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Oswald Hanfling

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Oswald Hanfling
Hanfling in 1972
BornDecember 21, 1927
Berlin, Germany
DiedOctober 25, 2005 (aged 77)
Academic background
Alma materBirkbeck College, University of London
ThesisPleasure, Pain and Emotion (1971)
Doctoral advisorDavid Hamlyn
InfluencesLudwig Wittgenstein
Academic work
InstitutionsOpen University

Oswald Hanfling (21 December 1927 – 25 October 2005) was an ordinary language philosopher who worked at the UK's Open University from 1970, until his retirement in 1993. At the Open University he, together with Stuart Brown and Godfrey Vesey, pioneered the teaching of philosophy to a higher-education standard via the means of BBC-broadcast radio and television programmes and written course books.[1]

Early life[edit]

Oswald Hanfling was born in Berlin in 1927. His parents were Jewish and when their business was vandalised on Kristallnacht in 1938, he was sent to England by Kindertransport and lived in Bedford with a foster family. After the Second World War, he traced his family to Israel, with the help of the Red Cross.[2]

Hanfling left school at the age of 14 to become an "office boy". For the next 25 years he worked in business, eventually running his own employment agency for au pairs. He told his students that he had picked up the English language through reading comics as a young boy.


Bored by business, Hanfling studied 'A' levels and then enrolled on a Bachelor of Arts in philosophy by correspondence at Birkbeck College. He gained a first, then embarked on a PhD, which he completed in 1971.

Academic work[edit]

Hanfling was appointed as a lecturer at the Open University in 1970, and worked there until retiring as a professor in 1993. The primary influence on his thought was the later Wittgenstein.[3]


It was impossible to tell, either from his conversation or from his writings, that Hanfling was not a native English speaker. He once commented to Elizabeth Anscombe that he found it strange that Wittgenstein had continued to write in German throughout his life. Anscombe, who must have assumed that Hanfling was English, replied that only someone who wasn’t able to read Wittgenstein in German could have made that remark.[2][3]

He was greatly admired by his students. He taught a number of Williams College students, who went to Oxford University as part of the Williams-Exeter program. He was passionate about Wittgenstein's later works and a strong advocate of ordinary language philosophy. He was averse to jargon and insisted on the use of ordinary prose in writing and speech. He was so particular about grammar and the use of words that he would often ask his students to explain their use of a comma in a particular place.

Personal life[edit]

Hanfling spent the rest of his life in England with his wife Helga, a fellow German refugee and an acclaimed painter, and their two daughters.

In 2007 a one-day conference on Wittgenstein was held, at the Walton Hall Campus on the OU, Milton Keynes, in honour of Hanfling.[4]


  • Logical Positivism, Blackwell, 1981, ISBN 978-0-631-12853-3 (his first book)[5]
  • Essential Readings in Logical Positivism, (Editor), Blackwell, 1981, ISBN 978-0631125662
  • The Quest For Meaning, Blackwell,1987, ISBN 978-0-631-15333-7[6]
  • Life and Meaning: A Philosophical Reader (Editor), Blackwell, 1988, ISBN 978-0-631-15784-7[6]
  • Wittgenstein's Later Philosophy, Palgrave Macmillan, 1989, ISBN 978-0-333-47575-1
  • Philosophical Aesthetics (Contributing Editor), Blackwell, 1992 ISBN 978-0-631-18035-7
  • "I heard a plaintive memory" in: (ed.) A. Phillips, Griffiths, Wittgenstein Centenary Essays, Royal Institute of Philosophy supplement 28 (1991)
  • Ayer, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997, ISBN 978-0-7538-0182-6
  • Philosophy and Ordinary Language: The Bent and Genius of Our Tongue, Routledge, 2003, ISBN 978-0-415-32277-5
  • Wittgenstein and the Human Form of Life, Routledge, 2002, ISBN 0-415-25645-3


  1. ^ Lewis, Peter B. (2006), "Hanfling, Oswald", in Grayling, A.C.; Goulder, Naomi; Pyle, Andrew (eds.), The Continuum Encyclopedia of British Philosophy, Continuum, doi:10.1093/acref/9780199754694.001.0001, ISBN 978-0-19-975469-4, retrieved 3 December 2023
  2. ^ a b October 25, 2005, December 21, 1927-. "Oswald Hanfling". The Times. ISSN 0140-0460. Retrieved 3 July 2021.{{cite news}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link) CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  3. ^ a b Glock, Hans-Johann (29 November 2005). "Oswald Hanfling". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 3 December 2023.
  4. ^ "Wittgenstein: a one-day conference in honour of Oswald Hanfling, Department of Philosophy, The Open University". Open.ac.uk. 20 July 2007. Archived from the original on 5 March 2016. Retrieved 20 February 2016.
  5. ^ O'Hear, Anthony (1983). "Review of Logical Positivism". The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science. 34 (3): 303–306. ISSN 0007-0882.
  6. ^ a b Phillips, D. Z. (1989). "Review of The Quest for Meaning; Life and Meaning, Oswald Hanfling". Philosophy. 64 (248): 266–268. ISSN 0031-8191.

External links[edit]

Open University television programmes presented by Hanfling available for viewing via their digital archives: