(this page is a stub)
Usually, the purposes of a research project are among the last things that dawn upon you in the course of the project; and similarly the introduction is the last section you write in a book. This project is no exception, so please read these lines for what they are: very tentative thoughts about the reasons for embarking on it. (And therefore this page will be revised frequently in the future.)
Besides my private and personal reasons for engaging with this topic, I’m of course also motivated by the possibility of making a number of practical and scholarly contributions. What is the potential impact of a project of this kind? How can it add to the public good?
The ageing society and the ‘creative class’
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 old life. There is in fact an interesting literature dealing with the significance of autobiography for understanding human ageing and with 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 do, of course, agree with Kenyon and Randall and other authors that autobiographical writing can be a method for caring for oneself in the later phases of one’s life; it’s a excellent way to come to terms with one’s achievements and misdeeds, of attaining mental tranquility (ataraxia), and for preparing oneself for the inevitable end; as such 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 (see, e.g., Jeffrey Berman, Dying in Character: Memoirs on the End of Life, 2012).
I do not agree with the presupposition that autobiographical writing necessarily has to take the form of story-telling, however. The philosophical discussions following Galen Strawson seminal article “Against narrativity” (in Ratio, vol. 17: 428-452, 2004) have opened up for 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 lists of events. In my concrete autobiography, I’m experimenting with such differences in textual formats, and in my meta-biographical book manuscript I’m discussing the pros and cons of different formats.
Scientific autobiography and the history of science
This brings me to the third aim. I have spent a significant part of my academic career on writing biography and reflecting about the genre of scientific biography. One of my earlier contributions was to apply notion of ‘existential biography’, demonstrating the connection between life experiences and cognitive achievements in one scientist’s work; another has been to discuss the relation between biography and virtue ethics; a third to clarify the variety of uses of biographical accounts of scientists — in dialogue with a small community of scholars, who are interested in the genre of scientific biography. However, in spite of the large number of autobiographies and memoirs of scientists, there is no similar community of scholars interested in scientific autobiography: the vast theoretical 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 no counterpart in 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
Understanding career – Careerism is a cultural ailment that affects all kinds of people, including politicians, business people, professionals, artists, etc. 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 slow in-depth thinking and thoughtfulness. Autobiographical self-examination may help intellectuals escape the careerist straitjacket.
I realise that few people would probably turn to autobiography as an antidote to careerism already in their forties or fifties. It’s probably a more realistic undertaking after having retired from a long professional career. But then again … soon you will retire.
Studies of the intelligentsia
I should add that I am specifically interested in autobiographies and memoirs of what we sometimes call ‘the intelligentsia’ — 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, and partly because I have spent most of my life in the history, philosophy and sociology of science studying thinkers and researchers.
I think ‘the intelligentsia’ is an extremely interesting social and political stratum (maybe even a class in sich?). By restricting myself to the subgenre of memoirs and autobiographies of ‘the intelligentsia’ I hope to be able to throw further light on the status and role of this stratum.
There is fairly large literature on the history and sociology of intellectuals, thinkers, etc., and I have to be very choosy when I pick the cherries from this corpus, to make sure I find what has been written specifically about autobiographies and memoirs of intellectuals, writers, thinkers, men and women of learning etc.
Another aspect of ‘successful ageing’ is the ambiguous notion of ‘care of self’. It is mostly used in a mundane nursing and health care context (‘self care’). Among philosophers and in cultural studies, however, the concept of ‘care of self’ has been discussed more systematically, mainly inspired by the late works of Pierre Hadot (Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, 1995) and Michel Foucault (‘souci de soi’).
On these pages I will discuss how different autobiographical practices could be understood in terms of ‘care of self’, both in the mundane and the philosophical sense.
Contributing to the literature on autoethnography
Understand autobiographical memory
Using myself as a case
The reason I use so much space on reporting about myself and quote letters and share photos of myself, is that I am utilising the best possible empirical material I can get access to — namely my personal archive and my memories — as resources for understanding the practice of self-writing and for investigating autobiography and memoir as genres of writing.
In other words, I’m using myself as empirical study subject/object and using events from my life as illustrations for the simple reason that I have a privileged access to myself. I think this is one of the things that makes research for an autobiography or memoir such a fascinating form of investigation: Each and everyone of us has privileged access to our own life, a unique access that no other person in the world has.
Change the idea of healthy ageing
Work out an paradigm for others to follow
First of all, I think such studies are of potentially great value for ourselves (including myself). Wrting about oneself is potentially self-therapeutical. It can be a source of joy and pleasure, similar to amateur family history research (geneaology), but it can also be a source of frustration and pain as one confronts one’s own past, waking up the inner demons one thought were safely put away.