philosophy and ethics

Forms of Life and Subjectivity: Rethinking Sartre’s Philosophy 

Sartreby Daniel Rueda Garrido

First, the publisher's blurb...

Forms of Life and Subjectivity: Rethinking Sartre’s Philosophy explores the fundamental question of why we act as we do. Informed by an ontological and phenomenological approach, and building mainly, but not exclusively, on the thought of Sartre, Daniel Rueda Garrido considers the concept of a "form of life” as a term that bridges the gap between subjective identity and communities.

This first systematic ontology of "forms of life” seeks to understand why we act in certain ways, and why we cling to certain identities, such as nationalisms, social movements, cultural minorities, racism, or religion. The answer, as Rueda Garrido argues, depends on an understanding of ourselves as "forms of life” that remains sensitive to the relationship between ontology and power, between what we want to be and what we ought to be. 

Structured in seven chapters, Rueda Garrido’s investigation yields illuminating and timely discussions of conversion, the constitution of subjectivity as an intersubjective self, the distinction between imitation and reproduction, the relationship between freedom and facticity, and the dialectical process by which two particular ways of being and acting enter into a situation of assimilation-resistance, as exemplified by capitalist and artistic forms of life.

This ambitious and original work will be of great interest to scholars and students of philosophy, social sciences, cultural studies, psychology and anthropology. Its wide-ranging reflection on the human being and society will also appeal to the general reader of philosophy.

My review...

There are two ways of approaching an individual philosopher of the past, or any historical character, come to that. One is to try to find what is distinctive in his or her thought, setting aside common assumptions and philosophical movements, exploring a unique contribution. The other, almost the norm within academic discussion, is to find connections, links, patterns; to relate an individual thinker to more general movements of thought, and thereby to ‘place’ and understand him or her.   A good biographer, or sensitive philosophical interpreter does both – establishing a balance between the unique self and the world in which he or she finds herself embedded.

And that is my fundamental problem with this book – apart from the fact that I approach it as an interested layman, not an academic specialist in the field. It is a re-interpretation of Sartre in ways that enable his work to be appreciated within the broad analytic tradition. It is interesting, but is it Sartre? 

Mention ‘form of life’ and philosophers think of Wittgenstein, for whom is describes the context within which language is used and finds its meaning. But when applied to Sartre, it means something quite different – the underlying reality of our life, once the individual things that give it meaning have been bracketed out. In the preface, a form of life is described as ‘an ontological principle that constitutes all our daily activities.’

The book is relentlessly logical – as philosophy should be – but it presents logical arguments in which abstract terms and linked into the most profound of arguments that remain so abstract that they require serious mental work if they are to be understood by any other than academics with a good working background in the subject.

In terms of ethics, the book explored the broad distinction between theories that emphasise the freedom of the individual, and those that see him or her as primarily embedded within the ‘facticity’ of life, or the circumstances within which one finds oneself – or into which one is ‘thrown’, to use Heidegger’s term. The argument runs from Plato and Augustine, via Herder and Hegel through to Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger.

He explores issues of conversion (which involves a change in our ‘form of life’), of the nature of habits, and questions of identity. Essentially, forms of life are the structures of personal experience that define and shape who we are. They permit us a measure of freedom, but at the same time – because they come from outside us – they appear to determine who we can be.

In a major feature of the latter part of the book, he explores capitalism as a ‘form of life’, and in particular the neo-liberalist view.  Here the argument benefits from concrete examples, as when he explores the way in which the enclosures of common land in England at the end of the 18th and early 19th centuries deprived landworkers (he calls them peasants) of the possibility of sustaining themselves and turned them into wage labourers, or the unemployed.

So, is this book worth the hard work and potential headache?   If you are an academic philosopher, then I have little doubt that you will find it an easier read, and well worth exploring.  If you are into political philosophy, the later chapters will be of particular interest; if you are thinking about the nature of the self, with its habitual patterns of thought and its ability to change direction, then there are sections for you. And, above all, if you are into Sartre, then this gives a very different perspective on his work from books that see him as the prime exemplar of existentialism.

The book seeks to relate the ‘I’ of subjectivity to the ‘we’ of inter-subjectivity. That is, of course, an absolutely crucial issue for understanding the self, ethics and politics.  I just wish the author had taken a leaf out of Sartre’s book(s) and made the text more user-friendly by using more concrete examples to illustrate his argument.

Take a look… by the time you are a third of the way through, you’ll either be loving it or despairing of academic philosophy!

To download your free pdf from Open Book Publishers, click here.




For those who are coming new to Sartre and would like a basic introduction to existentialism...


Or, for questions of identity and how we understand ourselves against that 'form of life', try...