Oswald Hanfling on Death and Meaning

Ivory pendant of a Monk's face. The left half of the pendant appears skeletal, while the right half appears living

Oswald Hanfling (1927 – 2005) was a German philosopher who worked until his death at the Open University in the United Kingdom. We have summarized his book, The Quest for Meaning, in a previous post. In that book he also takes a stand on the issue of death and meaning which we summarize below.

Hanfling accepts as obvious the claim that meaning is affected by our knowledge of death, and agrees that “death casts a negative shadow over our lives.”[i]  Moreover, while the naturalness of death may provide some consolation from our anxiety, it does not show that our apprehension about death is misplaced. Still, Epicurus’ sound argument should mitigate our worries and provide consolation. Death is not totally bad.

But are there any overriding reasons to regard death as mostly evil? Hanfling does not think such reasons are convincing. For while I may wish to fulfill some goal and regret that I cannot, I will not be harmed after my death by the fact that I didn’t fulfill that goal. Or though one might argue that death is bad because life is good, it is unclear whether life in general is good. Similarly one might argue that merely having experiences is a good in itself, but this does not hold up either, as we are not comforted in times of misfortune by being said to have the benefit of existence. Even the fact that we generally desire life does not show that it is good. Hanfling concludes that arguments from the goodness of life to the badness of death are unsound—there are no convincing reasons to think that death is primarily bad. But none of this shows that a life without death would be meaningful; they do not show that death is necessary for meaning. Death is not necessarily good either.

In the end death is a somber prospect and not something we look forward to, but it is neither a definitive blessing nor a curse. Death makes a great difference to us, but we cannot come to any simple conclusions about the meaning of death. “Death, like life itself, is not amenable to such conclusions.”[ii]

Summary – The thought of death is unpleasant, but we cannot determine the implications of death for meaning.


[i] Oswald Hanfling, The Quest for Meaning (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987), 63.
[ii] Hanfling, The Quest for Meaning, 84.

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