Thursday, October 2, 2008



There is a strange belief abroad that members of the human species reach some sort of optimum adulthood - some time around middle age - in which all the functions which an individual has been developing in the course of a lifetime somehow achieve their final and definitive perfection. This period of optimum adulthood, so the belief goes, is then characterised by constituting the best that that human being is capable of. It is generally believed that a lifetime of honing skills eventually produces things such as excellent philosophy, mature science, mature art, successful business, skilled politics, and so on. Youth, then, becomes no more than a period of optimistic preparation for these excellences and old age no more than a dismal period in which they are lost.

I think that this view contains more nonsense than sense.

There is a good selection of reasons for taking seriously Aristotle’s essentialist view that there is a biographic archetype for the human species, that there are ways of thinking and expressing which are appropriate to every stage in an individual’s development from childhood to old age. The young Turk in his twenties, discovering his intellectual muscles, despises the old hoary heads and regards their obsessions, perhaps that of pottering around in the garden, or that of evoking distant memories, with contempt and describes them as activities symptomatic of decline and dotage.

But it may well be that these activities give evidence of a much more fundamental insight into the processes of nature and into man’s interaction with them than the cerebrations of the twenty- and thirty-year-old. It may well be that the reminiscing of the aged and the very aged is a kind of myth-making. The evocation of memories could be the operation of the philosophic wit at its highest level: the making sense of an entire life, from birth to death, by means of a review, rather than merely the making sense of a relationship to the world which is conditioned by the values of the middle years (career-ambition, orthodoxy, sexually-conditioned time-independence etc.).

I use the word ‘philosophic’ here advisedly; because philosophy is not an academic subject, not a puzzle-cracker’s pastime, but rather a vital instinct possessed by every undamaged human individual. The puzzle-cracker and the clever-dick really have no place in philosophy for they are truly damaged and have become separated from their instincts. Philosophy is much too important an activity to be equated with the aims which such persons set themselves. The puzzle-cracker and the clever-dick do often perform valuable services in the clarification of detail within the various formalisms appropriate to philosophy; but they never rise above a kind of academic nit-picking, they never achieve an authentic philosophic vision on the basis of puzzle-cracking alone. The philosophic vision arises from the roots of the personality and has little to do with the myopic intensity of the academic logician.

Philosophy is a vital instinct and potentially expresses itself at all stages in the development of the human individual. There is a philosophy of creative and discovering play, within which children discover themselves as selves and as agents. It is at this stage that most of the big, abiding questions are posed for the first time in a life and posed with a crystal clarity of their implications which is rarely achieved later on: questions concerning the existence of other minds, concerning the extent and limits of the self, concerning the infinity of time and space and so on. So why should it be seen as peculiar to refer to a philosophy of old age, where the individual, as thoughts of death become pressing, is forced to integrate himself into the entire process of nature - in which creation and destruction are two sides of the same coin? The philosophy of the middle period - the philosophy of cerebration, the prime-of-life philosophy - is very often little more than a mental equivalent of gymnastics or arm-wrestling. This is often because the activity is related to a pre-existent social structure - university, business, political party and suchlike - which prescribes a particular set of emphases and a particular method. This period is characterised by survival, by living, not dying, precisely not dying; competitiveness, outdoing one’s competitor, beating the other chap, is perceived as the essential business of life in the middle period and therefore of philosophy.

The philosophy of old age could perhaps be seen as a synthesis of the other two varieties. The metaphysical urge which rises in childhood like a pure stream is side-tracked to a certain extent in middle life, when the formal tools of expression are being honed in obedience to the pressures of an ancient culture which values the sophistication of its technical expertise. But this metaphysical urge returns in old age to flow into the sophisticated forms available to the mind by virtue of its technical mastery. Often the metaphysical urge is revivified by the onset of old age with its thoughts of the imminent extinction of that very feature of human life which seemed so mysterious in early youth: the possession of selfhood. Of course, the philosophy of old age does not have to be immediately identifiable as philosophy. It may be light-years away from the academic study of that name. It may be expressed in gardening, in model-making, grand-parental care - all practised as meditation - or in wordless mysticism. The point is that the philosophy of old age is no less legitimate than the philosophy of other periods of life, even though it may not have left the cultural traces that these latter have. It may be that it leaves no traces because its most important accomplishments are the transcendence of life and the transcendence therefore of language. It may sometimes be “second childishness and mere oblivion”, but it doesn’t have to be; it may be second childishness allied to the formal expertise of a lifetime, whatever that expertise may be.