“Examined Life”: Socrates on Ice; or, Engaged Life: Riding the Clutch with Today’s Philosophers

In Astra Taylor’s film “Examined Life” (2008, DVD 2011), the camera captures contemporary thinkers walking through everyday environments that reflect and frame their dialogue. But there’s not much dialogue, more monologue, which is what I assume is Martha Nussbaum’s complaint in her upset and defecting review in The Point Magazine, “Inheriting Socrates” (Winter, 2010).

I can only assume, since part of the point of The Point Magazine seems to be open conflict with open access. In any case, Nussbaum’s point in what we do have is clear: “…I found Examined Life upsetting…a betrayal of the tradition of philosophizing that began, in Europe, with the life of Socrates….” The film is upsetting to Nussbaum because the cast features “figures in cultural studies or religious studies or some other related discipline (I’d call Cornel West a political theorist), but what they do is not exactly philosophy as I understand it.”

Philosophy as Nussbaum understands it is no doubt Socratic dialogue that admits “no special claim, no authority.” Socrates “doesn’t like authority,” and certainly “doesn’t like long speeches.” But the segments in “Examined Life” run only ten minutes; the real problem for Nussbaum, and, perhaps, for the film, is the lack of dialogue and what Nussbaum considers the lack of “rigorous argument, or with the respectful treatment of opposing positions.”

We may find, however, the opposing positions in the filmed environments, for philosophers live in the world, the same world the rest of us live in, and why we should saddle the film with any kind of philosophical expectation is unclear. Why would we criticize a film for not being what it was not intended to be? Wouldn’t we all agree that “Jaws” is a terrible romantic comedy? “One might quarrel, first, with the choice of participants,” Nussbaum argues. “Peter Singer, Anthony Appiah and I are all solidly within philosophy, as that discipline is usually understood.” Understood by whom?

One day, my Dad came home with a used 1949 Ford pickup truck, a six cylinder, three speed on the column, no air, no heat, no seatbelts, no radio, no-nonsense truck. He handed me the keys, and I backed the truck out of the driveway, my first stick shift experience. Hardly anyone drives sticks anymore – most of our transmissions are automatics; so too are our philosophies, automatic shift transmissions that allow for smooth acceleration through the busy vicissitudes of our popular culture. Automatic too, it seems, is Nussbaum’s insistence on the so-called rigor of an automatic philosophical tradition transmission. In other words, I think Socrates would have enjoyed Astra Taylor’s film “Examined Life.”

Nussbaum also gets ten minutes in the film, so it’s a bit surprising she winds up finding the film “upsetting.” Indeed, her segment is one of the most speech-like presentations, as she appears raw-nosed and cold walking along Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive. Still, her point in her ten minute segment is clear: she wants all of us to be able to live rich and capable lives. But that seems consistent with what the other philosophers in the film want for us also.

According to Cornel West, the lover of wisdom must have courage: “Courage is the enabling virtue to think, love, hope.” West, if not a philosopher in Nussbaum’s understanding of the tradition, is certainly a character, and characters make better film subjects than philosophers. West is the star of the film. His ten minutes are spread across three segments, and his reappearances create a happy motif, for his love of life is apparent and contagious – and his syntax moves in curious, unexpected directions.

Meanwhile, Slavoj Žižek strolls through a London dump, where he advises don’t idealize, accept, learn to love the world in all its imperfections. “We should become more artificial,” Zizek says, and give up the romantic notion of becoming one with nature. He’s a realist, as is Cornel West, who seems to agree with Zizek when he says give up on the idea of having the whole, a romantic notion, he says, that inevitably ends in disappointment. As it turns out, Nussbaum comes across as the romanticist philosopher. She can’t love Zizek’s garbage. And it’s ironic, in the end, that the most romantic philosopher seems least comfortable out in the cold and trash of everyday existence. Still, she has a point: we shouldn’t go to philosophers for how to live our lives, and most of the philosophers in the film seem bent on just that, telling us what we should do, what we need to do, how we should live – well, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it allows for a closer examination of Nussbaum’s point, which is that the true philosopher (as I understand how she understands it, and I could certainly be wrong here) doesn’t tell others how to live, but tries to help them become capable of making and living their own “human dignity.” But exactly to that end, “Examined Life,” if not a great film, if an imperfect film, is a necessary film.

And what about riding the clutch? Saves on the brakes, my Dad told me. Your brakes will always last longer with a stick shift, he said.

Note: Scott McLemee reviewed the film for Inside Higher Ed before Nussbaum’s defection was published, and he used the word “transformative” to describe the segment with Astra’s sister, Sunuara. I agree; Sunara’s segment transcends all the other arguments.

Update, Nov. 12, 2011: The Point Magazine, since I wrote the above post, has improved its website. The full text of an article from Issue 2 (the same issue as the Nussbaum article) discussing the film “Examined Life,” by Jonny Thakkar, “Examined Life: What is Popular Philosophy” views the film with Nussbaum’s concerns but leaves the theatre with different conclusions. Thakkar’s discussion of philosophy in the streets versus in the academy is definitely on point: for what is philosophy, who does philosophy best, where should philosophy be done, and what happens when philosophy gets into the wrong hands? Thakkar’s quote of Bernard Williams is more than mere touching: “…his [Williams’s] last essays reveal a man disillusioned with his academic career, which had ‘consisted largely of reminding moral philosophers of truths about human life which are very well known to virtually all adult human beings except moral philosophers.’ It was, he owned, ‘less than clear that this was the most useful way in which to spend one’s life, as a kind of flying mission to a small group isolated from humanity in the intellectual Himalaya.’”