Logotherapy: Definition & Criticism

Instructor: Gaines Arnold

Gaines has a Master of Science in Education.

This lesson looks at the theory of logotherapy, some key components, as well as criticisms of the theory are discussed and counterarguments from the author are noted.

Theory of Meaning

Victor Frankl was a driven psychoanalyst and physician who subscribed to the Freudian school of psychology. By the time he was 25 he had earned a medical doctorate. Soon after he was in charge of a psychiatric ward that saw thousands of patients a year and at 35 he was head of neurology at a prestigious Viennese hospital.

But it was what happened two years later that allowed Victor to make observations that would rule his life for the next five decades. Victor Frankl, as a Jew living in Vienna, Austria in 1942, was placed in a concentration camp, along with his family, and was a German prisoner until the end of World War II in 1945.

Dr. Frankl had begun writing his opus, a book containing his life's work, called The Doctor and the Soul just prior to his incarceration. He was forced to destroy that work when he came to live in the camp at Auschwitz.

His main finding was one of meaning. He had already observed that people searched for meaning in their lives and this point was driven home as he lived in various concentration camps.


Frankl lived through the horror and torture of four different concentration camps, but lost his wife, brother, and parents by the end of the War. He developed a theory about the people who made it through. He believed that the ones who had a strong desire to finish something they considered important in their lives or who longed to see loved ones were the ones who survived the depredations of the camps.

In a book he wrote in 1963, Frankl quoted Friedrich Nietzsche as saying, ''He who has a why to live for, can bear almost any how.'' He built his entire theory, and life, on that statement.

Logos a word of Greek origin, has several different meanings ('spirit', 'God', 'study', to name a few), but Dr. Frankl chose the definition 'meaning'. In short, Victor Frankl believed that every person was born with a specific purpose.

The individual did not have a conscious knowledge of that purpose, but subconsciously they were always searching for it. If the individual attained that purpose through their occupation, relationships or in some other way, they remained mentally healthy. But those who desperately sought their purpose without resolution were the ones who had some degree of constant mental angst.

His theory was akin to the existentialism of French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and others. Existentialism is the belief that the individual is free to determine their own development through willful acts.

Frankl saw people's drive as their search for meaning and their failure as something called the existential vacuum. Basically, this is when an individual does not find meaning in life and either finds something to fill the void (alcohol, drugs, sex, etc.) or allows the vacuum to go unchecked and becomes bored, unmotivated, or depressed.

Criticism of Frankl's Theory

Two distinct criticisms have been made of the theory that call into question its applicability in all cases as Frankl claimed.

American psychologist Rollo May claimed that the approach was authoritarian and did not allow for personal responsibility. He said that, in therapy, Frankl would provide a basis of meaning for his patients, thus negating the personal discovery phase of the theory which was its essence.

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