Form of life (philosophy)

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Form of life (German: Lebensform) is a term used sparingly by Ludwig Wittgenstein in posthumously published works Philosophical Investigations, On Certainty and in parts of his Nachlass. The term itself is ambigously understood, giving grounds for a universal or relativistic understanding of Wittgenstein's philosophy and as such should not be presented here as a either the one or the other.[1]


Generally the notion of form(s) of life should be considered in unison with Wittgenstein's use of certainty and application of the term vary in a great many ways. The general opinion or agreement amongst scholars however, seem to revolve around how to identify or set one lifeform apart from others. I.e. roughly meaning that one could describe how or why a human is different from other animals or how one culture differs from another.

Here lies also the ambiguity of what properties to focus on when deciding, being it historical, biological, cultural and so on. The most agreed upon perspective is that of the cultural, referring to how a human being regularly lives its life within a cultural context and this is what also defines its form of life.

Philosophical Investigations[edit]

There is mention of Lebensform or form of life five times throughout the Philosophical Investigations (PI)[2] in paragraphs PI: 19, PI: 23 and PI: 241 as well as in part two PPF: 174 and PPF: 229 (formerly PI II).

It is easy to imagine a language consisting only of orders and reports in battle. – Or a language consisting only of questions and expressions for answering Yes and No – and countless other things. –– And to imagine a language means to imagine a form of life. (PI: 19)

The word "language-game" is used here to emphasize the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a form of life. (PI: 23)

"So you are saying that human agreement decides what is true and what is false?" – What is true or false is what human beings say; and it is in their language that human beings agree. This is agreement not in opinions, but rather in form of life. (PI: 241)

Wittgenstein in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (TLP) was concerned with the structure of language, responding to Frege and Russell. Later, Wittgenstein found the need to revise the view held in the TLP as he did not resolve issues concerning elementary propositions. Leading up to the revised view in the PI, still concerned with language, now concerning how it is used and not insisting that it has an inherent structure or set of rules. Deriving from this that language comes about as a result of i.e. human activity.

Use by Agamben[edit]

Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben takes up the intersecting concepts of form-of-life, rule-following and use, but besides attempting to deconstruct what Wittgenstein meant, traces these concepts genealogically, in the manner of Stirner or Rousseau. In The Highest Poverty – Monastic Rules and Form-of-Life, Agamben looks at the emerging genre of written rules starting in the 9th century, and its development into both law and something beyond law in the Franciscan form-of-life, in which the Franciscans replaced the idea that we possess our life (or objects generally) with the concept of 'usus', that is 'use'. Agamben finds earlier versions of form-of-life in monastic rules, developing from 'vita vel regula', 'regula et vita', 'forma vivendi', and 'forma vitae'. Thus Agamben takes Wittgenstein's concepts and applies them to the history of Western monasticism in order to rethink the consequences of these concepts for doing (contemporary) politics — the main goal of his Homo Sacer-project, which started with Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life and to which The Highest Poverty belongs.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Biletzki, Anat; Matar, Anat (2020), "Ludwig Wittgenstein", in Zalta, Edward N. (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2020 ed.), Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, retrieved 2020-12-13
  2. ^ Wittgenstein, Ludwig, 1889-1951. (2009). Philosophische Untersuchungen = Philosophical investigations. Anscombe, G. E. M. (Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret), Hacker, P. M. S. (Peter Michael Stephan), Schulte, Joachim. (Rev. 4th ed.). Chichester, West Sussex, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 978-1-4051-5928-9. OCLC 368019558.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)


  • Giorgio Agamben. "The Highest Poverty: Monastic Rules and Form-of-Life". Translated by Adam Kotsko. Stanford University Press 2013.
  • David Kishik, "Wittgenstein's Form of Life" (London: Continuum, 2008). ISBN 9781847062239
  • Jesús Padilla Gálvez; Margit Gaffal, "Forms of Life and Language Games". (Heusenstamm, Ontos Verlag, 2011). ISBN 9783868381221 [1]
  • Jesús Padilla Gálvez, Margit Gaffal (Eds.): Doubtful Certainties. Language-Games, Forms of Life, Relativism. Ontos Verlag, Frankfurt a. M., Paris, Lancaster, New Brunswick 2012, ISBN 9783868381719.
  • Ludwig Wittgenstein. Philosophical Investigations: The German Text, with a Revised English Translation 50th Anniversary Commemorative Edition. Trns, G.E.M. Anscombe. Wiley-Blackwell; 3rd edition, 202. ISBN 9780631231271

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