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Away with the existential vacuum!
on 15 October 2007
"We psychiatrists are neither teachers nor preachers but have to learn from the man in the street, from his ... self-understanding, what being human is all about". Of all those who applied existentialism to psychotherapy and to the efforts of human beings to help themselves, perhaps none has done so with as much wisdom as Viktor Frankl.
Although I didn't connect with the first 50 or so pages of this book, after that I was challenged and inspired by Frankl. His concerns, the "existential vacuum", the depressing impact of an "indoctrination into reductionism", the irreducibility of our experience, "responsibility as the essence of existence", these are well worth being reminded of.
That a "machine model" or "rat model" is not the best way to view human beings, does it seem such a revelation? Frankl observed how some young people had begun to view their ideals and altruism as hangups, how they had been engaging in fruitless "hidden motive" games. He wondered if behavioral scientific therapeutic programs didn't fail to take into account the specialness of people to find meaning, to transcend and to detach themselves from their situations. He called for responsibility and a recognition that we all proceed into the unknowable.
Frankl's approach is quite different from that of Freud, Jung, Skinner or even Rogers (Frankl at least credits in this book Rogers with "de-ideologizing psychotherapy"). His work still lives on, as for example in the United States through the Franklian Psychology (Logotherapy/Existential Analysis)doctoral program offered through Graduate Theological Foundation. Frankl himself, as he makes clear in this book, suggested a concept of spirituality and religion that "goes far beyond the narrow concepts of God as they are promulgated by some representatives of denominational religion", one that encompassed even atheism.
It would seem unfortunate if Frankl and his existential analysis that assumed a "will to meaning" were forgotten. Existentialism remains one of the great reponses of Western civilization to the challenges of life and Viktor Frankl one of its best practical advocates. I realize I need to read more about Frankl, logotherapy and existential analysis in general. It may be the best expression of a sacred view of being human we have in the West.