Viktor Frankl’s Stand Against Psychoanalysis

I have been training in Logotherapy for most of this year, under a quite capable and accomplished teacher, Dr. Teria Schantall, who herself was a student of Viktor Frankl, and who currently administers the Institute’s program in both in Israel and South Africa. Although I am as loath as anyone else to point towards a secular discipline and exclaim, “this is what the Torah meant!”, I must say that Logotherapy does seem to articulate certain ideas that bear an uncanny resemblance to certain concepts that can be found in Torah. This fact makes its understanding both useful and potentially dangerous, because a person encountering the secular discipline may be tempted to see Torah through the prism of the secular discipline, instead of the reverse.

Frankl said,

Freud saw only unconscious instinctuality, as represented in what he termed the id; to him, the unconscious was a reservoir of  repressed instinctuality…It might be said that psychoanalysis has “id-ified”, and “de-self-ified”, human existence.  Insofar as as Freud degraded the self to a mere epiphenomenon, he degraded the self and delivered it to the id; at the same time, he denigrated the unconscious, in that he saw in it only the instinctual and overlooked the spiritual.” (2000, pp. 32-3)

Frankl’s objection to the reduction of the human being to a mere array of drives, and to the invalidation of the spiritual elements in man, serves as a critical voice against a paradigm that–I would suggest–most Western people have assimilated wholesale into their way of thinking.  Logotherapy as Frankl conceived it may have been nonsectarian in its conception, but had this path gained ascendancy before Freudian psychoanalysis, Western society might have been a lot more conducive to a life of meaning and spiritual growth.  This is not to deny the important contribution Freud made to the development of psychology, but to point out where it has been a stumbling block as a influence on society. 

Consider: Freud considered the repression of the sexual and aggressive drives (i.e. in their unrestrained, “id” forms) to be a key element in human misery, neurosis, and anxiety.  Yet, in contrast to the prudish Victorian era during which his theories were conceived, these very drives are ensconced and out in the open today.  It is difficult to imagine being able to traverse any maor city without being assaulted from all sides by media–whether billboards, radio and television programs, movies–or fashion that promotes violence and prurience in very explicit forms.  Cultures around the world have altered their relationships to these things, and have made shifts in consciousness, and have legalized that which was previously unthinkable.  Sex and violence are everywhere.  The news media itself has become a pornographic horror film, because that’s what brings higher ratings.  Are people happier today, now that these “drives” have been given free reign? 

What Logotherapy offers us is the possibility that we bear responsibility for ourselves and our actions, and that our resposibility to be meaning-oriented has to transcend merely being “driven”.  But isn’t this exactly what the Torah teaches us? 

 The Ramchal, in Derech Hashem, gives a description of man as an overlap of the animal and the angelic.  He possesses a body like an animal and a soul like an angel, but he is potentially greater than both, because he can choose to give pride of place to his soul through the mitzvos and service of G-d, and thereby purify his body to the extent where it becomes a vehicle for this holy purpose.  The animal cannot transcent its body, nor does the angel have the choice of whether to serve G-d or not; both are hardwired to do what each does. 

Human beings have a choice between “death” and “life”, between nihilism and meaning, and as this weeks parsha tells us, “you shall choose [the] life” (Deuteronomy 30:19).  This is only possible if we conceive of man as a responsible being, capable of choosing the transcendent path of values and meaning–but it is impossible if man is merely a creature composed of an atomistic array of ego drives.

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One thought on “Viktor Frankl’s Stand Against Psychoanalysis

  1. Yosef says:

    Logotherapy is great- perhaps most importantly, it can actually help people who are in crisis with real problems. Correctly applied there is real encouragement there, people can really find strength within themselves from the perspective logotherapy offers. It is just a name given the therapeutic modality that applies what are really essential and crucial concepts in Torah- one’s that we desperately need to remember and keep central.
    If a person hasn’t found what is truly meaningful to them, how can they live? It is the nihilism of modern society that leads so many people to despair, and to mafkiring themselves r’l and to giving up on the hope for something better- that they are better.

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