John Russon, Adult Life: Aging, Responsibility, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2020; 237 pages. ISBN: 978-1438479514.
Reviewed by Jeffrey A. Bernstein, College of the Holy Cross.
While Russon’s new book is the finale of a trilogy beginning with Human Experience (2003) and Bearing Witness to Epiphany (2009), it is also a stand-alone study dealing with the experience of adulthood. Adult Life is a careful, rigorous, and subtle study on this experience, incorporating cross-cultural as well as developmental material in its narrative. Making use of thinkers such as Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and de Beauvoir for the content of the story it tells, the work as a whole owes a debt to Kant and Hegel. The former provides the concept of maturity as autonomy that freely submits to the strictures of adulthood. The latter provides the structure of the work. Russon’s progression from perception and character, through the experience of aging, to the tripartite forms of life (intimacy, economics, and politics), to the final cultural products of art, religion, and philosophy, broadly mirrors the progression in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. Russon’s text “is an attempt to bring together those empirical details [about aging and adulthood] with an insight into the basic constitution—the ‘first principles’—of our distinctive character as human beings, and thus to understand those empirical findings in light of this insight.” (11) It is, in short, a phenomenological account of adulthood that elaborates the fundamental character of humans as aging beings. It is also written in a style accessible to non-specialists and specialists alike—its material is relevant to human beings as human beings (and not just as philosophers). (14)
What is the fundamental insight that Adult Life lays bare? Simply put, it is that human beings are experiencing beings; we are beings for whom things happen; we are embedded in worldly situations, “and our experience is our ongoing process of coming to terms with this condition.” (11) The situatedness of human beings carries with it, for Russon, not only descriptive possibilities, but normative ones as well. Our being embedded in contexts, activities, and bodies leads us to certain conclusions about society and our relation to it that express both an “is” and an “ought.” Russon states this is appropriate, insofar as, “Philosophy is not primarily a matter of scholarship—it is not a matter of communicating ‘information’ or of ‘proving’ something—but a matter of wisdom: at root, philosophy is the attempt to attune us more deeply to our own reality so that we might live better, both individually and culturally.” (15) The practical value of Russon’s book lies in its making us aware of the kinds of things we ought to embrace in our being as adults.
The burden of Russon’s explication relates to showing that adulthood is not simply a natural given. We are not destined to become adults—it is, rather, an achievement. This means both that we are the kinds of beings that can become healthy adults and that we are the kinds of beings that can fail to do so. This double possibility lies in the fact that our perception of the world is not simply a passive operation. We are not mere spectators of an already constituted world; instead, we are participants in creating that world. This is brought home in Chapter 1, “Perception and Its Norms,” in Russon’s discussion of what perception actually entails: “ ‘Apprehend’ is…a good name for what we do in perception, for we do not primarily perceive the world as spectators, but as agents who ‘grasp’ the significance of our situation in and as a process of meaningfully acting within that situation.” (22) As subjects, we intervene in the situation, on the basis of ascribing significance to its punctuated moments: “At root, then, ‘perception’ and ‘action’ do not name two different facets of our experience, but are two names for the same process, the same practice.” (23) We sensibly and conceptually grasp the world in such a way as to make it meaningful for us. In the context of adulthood, this means that we apprehend it as a lived reality with both biological and characterological components. (28) These two components dovetail together, in what Russon calls “the real.” Becoming an adult, according to Russon, involves owning up to reality as it is actually constituted—it involves “perceiving according to the norm of reality.” (29)
Biologically, we do this by keeping ourselves physically healthy and secure. What, then, is involved in the character of healthy adulthood? This is explored in Chapter 2 (“Character and Reality”). For Russon, in order to learn from reality, we must be capable of such learning—we must be “formed” before we can be “informed.” (34) One of the factors of external reality that mature individuals must recognize is that we are “collaborators in a social world,” (37) in which we occur and through which we either thrive or stagnate. As agents, therefore, we must come to terms with the social world, renounce our fantasies of omnipotence with respect to it, and learn how to be with the social world: “we must transcend our simply given nature and cultivate a domain of self-possession: we must develop a sense of self that is not an ‘absolute’ self that excludes or overpowers the not-self, but is a self that has defined itself in relation to the not-self that is relative to the world.” (41) We accomplish this through the character virtues of temperance/moderation (sōphrosunē) and courage, by means of which we attain a free relation to the world around us—we are neither enslaved to our desires and thoughts nor to external stimulation. In learning to “respect the terms of nature,” (55) we develop into healthy adults who are able to live with and derive happiness from our relationships in the social world. The responsibility of acknowledging the real thus opens up onto the possibility of living well.
Chapter 3, “Aging”, deals specifically with the different stages of life that humans undergo. Given the mediated character of social life, on Russon’s account, it will not surprise readers that “past” and “future” are not simply detached ideas that are arbitrarily connected with the things of “objective reality.” (64) Rather, they are the form of our worldly reality itself. (64) Aging, then, denotes a difference in existential style rather than simply the changing of one’s biological constitution. Childhood involves openness to possibilities of life that eventually become restricted as one gets older. (69) Adolescence involves an “enhanced individuality and…enhanced sociality” that emerges as one becomes more involved with social life. (71) Adulthood brings with it the sense that one’s life is in course and that “ ‘there is no turning back from this’” (72). This becomes more pronounced in Middle Adult Life, where (having as much life ‘behind’ one as ‘in front of’ one) the “infinitude of possibility” becomes replaced with the “finitude of actuality” (78). Finally, Old Age involves the loss of independence that characterizes earlier stages of development (81). Given that human life is irreducibly social, our maturity in these phases involves “adequately living up to the demands of our social co-inhabitation” as well as “owning up to the political responsibilities implicit within this practice of…co-inhabitation.” (92) For Russon, this entails a greater recognition of the social character of aging and the need for respect when it comes to the space in which people inevitably inhabit. (97)
Chapter 4, “Domains of Settlement and Engagement,” is the longest and most overtly political chapter in Russon’s work. In it, he explores the three domains of intimacy, economics, and politics in order to further flesh out the sociality of human beings as they age. In compelling discussions of each, Russon painstakingly shows that—just as adulthood is not simply a given for all humans—neither are conventional understandings of intimacy, economics, and politics. As we assume an identity that meets the social reality that we face, we also must understand the sociality of these three domains (rather than view them as individualistic practices where our actions don’t affect others). With respect to intimacy, Russon notes that, “the threshold of interpersonal life is a domain of excitement, possibility, and risk; crossing the threshold opens up for us the field of shared experience, the field of companionship, the field of love, the field of establishing a home with another.” (109) But this can only happen if we own up to the reality that, during intimacy, we are involved with other subjects who have their own ideas, desires, and projects. Economic reality, too, is a domain of social experience: “owning up to our economic reality more fundamentally requires that we recognize our need to participate in a social division of labor: it requires us to recognize that we are not economic ‘individuals’.” (150) Finally, despite the tendency of politics to call forth political passivity on our parts, maturity requires that we take up the imperative of citizenship. (173) These three domains both serve as marker for, and example of, adulthood.
Finally, in Chapter 5 (“Bearing Witness: Honesty and Wisdom”), Russon engages the higher activities of culture—art, religion, and philosophy. Being an adult may mean accepting responsibility for the actual, but it also entails “the development of receptivities for dealing with the world that is not present to us, the possibilities of the world that are not actual.” (180) In the creation and appreciation of art, we find ways to consider the world and our relation to it. (185) In religion, we inherit cultural ways of attesting to those aspects of life that transcend conventionality and finitude—i.e., the absolute. (187) In philosophy, whether theoretical or practical, we learn how to “be honest about reality. This honesty, in its fullest development, is wisdom.” (192) These activities are both a goal and an exemplary instance of adulthood. Through them, we give our developmental experience conceptuality that (further) reconciles us to the reality in which we live.
Russon’s strength, in Adult Life, is his unwavering commitment to presenting the challenges of aging and the norms that must be respected if one is to age in a socially healthy manner. He accomplishes this with both conceptual and affective force. I find myself wondering, at the end of it, whether there is anything about the concept of adult life that surprises our attempts at thinking it through. Is there anything paradoxical about being an adult? Russon might suggest that the very sociality of being a human adult is paradox enough—at least compared to the modern, Western ideology of individualism. But (being a scholar of, among other things, Ancient Philosophy) Russon also knows that the social-political character of human life was known to Aristotle. Is the question I pose an immature one—does it amount to asking for a potentiality in thought that just doesn’t exist? Perhaps. It may be the case that what is paradoxical about adult life lies precisely in the experiences one accumulates in living through it. Mature adulthood would then amount to a recognition that thought seeks the universal and rational. That rationality isn’t always found in the actual experience of adult life may be exactly what needs to be owned up to in reality.