“To imagine a language means to imagine a form of life.”
Philosophical Investigations, §19
“If ‘forms of life’ is so important for Wittgenstein’s philosophy, as the speakers seem to suggest, why does he hardly ever mention it?” This cheeky question, put to the four speakers during the subsequent discussion, may be dismissed as just a witty, irreverent interlude in an otherwise earnest conference session, but it’s also a question that deserves some kind of answer. The short one is simply that the term “forms of life”, as the above quotation shows, is closely linked with Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language. And, arguably, Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language is the essence of Wittgenstein’s whole philosophy, period.
The first speaker, Professor J. van Brakel of Leuven University in Belgium, put his finger on the connection when he said, “…that people understand one another and themselves is due to their common participation in certain forms, patterns, modes, ways or forms of life. […] Forms of life is that which makes meaning in a community possible. It refers to the complex of natural and cultural circumstances which are presupposed in using language.”
The meaning of words in a language is not given by a kind of inner definition carried around by the speaker, or by a direct labelling of things in the world by words, but by the way in which the word is used within the language speaking community in what Wittgenstein called “the language game”. Hence “The meaning of a word is its use in language.” (PI §43) As the use of a language is part of a wider network of social practices, that means to properly understand the meaning of a word, you have to understand these social practices. This explains Wittgenstein’s famous remark that, “If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.” (PI, IIxi). When the lion talks, therefore, what it says can only be understood by someone who can share the social context of the lion.
For Wittgenstein, language is not just a means of communication. To a large extent, language defines our whole experience of the world. “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” (Tractatus, p184) These reflections on the connection for Wittgenstein between language, society and the world explain why scholars are so interested in the role of “forms of life” in Wittgenstein’s thought.
There is clearly, then, some connection between meaning, language, and “forms of life”. Understanding what precisely forms of life are and what the connection is, were the two key preoccupations of the speakers.
The first question was raised by the typographically significant title of Professor van Brakel’s talk, Form(s) of Life. Is there one or many human form of life? Van Brakel attempted to collapse the “either/or” into a “both” by arguing that “form(s) of life should be understood in the singular and plural […]. It would be incorrect to talk of many human forms of life, because all have in common their humanness. It will also be incorrect to talk about one human form of life – there are variations around the common core.”
Van Brakel went on to argue that ‘although there is an intimate relation between language games and forms of life, it is wrong to speak of an identification. Language games should not be equated with forms of life, they are there as features of forms of life.’
The theme of the relation between forms of life and language was also taken up by Hans-Johann Glock of Reading University in his attempt to go ‘back to Wittgensteinian basics’. Glock traced the development of Wittgenstein’s ideas about language from his early period Tractatus to his later work. One major change is that, whereas in the Tractatus Wittgenstein argued that the context within which a word has to understood is a proposition, his later idea was that this context has to be expanded to the whole communal context – the form of life – in which the word is used. Secondly, in his later philosophy, forms of life replace simple objects as the very foundation of language. “What has to be accepted, the given is – so one could say – forms of life.” (PI IIxi)
This, Glock argued, is crucial to understanding Wittgenstein’s relativism. He is not a relativist about truth – Wittgenstein believes that matters of empirical fact are true or false. But the conceptual framework within which we form empirical propositions is given by our form of life, and there is no reason to suppose that there is only one possible form of life, or that our form of life reflects the essence of reality. Different conceptual schemes are better or worse only in so far as they help us achieve certain goals.
Barry Curtis of Hawaii University agreed that forms of life are at the very foundation of Wittgenstein’s philosophy and discussed the way in which the concept fits into Wittgenstein’s philosophy of mind, and in particular to the problem of knowledge of other minds. Taking up the idea that forms of life are given, and agreeing to a certain extent with Glock’s point that there are many possible forms of life, Curtis suggested that they are “beyond being justified or unjustified.” It is beyond being justified because it is not a product of reason, but of general practice. It is beyond being unjustified because no-one could use reason to make us give it up. Life experiences or changes in circumstances could make change forms of life, but not reason.
Wittgenstein talks of “primitive reactions”, which Curtis argued are a sub-class of forms of life, distinguished from others because they are always responses and always simple behaviours. The idea is that our recognition that other people have minds – manifest, for example, to our response to someone being in pain – is such a primitive reaction, and hence part of a form of life. If Curtis is right, the long-running philosophical attempt to provide a rational basis for our belief in other minds is a chimera, because forms of life are both rationally ungrounded and rationally unassailable.
The final speaker, David Simpson from Wollongong University, distinguished between two types of interpretation of “Forms of Life”: the ethnological, “which is roughly equivalent with ‘way of life’, something like a set of practices and patterns of agreement”; and the organic, which is roughly “a mode of our distinct biological or organic being.” While the former finds echoes in the earlier speakers, the second is somewhat different. On this reading, forms of life are rationally unjustified, as Curtis argued, but they are explained as propensities we share because we are “similarly evolved organisms subjected to similar training and environment.”
Simpson claimed that neither the ethnological nor organic interpretation is wholly satisfactory, and suggests that “we’d do better, as a matter of interpretation, to see Wittgenstein’s use of the expression as part of an attempt to develop a type of naturalism which rejects the dichotomy suggested by the interpretative puzzle.” Thus the term “form of life” expresses the interconnected complex of language, action, the biological, social processes and psychological processes.
While the four speakers clearly each understood “forms of life” differently, there was also clear agreement on fundamentals: all agreed that, in some way, a form of life is that which we share, without having consciously decided to do so, and which enables our language, and hence also our lives, to have meaning. Given that, it’s no wonder that there’s so much debate and interest in working out the details