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In Critique of Forms of Life, Rahel Jaeggi offers a timely intervention into debates surrounding pluralism and social change through questioning the possibility of criticism of ‘forms of life’: forms of human co-existence that include ensembles of practices and orientations, including their institutional manifestations. This is a fresh and insightful contribution to a critical theory of society that shows that only through critically engaging with forms of life can their plurality be strengthened and maintained, writes Rahel Süß.

Critique of Forms of Life. Rahel Jaeggi (trans. by Ciaran Cronin). Belknap Press/Harvard University Press. 2018.

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In Critique of Forms of Life, Rahel Jaeggi offers a timely intervention in the debate around pluralism and social change. The subject of this new book is the question of the possibility of criticism of forms of life. This notion of ‘forms of life’ points to forms of human co-existence that include ‘ensembles of practices and orientations’ as well as ‘their institutional manifestation and materializations’ (3).

In contrast to most influential positions in contemporary political philosophy, Jaeggi convincingly argues that forms of life are not subjects of taste but of critique. Drawing from John Dewey, Hegel and Alasdair MacIntyre among others, Jaeggi shows that liberal thinkers’ ‘ethical abstinence’ (13) is so far removed from serving as a reference point for critique that, ultimately, their supposed emancipatory potential is thrown into question. Instead, it is to Jaeggi’s credit that she argues that an acknowledgment of a plurality of forms of life can still uphold a general idea of emancipation. Accordingly, her original contribution lies in showing that only through critically engaging with forms of life can their plurality be strengthened and maintained.

Jaeggi is Professor of Social Philosophy at Humboldt University and the Director of the Berlin Campus of the International Center for Humanities and Social Change, which focuses on crises of capitalism and democracy. She has written extensively on questions of philosophical anthropology, social ontology and ethics and in her work aims to reinvigorate critical thought by bringing into dialogue Continental and Anglo-American philosophical traditions. Jaeggi’s thought-provoking new book is therefore contextualised within recent developments in the critical theory of society.

In the debate around ethical pluralism, Jaeggi shifts attention onto the question of a good life. Unlike John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas, who proclaimed an irreducible ethical pluralism that opposes questions of the good life in favour of issues of justice, Jaeggi stresses the need to address such questions. Her critique rests upon the idea that there is a formal element to forms of life: namely, their ability to ‘experimentally’ (274) learn from crises that can serve as reference points for judgement and rational transformations.

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Critique of Forms of Life is divided into four parts and a longer Introduction where the author sets out the themes of the book. The first section turns to the question of what constitutes a form of life. What is suggested here is to apply the concept to everyday activities by referring to forms of life as a ‘cluster of social practices […] that are interconnected and interrelated’ (41). As an example, a family life with children stands for a ‘manifestation of a general form of life’ that is shaped not only by habitualised collective modes but also political and economic conditions such as the ‘existence or nonexistence of public childcare facilities’ (4).

Picking up on the definition by which forms of life find embodiment in social practices, the second part develops a specific normativity of forms of life. The basic line of Jaeggi’s argument follows the idea that forms of life constitute attempts to solve problems of coping with life. This assumption is followed in the third part by a call for ‘immanent criticism’ (195), in which criticism and self-criticism are intertwined. In the fourth and final section, the author makes a strong point in claiming that the specific rationality of forms of life is anchored in an experimental learning process. From this idea Jaeggi draws the conclusion that the success or failure of forms of life is due to their ability to learn from crises and transform them.

Returning to look at the second part in more detail, here Jaeggi develops the idea of a specific normativity of forms of life. Noticeably, the concept of ‘problem-solving’ (133) forms the core of Jaeggi’s argument. Rather than developing a general model of the right form of life, the author chooses a negativistic approach by focusing on the historically and culturally specific ways in which a form of life can fail. Engaging with Dewey’s notion of ‘problems’, whereby problems are both ‘at once given and made’ (140), Jaeggi argues that criticism of forms of life begins where problems and conflicts arise. As carefully described by the author, you can compare and evaluate forms of life because they are either in line with other forms of life or differ in their approach to provide strategies for coping with problems (172).

The fourth part of the book is dedicated to the subject of social change and pluralism, specifically addressing the dynamics and rationality of forms of life. What is suggested by Jaeggi is that forms of life are grounded in a crisis-induced rationality of transformation. This emphasis on a rationality of crisis serves to make a convincing case for a notion of problem-solving action as an experimental learning process (238-40). Jaeggi interestingly argues that in the same way that attempts to solve problems can be described as a learning process, they also operate as a criterion for the success of forms of life (216).

Another central topic of the fourth section of the book is the discussion of an ‘experimental pluralism of forms of life’ (319, emphasis in original). As critically reflected upon by Jaeggi, problem-solving action is always experimental as ‘solutions can neither be derived directly nor ascertained in advance, but rely on innovative testing – on trying things out in the mode of trial and error’ (240). Because solutions for problems can never be fully planned, there is a plurality of experimental approaches to solutions. Here the book draws the promising conclusion that ‘forms of life, precisely to the extent that they constitute attempts to solve problems, should be conceived as experiments’ (318).

Jaeggi’s Critique of Forms of Life is a comprehensive work that certainly offers an important contribution to a critical theory of society and is addressed to students of philosophy and politics specifically interested in recent discussions of pluralism and social change. The original potential of the book lies in an experimental notion of pluralism that aims to offer a fresh and insightful approach to a critique of forms of life.

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Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of USAPP– American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the reviewer

Rahel Süß – Vienna University
Rahel Süß is a Teaching Fellow at Vienna University’s Department of Political Science and currently Visiting Scholar at Duke University’s Franklin Humanities Institute and Social Movements Lab. As a political theorist she is exploring the contemporary crisis of liberal democracy and the role experimental action plays in the transformation of democratic politics. Rahel is the co-editor of the engagée journal for politics, philosophy, and art. @RahelSuess

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