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Humanism, aging well, and the arts


Humanism and philosophy

You can also have a look on the Dutch website.


Prof Aagje Swinnen, Professor of International Humanism and the Art of Living

Short introduction into the research field

In late modern societies, aging is conceptualized along the lines of two hegemonic discourses: aging as decline and age defiance. Aging as decline presumes that later life can be reduced to a decrease of cognitive and physical capacities while the discourse of age defiance positions older people as needy consumer bodies in search for ever-lasting youth. Our research focuses on how older people can negotiate both discourses, what it means to age well from a humanistic philosophical perspective, and how the arts can contribute to the development of a meaningful life across all life stages. 

Relevant questions

  • How can the arts contribute to shifting the way in which we understand, embody, and perform later life?
  • How do older artists experience, understand, and give meaning to creativity in later life?
  • How can the participatory arts improve the wellbeing and inclusion of vulnerable older people in care settings?
  • What are practices of aging well/the art of living and how can they be supported and enhanced?
  • How can practices of late-life creativity help develop a more nuanced outlook on aging and later life? 

Background information

Aging is a topic of growing interest these days. As life expectancy in Western societies is still increasing, the growing number and proportion of ‘elderly’ persons raise urgent questions on how to age ‘well’. In our contemporary society questions on aging are predominantly taken from intertwined biomedical and economic paradigms. While people of age are seen as a cost in society, biomedical research aims at curing the declining effects of aging, thus furthering ideals of healthy aging, active aging, or successful aging. Due to these focuses the current academic debate on aging is dominated by biomedical, genetic, demographic, policy, and behavioral & social science research.

The interdisciplinary research of the chair Humanism and Philosophy  adds another perspective to the debate on aging: meaningful aging. We do not contest the dominant paradigms as such, nor are we disputing the scientific research furthering them. Our research aims to enrich and to deepen the existing research on aging by purveying a meaning-in-life perspective to the current debate, thus aspiring to an ideal of meaningful aging. By taking a meaning perspective we do not confine aging to chronological age or to biomedical pathological processes. In our view, aging starts from birth, so everybody is aging during one’s life course in one way or another. Aging is understood as part of human life – the old age being valuable on its own. Thus, questions on aging well are connected to the question how to live well. 

Our meaning perspective on aging well is highly inspired by the humanist traditions of Western culture. The humanist view can be explained as follows. Humanism refers to both intellectual and artistic traditions in Western culture that relate critically to religious, political, philosophical, scientific, and other ideas and traditions of the culture in which humanism is itself rooted. Humanism takes this critical position for the sake of humaneness (without claiming a monopoly, for that matter). Although humaneness probably cannot be defined unanimously, our research’s humanist perspective operationalizes humaneness in terms of meaning-in-life and humanization: a humane life is a meaningful life under fair and dignified conditions.

A meaningful life can be conceptualized as a life in which basic needs for meaning are jointly fulfilled, such as: purpose, moral legitimization, self-worth, competence, comprehensibility, connectedness, and excitement. Humanism serves as a meaning frame to cover such needs. Although the humanist tradition is plural and the meaning of humanism varies through time and across cultures, certain values can be seen as the building blocks of this tradition. Humanism stands for values such as liberty (understood as autonomy), responsibility (understood as the duty to care, for which one is answerable), justice (under-stood as upholding institutions and arrangements that protect people from exploitation and humiliation), solidarity (understood as spiritual and material care for one another), diversity (understood as the right to individual and group identity), art of living (understood as refined moral conduct towards oneself and others), and sustainability (understood as long-term care for the inhabitability of the planet). These values make up the landmarks of humanism as an open worldview(ing) to a meaningful life, characterized by critical thinking, self-reflection and dialogue, which acknowledges and promotes the autonomous and responsible role of humans in shaping their existence meaningfully. In this view the self is profoundly social and persons are, both physically and mentally, worthy, unique, vulnerable and irreplaceable.

Supervised by professor Aagje Swinnen.