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?