People have a low opinion of philosophy these days, what with its reputation for being at once futile and irrelevant. So the premise of Astra Taylor’s film, The Examined Life, almost sounds like a bad joke: eight contemporary philosophers holding forth on their views for ten minutes each? Real compelling cinema, that.
But whether by design or by accident, this premise makes for 80 minutes of cinema that is not just compelling, but enthralling. Taylor reveals philosophy for what it is at its best: the lucid and thorough exploration of precisely those questions that are the most important, the most difficult to resolve, and the most relevant to our lives — even if you don’t recognize the relevance at first. For example: What is the most ethically responsible way to spend your money? If each of us is a citizen of the planet, how should that affect our daily behavior? How should society assist its weakest members? Is there anything amiss with the popular concept of ecology, and if so, what does that mean?
The roots of philosophy lay in the long walks that Greek thinkers took with their pupils two millennia ago, so each philosopher is filmed in motion or performing some activity in a metaphorically appropriate setting, as they talk their way through a question. Kwame Anthony Appiah, who is concerned with the idea of global citizenship, walks through an airport; Peter Singer, who is concerned with the ethical use of money, illustrates his points with window displays on 5th Avenue. And Cornel West, whose philosophical riffing almost defeats the reporter’s notebook, anchors the film with three scenes in the backseat of the filmmaker’s car, somewhere in New York City. He describes himself as “a jazzman in the world of ideas,” and it’s hard to get more urban than that. But for all his variations, West also provides the most succinct definition of philosophy itself: “it’s truth as a way of life.”
Judith Butler provides one of the most interesting scenes for San Francisco viewers, as she takes a walk through the Mission District with the artist Sunaura Taylor, in part to examine the very notion of “walking,” for Taylor moves with the aid of a motorized wheelchair. When asked by Butler why she moved to San Francisco, Taylor responds that it is simply the most accessible city in the world, and because when a city is arranged thus, impairment itself is more socially acceptable. “What is a body,” Butler asks, quoting Gilles Deleuze, “but an assemblage of capabilities?” Taylor supplements that thought with the notion that the human body can be thought of as a site of interdependency as well.
Their entire discussion was almost a direct illustration of a point made early on by Martha Nussbaum, who spent most of her ten minutes explaining and then critiquing the concept of the social contract, as advanced by Enlightenment philosophers, which informs our social order to this day. She argued that social contract theory has never sufficiently accounted for differences in opportunity and natural ability. As an alternative, she mentioned Aristotle’s view that society should be organized to provide each person with what they need to live a full and fulfilled life. (That idea was the starting point of the Capabilities Approach to welfare economics.) It’s a view of society that we seem to be advancing toward still, however halting our steps.
The Examined Life opens at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas on March 6th for one week; director Astra Taylor and subject Sunaura Taylor and expected to be present for Q&A sessions following the evening shows on the 6th and the 7th