Practical philosophies
of old age

Philosophy can tend to edit out the everyday things that matter and become fixed wisdom or untethered introspection, rather than a practical way of understanding the world we collectively and continuously shape.

My PhD ended with the kind of call to action that, as a larper, you feel obliged to include. After the years of research, what are you actually saying we should do? This is the final paragraph:

The idea that ageing is a personal and individualised experience that is left unmentioned or, in De Beauvoir’s interpretation, detached from our real selves, is damaging. Old age and the meanings and experiences of ageing are shaped by material and social conditions; they are anything but personal. Further avenues of research lie in the lacuna of gerontology that progresses ‘practical’ philosophies of old age that theorise the personal experiences of ageing in society and that place housing as an infrastructure of care central to this understanding.

I’m aware that bringing De Beauvoir into it is a flex. It was the end of the thesis and I was exhausted. I (correctly) predicted the reader would also be exhausted and I could get away without defining with any rigour what precisely a practical philosophy of old age is.

What I meant was this:

Experiences of ageing rely on the interactions and objects of daily life, and thus the economic and political systems that contain them. This is obvious, but needed spelling out to counter the tendency of gerontologists to focus on an individual’s quality of life and care, or, the tendency of political economists to consider age-specific systems of care and retirement, while keeping outside of the ring of (say) housing and taxation policy.

My main point was that housing is so critical to old age that this ‘thing’ (material, fixed, labour-intensive, private, knotted into family life, expensive) should be centred in how we understand and talk about equality, dignity and life quality through old age.


A practical philosophy of old age is concerned with things. 

People flourish or suffer because of values and attitudes, but they do so in certain concrete conditions, through everyday interactions with things.

Things include money, housing, streets, hospitals, education, climate, pollution, cities, friendship, associations, government, families, the internet, food.

Housing overlaps a lot of these. It is the ‘thing of things’, intersecting with every aspect of daily life. 

In Why Things Matter to People [1], critical realist Andrew Sayer considers the disconnection between philosophy and the rest of social science. For this he blames (in part) the mutual hostility between different disciplines (A plague on all disciplinary imperialism and parochialism! – p.14). Specifically, between psychology, sociology, political studies, and economics.

When these disciplines are separated, their central focus is not on the things of life but on strengthening each discipline’s ideological committments, purpose, reason for being, language and methods. Philosophies that could question and connect are drowned out. 

I’m going to add the silo/s of gerontology here because I’m interested in old age and care. The things of old age (which are the things of life) overlap with these disciplines. Housing tightly overlaps them all, seeding what are generally thinly-theorised fields where each discipline’s philosophy and methodology is applied to housing.

Housing is a worthy subject for theory-making in its own right, and it is the thing that centres, focuses and connects psychology, sociology, gerontology, economics and politics (in other words it centres, focuses and connects the ways of being and relating in the world).

What does a philosophy of housing look like? A couple of examples of scholarly attempts to break the disciplinary silos of housing:

In Making Progress in Housing [2] Sean McNelis proposes a scientific approach to the practice of housing research, arguing that we desperately need some way of integrating and relating the disparate array of disciplines and their various methods - p. xviii. McNelis’ suggested structure for this takes the form ofeight inter-related questions for researchers and decision-makers: an empirical question, a theoretical question, a historical question, an evaluative/critical question, a transformative/visionary question, a policy question, a strategic question and a practical question.

In The Principles of Housing [3] Peter King seeks some degree of conceptual universality to the content of housing. The book is structured in seven parts: The Basics, Concepts (which are social justice, need, choice, rights and responsibility), Tenure, Welfare, Money, Control, and Buildings. Much like McNelis, what King is doing is drawing out universal aspects of housing that can be conceptualised and theorised across borders, economies, morphologies and cultures.

This is pursuing the normative  - common features of what should be, rather than what is measured or experienced through the various approaches to interpreting reality.

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Care is a core part of life, and of old age. It is not an individualised private need, or a market, or a clinical (and low paid female) practice, but an essential aspect that characterises social beings throughout life.

If it is possible to agree some elemental human values that guides a practical philosophy of old age, care is it.

Care is the substrate to all the normative lists of what it means to survive and thrive. (For example, Nussbaum’s [4] ten core capabilities, developed in the 1980s, and known for their use in United Nations development programs - life, bodily health, bodily integrity, senses / imagination / thought, emotions, practical reason (ability to plan one’s life), affiliation (social interaction and respect), other species (concern for animals), play (being able to enjoy!), and control over one’s environment.)

To progress a practical philosophy of old age, it is useful to centre housing as the thing and care as the value. Between these vectors (and adding time and change on the x-axis) all the economic, policy, sociological and psychological aspects of old age are connected and anchored to what matters.

Scholars Power and Mee call housing an ‘infrastructure of care’ [5]. As housing systems change so too do the possibilities of care. Housing as an infrastructure of care is a physical, psychological, social, political and economic assemblage that reproduces social difference.

These infrastructural lines of conceptualisation and inquiry ... offer to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the social value and role of housing and provide a discourse and heuristic to counter the growing and near exclusive political focus on home ownership as a pathway to care. (p.102)

This is the most pragmatic and powerful philosophy of old age I discovered in my literature review. It does exactly what McNelis, King and Sayer are aiming for: connecting between scales, disciplines and ways of relating to each other and our selves in the world, and transforming housing (the thing) from an externality that concepts are applied to, to something that helps generate those concepts.

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[1] Andrew Sayer, 2011, Why Things Matter to People: Social Science, Values and Ethical Life, Cambridge University Press

[2] Sean McNelis, 2014, Making Progress in Housing: A Framework for Collaborative Research, Abingdon, Routledge

[3] Peter King, 2015, The Principles of Housing, Routledge

[4] Martha Nussbaum, 2011, Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach, Harvard University Press

[5] Emma Power & Kathleen Mee, 2020, ‘Housing: an infrastructure of care’, Housing Studies, 35(3), pp. 84–505.