Form of life (philosophy)

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Not to be confused with Form of life, a technical term in biology, although it bears what Wittgenstein calls a Family resemblance to the biological term.

Form of life (German: Lebensform) is a non-technical term used by Ludwig Wittgenstein and others in the analytic philosophy and philosophy of language traditions, and it turns out that most of them have gotten it entirely different from how Wittgenstein, himself, used the term. While the term is often used in various ways Wittgenstein never said anything like how it has been used by others after his works Philosophical Investigations and On Certainty, in which he uses the term consistently.

Comments about a form of life are not explanations meant to comprehend any concept as a whole. Comments about a concept are simple, non-controversial, statements of ordinary understanding. Once strung together, however, the remarks illuminate something that is supposedly already understood. This is a nonsense thing to say about concepts. The concept of forms of life, for example, is extremely difficult to get right. Look at all the ridiculous things that have been said about it since Wittgenstein introduced it in the books cited above.

In response to a question from an imagined interlocutor, Wittgenstein notes the following:

"So you are saying that human agreement decides what is true and what is false?" -- It is what human beings say that is true and false; and they agree in the language they use. That is not agreement in opinions but in form of life. (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, para. 241 [emphasis in original])

Ordinarily, humans do not step away from their activities to justify how or why they do or say what they do. Indeed, some questions asked in a scientific way, for example, will reflect a particular form of life.

When such questions do arise, a philosophical investigation will involve reminding the questioner of certain things they take for granted and which, when noted, can help dissolve the question. The remarks make what we sometimes find confusing less troublesome, if need be. We simply do what we do because we assume a given form of life, which gives any understanding I might have of it or myself or the world meaning. Form of life makes meaning itself possible.

Giorgio Agamben takes up the interlinked concepts of form-of-life, rule-following and use, but does not mainly attempt to reconstruct what Wittgenstein meant, but moreover traces these concepts genealogically, like Nietzsche or Foucault. In The Highest Poverty - Monastic Rules and Form-of-Life, he looks at the emerging genre of written rules starting in the 4th century, and its development into both law and into something beyond law, which Agamben finds in the Franciscan form-of-life: Franciscans replaced the idea that we possess our life (or generally objects) with the concept of 'usus', that is 'use'.[1] Agamben finds earlier versions of form-of-life in monastic rules, developing from 'vita vel regula', 'regula et vita', 'forma vivendi', and 'forma vitae'.[2] So Agamben takes Wittgenstein's concepts but rediscovers their longer development in the history of Western monasticism, in order to rethink the consequences of these concepts for doing (contemporary) politics, which is the main goal of his Homo sacer-project, to which The Highest Poverty belongs, a project started with the book Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life.

See also[edit]


  • 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 978-3-86838-122-1 [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 978-3-86838-171-9.
  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, "Private Language, Grammar and Form of Life," in Wittgenstein
  • Ludwig Wittgenstein. Philosophical Investigations: The German Text, with a Revised English Translation 50th Anniversary Commemorative Edition. Trns, G.E.M. Anscombe. Wiley-Blackwell; 3 edition, January 15, 1991. ISBN 0-631-23127-7


  1. ^ Giorgio Agamben. "The Highest Poverty: Monastic Rules and Form-of-Life". Translated by Adam Kotsko. Stanford University Press 2013.
  2. ^ Agamben 2013, p.xii

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