In Appreciation of “Head”and “Heart,” Abstract and Concrete, Theoretical and Existential, Forms of Knowledge

Viktor Frankl Giving a Lecture to His Students

The Value of Abstract or Theoretical Knowledge

Many men and women prepare themselves in undergraduate and graduate studies to become professional counselors, psychotherapists and social workers. Of course, such academic preparation is absolutely vital in understanding and helping those who have psychological problems. There certainly is, then, value in textbook-knowledge, giving a student a theoretical or abstract understanding human beings, especially their potential problems and possible solutions to them.


The Value of Concrete or Experiential Knowledge

The counselor’s personal experience, especially learning from his or her sufferings, can also be very beneficial to his or her clients. Of course, it is not necessary for the counselor to undergo the same kind of sufferings as his or her clients in order to be a good counselor.

Nevertheless, to know with the “heart” (from personal experience), not merely the “head” (from reading and reasoning alone) may convey a genuine sense of empathy to clients, so that they, at least, feel understood. The Catholic bishop-philosopher Fulton Sheen writes,

“The best healer is the person who himself has been hurt. The best consoler of the lonely is one who knows what loneliness is. Counselors who have never felt alone … can never impart a true sense of caring. Somewhere, somehow, there has to be hidden in the healing universe hands that have been hurt and scarred.”1

Viktor Frankl’s Unique Balance of Abstract and Concrete Knowledge

For example, psychiatrist Viktor Frankl had suffered for three years in Hitler’s concentration camps during World War II. Not only that, but his mother, father, brother, wife and unborn child died in the camps. Frankl wrote about his experiences in the book Man’s Search for Meaning(1984). He explained one of the reasons for having written his book, saying,

“I had wanted simply to convey to the reader by way of a concrete example that life holds a potential meaning under any conditions, even the most miserable ones. And I thought that if the point were demonstrated in a situation as extreme as that in a concentration camp, my book might gain a hearing. I therefore felt responsible for writing down what I had gone through, for I thought it might be helpful to people who are prone to despair.”2

Frankl was an effective counselor of patients who were in despair. But it was not simply because he had read about despair in philosophy and psychology textbooks. He also learned what despair was by firsthand experience, because of his sufferings in the concentration camps. Elsewhere, Frankl writes, “One must go through his own existential despair if he is to immunize his patients against it.”3 In other words, because a doctor has experienced despair, he or she may be able to help those who are in despair.

The Value of Book-Knowledge and Heart-Knowledge

Book-knowledge is valuable in helping others; so, too, is experiential knowledge. I think that Fulton Sheen’s opinion, which has been proven time and again, is right: The best healers are those who have been hurt and learned from it. The best consolers who those who have been consoled in their suffering. The imparting of a real sense of caring for the client comes not only from the counselor’s head but also his or her heart, for a counselor is not merely a cognitive machine but a feeling, human being.


1. Fulton J. Sheen, Footprints in a Darkened Forest (New York, N.Y.: Meredith Press, 1967), p. 29.
2. Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 3rd ed. (New York, N.Y.: Simon and Schuster, 1984), p. 12.
3. ———-, The Will to Meaning: Foundations and Applications of Logotherapy (New York, N.Y.: New American Library, 1969, 1st printing 1970), p. 137.

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