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How Old Are You? Philosophy of Age and Its Relevance for Bioethics

by J.S. Blumenthal-Barby, Ph.D.

How old are you?

Robert Pogue Harrison, Literature Professor at Stanford University, recently reflected on this question during a monologue on his radio show, “Entitled Opinions.” (Plug for this great show, by the way:

Strikingly, he makes the case that although several scholars have offered a philosophy of time (most notably Martin Heidegger), a philosophical analysis of age has been lacking. To remedy this, Harrison begins to offer a philosophy and phenomenology of age.

Harrison argues that we have a tendency to reduce age to time or to think of age as a function of time; but really, age gives time a measure of reality. If we reflect on our experience, we find that it is more the case that time is a function of, or is grounded in, age. For example, our very concept of time ages and is subject to an aging process: our concept of time today is not the same as it was for the Ancients.

The second interesting point that Harrison makes is that humans are “heterochronic” in age, meaning that we are made up of many different types of ages (e.g., biological, historical, psychological, institutional, etc.). Our institutional and historical age reflects the fact that each of us is born into a humanly created world with a historical and institutional past, memory, and future, which imprints itself on us. Even within our biological age, there are complexities: different parts of our bodies might be different ages. The legs, Harrison points out, tend to remain more constant through the years than other body parts (e.g., the face).

A third interesting point that Harrison makes is that every phenomenon has its age. Think of the phenomenon of looking up at the sky. He writes that when he saw the blue sky when he was a 7-year old boy, it was an experience of making a covenant with the cosmos, when he was in his 20’s it was about abstractions, and now at 60 it is an experience of a dome he knows he will not inhabit much longer. The sky itself is (perhaps) ageless, but its agelessness appears different as the spectator ages. Every phenomenon is intimately bound up with the age of the perceiver or apprehender-a grandfather and his grandson looking at a redwood tree do not see same phenomenon or experience the same meaning. Harrison goes on to conjecture that truth reveals itself in and through the unfolding of age (including perhaps revealing the deception of youth), and to note that one’s lived experience of age is certainty related to race, class, gender, education, etc.

What are the implications for bioethics?  Since “bio” means “life” or “living,” and “ethics” means “character” (in Greek) and “customs” (in Latin), how our characters experience and understand age throughout our lives is of direct relevance. But beyond that, as technology advances and we expand our ability to extend biological age, reflection on the complexities of age is increasingly relevant and important. And at the level of clinical practice and patient interaction, I find this analysis to be important. Every patient (e.g., pediatric patient, elderly patient) we interact with is having a very different experience of the “medical situation” (the procedure, being in the hospital or the doctor’s office, the decision to be made, etc.) than we are as a function of his or her age. Moreover, patients’ experience of their age may be more complex and nuanced than the number we stamp on them. Finally, there are implications for advance care planning. Just as the blue sky means something different to the 20-year-old than it does the 60-year-old, so might various medical interventions or hospitalizations.

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