Examined Life


How do you take philosophy from book to film form? This is one of the guiding questions of Examined Life(also available as a book) a recent movie directed by Astra Taylor, which takes its title from Plato's Apology, "An unexamined life is not worth living."

The film attempts to bring some of the world's most influential philosophers to a popular audience. Rather than focusing on a specific philosopher as was the case with Taylor's previous documentary, Zizek!, in Examined Life, we are given a series of short ten minute snippets from a range of continental philosophers, whose work gravitates around the big ethical questions of meaning and thinking.

Examined Life, genuinely tries to bring the philosophers into contemporary ethical questions concerning how we shop, design our cities and think. It maintains an eye both to a twittering age without the time to sustain interest in five hundred page philosophical works as well as a return to a Socratic philosophy which was more interested in the rhetorical and dialogical effervescence of speech.

This leads to one of the film's other guiding interests, which asks each philosopher why their examinations do not lead to relativism, which helps explain the film's opening quote, "The first step towards philosophy is incredulity" - Diderot. The point this film tries to make is that although philosophers have always questioned our various polities over the past few millennia, they often do so precisely in order to be even more ethical than the traditionalist with his or her list of top ten dos and dont's. This is no more true of Socrates or Aristotle than it was of Kant, Hegel, Heidegger or indeed the contemporary philosophers in this film. 

Of course, there is great irony in a bunch of philosophers pontificating on the need to get beyond ethical dogmatism. That is, the film genre itself presents its stars as something more, magnifying their presence and voice in a way which squelches dialogue and response. Hence, a full 87 minute viewing requires a bit of patience of that most pernicious of philosophical vices, narcissism. Of course, the best response to this might be to seek these peripatetic people out in their books and campus offices.

The following are a brief summary of quotes from the philosophers in the film:

  1. Cornell West: "For me, philosophy is fundamentally about our finite situation. You can define that in terms of being towards death, featherless two legged linguistically conscious creatures born between urine and faeces whose body will one day be the culinary delight of terrestrial worms. That's us. Beings towards death. At the same time we have desire, why we are organisms in space and time, and so desire in the face of death. And then of course you've got dogmatism, various attempts to hold on to certainty, various forms of idolatry. And then you have dialogue in the face of dogmatism. And then of course structurally and institutionally you have domination. And you have democracy, you have attempts of people trying to render accountable elites, kings, queens, suzerains, corporate elites, politicians - trying to make these elites accountable to everyday people. So philosophy itself becomes a critical disposition of wrestling with desire in the face of death, wrestling with dialogue in the face of dogmatism, and wrestling with democracy, trying to keep alive very fragile democratic experiments in the face of structures of domination, patriarchy, white supremacy, imperial power, state power, all those concentrated forms of power that are not accountable to people who are affected by it."
  2. Avital Ronell: "Don't forget Heidegger ditched philosophy for thinking because he thought philosophy as such was still too institutional, academic, too bound up in knowledge and results, too cognitively inflected. So he asked the question, 'What is called thinking?' And he had a lot to say about walks, about going on paths that lead nowhere. One of his important texts is called Holzwege, which means a path which leads nowhere. In Greek the word for path is methodos, so we're on the path... To leave things open and radically inappropriable and then admitting that we haven't really understood is much less satisfying, more frustrating and more necessary you know. And that's why I think a lot of people have been fed and fuelled by promises of immediate gratification in thought and food and junk, and so on, junk thought, junk food, and so on. So there is a politics of refusing that gratification, and I know that's crazy-making, but I think that's where we have to pull the brakes.... This is something that Derrida has taught: if you feel that you have acquitted yourself honorably, then you're not so ethical. If you have a good conscience then you're kind of worthless. If you think, 'Oh I gave this homeless person five bucks, I'm great,' then you're irresponsible. The responsible being is one who thinks they've never been responsible enough. They've never taken care of the other. The other is so in excess of anything you can understand or grasp or reduce, this in itself creates an ethical relatedness, a relation without relation, because you can't presume to know or grasp the other. The minute you think you know the other you're ready to kill them. You think, 'Oh, they're doing this and this. They're the axis of evil. Let's drop some bombs.' But if you don't know, you don't understand this alterity, it's so other that you can't violate it with your sense of understanding, then you have to let it live in some sense."
  3. Peter Singer: "This is the centre of one of the world's richest countries in one the most expensive places there, and that raises an ethical issue. I mean, there are people who have the money to buy at these stores and who don't seem to see any kind of moral problem doing that. But what I want to ask is, 'Well, shouldn't they see some sort of moral problem about that?' Isn't there a question about what we should be spending our money on? So we're outside Bergdorf Goodman where they've got a display of Dolce&Gabbana shoes, and it's kind of amusing to me because about thirty years ago I wrote an article called 'Famine, Affluence and Morality,' in which I imagined that you're walking past a shallow pond and as you walk past it you notice that there is a small child whose fallen into the pond and seems to be in danger of drowning. And you look around to see where the parents are and there's nobody in sight. You realize that unless you wade into this pond and pull the child out, the child is likely to drown. There's no danger to you because you know the pond is just a shallow one, but you are wearing a nice pair or shoes and they are probably going to get ruined when you wade into that shallow pond. So of course when I ask people this, they always say, 'Well of course, forget about the shoes you've just got to save the child. That's clear.' And then I stop and say, 'Well, I agree with you about that. But for the price of a pair of shoes, if you were to give that to Oxfam or Unicef or one of those organizations, they could probably save the life of a child, maybe more than one child in a poor country where children are dying because they can't get basic medical care to treat very basic diseases like diarrhoea or whatever else it might be.' And that's why I think it's interesting to be here on 5th Avenue talking about ethics, because ethics is about the basic choices we ought to make in our lives and one of those choices is how do we spend our money." 
  4. Kwame Anthony Appiah: "We started thinking about the difference between the context in which we evolved as a species and the present you know, in this age of globalization. And one way to think about that is to notice that if you live a modern life if you're traveling through an airport you're going to be passing lots and lots of people, and within a few minutes you'll have passed more people than most of our remote ancestors would ever have seen in their entire lives... Cosmopolitanism comes from the Greek phrase cosmo politos, which means citizen of the world, and we need a notion of global citizenship. The cosmopolitan says you have to begin by recognizing that we are responsible collectively for each other as citizens are. But second, cosmopolitans think that it's okay for people to be different... It's very important that in the global conversation of human beings that cosmopolitans recommend, one of the things we're doing is exchanging ideas about what's right and wrong and that it's perfectly appropriate to do so.... the fact that there are all these different kind of values, and the fact that we can recognize so many of them, is a reflection of the fact that we are all human beings, that we share what you might call a moral nature."
  5. Martha Nussbaum: "Aristotle had the ingredients of a theory of justice that I think is very powerful, and that is that it's the job of a good political arrangement to provide each and every person of what they need to become capable of living rich and flourishing human lives. Now of course he didn't include all the people, but he at least had that idea of supporting human capability that's the foundation of my own approach. Now then in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a very powerful new approach came on the scene and that was the social contract approach: Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant. The social contract approach was inspired by the background culture of feudalism, where all opportunities were distributed unequally to people according to their class, their inherited wealth and their status. And so what these theorists said is try to imagine human beings stripped of all those inherited advantages placed in what they called the state of nature where they had only their natural body and physical advantages and try to imagine what kind of arrangements they would actually try to make. The social contract tradition is of course an academic philosophical tradition, but it also has tremendous influence on popular culture and our general public life because every day we hear things like, 'Oh those people don't pay their own way.' Or, supporting some new group of people, 'Well, they'll be a drag on our economy.' So the idea that the good member of society is a producer who contributes advantage to everyone is a very live idea and it lies behind the decline of welfare programs in this country. I think it lies behind many Americans' skepticism about Europe, about European democracy. You hear terms like, 'Oh the nanny state,' as though there was something wrong with maternal care as a conception of what society actually does. We also see it in images of who the real man is. The real man is sort of like these people in the state of nature. He doesn't deeply need anyone. He isn't bound to anyone by ties of love and compassion. He's the loner who can go his own way and then out of advantage he'll choose to have certain kinds of social arrangements."
  6. Cornel West: "A philosopher is a lover of wisdom. It takes tremendous discipline. It takes tremendous courage to think for yourself, to examine yourself. That Socratic imperative requires courage in a way William Butler Yates used to say, 'It takes more courage to examine the dark corners of your own soul, than it does for a soldier to fight on the battlefield.' Courage to think critically. Courage is the enabling virtue for any philosopher, for any human being in the end. Courage to think, courage to love, courage to hope. Plato says philosophy is a meditation on, and a preparation for death. By death what he means is not an event, but a death in life. Because there's no rebirth, there's no change, there's not transformation without death. And therefore, the question becomes how do you learn how to die. Of course Montaigne talks about that in his famous essay, 'To Philosophize is to Learn How to Die.' You can't talk about truth without talking about learning how to die. I believe that Theodore Adorno was right when he says, 'The condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak.' That gives it an existential emphasis, you see. That if we're really talking about truth, as a way of life as opposed to truth as a set of propositions that correspond to a set of things in the world. Human beings are unable to ever gain a monopoly on Truth capital T. We might have access to truth small t, but they're fallible claims about truth. We could be wrong. We have to be open to revision and so on. So there is a certain kind of mystery that goes hand in hand with truth. This is why so many of the existential thinkers be they religious like Meister Eckhart or Paul Tillich, or be they secular like Camus and Sartres, that they are accenting our finitude and our inability to fully grasp the ultimate nature of reality, the truth about things, and therefore you talk about truth being tied to the way to truth because once you give up on the notion of fully grasping the way the world is, you're gonna talk about what are the ways in which I can sustain my quest for truth. How do you sustain a journey, a path toward truth, the way to truth. So the truth talk goes hand in hand with talk about the way to truth. And scientists can talk about this in terms of deducing evidence and drawing reliable conclusions and so on. And religious folk can talk about this in terms of surrendering one's arrogance and pride in the face of divine revelation and what have you. But they're all ways of acknowledging our finitude and our fallibility." 
  7. Michael Hardt: "We're stuck conceptually I think between two almost cliche ways of thinking revolution today. On the one hand we have the notion of revolution that involves the replacement of a ruling elite with another better in many ways ruling elite. And that is the form that many of the modern revolutions have taken, and posed great benefits for the people, but they have not arrived at democracy. And so that notion of revolution is really discredited and I think rightly so. But opposed to that is another notion of revolution, which I think is equally discredited from exactly the opposite point of view, which is the notion of revolution that hasn't been instituted, that thinks of revolution as just the removal of all of those forms of authority (state power, the power of capital) that stop people from expressing their natural abilities to rule themselves. The question of human nature has long been a thing of political philosophy. In fact, I'm sure everyone has some stupid evening in college, smoking way too much and talking, where you end up in a discussion where you decide you disagree with your friend because she thinks human nature is evil and you think it's good and you can't get any further. I mean, this kind of stupidity I think has affected a lot of the history of political philosophy. I think the relevant fact for politics is really that human nature is changeable. Human nature isn't good or evil. Human nature is constituted by how we act. Human nature is the history of habits and practices that are the result of past struggles, of past hierarchies, of past victories and defeats. And so, this is I think actually the key to rethinking revolution, is to recognize that revolution is not just about a transformation for democracy. Revolution really requires a transformation of human nature so that people are capable of democracy."   
  8. Slavoj Zizek: "Part of our daily perception of reality is that this (he is standing in a dump next to a huge pile of trash) disappears from our world. When you go to the toilet, shit disappears. You flush it. Of course rationally you know it's there in canalization and so on, but at a certain level of your most elementary experience, it disappears from your world. But the problem is that trash doesn't disappear. I think ecology, the way we approach the ecological problematic is maybe the crucial field of ideology today... But why don't we do anything about it. It is, I think, a nice example of what in psychoanalysis we call disavowment. The logic is that of, 'I know very well, but I act as if I don't know.' Precisely in the case of ecology, I know very well there may be global warming, everything will explode and be destroyed. But after reading a treatise on it, what do I do? I step out, I see not things I see now (trash), but I see nice trees, birds singing, and even if I know rationally all this is in danger, I simply do not believe that all this can be destroyed. That's the horror of visiting sites of a catastrophe like Chernobyl. Evolutionarily we are not wired to imagine something like that. It's unimaginable. So I think that what we should do to confront properly the threat of ecological catastrophe is not all this new age stuff to break out of this technological manipulative mood and found our roots in nature, but on the contrary to cut off all these roots in nature. We need more alienation from our life world, from our, as it were, spontaneous nature. We should become more artificial. We should develop, I think, a much more terrifying abstract materialism, a kind of mathematical universe where there is nothing. There are just formulas, technical forms and so on. And the difficult thing is to find poetry, spirituality in this dimension, to recreate if not beauty then an aesthetic dimension in things like this, in trash itself. That's the true love of the world. Because what is love? Love is not idealization. Every true lover knows that if you really love a woman or a man that you don't idealize him or her. Love means that you accept a person with all its failures, stupidities, ugly points, and nonetheless the person is absolute for you, everything that makes life worth living. But you see perfection in imperfection itself, and that's how we should learn to love the world. True ecologists love all this."
  9. Judith Butler with Sunaura Taylor: "I think gender and disability converge in a whole lot of different ways. But one thing I think both movements do is get us to rethink what the body can do. There's an essay by the philosopher Gilles Deleuze called 'What Can a Body Do?' The question is supposed to challenge the traditional way we think about bodies. We usually ask, 'What is a body?' or 'What is the ideal form of a body?' or 'What's the difference between the body and the soul?' and that kind of thing. But 'What can a body do?' is a different question. It isolates a set of capacities and a set of instrumentalities or actions, and we are kind of assemblages of those things. And I like this idea. It's not like there is an essence and it's not like there is an ideal morphology. You know, 'What a body should look like?' It's exactly not that question. Or, 'What a body should move like?' And one of the things  that I've found in thinking about gender and even violence against sexual minorities or gender minorities, people whose gender presentation doesn't conform with standard ideals of femininity or masculinity, is that very often it comes down to, you know, how people walk, how they use their hips, what they do with their body parts... There's a guy in Maine who, I guess he was around eighteen years old and he walked with a very distinct swish, you know, hips going one way or another, a very feminine walk. But one day he was walking to school and he was attacked by three of his classmates and he was thrown over a bridge and he was killed. And the question that community had to deal with, and indeed the entire media that covered this event, was how could it be that somebody's gate, that somebody's style of walking could engender the desire to kill that person? And that makes me think about the walk in a different way. A walk could be a dangerous thing."
  10. Cornell West: "Beethoven said on his death bed, 'I've learned to look at the world in all its darkness and evil and still love it....' You see the blues, my kind of blues, begins with catastrophe, begins with the angel of history and Benjamin's thesis. It begins with the pile of wreckage with one pile on another. That's the starting point. The blues is personal catastrophe lyrically expressed! And black people in America and in the modern world given these vicious legacies of white supremacy, it is how do you generate an elegance of earned self-togetherness so that you have a stick-to-it-ness in the face of the catastrophic and the calamitous and the horrendous and the scandalous and the monstrous... I want to stress, as well, time as a gift, time as a giver. Yes, there's failure, but how good is the failure. It did some wonderful things. I mean, Beckett could say, 'Try again. Fail again. Fail better.' But, why call it failure. I mean why not say you have a sense of gratitude that you're able to do as much as you did? You're able to love as much, think as much, and play as much? Why think you needed the whole thing? You see what I mean?"