Summary of Oswald Hanfling’s, The Quest for Meaning

Photograph of the smashed interior of the Berlin synagogueThe interior of the Fasanenstrasse Synagogue in Berlin after Kristallnacht

Harmless Self-Deception

Oswald Hanfling (1927-2005) was born in Berlin but when his parents had their business vandalized on Kristallnacht in 1938, he was sent to England to live with a foster family. He left school at the age of 14 and for the next 25 years worked as a businessman. Bored, he returned to school eventually earning a PhD in 1971. Hanfling was appointed as a lecturer at the Open University in 1970 and worked there until retiring as a professor in 1993.

Hanfling’s book-length text, The Quest for Meaning (1987), begins by suggesting that our profound sounding question may admit of no answer. It is simply not clear what kind of answer we seek when we ask what the meaning of life or grass or an ocean is. A similar difficulty arises if we ask what purpose of life is.

Despite these worries Hanfling acknowledges that the notions of meaning and purpose regarding life arise in familiar ways. Depressed persons may say that their lives lack meaning, while others may say their lives are full of meaning. In either case we have a clear idea of what such persons mean. If someone says their life is meaningless they are telling us that something is wrong with it, that it is unsatisfactory, that it is somehow lacking. In addition people worry about the meaning of life as a whole too.

Hanfling devotes the first part of his book to aspects of life that may render it meaningless—general difficulties with the possibility of purpose, suffering, and death. He finds no conclusive argument that life is meaningless, but neither can he show that worries about meaninglessness are unfounded. The second part of the book considers the value of life and the possibility of finding meaning through self-realization. He is skeptical of the claim that life is valuable or that certain values are self-evident. Moreover, none of the arguments for self-realization are convincing, and no general prescription for the good life is available. The problem with trying to realize our nature is that we don’t know what our nature is or even if one, as Sartre and other existentialists suggest.

One possible solution is to put all these questions out of our minds by devoting ourselves to our jobs, social roles, or other prescriptions of our traditions. However, radical questioning may return and destroy this stasis by undermining our uncritical acceptance of our traditions. In response we might hold on tighter to our traditions by keeping questions out of our minds. But is putting these questions out of our minds self-deception? When a waiter plays the role of a waiter is that self-deception? How about actors who lose themselves in their roles? Hanfling argues that we are better off if we play at being a waiter, actor, or philosophy professor. This may be self-deception, but it is of the benign kind.

These considerations lead Hanfling to consider that just as being rational, social, intellectual, aesthetic, or moral may lead to self-realization, so too may play. Hanfling has in mind an attitude opposed to seriousness, the free expression in an activity of what we are. (We will see this echoed later in the piece by Schlick.) We play by treating supposedly serious concerns with a playful outlook. All of this leads to Hanfling’s conclusion:

The human propensity for playing, for finding meaning in play and for projecting the spirit of play into all kinds of activities, is a remedy for the existentialist’s anguish, and for the lack of an ultimate purpose of life or prescription for living. If we can deduce such prescriptions neither from a natural nor from a supernatural source … we can still help ourselves through the spirit of play, finding fulfillment in the playing of a role or in regarding what we do as a kind of game. This is a kind of self-deception, but it is not irrational or morally wrong. We are, rather, taking advantage of certain properties of man, of Homo ludens, which make life more satisfying than it would otherwise be.[i]

Summary – While the question of the meaning of life may not make sense and there are no general answers, we will live better if we benignly deceive ourselves and play as if there is meaning to our lives.


[i] Oswald Hanfling, A Quest for Meaning (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987), 214.

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