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. While the term is often used in various ways by Wittgenstein, it connotes the sociological, historical, linguistic, physiological, and behavioral determinants that comprise the matrix within which a given language has meaning. Although akin to and perhaps based on Spengler's civilization model, Wittgenstein never used the term dogmatically but rather non-theoretically.

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 illumination comes about because the human animal engages various forms of life, that vary but agree at the most basic levels. This explains how, for example, travelers from one culture to another can understand the other culture's language, customs, and behavior.

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.

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