Bios: Problematization
Paul Rabinow
Anthony Stavrianakis
Bios: Problematization

Bios is two-fold: on the one side it is the purported subject matter of a science, biology; a science of living beings and truth claims about them. The term biology was coined independently in two places in 1802. Biology replaced natural philosophy with its attention to the challenge of representation on a table of living beings. Bios, in this first sense, is a modern problem because our logoi assert that living beings have no pre-established harmony with their milieu; the living is capable of error.
Concomitant with the birth of biology was the birth of anthropology (see Immanuel Kant, Michel Foucault, Paul Rabinow), “the work of ideas on the level of the field of experience” (Foucault, 2008; 63). The diverse logoi about anthropos have included claims about a range of objects including society, nature, culture and bios.
We think that today, there is a problematization of bios, not reducible to either biological form or lived experience (the work of ideas as well as values); a problematization different to one of anthropos, culture, or nature. This problematization of bios, in a second sense, is a problematization of form and conduct in the face of proliferating logoi about forms of bios.


The mid-19th Century produced venues for technical control of bios so as to make claims "dans le vrai." This knowledge and these tools, increasingly tell us about forms of bios, but they do not tell us about the significance of these objects of knowledge.

“It is life itself, and not medical judgment which makes the biological normal a concept of value and not a concept of statistical reality' (Canguilhem 1989: 196).

Diagnosis: two sides of bios

Max Weber's 1917 diagnosis of the ratio of increased technical mastery and decreased significance of such mastery remains pertinent.
Decreased significance refers not to bios in the first sense indicated, but to a second sense.

Concurring with Tolstoi that science gives no answers to the “only question important for us: "What shall we do and how shall we live?" Weber asks, “the only question that remains is the sense in which science gives 'no' answer, and whether or not science might yet be of some use to the one who puts the question correctly.”

It would be an illegitimate re-occupation for bios-logos to attempt to give an answer to the question, “how shall we live”? It has tried this throughout the 20th Century. The question remains. There are heterogeneous logoi willing to make truth claims about “how to live,” or lived experience; claims about “life” with respect to diverse objects: anthropos, culture, nature. The mistake would be to think that these logoi can answer what bios-logos could not, i.e. to try to answer “the only question important for us” with a single logos. Rather, logoi may be “of some use” if the question were posed differently.

Hetero-Logoi: Indetermination and Discordance of Bios

“How to think about things human is a problem. Most attempts to solve this problem deploy one or another answer that claims to offer generality and stability. These attempts have produced incompatible answers. (Rabinow, 2003; 4).

What judgments can we make about the available forms for living, when we recognize the limits of all logoi to answer in a general and stable way questions of significance? This, we argue, is the problematization of bios in a second sense.
Once one recognizes that these hetero-logoi give "no" answers, that at least opens the door to a second side of bios: in which the one who seeks to know must come to terms with the asceticism of a mode of subjectivation. One must come to terms, through this second side of bios, with the problem (indeterminations and breakdowns) of conduct in the face of proliferating logoi about bios and anthropos (and culture and nature). This mode of subjectivation must acknowledge the necessity of both separation and connection to the biological sciences, as the path by which critical limitations can be named in a veridictional mode. Only then can the problem be reposed as conduct in the face of hetero-logoi.

Mathesis & Askesis

We agree with Weber’s, that his diagnosis of the mode of jurisdiction and veridiction have not changed much.
Breakdowns and indeterminations between bios (1) and bios (2), we think constitute a renewed problematization. Between knowledge of biological form, and the problem of truth and conduct, is a space requiring a patient formation of the problem of bios as both what is warranted about living beings and the askesis through which one can vindicate a judgment about contestatory, warranted claims.
Foucault in the Hermeneutics of the Subject shows the problem of bios as both mathesis and alternate askesis, which Weber was suggesting but did not explore. The Neo-Kantians in the 20th Century did explore this.

Occupy: Problem

We are refusing to re-occupy the Weberian position which separates the two spheres of bios, giving one a historical trajectory of progress at the price of historical trajectory of insignificance. On the other side, a kind a stoic acceptance that the "cosmos" exists and is gradually being mastered.

Blumenberg sows us that that tragic position is unwarranted. That cosmos is gone and the legitimacy of the modern age consists in self-assertion, including on the human scientific side and with the virtues appropriate to such self-assertion. Blumenberg's move frees us from desire to reoccupy Weber's position, but Blumenberg offers no pathway and no form for re-posing the problem.

Geertz has a parallel on the cultural side. The Neo-Kantian observer develops modes of observation of cultural forms and values on the side of the object of knowledge, culture, but brackets the position from which claims about culture are made. Such a mode of observation has no means to warrant judgments about those values. The claim is simultaneously that all human beings are cultural, except the anthropologist [the instance of the typewriter.]

We refuse to occupy the Neo-Kantian position in which there is a fixed subject producing symbolic forms and there is no reflexivity about how those forms are made. The best way to re-occupy the Neo-Kantian position is a hermeneutic one, and we are refusing that.

This enables us to see the problem space that we are willing to re-occupy: a commitment to inquiry into the trajectories of bios-logos, as the only way to establish a critical relationship to them; accepting the challenge of bringing truth and conduct into a different relationship, building on Blumenberg's insight, Geertz's dilemma and our inquiries.

We are refusing to give priority of ideas and values, but they are part of the problem space. So the challenge is to give a different form given that science gives "no" answer and cultural science gives "no" answer.