Form of life (philosophy)

Form of life 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:
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 Agamben

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 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 politics — the main goal of his Homo Sacer-project, which started with and to which The Highest Poverty belongs.