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Form of life (philosophy)

Form of life (German: Lebensform) was a technical term first used by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Later, the term was adopted by others in the continental philosophy and philosophy of science traditions. Wittgenstein himself used the term sparingly in his works Philosophical Investigations and On Certainty. Other writers have gone on to use the term in many ways.


Comments about a form of life are not explanations meant to comprehend the concept as a whole. The view that stringing together simple, non-controversial statements of ordinary understanding will illuminate something that is supposedly already understood is, in Wittgenstein's view, quite nonsensical. The concept of 'form of life' itself, for example, is extremely difficult to get right, as is indicated by the widely divergent 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 false and what is true?" – It is what human beings say that is false and true; 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 not in original])

Ordinarily, humans do not step away from their activities in order to justify how or why they say and do what they say and do. However, their activities, when investigated in an historical way, will be found to reflect a particular form of life.

When such questions do arise, a philosophical investigation will involve reminding the questioner of certain things he or she takes for granted and which, when noted, can help dissolve the question. We do what we do because we assume a given form of life, which gives our actions, ourselves, and the world meaning. Form of life is what makes meaning itself possible.

Use by AgambenEdit

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 alsoEdit



  • 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.
  • 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; 3rd edition, 202. ISBN 9780631231271

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