Background on Existentialism

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The existentialist movement was not created by any one individual, rather it came into being in different parts of Europe in the 1940's and 1950's. The roots of existentialism may be found in the works of several modern philosophers including Dostoyevski (1821 - 1881), Kierkegaard (1813 - 1855), Nietzsche (1844 - 1900), Heidegger (1889 - 1976), and Sartre (1905 - 1980).

Existentialism emphasizes the existence rather than the essence. It suggests that there is no truth or reality except as we participate in it. Life is not a spectator sport or event, all who live must participate in order to get anything out of life.

The existential approach was developed as a reaction to two then dominant models of psychology, psychoanalysis and behaviorism. The psychoanalytic position believes that freedom is restricted and is determined by irrational forces that are biological and psychosexual in nature and come from the unconscious as instincts and drives. The behavioristic position believes that freedom is restricted by sociocultural conditioning. The existentialist position is that people are basically free to make their own choices (Corey, 1991a).

Viktor Frankl was one of the main influences behind the popularity of existential therapy. He introduced his own system of existential therapy, called Logotherapy. Frankl was once asked to tell the difference between Logotherapy and psychoanalysis in one sentence, he then asked his questioner to define psychoanalysis in one sentence, the result was, "Psychoanalysis is where the patient must lie on a couch and tell you things that are sometimes very disagreeable to tell." From this Frankl then defined Logotherapy as, "Logotherapy is where the patient may remain sitting erect, but must hear things which are sometimes very disagreeable to hear." Frankl went on to say that psychoanalysis is retrospective and introspective and focuses on the past. Logotherapy focuses on the future, meanings to be fulfilled by the patient in the future. In Logotherapy the patient is confronted with and reoriented toward the meaning of his/her life (Frankl, 1985).

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