Existential Psychology, Logotherapy & the Will to Meaning

Diana Teresa de Avila

The College of St. Rose


The existentialist movement has drawn its attention back to questions that have been readily pushed aside by those whose psychological horizons have been confined within the constructs imposed by prevailing philosophies of science and experimental design. The problem of humanistic freedom of choice, the problem of the self as "knower" and integrator as against the self as object, the problem of the differentiating effect upon human behavior of the person's unique knowledge of the inevitability of death, are not matters with which psychologists have qualified themselves (Woodworth & Sheehan, 1964). Existential Psychotherapy has its underpinnings in philosophical thought. In writing this paper, I will explore some of the basic philosophical constructs that lay the essential groundwork for this approach. Existentialism, unlike many other psychotherapies, does not offer a cut and dry technique or a methodology as a therapeutic modality, but rather is better depicted as a lens in which the therapist can view the client and the world in which the client exists.

The Philosophy of Existentialist Thought

Existentialist thought, according to one of its greatest advocates, French Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, posits that there are no set standards for self-identity, either for individuals or people in general. There is, Sartre argues, no such thing as "human nature," and what we are --and what it means to be a human being--are only matters of decision. There is no correct choice, only choices in which to choose from (Solomon, 1993).

It is my belief that the individual takes being not as a set of static properties, but rather as a sojourner on the path of life. My rationale in choosing to explore Existential Therapy lay in the fact that though it does not supply a cookbook of methodology, as other schools of thought more readily do, it provides a framework, pliable and adaptable to the individual temperament of the therapist, in which to view the individual and the world in which they participate. Adrian Van Kaam when describing the existential view of the person in his work, Existential Foundations in Psychology, posits that when he observes people, he meets them in reality. He realizes that they are neither a mere thing like other things in the universe nor are they self-sufficient maintaining isolation from the world. The person is not locked up within themselves as mere thought and self-presence, but rather exists outside themselves in the world. Existing in this world, they involve themselves continuously in the reality in and around them. The person remains a subject in the world and allows the world to be for them. The person lives and exists in the world as a presence, an encounter, and an involvement. To be a person is to fundamentally exist, and to exist means to-be-in-the-world (Van Kaam, 1966).

Ludwig Binswanger speaks of three modes of the world, three modes of experience which all play roles in a person's life. According to Binswanger the Umwelt comprises the biological circumstances to which each person must adjust, the Mitwelt represents the world of the person's social relationships, and the Eigenwelt involves the individual's relationship to themselves (Woodworth & Sheehan, 1964). Of the Eigenwelt Rollo May (1958) writes:

"What does it mean to say the, 'the self in relation to itself'? What happens in 'insight' when the inner gestalt of a person reforms itself? This mode of self in relation to itself was the aspect of experience which Freud never really saw and it is doubtful whether any school has as yet achieved a basis for adequately dealing with it. Eigenwelt is certainly the hardest mode to grasp in the face of our Western technological preoccupation's (May, et. al., p. 64).

With a view of human nature as basically "on the move" and in the midst of becoming, I can fully embrace existentialism and the ontos or ontology: the science of being. Existentialism concerns itself, not with essences, characteristics which give substance, but rather with existence--the individuals themselves (May, 1983). Western science, according to Rollo May, has favored an essentialist approach, that is a search for immutable principles and laws, endeavoring to divide reality into discrete parts or aspects and tending subsequently to assume that the resultant systems of conceptualization contain more reality than the given existent (Reeves, 1977).

Rollo May in his work Existential Psychology, states that the difficulty arises in being able to open our vision to more of human experience, to free our methodology inasmuch as to do justice to the richness and breadth of an individual's experience (May, 1960). May is thus saying that methodology, as in the ever prevalent Freudian psychology of the day, should not detract from the ontological experience of the individual.

Looking, again, at more recent philosophical presuppositions, May examines a quote by Abraham Maslow:

"It is extremely important for psychologists that the existentialists may supply psychology with the underlying philosophy which it now lacks. At any rate, the basic philosophical problems will surely be opened up for discussion again, and perhaps psychologists will stop relying on psuedosolutions or on unconscious unexamined philosophies they picked up as children" (May, p. 30).

Existentialist thought has been criticized as not being "scientific" enough. It has been downplayed as not being empirical and not having a psychotherapeutic modality that is firmly set in stone equipped with set methods and interventions.

Existentialist psychology has been pictured as existing in the same pot as Zen Buddhism. Both of these "fashionable doctrines" suffer from the same fallacies. Rollo May cites Robert Holt as saying that "the lure of existential psychology is the direct contact with the world, unmediated by concepts which contrasts the necessary distance imposed by the necessity to abstract" (May, 1969). Holt envisions existential psychology as something mystical and concludes that mystical experience like aesthetic experience, offers nothing to the scientist qua scientist except an interesting phenomenon that may be of use for scientific study. In sum, Holt implies that existentialism is not a form of psychology (May, 1969).

Blending philosophy with psychology brings us to a position where humanity exists as: being, journeying, and living while confronting and dealing with conflict along the way. Existential psychotherapy, taking an ontological approach, attempts to meet the individual in crisis, in-the-now with dynamism, always moving ahead to a more ideal place.

The "Givens": The Premises of Existential Psychology

Existence pain, destiny pain may well describe what I believe each person must face in their everyday dealings with life. Irving Yalom, in Love's Executioner describes this existence pain as something that whirrs continuously just beneath the membrane of life. He goes on to describe that many things, a group exercise, a sermon, a work of art, or a personal crisis, may be enough to remind us of the deepest wants that we have that cannot be fulfilled. It is when these unattainable wants come to dominate our lives that we turn to help from family, friends, religion, and possibly psychotherapy (Yalom, 1989).

To be a living, breathing individual in this world takes fortitude. Existential therapy does not attempt to examine repressed instinctual strivings or buried pain from a tragic past, but rather existentialism deals with a basic anxiety that emerges from each person's endeavors, conscious and unconscious, to cope with the difficult facts of life, the "givens" of existence (Yalom, 1989). These "givens" are an inescapable part of human existence in the world and can be named as: death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness.

These four "givens" can be summed up as being particularly relevant to the existential psychotherapeutic experience. Death is inevitable, our own death and the death of those whom we love. This "given" is perhaps the most evident, and is apparent through humankind's enormous expenditure of energy and the endless array of schemes devised in order to elude and escape death's grasp. Freedom, the second given, is ours so that we may tailor life to our choosing. The given of isolation implies our day to day struggle with thoughts of our ultimate aloneness, and finally, the given of meaninglessness implies absence of any obvious meaning or sense to our life. Although these "givens" may seem grim, Yalom (1989) states that "they contain seeds of wisdom and redemption" (1989, p. 5).

An Existential View of the Adolescent

Adolescent psychology has been approached as a unique stage in the area of human development. Freud represented the stage of adolescence as a period of "storm and stress" focusing on the psychosexual stages of development: by which the adolescent seeks to find the appropriate focus for the sexual feelings that have been formed during the previous stages of development (Freud, 1953).

This early view has given way to contemporary developmental views in which adolescent development is represented as a stage within a series of sequential stages: the Ericksonian theory of epigenesis, Piaget's theories of cognitive development, and Marcia's theory of the stages of identity development are all representative of a developmental approach to adolescent growth. What is lost within these purely developmental theories is the view of the adolescent as a whole being who not only exists in the here and now, but is inextricably linked to a past childhood leading imperceptibly to a future adulthood (Hacker, 1994). It views the adolescent inductively, parts to a whole, as opposed to deductively; moving from whole to parts with the adolescent consisting as a whole person--composed of past present and future--experiencing the conditions of existence that all people must face throughout their lifetimes. An existentialist view of the adolescent takes into account a "holistic" person (Hacker, 1994). One of the more salient contributions to the study of adolescent development is the view that adolescence is marked by the unfolding of abstract thinking. An existential view of adolescence seeks to answer the question: "What is the focus of the adolescent's abstract thought?" There is an implied premise that the adolescent's nascent abstract thinking capabilities focus on gaining a deeper and more profound awareness of his or her existence in the world and that their awareness and seeking of this existence inevitably leads to conflict. It is the adolescent's newfound capability of abstract reasoning--bringing concrete mental operations and building them into a higher level of more formal operations-- which helps the adolescent to face and deal with life's conflict (Hacker, 1994).

In summary, adolescence can be viewed as a time when the young person begins to gain a deeper awareness of their existence on an abstract level. Through this abstract reality, the adolescent is no longer constrained by the perceptual quality of childhood but is now capable of viewing existence as possibilities (i.e., traits, dynamics and motives) within themselves and others. This gradual focus on self-meaning takes place through the development of identity. Through the active pursuit of discovering who they are and asking "Who am I and who am I to become" questions (Hacker, 1994).

Through the initiation of abstract awareness, the young person continues the existential ontos which has been initiated at the moment of birth, and he or she is able to internalize the process in a entirely new perspective and dimension. This augmented process provides the adolescent with greater awareness of the self as well as greater awareness of the existential concerns that face all people and the conflicts that are present. With this view in mind, adolescent behavior can be depicted as the young person's attempts to come to terms with existential conflicts.

Existential psychodynamics posits a simple formula that provides a conceptualization of the operation of existential concerns on behavior: Intrapsychic conflict in the individual is created by anxiety produced by the individual's awareness of his or her existential concerns (Yalom, 1980).

Existential therapy has utility for both the adolescent and the adult, usefulness for that place where the individual can begin to move towards a greater sense of harmony and meaning. Looking in brief at an existential viewpoint of adolescence, it seems apparent to me that a young person's newfound facility to utilize abstract reasoning facilitates that point on the journey of life where the usefulness of existentialism begins to gain greater momentum. For it is at this point that the adolescent can begin to approach life from within, Eigenwelt, while seeking meaning from without, Mitwelt.

Existential Psychotherapy

Existential therapists, as a group, have not identified themselves with a distinct clinical procedure, rather the movement has provided a growing pool of concepts and techniques which have been effective in helping patients to recognize and fulfill their highest potential. In this process encounter has been noted as playing an important role. This encounter may be brief or enduring, may take place within a therapeutic relationship as well as outside of it. The result: a dramatic transformation of personality in which the therapist operates as a catalytic influence rather than as a model with whom the patient identifies or on whom transference is established (Woodworth & Sheehan, 1964).

An existential approach to therapy is appropriate with clients who confront some boundary situation (i.e.., a confrontation with death, the facing of some irreversible decision, a sudden thrust into isolation, the move from childhood to adolescence). The desire to work with existential crisis will depend on the attitudes and perceptivity of the therapist as well as the clients willingness to deal on the level of the "givens" of existence.

One variant of existential psychotherapeutic procedure is Viktor Frankl's Logotherapy (the word Logos is defined as "meaning"). According to logotherapy, the striving to find meaning in one's life is the primary motivational force in human beings (Frankl, 1984). Logotherapy takes into account what Frankl deems as "the will to meaning" while opposing the Freudian psychoanalytic pleasure principle. This will to meaning, posits Frankl, is unique and specific in that it can only be fulfilled by the unique individual; only then does it achieve a significance that will satisfy the individual's will to meaning. According to Viktor Frankl, a person's will to meaning can also be frustrated leading a person towards "existential frustration." This frustration may lead to a neurosis which Frankl labels as noogenic neurosis originating not merely in the psychology of the individual but rather in the dimension of human existence (Frankl, 1984).

Logotherapy concerns its assignment as that of assisting the client to find meaning in their life inasmuch as it helps the person to become aware of the hidden logos of their existence. The modality of logotherapy utilizes an analytical process, in this way it resembles psychoanalysis, but deviates from psychoanalysis in that logotherapy considers the person as a being whose main concern consists in fulfilling a meaning, rather than in mere gratification or satisfaction of drives or instincts (Frankl, 1984).


A review of some of the seminal literature in the area of existential psychology reveals recurring themes: the "givens" of existence, humankind's search for meaning, and the ontology, the science of being. While existential roots are planted firmly in philosophical thinking without clear evidence of a scientific paradigm, existentialism offers the science of psychology roots laid much deeper than other schools of thought that seek solely scientific endeavor. Existentialism offers an alternative form of psychology, a phenomenological approach to the person, not a look into the particular drives or instincts of the person, not a separation of id, ego and superego, but a holistic view of the entire being in-the-now. The downfalls of existential psychology have been stated as a basic lack of pure scientific methodology. Existentialism does not offer a textbook of "how to" techniques, rather it offers a viewpoint, a lens, a way of picturing the person and the world in which they live. It offers a way to view oneself, as therapist, as catalyst, as helper. It does not offer a cure-all, rather it seeks to help the client realize accountability for actions, thoughts, for ontos (being) while simultaneously helping the client to foster a deep sense of responsibility in the therapeutic relationship.


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A Note from the Viktor Frankl Institute

Viktor Frankl has died of heart failure in the late morning of September 2, 1997. In accordance with his explicit wish he was buried in the smallest possible setting, with only the close family attending. Please do not send flowers.

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A Note from Eleanor Frankl and Gabriele Vesely-Frankl, Ph.D.

Dear friends,

For all messages of condolence and friendship sent to the family and to the Viktor Frankl Institute, we convey our heartfelt thanks. We are overwhelmed by this wave of sympathy and understanding. It is a great comfort to know that you join us in remembering his wisdom, charm and generosity.

More than ever, it will now be our foremost concern to keep Viktor Frankl's life work available, in an authentic manner, to all those who are interested. And it is good to know that you all are with us in this continuing effort.

In gratitude,

Eleonore Frankl
Gabriele Vesely-Frankl, Ph.D.

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