Before we can determine whether philosophy has any insight to offer with regards to ageing, we first need to decide how to define it.
In essence I would suggest that philosophy is the quest for wisdom. It is a particular way of thinking about the world and everything in it. It is critical by nature but not to be confused with criticism. Instead, it attempts to unmask assumptions, correct distortions, dispel ignorance and reach understanding. In my simplistic way of thinking, I would suggest it is about making sense of our world.
Philosophy may therefore help us to make sense of the process of ageing, giving us the tools to dispel the myths and erroneous assumptions we may harbor about ageing. It may go some way to help us embrace with understanding and acceptance the next phase of life that each one of us will eventually enter.
Each one of us will find inspiration from different schools of philosophical thought. I have had the privilege of being inspired by a number of philosophers and their ideas during my career as an academic. One of these great masters that have had a powerful impact on the way I look at and live my life has been that of post-modernism and the ideas of Lyotard, the French philosopher, in particular.
Much of Lyotard’s writing is about challenging what he perceives to be the grand-narratives told by institutions and society. Of importance is the perceived oppression these meta-narratives will exercise over the majority of us. His thinking challenges us not only to become aware of these so-called truths , but of equal importance, how we collude with these stories.
The power of these stories is that they create limiting beliefs and in believing them we collude with creating self-fulfilling prophecies. The fundamental nature of philosophy namely to question and challenge assumptions we encounter therefore provide us with the tools to interrogate the validity and ultimately our acceptance or rejection of these meta-narratives.
We are exposed to a barrage of stories on a daily basis. A search online, a trawl of books on ageing and any glossy magazine that makes reference to age in any way shape or form, is hell-bent on finding ways to avoid or halt the inevitable journey of ageing. It is almost as though ageing is seen as an illness to be avoided or cured at all cost. Those of us who have entered this phase of life are seen as a different species; objects associated with decline and need of care.
Age in itself is not a cause, but merely a number that indicates how much time has elapsed since birth. It is, however, the truth and power we associate with the stories about ageing that leads to consequences. Resisting the natural process of ageing also results in closing the door on wisdom, creativity, sense of adventure and the expression of our own unique identities.
Philosophy therefore provides us with the courage to question the ageing story and the perceived inevitability that age leads to physical decline, ill health and a reduction in mental capacity. Should some or all of these aspects of ageing occur, there is no reason why it should lead to a decline of the quality of life or a life worth living
As I mentioned above, the practical aspect of philosophy and the works of great thinkers provide us with the tools to become aware of how we collude with these stories or meta-narratives as proposed by Lyotard. So, if philosophy is about challenging our assumptions and dispelling ignorance it is worth drawing inspiration from it to help us understand and question the stories we, and society, tell ourselves with regards to ageing.
Philosophy also helps us to face our own mortality, but more importantly, it can provide us with a philosophy of life to make the most of the time we have between birth and death. The quality of our stories reflects the quality of the lives we lead. What are the stories you live by and how do they influence your life?