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Review of "Logotherapy and Existential Analysis"

By Alexander Batthyány (Editor)
Springer, 2016
Review by Sharon Packer, MD on Dec 13th 2016
Logotherapy and Existential Analysis

In these days of online ordering, we have learned to brace ourselves for small and unimpressive packages that substitute for life-sized website offerings that we thought we had ordered. Just the opposite occurred when Alexander Batthyány's edited collection on Logotherapy and Existential Analysis: Proceedings of the Viktor Frankl Institute Vienna arrived. This book is far, far more than I imagined and I heartily recommend it to a wide range of readers.  

          I had expected a modest magazine-sized journal, with updates about logotherapy, existential analysis, and references to Viktor Frankl's life and work (which are impressive in their own right). To my delight, a handsome hard-cover volume appeared, filled with nearly 500 pages of eclectic essays, book reviews, clinical studies, opinion papers, philosophical dialogues, and scientific tables. (Disclaimer: one book review related to R.D. Laing was written by me.)

The backmatter includes a 40-page list of institutes devoted to the study and/or practice of Frankl's unique brand of existential analysis and logotherapy. That alone was an eye-opener.

Not surprisingly, the Viktor Frankl Institute is headquartered in Vienna, birthplace of Frankl (and Freud, Adler, and many more luminaries mentioned in William M. Johnston's 1983 book about The Austrian Mind: An Intellectual and Social History, 1848-1938).  The Vienna Institute—the flagship institute—publishes this unique volume.

Curiously, not a single institute is located in either New York City or even New York State, a city otherwise known for its devotion to psychiatry in general and for nurturing more mainstream strains of psychoanalysis in the past. Instead, Birmingham, Alabama and Abilene, Texas, Mishawaka, Indiana, University of Mississippi and Yale's Child Study Center have prominent places in this list. The reach of Frankl institutes worldwide (sans NYC) is striking.

          Many readers may be familiar with Frankl's 1946 best-seller, Man's Search for Meaning, which was reprinted and updated many times over. The 1992 introduction, pertaining to the pursuit of happiness and written by Frankl himself, sounds uncannily contemporary. Some of us may know of his book about The Doctor and the Soul (1977), where he recommends an equally contemporary biopsychosocial-spiritual approach that combines soma, psyche, and nous (spirit). Those interested in the interface between psychology and religion may be more aware of Frankl's influence in those spheres, but I would venture a guess that few American mental health professionals are aware of his continuing influence worldwide—until they see Batthyány's book.

Frankl's candid retelling of his concentration camp experiences—where he treated feverish typhoid patients by day, knowing that they would die by nightfall—shows us how he put his message about the pursuit of meaning into practice, even in the most untenable circumstances. Frankl had already completed the draft of his manuscript on existential psychotherapy before he was interred in the Nazi camps and conscripted to serve as a physician. Rather than rehashing well-known points about Frankl's life and legacy, or presenting yet another hagiography, Batthyány's collection moves in different directions. There are many, many noteworthy essays in this book, and too little space to mention them all. I have no doubt that different readers will find something meaningful in the works of specific authors—but I was struck by the thoughtful review of Edward Shorter's History of Psychiatry and by psychiatrist S. Nassir Ghaemi's reflections on a field that was once a stepchild of both history and psychiatry.

Likewise, Professor Christian Perring's review of The Healing Companion: Stories for Courage, Comfort and Strength offers a unique personal as well as professional take on an important topic. This chapter has more clinical applications, in that it revolves around stories about alcohol's effects on the individual and on the lives of others who come into contact with the alcohol over-user. A philosopher by training who chaired his college's department of philosophy of religion, Professor Perring himself has the courage to mention the moral aspect of substance abuse and to challenge the reductionist disease model that is currently in favor.

Dr. S.J. Costello, a philosopher and logotherapist and Director of the Viktor Frankl Institute of Ireland, adds an important essay, "Toward a Tri-Dimensional Model of Happiness: A Logo-Philosophical Perspective." Dmitri Leontiev's "Logotherapy Beyond Psychotherapy: Dealing with the Spiritual Dimension" is also noteworthy, especially since the author writes from the Department of Psychology at Moscow State University, Russia, a locale that was inhospitable to studies of the inner world while under the Soviet regime. The fact that many chapters in this book hail from unlikely locations makes the collection even more intriguing.

Given that "logos" means "the word" in Greek, it is fitting that several essays enhance our everyday English vocabularies. Quotes from James Hillman, a well-established Jungian analyst, inform us that "Doctor" derives from the Latinate docere; which means, "to teach." "Document" originally meant "the lesson". The verb, "to educate," derives from this same root. With this knowledge, psychiatry's concept of "psychoeducation" takes on new meaning.

We get a refresher course (or a first-time course) on the German terminology of Ludwig Binswanger. (Ludwig Binswanger was related to several illustrious psychiatrists and neurologists with the same surname but should be distinguished from Otto Binswanger, who identified "Binswanger's Disease," also known as subcortical vascular dementia, and whose name is linked to Alois Alzheimer, another pioneer of dementia research).  A physician and psychiatrist by training, and a devotee of existential philosophy, Ludwig Binswanger spoke of the surrounding world (unwelt), the private inner world (eigewelt) and the public conversational world (mitwelt).Frankl added the spiritual/noetic world to that framework. Frankl's expression/equation DSM or D=S-M (despair equals suffering without meaning) provides an interesting play on words. Was it mere coincidence that Frankl's acronym equates the DSM (the psychiatric Bible of nosology) with the despair that results from suffering without meaning? An interesting topic to ponder.

In this book, we learn that the Dalai Lama claims that the "purpose of life is to be happy." In contrast, Frankl addresses a related issue in his preface to 1992 edition of Man's Search for Meaning. There, Frankl reminds us that "success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one's dedication to a cause greater than oneself" (which can be another person). Considering that the "happiness industry" has taken on unprecedented proportions in 21st century American life, and that books about the problems it creates (Ruth Whippman, America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness Is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks, New York: St. Martin's Press, 2016) merit New York Times books reviews (Hanna Rosin, October 24, 2016), it is curious that an Austrian analyst known for World War II-era insights anticipated this preoccupation and articulated such a simple solution.  

Not every chapter in this collection is so philosophical, and philosophical works are grouped in a separate section on philosophy. There is more than enough material to satisfy psychologists as well as philosophers. This comprehensive book includes chapters on parenting children with autism, the clinical care of end-stage cancer patients, comatose persons with brain death, male retirees, PTSD experiences of Guatemalan kidnap victims, as well as allusions to Freud, Kant, Ricoeur, Aristotle, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Fromm, Kabat-Zinn, and more. I strongly recommend this book for both academic collections and for interested individuals.  

© 2016 Sharon Packer


Sharon Packer, MD is a psychiatrist who is in private practice in Soho (NYC) and Woodstock, NY. She is an Asst. Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Her books includeDreams in Myth, Medicine and Movies (Praeger, 2002), Movies and the Modern Psyche (Praeger, 2007) and Superheroes and Superegos: The Minds behind the Masks (Praeger/ABC-Clio, 2010). In press or in production are Sinister Psychiatrists in Cinema (McFarland, 2012) and Evil in American Pop Culture (ABC-Clio, 2013, co-edited with J. Pennington, PhD.) She can be contacted at drpacker@hotmail.com .