Archive for March, 2009


March 22, 2009

It’s a simple idea really: each philosopher gets 10 minutes of camera time to say a little about his or her work. That’s the whole movie. The exceptions being Cornell West who gets a couple of appearances—he opens the show with what might be a new genre, call it ‘philosophy rap’, and then closes, rapping again, before walking off into the night and into the mid-town Manhattan traffic to end the film—and Judith Butler who conducts a peripatetic interview with Sunaura Taylor as they go for a ‘walk’ through the San Francisco streets. While on the surface of it Sunaura qualifies to be in this film only by being the filmmaker’s sister, she has as much to say as anybody about philos ophy. When she walks, Sunaura walks with a wheelchair. I will say more about this in a minute, for walking and talking are the motifs one takes out of the theater. The name of the film is The Examined Life, and it’s about philosophers walking and talking and if this sounds boring to you, stop reading here. When I saw the film at a theater in New York City, there were four other people in the room. Walking, talking, thinking. Not a sexy film, I guess.

But, Cornell West is sexy, leaning forward to do some heavy name dropping, in his trademark three piece suit—and not walking, but sitting in a car—with a speech he’s made before, intent and intense, explaining what we don’t really need explained, this bit about the examined life: The Socratic imperative of questioning yourself requires courage…It takes more courage to examine the dark corners of your own soul than it does for a soldier to fight on the battlefield. Maybe…but it seems an unhelpful dichotomy. The battlefield might be a likely place for examination of those dark corners…and this idea of examining… It’s not just thinking about your ‘self’, right? It’s examining your ‘self’ as you live in the world, the decisions you make, the place you find yourself in, where you are going and where you have been. ‘Philosophy’ insofar as it becomes the act of questioning one’s self necessitates a questioning of the whole world, a questioning of existence. It’s not simply a matter of getting your ‘self’ a good shrink.


Avital Ronell wants to replace ‘philosophy’ with ‘thinking’, which seems good, except we don’t get too much exploration of what this particular type of thinking is, except to say that Heidegger did it, and that there are analogies with following a path. The sequence with Professor Ronell was filmed in Tomkins Square Park and it seems some of the locals got into the act, disrupting some of the scenes—though this did not make the final print, which is too bad. Sometimes when you’re walking and talking—and being filmed—you’re a walking, talking provocation. Just who does she think she is, anyway? Imagine getting paid to think. You think I can’t think?

Peter Singer wants everyone to keep their shoes on—their old, sensible shoes—when walking. He makes a sensible point that most of us spend more money than we need to, and could turn over a sizable portion of our income to legitimate charitable organizations. Just think of what the world would be like if Oxfam and Doctors without Borders had billions of dollars flowing through their coffers. Has this kind of thinking something to do with philosophy and with the examined life? Is ‘philosophy’ the act of being sensible? Of walking a sensible path?

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Facing Stanley Dancing

March 2, 2009

 Steady. If you need a chair or something to hold on to, try this sentence:

It is a condition of, or a threat to, that relation to things called aesthetic, that something I know and cannot make intelligible stands to be lost to me.

There. There’s your rock to anchor to. Now we will start with two ‘conjoined quotes’, the first one by John Dewey, who is quoting Emerson, and the second by Nietzsche who is thinking about Wagner.

As Emerson says in his essay on “Self-Reliance”: “A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, . . . else to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another” . . . Language does not help us at this point; rather the habits of our vocabulary betray us . . . To know what the words mean we have to forget the words and become aware of the occasions when some idea truly our own is stirring within us and strivingto come to birth.

Art has never been so much talked about [by critics, journalists, in schools, in society] and so little esteemed . . . On the other hand, many a being more nobly and delicately endowed by nature, though he may have gradually become a critical barbarian in the manner described, might have something to say about the unexpected as well as totally unintelligible effect that a successful performance of Lohengrin, for example, has on him—except that perhaps there was no helpful interpreting hand to guide him; so theincomprehensibly different and altogether incomparable sensation that thrilled him remained isolated and, like a mysterious star, became extinct after a short period of brilliance. But it was then that he had an inkling of what an aesthetic listener is.

That Dewey should be quoting Emerson at all is evidence that pragmatism does share some roots in Emerson’s thought. For Emerson and Dewey, habits tend to be a bad thing; it is better to cultivate an attention on the mind at the birth of an idea, to the ‘light’ that flashes from within; it keeps one from suffering the opinions of others as one’s own. Dewey, however, doesn’t quite get Emerson’s sense of the power of words, that we can use them against themselves, make them our own. The habits of our vocabulary betray us, he sums up. True, but this is not the whole story. John and Waldo seem to be taking a slow turn around the dance floor, agreeing that a habitual response is bad, but politely misunderstanding each other’s words about words.

Nietzsche is dancing to Lohengrin, but he too has words on his mind. Never has art been talked about so much, and never has it been so little esteemed. Curious, isn’t it? One would think that the interested listener could—should—be able to use words to describe the effect that a performance of Lohengrin has had on him. We seem to have two bi-polar pals in the concert hall, the critical barbarian and the aesthetic listener, the wordsmith without sensibility and the sensibility without the vocabulary to aid him.


The aesthetic listener? My, that rather recalls to mind Kant’s characterization of aesthetic judgment… at least it reminds Stanley Cavell of Stanley Cavell’s characterization of Kant’s notion in a little essay he published in Must We Mean What We Say? in which he proposes that Kant’s characterization of the aesthetic judgment models the relevant philosophical claim to voice what we should ordinarily say when, and what we should mean in saying it. Underline ‘ordinarily’ here, because this whole dance we’ve been blocking out is in the interest of Stanley Cavell’s recovery of ‘what J. L. Austin and the latter Wittgenstein name the ordinary.’

Not to worry. We have merely crossed the threshold of Something Out of the Ordinary, which started out as an address Stanley Cavell gave to the American Philosophical Association and is now chapter one in a book called Philosophy the Day after Tomorrow. Are you ready? Fred Astaire is going to perform and Immanuel Kant is out front warming up the crowd. Something out of the ordinary. They say Ginger Rogers danced every step Fred Astaire did, but backwards, facing Fred. All we have to do is dance a little dance backwards, facing Stanley—and figure out what the ordinary is—in the work, you know, of John Austin and Ludwig Wittgenstein. That’s all.

One problem we have to start with is that Stanley Cavell might well be the Mount Rushmore of philosophy. Reading him fills one with words and sentence structure and difficult rhetoric—all good stuff—but one can be left gasping—and that breath of air competes with a breadth of knowledge and a range of reference and an idiosyncratic style—perhaps we confront true philosophy here, perhaps we duplicate the sort of thing the Athenians dealt with when talking in the Agora with Socrates…

And perhaps we don’t.

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