroic life of one who has died young certainly has more content and meaning than the existence of some long-lived dullard.  Sometimes the “unfinished” are among the most beautiful symphonies.12

In the suffering situation, the range of choice is naturally constricted, but attitudinal choices are still available.  The constrictedness of the situation gives birth to unique objective values which form the matrix of choice options.  Freedom itself is only meaningful in the face of values which confront the person.

Frankl’s notion of objective values strikes a close parallel with the Judaic notion of values embodied in Torah.  Creative values are embodied in work, experiential values in such observances as Shabbat.13

The vital factor is more a quality than a quantity; “let all your actions be for (the sake of) the Name of Heaven” (Talmud, Avot, 2:12).  The actions should be oriented in the transcendent meaning direction.

The attitudinal value concept is captured in the famous statement of Rabbi Akiva that “Suffering is precious” (Talmud, Sanhedrin, 101a).  The proper attitude to suffering makes suffering precious.  Indeed, “one who joyfully bears the chastisements that befall him brings salvation to the world” (Talmud, Taanit, 8a).

But what is the true meaning of suffering?  We cannot really know, but, in a bold statement reflecting Frankl’s faith and courage, he poses the following question:  Is it not possible that there is still another dimension possible, a world beyond man’s world; a world in which the question of an ultimate meaning of human suffering would find an answer?14

It is quite a step for a therapist-philosopher who travels in the scientific world to speak about “Olam Haba,”  the World to Come.  It is because of this that I frequently argued with Frankl that Logotherapy is essentially a religious philosophy and therapy.  But Frankl resisted, only going so far as to say that Logotherapy opens the door to religion, but does not pass it.

Frankl insisted on this because he felt that as a doctor, his therapy had to be available to everyone.  One may argue with his point, but one cannot argue with his passion, his openness, his courage at a time when the world was going in the opposite direction of the views he was encouraging.

Logotherapy as a system works best as a complement to therapy, as a focus on the future after the problems of the past and present have been addressed.  And even though there are some points within Logotherapy that are not perfectly consistent with Judaism, nevertheless the basic thrust of Logotherapy, its focus on meaning, purpose, the human spirit, and objective values, is perfectly adaptable to an authentically Jewish clinical and meta-clinical approach.


  1. The Doctor and the Soul: From Psychotherapy to Logotherapy, Frankl, New York: Vintage Books, 1978, p. xvi.
  2. Ibid., p. xvii.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid., p. 61.
  6. Quoted by Frankl, Ibid., p. xvii.
  7. “The Philosophical Foundations of Logotherapy,” Frankl, in Erwin W. Strauss [Ed.]., Phenomenology: Pure and Applied, Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1964, p. 43.
  8. Ibid., p.48.
  9. Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy, Frankl, New York, Pocket Books, 1977, p. 175.
  10. Psychotherapy and Existentialism: Selected Papers on Logotherapy, Frankl, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968, p. 12.
  11. The Doctor and the Soul, p. xii.
  12. Ibid., p. 53.
  13. See further Frankl’s Three Lectures, Brandeis, California: Brandeis Institute, 1966, Lecture 1, pp. 15-16.
  14. Man’s Search for Meaning, p. 187.

Rabbi Reuven P. Bulka is the Rabbi of Congregation Machzikei Hadas in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.  He has a Ph.D. in Logotherapy, is editor of the Journal of Psychology and Judaism, and is author/editor of 30 books.

This article was featured in the Spring 1998 issue of Jewish Action.
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