Besides my private and personal reasons for engaging with this topic, I’m motivated also by the possibility of making a number of scholarly and cultural contributions. What is the potential impact of a project of this kind? How can it add to the public good?
Healthy / successful ageing
As an active research partner in the Center for Healthy Aging at the University of Copenhagen during the last ten years, I have learnt much about the interdisciplinary discourse on ageing. One of my PhD students, Morten Hillgaard Bülow, who wrote about the history and philosophy of the notion of ‘successful ageing’, taught me a lot; we even published a paper together, in which we mapped out some of its most important themes in this vast field — including the interaction between biology, psycho-social contexts and lifestyle choices; the experiences of elderly people; life-course perspectives; optimization and prevention strategies; and the importance of individual, societal and scientific conceptualizations and understandings of ageing — and ended up with a critique of ‘successful aging’.
My take on ageing studies and gerontology is that they are heavily biased towards the medical, health and economic aspects of growing older — i.e., much emphasis on muscular and cognitive abilities, on physical, social and other extroverted activities, on the economic burden of an ageing population, etc. — but too little attention on the phenomenological, aesthetic, spiritual (in a secular sense), and introspective dimensions of growing old. Dignity, self-knowledge, getting prepared for death, etc. are not looming large in the interdisciplinary discourse on ageing.
Such dimensions have been prominent in earlier historical periods, however, and they are still being discussed in parts of the humanities and in theology. Thus one of the aims of this project is to widen the notion of ‘successful ageing’ to include classical ideas like ‘know thyself’, ‘care of self’, ‘graceful ageing’, and even the medieval and early modern practice of ‘art of dying’ (ars moriendi).
Autobiography and ageing
More specifically, this project is based on the idea that autobiography and memoir writing can contribute to a meaningful life. There is in fact an interesting literature on the significance of autobiography for understanding ageing and the use of life stories in gerontological practice (e.g., Gary Kenyon and William Randall, Restorying Our lives: Personal Growth Through Autobiographical Reflection , 1997). I agree with Kenyon and Randall (and others) that autobiographical writing can be a method for caring for oneself in the later phases of one’s life. It’s an excellent way to come to terms with one’s achievements and shortcomings, of attaining mental tranquility (ataraxia), and for preparing oneself for the inevitable end. In that respect, autobiography is an integral part of the tradition in the humanities for ‘know thyself’, ‘care of self’, and ‘graceful aging’. There is even a literature on how autobiography and memoir writing can be practiced as an ars moriendi (the art of dying) (see, e.g., Jeffrey Berman, Dying in Character: Memoirs on the End of Life, 2012).
I do not agree, however, with the presupposition of most of this literarature, viz., that autobiographical writing necessarily has to take the form of story-telling. The philosophical discussion following Galen Strawson seminal article “Against narrativity” (2004) has opened up alternatives to the prevalent narrative understanding of the self, for example, episodic accounts of oneself. Similarly, a one-sided focus on story-telling excludes other rhetorical forms of writing, like description, exposition, and argumentation.
Accordingly, another aim of this project is to widen the range of rhetorical modes of autobiographical writing. One rhetorical mode doesn’t necessarily fit all ageing memoirists. One can also write about one’s life in the form of series of analyses of episodes, factual descriptions, and even simple lists of events. In my forthcoming autobiography/memoir, I’m experimenting with such alternative textual formats, and the meta-biographical book will contain a discussion of the pros and cons of different rhetorical formats.
Scientific autobiography and the history of science
This brings me to the third aim. I have spent a significant part of my earlier academic career on writing biography and reflecting about the genre of scientific biography. My main contribution to the field was to apply the notion of ‘existential biography’ and to show the connection between life experiences and cognitive achievements in scientifoc work. Another contribution was to point to the relation between biography and virtue ethics; a third to clarify the variety of uses of biographical accounts of scientists. However, in spite of the large number of autobiographies and memoirs of scientists, there have been no corresponding attempts to discuss the genre of scientific autobiography. The large literature on memoir and autobiography in general — on the history of autobiography, literary analyses of composition, author intentions, reader expectations, etc. (see, e.g. Philippe Lejeune’s immensely influential Le pacte autobiographique (1975) and On autobiography (1989) — has not yet foound its way into analyses of scientific autobiography as a genre.
Thus a third aim of this project is to contribute to the understanding of the genre of scientific autobiography and memoirs. More specifically, I will focus my efforts on a counterpart to my earlier analysis of the uses of scientific biography (e.g., in this paper), and ask a similar set of questions about the uses of scientific autobiographies and memoirs, including their relations to the history of science, its self-congratulatory functions, and its ethical purposes.
The history of science and history of universities
A forth aim of this project is to understand the importance of ‘career’ in the history of science, history of intellectuals, and history of universities. My motivation to do so is my conviction that there are both positive and negative aspects of making a career, and that a too strong focus on making a career (careerism) has negative effects both on its practitioners and those affected by it. It is particularly unfortunate when it occurs among those who have taken as their task to reflect upon our society and culture: doing research for career reasons doesn’t encourage in-depth thinking and thoughtfulness. Autobiographical self-examination may help intellectuals escape the careerist straitjacket. I realise that few people would probably use autobiography/memoir writing as an antidote to careerism already in their forties or fifties, so it’s probably a more realistic undertaking after having retired from a long professional career.
Studies of the intelligentsia
In this project I’m interested specifically in autobiographies and memoirs of what might be called ‘the intelligentsia’, i.e., intellectuals, thinkers, writers, scholars, researchers, men and women of learning, etc. Partly, because this is the kind of life and work I know best in practice, but partly also because I have spent most of my academic life studying the history and biography of researchers and other thinkers. I think ‘the intelligentsia’ is an extremely interesting social and political stratum; maybe it’s even a class an sich? There is fairly large literature on the history and sociology of intellectuals, thinkers, etc., however, and I have to be very choosy when I pick the cherries from this corpus.
Understanding autobiography/memoir as ‘care of self’
The phrase ‘care of self’ is used mostly in a mundane nursing and health care context (‘self care’). Among philosophers and in cultural studies, however, the notion (‘souci de soi’) has been discussed more systematically, mainly inspired by Pierre Hadot (Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, 1995) and the late Michel Foucault. Hence another aim of this project is to contribute to the understanding of how different autobiographical practices could be understood in terms of ‘care of self’, both in the mundane and the philosophical sense.
Investigating autoethnography as a memoiristic method
(not yet written)
Understanding autobiographical memory
(not yet written)