Summary of Mortiz Schlick, “On the Meaning of Life”

Mortiz Schlick (1882– 1936) was a German philosopher and the founding father of logical positivism and the Vienna Circle. He was shot to death at the University of Vienna by a former student. In 1927 he penned as essay entitled “On the Meaning of Life.”

According to Schlick the innocent or childlike never ask the question of the meaning of life; others, the weary, no longer ask the question because they have concluded that there is none. “In between are ourselves, the seekers.”[i] While some lament that they have not fulfilled the goals of youth and accept that their lives are meaningless, they nevertheless believe that life is meaningful for those who have fulfilled their goals. Others achieve their goals, only to find that this achievement has not provided meaning. So it is hard to see the meaning of life. We set goals and head toward them with hope, but their achievement does not bring meaning. The goals are reached but the desire for new goals follows. There is never satisfaction, and all this longing ends in death. How then to escape all this?

Nietzsche sought to escape this pessimism thru art and then through knowledge, but neither led to meaning. He concluded that if we think of the meaning of life as a purpose, we will never find meaning. If we ask people about their purpose, most persons would say that they are working to maintain life or to stay alive, but pure existence is valueless without content. So we are caught in a circle, working to stay alive, and staying alive to keep working. Work is generally a means to an end, never an end in itself; and though some activities are intrinsically meaningful, like pleasurable ones, they are too fleeting to give life meaning.

In response Schlick argues that meaning is to be found in activities that are intrinsically valuable—where the means and the ends are united; where the means is the end. He quotes Schiller that play is the activity that carries its own purpose. Only when we have no purpose except to play will there be meaning. Work can be play, if it is doing what you want to do; that is, play and creative work may coincide. Creative play is found clearly in the work of the artist or in the search for scientific or philosophical knowledge. Almost any activity can be turned into art and Schlick wants work to become artistic; he longs for a world in which individuals engage in meaningful, joyful, playful, work. But would such an idyllic life reduce humans to an animal existence, since humans would be living for the moment rather than contemplating eternity as self-conscious beings should? Schlick says we don’t sacrifice by playing; life becomes meaningful if we do what we want to do. The result is joy, which is more than mere pleasure.

We should then be like children who are capable of joy in play (work). This passionate enthusiasm of youth, unconcerned with goals, devoted to the intrinsic nature of the play is true play. But  it seem strange that youth, the preparation for adulthood, is where the meaning of life is found? Not at all says Schlick. Humans tend to think of every imperfect state as the mere prelude to another state, in the same way they often think of this life as having completion in another. But the meaning of life, if it is to be found at all, must be found in this world. Meaning may be found in youth or adulthood or old age, if one is engaged in creative play. “The more youth is realized in life, the more valuable it is, and if a person dies young, however long he may have lived, his life has had meaning.”[ii]

Summary – The meaning of life is found in joyful play, in doing what one really wants to do.


[i] Mortiz Schlick, “On the Meaning of Life” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D. Klemke and Cahn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 62.
[ii] Mortiz Schlick, “On the Meaning of Life,” 71.

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