A review of 'Aging and the Art of Living'

What’s The Point Of Aging? Does Philosophy Make A Difference?

Jan Baars is the premier philosopher of aging, working in Europe and the United States today. Actually, to call him a philosopher of aging is to diminish the range of his thought and his accomplishments. Baars, who writes in Dutch and in English and whose work has been translated into several languages, recently “retired” as Professor of Interpretive Gerontology at the University of Humanistic Studies in Utrecht, where he retains a part-time appointment and continues to extend and publish his remarkable body of work. It is difficult for American readers and gerontologists to appreciate the breadth of Baars’s work—partly because of its density and also because it emerges from his dual training, both in the social sciences and in the European tradition of Continental philosophy. We rarely encounter a scholar whose thought ranges across conceptual analysis, historical interpretation of texts, social theory, critical gerontology, and existential issues. Baars, however, began his career far from the concerns of aging.

In 1975, he organized a major conference at the Free University of Amsterdam on “Theory and Praxis in Sociological Theory,” where he brought critical theorists and phenomenological sociologists into philosophical conversation with Dutch sociology, which he found too limited in its uncritical integration into the social life of the country. In 1987, Baars’s philosophy dissertation on the Frankfurt School theorists Horkheimer and Adorno led him to embrace Habermas’s view of communicative discourse as a means of analyzing problems of social justice, interpreting the meaning of human existence, and understanding the disparate spheres of politics, science, and everyday life.

Baars then turned his attention to gerontology, just at the time when the author organized the first conference on Critical Gerontology at the University of Texas Medical Branch (1991), leading to the volume Voices and Visions of Aging: Toward a Critical Gerontology (Cole, Achenbaum, Jakobi, & Kastenbaum, 1993), in which Harry (Rick) Moody first articulated the concept of critical gerontology. In Moody’s formulation, critical gerontology unsettled mainstream gerontology by introducing interpretive and emancipatory philosophical questions, beginning with the realization that instrumental knowledge about aging carried the possibilities of social control of older people and undermined the possibilities of emancipatory social change. Baars, too, had come to the view that science did not produce “objective” knowledge but functioned as a means of legitimating and regulating social processes and forms of domination. This view was first fully exemplified in gerontology by Steven Katz’s Disciplining Old Age: The Formation of Gerontological Knowledge (1996). Since then, Baars, in collaboration with European and American colleagues, has turned out a significant body of work that links his interests in the social, the existential, and the political. His most recent publication along these lines is the coedited collection Ageing, Meaning and Social Structure: Connecting Critical and Humanistic Gerontology (Baars, Dohmen, Grenier, & Phillipson, 2013).

The book under review, Aging and the Art of Living, flows from Baars’s more purely philosophical meditations though critical gerontology and social theory are deftly woven into the arguments put forward. With this landmark book, Baars takes his place among the very few serious philosophers—academic or not—who have written on the subject of aging.

When Baars began to read in the area of aging and gerontology during the 1980s, he was in his 30s. He was shocked by the ways in which “the aged,” “the elderly,” or the “old” were treated as if they were almost a different species, who were mainly of interest as objects of care. Baars set out to think about ways that care should be “embedded in the life of persons with dignity in their own right, not simply problematic beings needing care.” (p. 3) This would require conceptualizing older persons not in static categories of, for example, “demented” or even “wise,” but seeing them as socially located, vulnerable, and unique individuals ready to live possible futures filled with perils and promises. (p. 5) In a way, his whole philosophical project can be understood as an elaboration of this aspiration.

Aging and the Art of Living consists of six chapters that sequentially: (a) define and critique “chronometric time”; (b) analyze how late modern culture that extends lives yet accelerates aging and empties it of meaning; (c) retrieve and interpret classical Greek and Roman thought about aging; (d) highlight concepts of authenticity and personhood as tools for developing a creative culture of aging; (e) look to personal narratives for creating personal identity and also criticize cultural macronarratives of aging for reinforcing negative stereotypes serving corporate interests; and (f) call for an “art of aging” inspired by acceptance of vulnerability and the creation of meanings that are both individual and relational. Because much of Baars’s message lies in the importance of living fully in time, he is at considerable pains to criticize the social and cultural dominance of chronological or “chronometric” time—the time of calendars and clocks that count seconds and minutes and hours and days and move us structurally through the institutions of the life course. Baars’s point here is that in addition to its coercive social partitioning, chronometric time creates an exclusively instrumental and calculating approach to time that dramatically undercuts the capacity to live in time experientially and interpersonally. Aging by itself causes nothing, Baars reiterates. Chronometric age is nothing more than a measurement of the amount of time that has elapsed since birth. Although he recognizes the social necessity of chronometric time, Baars’s goal is to break down its cultural dominance to allow individuals to experience the flow of time personally and interpersonally (one also might add mystically, though mysticism is not in Baars’s vocabulary).

We live in an era when ever-faster, ever-larger flows of information and images fly around the globe, leading to a cultural acceleration of everyday life. When this acceleration meets chronometric time, Baars notes, two paradoxes emerge: (a) “premature cultural senescing” in which individuals live longer but are called old at earlier ages; and (b) the desire to stay young but grow older, which is the cultural creation of a huge antiageing industry in medicine and in commercial products that promise to maintain youth. These paradoxes result from the contradictory desires of long life and infinite youth. Our culture produces them because it suppresses and tries to control finitude and our increasing vulnerability over time—those things that in Baars’s view are the condition of our “spontaneity, discovery, creativity and uniqueness.” (p. 84)

In Chapter 3, Baars addresses classical thought about aging and old people, where he finds, as others have before him, the denigration of old age among the Greeks and the beginning of an art of aging among the Stoics, in particular in Cicero’s De Senectute. Baars notes that despite the Greek negativity toward old age, classical Greek philosophers advocated a lifelong love of and search for wisdom that might come to fruition in old age. He concludes this chapter with the Greek poet Sappho’s lament about the physical woes of aging, omitting, however, perhaps the most crucial consolation that Sappho finds from her students:

“And now this is enough/for me that I have your/love, and I desire no more.” (Cole & Winkler, 1994, p. 229)

The absence of love in Baars’s argument is a significant weakness of this book because love of various kinds is often the glue of relationships and positive meanings in later life. It may be unfair to single Baars out for blame here because love plays so minor a role in general in the Western, male tradition of philosophizing about old age, exemplified in Daniel Klein’s recent book, “My Travels with Epicurus” (Klein, 2012). In his effort to carve out a cultural space of meaningful and inspiring aging, Baars turns instead to social critique, authenticity, and narrative. In place of the illusion that we can be “successful” in controlling life, Baars calls us to accept vulnerability and live authentic lives, rooted in hope and held together in personal and collective narratives. As the narrative turn in gerontology has shown, human aging cannot be understood alone through scientific measurement. Listening to the actual voices of aging human beings is a key to understanding identity—its makings and unmakings.

Baars’s approach to narrative is complex. He is not just interested in good stories, he is interested in good lives and the relationships between them. Baars criticizes the assumption that individuals can achieve completed, unified, “linear integration” through a self-propelled personal narrative. He prefers Margaret Urban Walker’s (1999) notion of “lateral integration” that supports individual meaning and responsibility but finds them in connections with others and in collective experiences. Baars warns against uncritically accepting the narratives of the systems we live within—markets, health care, pensions—narratives that colonize our lives and undermine authentic identities. He also wants to avoid the naive assumption that “all our problems could be solved by making better stories about them.” (p. 197) But here, we would do well to remember that stories are not meant to solve problems but to make meaning and reduce suffering. As Isak Dinesen put it, “All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story” (Arendt, 1968, p. 97).

Baars’s prescriptions for a new art of aging draw heavily on the philosopher’s traditional quest for wisdom. But rather than focus on death and the individual search for “the meaning of life,” Baars emphasizes finitude and the “interhuman” condition. We are finite not just because we are mortal but because we are increasingly vulnerable to disease, loss, and other vicissitudes of aging. And we are “interhuman” because we are born, live our lives, and die not as isolated individuals but as social beings who are always in relation. These are the conditions that, when accepted, give rise to new possibilities, aspirations, and horizons, including especially deepening understanding and wisdom that come with a lifetime of reflection. Here, we are back to the philosopher’s search for wisdom, fittingly symbolized by the book’s final image (borrowed from Hegel) of the Owl of Minerva (goddess of wisdom) spreading her wings at the coming of dusk.

Aging and the Art of Living is a deeply learned, broad-gauged, and closely argued book. It lacks, however, any serious consideration of religion, which is a primary source of meaning for most of the world’s population. Baars is not a philosopher of religion or a theologian, so it is unfair to ask him to appreciate, probe, and critique religious beliefs, practices, and ideals that have profound implications for the meaning of aging. He works within a tradition of secular philosophy—a powerful tool for criticizing existing society and culture and for articulating emancipatory possibilities and ideals of the good life in aging. But gerontology also needs more philosophers and theologians who can place religious and spiritual ideals of human flourishing in later life in dialog with scientific and secular perspectives.

Thomas R. Cole
University of Texas-Houston Medical School
6431 Fannin St., #JJL 400
Houston, TX 77030


Arendt, H. (1968). Men in dark times. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co.

Baars, J., Dohmen, J., Grenier, A., & Phillipson, C. (Eds.). (2013). Ageing, meaning and social structure: Connecting critical and humanistic gerontology. Bristol, UK: Policy Press.

Cole, T. R., Achenbaum, W. A., Jakobi, P., & Kastenbaum, R. (Eds.). (1993). Voices and visions: Toward a critical gerontology. New York: Springer Publishing Company.

Cole, T. R., & Winkler, M. (Eds.). (1994). The Oxford book of aging. New York: Oxford University Press. Klein, D. (2012). Travels with Epicurus: A journey to a Greek island in search of a fulfilled life. New York: Penguin Press.

Walker, M. U. (1999). Getting out of line: Alternatives to life as a career. In M. U. Walker (Ed.), Mother time: Woman, aging, and ethics. (p. 107) Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.