Plutarch's Table

Examined Life | September 29, 2010

I finally saw Examined Life.  Something in me had been resisting it, even though a film that attempts to ‘bring philosophy back to the streets’ should be right up my alley.  Every time I had seen it in the video store and had felt obliged to rent it, I would tell myself that I was in the mood for something more entertaining, or gripping, or dramatic, or suspenseful, or funny.  Not surprisingly Examined Life turns out to be none of these things.  I know that philosophy has a reputation out there for being boring, but I happen to think that it doesn’t have to be that way and that this represents a misunderstanding about philosophy that Examined Life is not helping to dismantle.  In my minority opinion, philosophy can and ought to be – and sometimes is – entertaining, gripping, dramatic, suspenseful and funny.

Nobody in their right mind could claim that Cornell West or Slavov Zizek are boring philosophers, but although there were good moments in each of their monologues, watching them yapping in taxis and garbage dumps was a big yawn.  I couldn’t agree more that philosophy should get out of its tower and into the streets, but talking heads is clearly not the way to do it.  I am a particular kind of philosopher, it’s true, and my opinion surely does not represent the academic orthodoxy, but for me the great moments of philosophy happen in that instant when we discover something new, something we hadn’t thought of before.  Philosophy should be active, learning as it goes, rather than simply reporting to the audience what it has discovered back in the armchair, back in the age of Socrates.  In a university lecture this happens very rarely nowadays because of enormous class sizes, but when it does happen it is when the students get to see the professor engaged with a text or a question or a new thought and actually thinking with it out loud.  Wherever it happens it is active, a moment when some outside force pushes its way into our familiar view of things.  Students (and those people in the streets that according to Cornell West have nothing at all going on in their heads), learn philosophy by watching it happen and not by taking down information output that might as well be online.  As Gilles Deleuze says, philosophy is an apprenticeship.  Bringing philosophy to the streets should not be about philosophers telling the people down below what to think, as they seemed to be doing by using the cityscapes as mere backdrops or props for their clearly rehearsed speeches.  It should be about dropping those philosophers into the urban environment and making them interact with it and learn from what they come across or are confronted by.  The philosophers shouldn’t get to do all the talking, either.

Judith Butler’s segment was the one exception, as she was navigating the streets in dialogue with a disabled friend.  Not only was Butler getting flashes of insight from her friend’s responses and observations, but the audience got to see what it might be like to negotiate the city streets in a wheelchair as these two women used this situation to guide their thinking.  This indeed was philosophy on the move, living and breathing and responding.  On the other side of the spectrum was a feminist Derrida-spouting philosopher who I admit I had never heard of, and who suddenly made me see why all my fellow students had made fun of me for studying Continental Philosophy.  Lord please tell me that I never sounded like that.  It wasn’t that she wasn’t saying anything smart in her post-modern jargon that no non-philosopher would ever be able to decipher, but it seemed to add absolutely nothing valuable to the world – and nothing that hadn’t already been written by the 1950s.  Peter Singer was delightful just because he is delightful and everything he says is so perfectly spot-on, and Nussbaum and Hardt and Zizek all fared better, I thought, than Ronell and West because they were presenting really new ideas, ideas that at least were new when they wrote them in their books.  But then this is really just bringing books to the streets – where they can already be found – rather than creating an opportunity for philosophy to be confronted by the reality on the street or for anyone on the ground, or in the audience, to be given a chance to learn what it means to be philosophical.


1 Comment »

  1. Joanna,

    What a coincidence. I just saw this movie recently as well. I thought it would be refreshing to finally be able to see a documentary on philosophy, with some prolific philosophers making practical applications to theory. A documentary, with some influential contemporary thinkers, seems to be a perfect way to provide a more mainstream example to those who don’t understand the purpose of studying, teaching, “doing”, or living philosophy.

    So, Examined Life was a huge disappointment. I was screaming inside: “philosophy, get back in your tower!”

    I love Zizek and have been reading more of him lately. But when he summoned a pile of trash and says “this is your life, and we ought to examine it” -well, I gotta draw the line somewhere. I can appreciate wanting to be “radical,” but frankly he was just boring, annoying, and a huge disappointment.

    Cornell West started going on a rant about music and it’s close relationship to philosophy, and while I don’t hold an opinion either way, I started feeling embarrassed for him as he sounded at a certain point as if he was raving.

    All the displays of being “outside” were overly emphasized thus making the film cheesier – especially the guy in the canoe speaking about how to start a revolution. I take it that the was to deliver a message about how to start a revolution that starts from a canoe in the middle of a national park.

    The Derrida philosopher was nauseating and should have been the example of how NOT to do philosophy, or how NOT to bring philosophy to the streets, or even your local park.

    I enjoyed Naussbaum and Singer, of course. Singer makes so much sense, always.He just needed to deepen his moral theory a little further and provide an account for why we ought to give our extra eye to those who need it. (that one was for you, Jo!)

    Terrible documentary, thanks for posting about it. It made me want to read the most obscure and abstract philosophy and hide in the darkest and most shadowy corners of the Ivory Tower.

    Comment by Lana De Gasperis — October 17, 2010 @ 5:50 pm

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About author

My name is Joanna Polley. I am a writer and a philosopher experimenting with ways of practicing and teaching philosophy outside of the university environment. I completed my PhD at the University of Toronto and have taught for several years in the departments of philosophy and literary studies, and am currently exploring ways to bring philosophy out of the ivory tower and into the wider public sphere. My specific research interests have been in the history of philosophy, philosophy of language and culture and the philosophy of literature, but I am interested in any philosophy that helps illuminate contemporary problems and deepens our experience of being alive. You can also visit me at for information about my philosophical therapy services.







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