This is the monologue for the most recent episode of Why? Radio: "How to Think Philosophically About Aging" with guest Sharona Hoffman. Click here to listen to the episode.
The philosopher Martin Heidegger once called people the “being-unto-death.” What he meant was that since human beings are aware of our own mortality, living authentically means confronting the fact that we are absolutely, positively, going to die. Whether he was right or wrong, I can’t say, but his ideas influenced a lot of people. Strangely, though, while philosophers wrote about death, they neglected the getting older part. Aging has been left out of philosophy.
Two ideas about age have dominated philosophical thought. First, children are different than adults because adults are rational and morally accountable, and children are neither. Second, our elders should be our mentors because they have more experience, and knowledge is the foundation of wisdom. In other words, aging, in philosophy, usually implies that we are getting better, not worse.
In contrast, there is very little written about the fact that sometimes, when we get older, we lose our capacities or get rigid in our ways. There is minimal focus on our changing bodies, our degenerating minds, and our faltering independence. Eva Kittay, a feminist philosopher and a former guest on our show, has been a powerful advocate for caregivers and dependency, but even she used mothers’ caring for children as her central example, not the other way around.
Modern life only makes the invisibility of aging worse. In the more developed industrial countries, at least, people are living longer and are no longer part of supportive multigenerational households. The elderly are warehoused in institutions with almost no historical precedent. We are all making up the rules as we go and from where I sit, we’re not doing a good job of it. Group homes and retirement communities in the U.S. are destructively expensive, and according to our guest today, they can be unloving and socially isolating. They are built for efficiency rather than quality of life. They are, in short, part of the bureaucratic American health care system and not an integrated component of day to day life. Our culture operates on the principle that the only care aging requires is palliative care.
This is the foundation upon which we will approach today’s show on the philosophy of aging. The question that I will come back to again and again is: to what extent should we treat aging as an illness, not as a normal state of affairs? I want us to ask, not how best to medicate away the effects of old age, but how to confront getting older in an analogous way to Heidegger’s demand to confront death, as a key element in what gives our actions meaning.
In order to do this though, we have to focus on another one of philosophy’s great assumptions, the priority of theory over practice. One of the reasons why philosophers ignore aging is that they tend to think of the permanent as superior to the ephemeral. This is the legacy of Plato. Fashion is bad because it changes, but beauty is good because it is eternal. Culture is bad because it is idiosyncratic, while nature is good because it is universal. Aging, can be ignored, because it describes the frailty of the body, but mortality should be contemplated because it discovers the enduring character of the soul.
Yet, underneath it all, we do have fragments of a philosophy of aging. We articulate when old age begins and when it doesn’t, even though such a boundary line is arbitrary. We celebrate the virtue of usefulness, glorifying the young and able-bodied, consciously preferring what others can do for us over what we can do for them. We want activity not calmness, excitement not slow engagement in the moment. In other words, we want to be reminded of the potential of youth, not the memories of things already done. These are philosophical choices that need to be articulated and examined.
When it comes to aging, the practice is probably more important than the theory, and this is where our guest comes in. Sharona Hoffman wrote a guidebook to help people plan for their parents’ and their own futures. It is a practical approach to the task, outlining legal and financial options to help manage a cumbersome and frightening process. But like all practical books, it hides deep assumptions about what is valuable and what we take for granted. Our task tonight is to reveal them, to look past the checklists and ask how to conceptualize it all, as whole, so we can change the system, and make the most ethical choices for ourselves and others. Aging is inevitable but our attitude towards it doesn’t have to be.
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