Viktor Frankl's Concept of the Spiritual Unconscious

by Ramesh Ramsahoye

Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy, which focuses on meaning, holds great appeal for the integrative psychotherapist, offering a powerful way of understanding and intervening (Cheston, 2000) that addresses the very purpose of a person’s existence, as they define it. Easily adapted and blended with other modalities (Ameli & Dattilio, 2013; Schulenberg et al., 2008), it has been used successfully with clients enduring the most challenging and distressing of circumstances, such as terminally-ill hospital patients (Zuehlke & Watkins, 1977) and people with spinal cord injuries (Thompson et al., 2003). Many practitioners will be familiar with the synoptic account of this form of existential psychotherapy in Man’s Search for Meaning (Frankl, 1946/2008) and hence the primacy of meaning within this model, but it is in less well-known texts (Frankl, 1946/1986, 1947/2011) that Frankl articulated his idea of the spiritual unconscious, a concept central to an understanding of logotherapy.


Frankl’s sense of the unconscious and its relevance to the activity of the therapist departed considerably from psychoanalytic tradition. He added a further territory to Freud’s map of the unconscious, which consisted of basic drives and repressed memories, by insisting that people also had a spiritual unconscious (Frankl, 1947/2011, p. 31). Frankl argued compellingly that our understanding of human nature is incomplete if we do not consider our spiritual aspect. He maintained that our spiritual core is our true fundamental self, around which our physical and psychological attributes are organized. On this basis, he believed that the integration of human personality cannot happen without taking into account the essential spirit that dwells within our mortal shell: “thus the spiritual core, and only the spiritual core, warrants and constitutes oneness and wholeness in man” (Frankl, 1947/2011, p. 34). This vision of a human being is an archetype that has found expression in art and culture throughout the ages [Figs. 1, 2, 3].




Fig. 1. Matthias Grünewald. (1512-26). The Resurrection (detail), from the IsenheimAltarpiece [oil on panel]. Unterlinden Museum, Colmar, Alsace, France.

Fig. 2. William Blake (c.1796). Albion Rose [coloured etching]. British Museum, London, United Kingdom.

Fig. 3. Thangka of Shakyamuni Buddha [pigment on cloth]. (18th Century). Rubin Museum of Art, New York, United States.


Frankl went on to postulate that this unconscious, spiritual dimension to our nature manifests itself most obviously in the phenomenon of human conscience. So innate and deep within the psyche of the person is this quality that they have a “premoral” (Frankl, 1947/2011, p. 95) understanding of meaning. The phenomenology of premoral consciousness is explored by Martin (2011) in a superb analysis of Lucas Cranach’s Adam and Eve (1526) [Fig 4].


Fig. 4. Lucas Cranach. (1526). Adam and Eve [oil on panel], Courtauld Gallery, London, United Kingdom.


If we take into account Adam’s ontological self-consciousness then these problems may admit of resolution. If God had failed to provide Adam with ethical knowledge then his treatment of him would have been grossly unjust. But by making Adam ontologically self-conscious he provided him with a very fundamental and powerful form of normative orientation – even if he did not burden him with the explicit and direct experience of good and evil that would come in the wake of the Fall. (p. 124)


Even without knowledge of good and evil, which we might see as deriving from organized religion and culture, Adam, or any person, therefore has an intuitive sense of what is fitting or need-fulfilling simply by virtue of the existence of the organism, deriving from being itself. This ontological self-consciousness consists, for Martin, in “a distinctive kind of awareness of one’s own being – in particular an awareness of the kind of being one is and about what is good (what is fitting) for a being like that” (p. 124).


I hasten to affirm that this sense of what is good, attributed to prelapsarian Adam by Martin, is not a moral good and, furthermore, has no meaning beyond being need-satisfying. The faculty of knowing what is morally right, or spiritual, seen by Frankl as an inherent feature of man’s constitution, might be understood in a Christian context as the legacy of the Fall. For Frankl (who, of course, was Jewish), it is every person’s blessing to know this difference. Without this, choice would have no meaning beyond being pleasurable.


Another unique feature of the spiritual unconscious is that our judgements of conscience remain “inscrutable” (Frankl, 1947/2011, p. 40), sometimes making sense to no one but ourselves. This inner voice and sense of what one should do in any given moment is the principle means by which each person defines themself. It is conscience that reveals to us the path by which we may grow and become more than we were, even though this might involve suffering and the marginalization of our basic needs:


It is the task of conscience to disclose to man the unum necesse, the one thing that is required. This one thing, however, is absolutely unique inasmuch as it is the unique possibility a concrete person has to actualize in a specific situation. (Frankl, 1947/2011, p. 41)


Grasping the “uniqueness and “singularity” (Frankl, 1946/1986, p. 55) of our lives, achieving a sense of how events have synchronized for us, helps us to actualize meaning and seize the moment – a vital thing to do, as “if that opportunity is lost, they [values] are irrevocably lost; the situational value remains forever unrealized. The man has missed out on it” (Frankl, 1886, p. 55). We all know this feeling of bitter regret. It burns in the pit of our stomachs each time we realize we have let ourselves down and cannot go back and change what we did or failed to do. But Frankl has an answer even for this existential despair, asserting that “no man can ever know what life still holds in store for him, or what magnificent hour may still await him” (Frankl, 1946/1986, p. 57). As a war veteran receiving logotherapy for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) put it: “War is about destroying lives and everything beautiful. I was a kid then but now that I'm older, it just makes me want to create and build things and appreciate the beauty around me" (Southwick et al., 2006, p. 168).


Nothing tests our capacity to find meaning in life more than suffering and tragedy and in these circumstances all that remains is “the last of the human freedoms” (Frankl, 1946/2008, p. 75) – the attitude we choose to take towards our own torments. Frankl offers us conscience as a means of finding that elusive meaning that can seem impossible and irrelevant during life’s darkest moments, drawing our attention to the “unique meaning gestalts dormant in all the unique situations that form a string called man’s life” (Frankl, 1947/2011, p. 114. This sense of knowing right from wrong pulses within us all like an “ethical instinct”  (p. 41), tempering our every thought and feeling. A person’s quest for meaning in their life is therefore necessarily a spiritual struggle, so much so that Frankl even used the terms existential and spiritual synonymously.


In order to venture into this territory, the counsellor must be connected to their own spirituality, for “the proper diagnosis can be made only by someone who can see the spiritual side of man” (Frankl, 1998, p. xvi), but Frankl warns us of those who would seek to assume the role of priest: “time and again psychotherapists try to outdo even the priests. This is just hubris. The function of the psychiatrist cannot be distinguished sharply enough from the mission of the clergy” (Frankl, 1947/2011. p. 78). The counsellor is therefore not called upon to direct the client’s spiritual life, but to recognize, value and nurture their natural spiritual leanings.


Frankl’s concept of a spiritual unconscious also led him to arrive at a mode of dream-interpretation that is far more satisfactory than the sometimes abstruse readings of nocturnal visions in Freudian theory. In logotherapy, dreams are not about wish-fulfilment or repressed sexual desires; instead, they are another means by which the spiritual unconscious is revealed, closely linked to the role of conscience in our spiritual life (Frankl, 1947/2011, p. 47). Frankl believed that religiousness could become repressed in the individual, but revelation would occur through dreams, which frequently have the character of a lesson, omen or message that is in some way benevolent and conducive to our spiritual awareness and development. Examples of this abound in history, in well-known examples such as The Vision of Joan of Arc (c.1299) [Fig. 5], instances where the spiritual unconscious has directed the minds of individuals and, in so doing, shaped the destiny of millions and the fate of the world. Frankl (1986) maintained that access to such higher meanings and to spiritual direction via the unconscious demanded a new psychology, a move away from focussing on basic drives or social conditioning towards a consideration of the spiritual heights to which people could aspire.


Fig. 5. Eugène Thirion. (1876). The Vision of Joan of Arc [oil on canvas]. Chautou, Church of Notre Dame, France. 


The expression depth-psychology is much in favour today. But we must ask ourselves whether it is not high time to examine human existence, even within psychotherapy, in all its many-layered extent; to look not only for its depths, but for its heights as well. To do so we would have deliberately to reach out not only beyond the sphere of the physical, but also beyond that of the psychic, and take in the realm of what we shall in this book call the spiritual aspects of man. (p. 8)


The spiritual unconscious is to be understood as a higher aspect of the self, a personal and individual attribute whilst also being a “transpersonal” and “transhuman” (Frankl, 1947/2011, p. 48) agent. Frankl stressed the idiosyncratic nature of a person’s conscience, which is fallible and may conflict with another person’s sense of what is right. Thus, conscience communicates possible meanings and serves as a guide to what a person should do in a particular situation, meanings that are to be distinguished from values, which are more universally shared. It is important to emphasize that, despite the moral character of conscience and its directives, and this quality being “transcendent of man” (Frankl, 1947/2011, p. 60), it is not, in Frankl’s thought, the presence of God in people, being “neither divine nor omniscient” (p. 70). This sometimes-dormant, inner, spiritual voice is more of a “repressed angel” (p. 65). Nevertheless, Frankl did maintain that conscience is related to our responsibility before God. It helps the person to meaningful choice in the world and so is of profound existential significance. It follows that logotherapy is only able to work with meaning by engaging with the spiritual: “a psychotherapy which not only recognizes man’s spirit, but actually starts from it may be termed logotherapy. In this connection, logos is intended to signify ‘the spiritual’ and, beyond that, ‘the meaning’” (Frankl, 1946/1986, p. xvi).


Conscience therefore guides each person to meaning, provides the targets upon which they may focus their will and defines them as a self-transcendent being, for “this, human existence – at least as long as it has not been neurotically distorted – is always directed to something, or someone, other than itself, be it a meaning to fulfil or another person to encounter lovingly” (Frankl, 1947/2011, p. 84). According to Frankl, this fundamental need or will to meaning is what drives each of us forward as we struggle and strive in the course of our lives. This was the conclusion he reached in the concentration camps he survived during World War II where he observed that it was the prisoners who somehow managed to hold on to a cherished meaning, create new meaning or project meaning into the future who had the greatest chance of survival (Frankl, 1946/2008). Frankl was himself sustained by his attempt to rewrite his confiscated manuscript on scraps of salvaged paper and through comforting visions of his wife, whose loving countenance was called to his mind when he gazed at sunsets, divine beauty that even man’s greatest cruelty could not obscure [Fig. 6]. What would life be without meaning?


Fig. 6. Caspar David Friedrich. (1836). Two men gazing at a sunset [oil on canvas]. Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia. 




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Blake, W. (c.1796). Albion Rose [coloured etching]. British Museum, London, United Kingdom.


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Cranach, L. (1526). Adam and Eve [oil on panel]. Courtauld Gallery, London, United Kingdom.


Frankl, V. (1946/1986). The doctor and the soul. Souvenir.


Frankl, V. (1946/2008). Man’s search for meaning. Rider.


Frankl, V. (1947/2011). Man’ search for ultimate meaning. Rider.


Friedrich, C. (1836). Two men gazing at a sunset [oil on canvas]. Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia.


Grünewald, M. (1512-26). The Resurrection (detail), from the IsenheimAltarpiece [oil on panel]. Unterlinden Museum, Colmar, Alsace, France.

Martin, W. (2011). The judgment of Adam: Self-consciousness and normative orientation in Lucas Cranach’s Eden. In J. Parry (Ed.), Art and Phenomenology (pp. 105-137). Routledge.


Schulenberg, S. E., Nassif, C., Hutzell, R. R. & Rogina, J. M. (2008). Logotherapy for clinical practice. Psychotherapy Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 45(4), 447–463.


Southwick, S. M., Gilmartin, R., McDonough, P. & Morissey, M. (2006). Logotherapy as an adjunctive treatment for Chronic Combat-related PTSD: A meaning-based intervention. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 60(2), 161-174.


Thangka of Shakyamuni Buddha [pigment on cloth]. (18th Century). Rubin Museum of Art, New York, United States.


Thirion, E. (1876). The Vision of Joan of Arc [oil on canvas]. Chautou, Church of Notre Dame, France.


Thompson, N. J., Coker, J., Krause, J. S. & Henry, E. (2003). Purpose in life as a mediator of adjustment after spinal cord injury. Rehabilitation Psychology, 48(2), 100–108.


Zuehlke, T. E. & Watkins, J. T. (1977). Psychotherapy with terminally ill patients. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 14(4), 403-410.




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