Daniel Rueda Garrido: Forms of Life and Subjectivity

Daniel Rueda Garrido (2021). Forms of Life and Subjectivity: Rethinking Sartre’s Philosophy, OpenBook Publishers, Cambridge, UK, 352 pp., ISBN 978-1-80064-219-5, $46.95 (Hardcover) $31.95 (Softcover).

Book review by Renxiang Liu (Tsinghua University). Published in Journal of Phenomenological Psychology 53.2 (2022): 219-224, https://doi.org/10.1163/15691624-20221406; https://brill.com/view/journals/jpp/53/2/article-p219_7.xml. Under permission of the publisher.

In Forms of Life and Subjectivity, Daniel Rueda Garrido articulates an onto-phenomenology which establishes the “form of life” (forma vitae) as an ontological unit serving as the source of our subjectivity. In doing so, he carries further Jean-Paul Sartre’s reflections on freedom, agency, and the social situation, so that the (typically Sartrean) dichotomies between freedom and facticity and between the individual and the society are bridged with the notion of the form of life. The result is a powerful and illuminating account of how a human agent acts in accordance with a shared form of life with which he or she has freely identified. The structural analysis contributes, not only to our understanding of human action, but also to a critical reflection of “hegemonic” forms of life such as capitalism.

The book comprises a Preface, an Introduction, seven Chapters, and a Conclusion. The Preface introduces, with a thought-experiment, the transcendental mode of inquiry which Garrido adopts for the entire study. Such is an investigation into the conditions for the possibility of experience, and the form of life is precisely a condition in this sense—as will become clear in the book, it is the primary condition of a human subject’s experience as a whole. The Introduction announces the difficulty Garrido finds in Sartre’s philosophy concerning the two aforementioned dichotomies and suggests the concept of the form of life as key to reconciling the opposing sides. Garrido traces prior uses of the term in biology, historical and anthropological studies, and Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language; he then situates the concept in the Sartrean context and emphasizes that his use of the term is onto-phenomenological, concerned with the transcendental precondition of empirical forms of life. The rest of the Introduction is an outline of the arguments in the seven following Chapters.

Chapter 1 sets the foundation for a phenomenological ontology of the form of life. Focusing on the structure of consciousness when a human being is engaged in action, Garrido distinguishes between two layers. The first layer consists of particular actions, either insofar as they are enacted by an agent, or insofar as they are objectified while viewed by another. The second layer is the constitutive principle which makes intelligible all actions in the first layer, namely, that according to which the actions are, have been, or will be carried out. Garrido identifies this distinction with Sartre’s distinction between the series and the principle which constitutes the series. Furthermore, borrowing from Sartre’s terminology in l’Imagination (1936), Garrido accords the two layers respectively to the praxical image and the anthropical image. The praxical image can be understood as what one ‘projects’ or is about to realize in a definite action. The anthropical image is an image of the kind of human being one thinks one is (that is, identifies with) when projecting a certain praxical image and carrying out an action. In this view, every praxical image, however varied it is, must find its root or reason in the anthropical image. Once Garrido submits that the latter is a manifestation of the form of life, it turns out that the form of life governs all actions of a subject. It is in this sense that the form of life constitutes one’s identity and subjectivity. The layered model is opposed to the flattened model of the new realism of Markus Gabriel, etc. Since the form of life neither results from a capricious will (therefore it is a being-in-itself) nor makes sense in isolation from a conscious agent who enacts it (therefore it is a being-for-itself), Garrido concludes that it is a being-in-itself-for-itself. In this way, the form of life is interpreted as an ideal of consciousness in action, which is nonetheless beyond every individual consciousness.

Chapter 2 studies the form of life with respect to the moment when a subject enters it: the moment of conversion. This will allow Garrido to trace the constitution and trans-form-ation of subjectivity. He begins by isolating the ontological sense of conversion from the religious, moral, intellectual or cultural senses: the former is the structure which makes the latter possible. Three phenomenological stages of ontological conversion are outlined: crisis, rejection (of the old form of life), and affirmation (of the new form of life). Garrido pays specific attention to the cases where the rejection of the old form of life is procrastinated, cases which according to him are not conversion proper but would lead to bad faith. The counter-example serves to show that conversion must touch not only one’s knowledge and recognition but more importantly “one’s own being and identity” (Garrido, 2021, p. 80). Authenticity, an acclaimed notion in existentialism, is interpreted not as approaching a set goal but as a formal openness or readiness to appropriate a new form of life instead of hypocritically lingering in the old form which has already been apprehended as undesirable or unworthy. Freedom is introduced at this point and attached to this flexibility in identifying with forms of life. A free individual is an “universal singular”, actively (though often pre-reflectively) incarnating a universal form of life in his or her own person, in individual particularity. A human individual cannot be defined without referring the kind of human being he or she identifies with, but this means the self is primordially open to “a potential community with which it shares its form of life” (Garrido, 2021, p. 90). Ontological conversion, Garrido concludes, is “the constant source of the authenticity, universality and intersubjectivity of the subject” (Garrido, 2021, p. 99).

In Chapter 3, Garrido offers a more concrete account of how one acts while informed by a form of life. His approach is to give the concept of habit an ‘unorthodox’ interpretation, though he explains that Aristotle already considered habits in a similar way. Instead of connotating the repetitive, reflex, and even mechanistic character of certain behaviors, Garrido’s notion of habit signifies the regularity of actions in accordance with a form of life, which means in accordance with the kind of human being one identifies with while acting. Habits are thus set in contrast, not only with routines and motor responses, but also with isolated, even capricious, actions. Only habits are actions that imply identification with a form of life. To be so, they must exhibit not only regularity but also the participation of freedom (one would accordingly be responsible for one’s habits). Garrido’s argument for this point, typically Sartrean, relies on a characterization of identification as pre-reflective yet conscious.

This leads Garrido to the classical question of how freedom is compatible with determination. He develops a response preliminarily in Chapter 3 and more pointedly in Chapter 4. The response is based on Harry Frankfurt’s distinction between first-order and second-order volition: while the subject is free in identifying with a form of life (second-order), this latter, once adopted, would determine what habitual actions (first-order) the subject will take. Consciousness remains the free, responsible author of one’s actions, but only indirectly, i.e., by incarnating the form of life (in Sartre’s language, the “fundamental project”). The determination of actions by the form of life is normative rather than natural-causal. This allows Garrido to argue against the necessity of alternative possibilities for freedom: the agent is free even when the form of life determines him or her for only one option in a given situation. Having more free-floating options does not make the agent freer. In short, empirical freedom is about unobstructedness in the realization of one’s anthropical image, not about indeterminacy about what one will do and who one will be.

Another key theme of Chapter 4 is how a subject is socially conditioned. This is discussed under the concept of the “imitation” of others who share the same form of life. In reaction to the determinist implication of Tanya Chartrand and John Bargh’s sociopsychological study of imitation, Garrido argues that imitation is not indifferent: we only imitate the behavior of those with whom we identify. Since free will is at play in this step, it is made compatible with social conditioning. We may even say that freedom is concretely realized only when one is socially conditioned, for that is the way one ‘gets a clue’ about what one wants to do. The social constraint, based upon the shared form of life, informs freedom without having to suffocate it.

Chapter 5 moves on to the relation between plural forms of life. Inheriting Sartre’s dialectics while overcoming the latter’s monism, Garrido looks into the problem through the lens of “assimilation”. His basic assumption is that, when one form of life comes into contact with another, it necessarily seeks to resist and even absorb the latter, for the two are not only different but also incommensurable. To identify with a form of life is eo ipso to deny other forms and to seek to assimilate them. This dynamic is exposed in light of Fichte’s idea about the relation between the Ego and the non-Ego. The competition is serious: since it is about the anthropical image, there will be competing claims about what it means to be a human at all. Subjects previously identifying with other forms of life are converted in the sense explained in Chapter 2. The result, according to Garrido, is usually that one form of life dominates all else: it becomes the “hegemonic” form of life, while other forms of life (if they are capable of survival) remain in an assimilation-resistance relation with the former. For a subject identifying with a marginal form of life, the facticity of the social situation not only restricts freedom from without but more importantly encroaches upon freedom from within. The reason is that the hegemonic form of life defines the ‘default’ image of a human being in the society; what it seeks to monopolize is the very qualification for subjectivity.

This paves the way to Chapter 6, which is a case-study of capitalism, the hegemonic form of life of our era. Carrying the ontological-phenomenological account developed in the previous Chapters to the historical development of capitalism as a form of life principled with economic maximization, Garrido showcases how his reflection on the transcendental illuminates our understanding of the historical. The analysis begins with a penetrating characterization of capitalism as a flee from its opposite, the austere form of life. While the latter is satisfied with meeting current needs, the former is precisely not—indeed, never—satisfied. As the austere form (represented by peasants and artisans before the industrial revolution) was for a long time on the horizon, capitalism was constituted as an “eternal escape” from it (Garrido, 2021, p. 182), which means capitalism always keeps a ‘marginal’ awareness of the possibility of living austerely. Next, Garrido traces the “negations” capitalism progressively enacts in history: the negation, first of agricultural austerity, then of the independence of laborers and artisans (making them dependent wage-workers), then of the spiritual superiority of aristocracy, finally of the limits of a capitalist middle-class as such (leading to the mass society). In this process, more and more subjects are absorbed into the capitalist form of life and make maximization their major concern. The boundary between classes seems to dissolve; everyone is a ‘capitalist’, a worker, and a consumer; their difference is only quantitative.

Garrido also talks about the reification of the capitalist subject. This happens most evidently in the era of neoliberal capitalism. A member of the consumerist mass society is no longer just a wage-worker whose labor is exploited. He or she internalizes the maximizing principle in earnings, career development, etc.; moreover, Fordist production has filled the market with cheap products, so that one must now buy virtually everything they use. Subjects are now defined by the objects they consume, and gradually they are absorbed into the rhythm of things in the incessant cycle of consumption. They re-create their identities as objects, manageable especially in a digital age. The “internal contradiction” Garrido locates in capitalism is thus the following. The capitalist form of life constitutes subjects whose power is enhanced in the process of maximization. However, the efficiency of maximization entails the reification of the capitalist subject, which means the loss of subjectivity. Garrido cites James Heartfield’s words that “the human subject persists, but in denial of its own subjectivity.” (Heartfield, 2006, p. 238; Garrido, 2021, p. 230)

Instead of concluding with a pessimism, however, Garrido points out that the reification of the subject for the perfection of the constitutive principle is not peculiar to capitalism; it exists likewise in the religious and in the artistic form of life, for instance. Chapter 7 is thus dedicated to the artistic form of life as a ‘marginal’ form in the capitalist era. The Chapter unfolds with an examination of Charles Baudelaire’s life, focusing on how he experienced denial, frustration, and temptation in a society where the capitalist form of life was already hegemonic, while at the same time reifying himself according to the inner logic of the artistic form of life—in other words, authoring his own life like a work of art. Baudelaire’s poetry is interpreted as a resistance and attests to the interplay of powers, issuing from rival forms of life, at the site of a historical individual. In this Chapter, Garrido also accomplishes two side-tasks: to distinguish the form of life (an ontological structure) from class, society, or Barbara Rosenwein’s “emotional community”; to dissociate Walter Benjamin’s notions of “aura”, “long experience” [Erfahrung], and “isolated experience” [Erlebnis] from definite historical eras and interpret them structurally as what happens when the boundary of a form of life is respected or shattered.

The Conclusion is largely a restatement of the major theses, classified according to the authors they respond to. At the end, Garrido discusses briefly the limits of the study and some possible ways to carry it on.

Viewed as a whole, this book offers an explicative and flexible conceptual framework in which we can think about human action and personal identity. While the formulation, “form of life”, received little justification at the beginning of the treatise, it speaks to our pre-reflective understanding of ourselves. Once clarified with respect to its nature, structure, and reach, it becomes a powerful tool of analysis. Moreover, it seems to me that the form of life has met the challenge Garrido posed at the beginning, that is, to reconcile between freedom and facticity, between the individual and the social context. The advantage of the form of life as an ontological unit is that it borders ‘in-between’ and thus can be stretched in both ways. To my knowledge, few in our generation have revived Sartre’s thought to such an extent that it is again unavoidable. Equally impressive is Garrido’s diagnosis of capitalism, full of insights which are valid even outside of this book’s context. In a way, the first five Chapters can be read as an introduction to Chapter 6. Finally, the nuanced dialogues Garrido carries out with researchers from a great variety of fields also makes the book relevant for a wide span of readers.

Despite (more precisely: thanks to) Garrido’s work, the following questions remains relevant for us: Is a form of life necessarily expansive; is the relation between forms of life necessarily Hobbesian? Can one incarnate multiple forms of life simultaneously? How can a form of life resist inner homogenization, that is, how do subjects sharing the same form of life nevertheless distinguish among themselves ontologically, instead of vanishing into an undifferentiated ‘soup’ of impersonal being?


Garrido, D. R. (2021). Forms of Life and Subjectivity: Rethinking Sartre’s Philosophy. OpenBook Publishers.

Heartfield, J. (2002). The ‘Death of the Subject’ Explained. Sheffield Hallam University Press.

Published by Renxiang Liu

Philosopher, Phenomenologist, Humanist.

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