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A Philosophical Autobiography

Robin Wynyard reflects on his philosophical journey, and how this has influenced his thoughts about ageing.

Youth always has its share of idealism, whereas old age encourages reflection and more than a little guilt for past misdemeanours. Being seventy-four, and a member of a designated vulnerable group during the current Covid-19 pandemic, can be more than a little confusing, given mixed messages from the media. Should I stay at home and self-isolate? And if so, how should I pass my time?

I began by revisiting my profile on LinkedIn, an online platform for professional networking. I had joined LinkedIn around nine years earlier, when coming to the end of my academic career, whereupon I had posted formally, with the aim of promoting my brilliance, fantasizing that no one in the world of education could do without my special skills. Attempting now to update my profile, I was hit by the stark realization of how much my perception of life had changed over the years.

I then rewatched a film that as a sixteen year old I was much taken with – Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 masterpiece The Seventh Seal, which is not, as you might think, a nature film but is inspired by the Book of Revelation. The film features death, plague, and famine amongst the horsemen of the Apocalypse, and those scenes, shot in black and white, have fascinated me for years. The stakes of the game of chess played throughout the film between Death and the knight are not merely the crusader’s life and soul, but his feelings about God and his general disillusionment with religion and humanity. However, given the Covid situation, the film’s plague setting seemed all-too-familiar, and upon re-watching it, far from being overwhelmed by its brilliance as I was in my youth, it terrified me!

At this point, deciding that a period of reflection might be in order, I took refuge in a favourite armchair, poured a large glass of red wine, and reached for my books on philosophy. What I did not initially recognize was the extent to which the works of philosophers such as René Descartes (1596-1650) would help me to reflect on and understand this process of ageing, particularly at a time of global crisis and vulnerability. Philosophy would be a crucial guide.

I have always maintained a strong interest in reading philosophy, particularly the works of continental and non-Anglophone thinkers. With age, this interest has deepened, and with it the realization that what I read has personal application, and that my approach has both a theological and historical dimension.

Starting with Descartes, my thoughts turned to his ideas on science. There can be no doubt that Descartes was a great scientific thinker. His introspective, rationalist approach also seemed to move science away from the simplistic way of scientific explanation and experiment of my school days.

In his Meditations on First Philosophy (1642) he proposed ideas on the nature of thinking and a method founded on this to provide reliable knowledge of the things we experience. Meditating on Descartes’ meditations, certain questions came to mind. Is a self-reflective mind free from any other constraints physically, or historically, possible? And with age is such mental freedom possible or useful? Or are the old constrained in their thought by their declining physical condition and hopelessly locked into a historical form of nostalgia? These seem essential questions about age provided by a reading of Descartes – including his reference in Meditations relating to his childhood and the false beliefs he had accepted since then:

“It is now some years since I detected how many were the false beliefs that I had from my earliest youth admitted as true, and how doubtful was everything I had since constructed on this basis; and from that time I was convinced that I must once and for all seriously undertake to rid myself of all the opinions which I had formerly accepted, and commenced to build anew…”

This was a stark epiphany from philosophy concerning both history and science, that getting older does not automatically mean becoming wiser. That’s something we have to work at. According to Descartes, we first need to get to grips with the nature of appearance and reality in the world.

Reviewing my LinkedIn pages in the new light of the philosopher’s quote, I concluded that what once appeared to me as a strong academic statement for future networking had now become, through piecemeal nibbling and reflection over nine years, something entirely different. Perhaps this is what ageing is about – a process of ‘nibbling’; constantly adding and deleting elements of life in line with my philosophical reading and thinking.

philosophical autobiography
© Venantius J Pinto 2021. To see more art, please visit behance.net/venantiuspinto

Another thing which appears to have happened to me in my philosophical development, is that age has blurred the difference between subjective and objective thought. The American philosopher G.H. Mead (1863-1931) used a distinction between ‘I’ and ‘Me’ as a crucial part of his philosophy of the self. ‘I’ did this, whereas what happened, happened to ‘me’ (subject vs object). Moreover, the ‘I’ acts creatively through what has been learnt by the ‘me’. As an older person, I perceive that the ‘me’ is precisely that – a sense of self given by others – with the ‘I’ performing a much less important role. Maybe not going quite as far as Descartes describing earlier more youthful thoughts as false, it certainly seems that my initial posts on LinkedIn presented the ‘I’, and provided a very different perspective to the ‘me’ nine years later.

Mead’s important insight concerning what are basically two sides of a personality couldn’t shake itself from my head, and seemed to dominate much of my thought when reading philosophy. For example, the idea came to the fore when I tried to read the notoriously difficult phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961). Phenomenology is the systematic analysis of subjective human experience from the perspective of the experiencer. Merleau-Ponty seemed to be saying something relevant to growing old that coincided with what Descartes had previously said:

“Between the self which analyses perception and the self which perceives, there is always a distance. But in the concrete act of reflection, I abolish this distance, I prove by that very token that I am capable of knowing what I was perceiving.”
(Phenomenology of Perception, 1945)

The relevance of this for my discourse on growing old is that it encourages you to start with consciousness, specifically the awareness of changes that have taken place both mentally and physically in you. The phenomenological need is for a person to find an unquestionable starting point of awareness. That would be needed to build my philosophical system on knowledge of what growing old entails.

One might assume phenomenal experience involves things about old age that cannot be doubted, like grey hair, forgetfulness, and misplacing one’s glasses. Cardiff University’s Peter Sedgwick, writing about the existentialist Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), says the following, which mirrors my thought:

“Phenomenology, in other words, takes as its starting point our activities in the world and aims to uncover the hidden ground of understanding upon which these activities rest, but not from a viewpoint exterior to that world. So for Heidegger, we are entities who are already engaged in interpreting ourselves prior to any theoretical activity.”
P. Sedgwick, Descartes to Derrida (2001) Blackwell p.121

With these readings in philosophy, I started to see where a knowledge break exists in my LinkedIn profile. It now just happens to be there as part of my lived experience, which with its tinkering resembles more a postmodern blog, reflecting the uncertain eclecticism of post-modernity! The break occurs as an academic engagement with high culture has over nine years shaded into one of enjoyment of popular culture. The ‘aged’ perception of my LinkedIn hasn’t covered up the uncertainties that must have been there in my earlier perception of what I was doing, too. Nine years of constant additions and changes have yielded a broken-up structure regarding my history. Reading it now with its later additions, the posted writings have become more playful and less concerned with presenting a coherent narrative of life events.

Realizing that I now see things differently took me to the work of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2003), who, along with Jean-Claude Passeron, coined the term ‘cultural capital’. In attempting to situate where power in society lay, Bourdieu maintained that an elite who could control social, economic, and cultural capital, would also be able to determine what counted in current culture, as well as who got what in terms of the best jobs, academic positions, and so on.

What is most important in Bourdieu’s philosophy, and relevant to my thoughts on ageing, is how he attempts to plot the dynamics of power in society. Of particular interest is how he shows the diverse and subtle ways in which power is transferred and maintained in society within and across generations. As he points out, this is especially so regarding the education system, which slots individuals into their ‘correct and appropriate’ place in society. As a working class grammar school boy, I was always interested in the finer aspects of life, like chess, painting, and literature. When eventually, after several dead-end jobs, I secured a place at university there came a realization. This was that I could get into a feel-at-home mode in a variety of different social circles, having the codes and language that were seemingly required at that time to enter both working class and university environments.

During my philosophical journey and reflection on ageing, I have realized that I am no longer the aspirant academic intellectual, but an older variant of my younger self. Gone is the universal statement joining me to the academic family. The ‘I’ has become objectified and turned into an empirically knowable ‘me’. Looking back to ‘me’ as the working class boy from the East End of London, where a whole range of symbolic elements – tastes, mannerisms, credentials, personal belongings – were collected, these now seem to me to be more important than academic credentials, as they equip one with the ability to understand and integrate with a range of people from different backgrounds, both socially and professionally.

As I age, I seem to receive more views on my LinkedIn page than ever before! One can only assume that these do not represent intentions of offering employment to a potentially self-isolating seventy-four year old, but rather that my postings perhaps provide some personal amusement, enjoyment and intrigue to those reading. Perhaps they can see something in my recent postings that reminds them of themselves.

With this in mind, it is thrilling to revisit the work of Canadian educationalist Henry Giroux (b.1943), especially Border Crossings (1992), which addresses the blurring of boundaries between disciplines and discourses, raising questions and problems about crossing boundaries and encouraging “understanding how fragile identity is as it moves into borderlands crisscrossed within a variety of languages, experiences and voices.”

My philosophical journey regarding ageing was inspired by my attempting to get to grips with the fears and confusion of being an older person at the time of a pandemic. My doubts and concerns as to how life changes over the years were reinforced by my updating my LinkedIn profile and rewatching the Bergman film. However, beginning my philosophical journey with Descartes and his quest for certainty, and revisiting the works of some of the most influential continental and international thinkers, I now have a greater understanding of the ageing process and how philosophy can aid comprehension and coherence. With age, my competitive edge has diminished, as have professional jealousies of those who seem to have done better or progressed further than me. A certain haphazardness seems to go together with age, and should be accepted.

One can totally take pride in being a philosophy junky, stimulated by publications such as Philosophy Now, by thinkers such as the late Bryan Magee or Roger Scruton and even by ideas reflected in quality popular culture such as the Star Wars films! Philosophy interests people for a number of important reasons, and certainly one of these reasons can be a better understanding of an approach to ageing.

© Dr Robin Wynyard 2021

Robin Wynyard is long retired from academic life after thirty years of training teachers and teaching sociology in various universities.

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