Examined Life is filmaker Astra Taylor's second documentary about philosophy. While the first, Å½iÅ¾ek!, focused on a single thinker Examined Life is comprised of interviews with Cornel West, Avital Ronell, Peter Singer, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Martha Nussbaum, Michael Hardt, Slavoj Zizek, Judith Butler and Sunaura Taylor. If the film has a lead role it's filled by West whose interview takes up three chapters in the documentary and focuses on the important role courage plays in the philosophical life. To paraphrase West, the examined life requires courage because it's often a scary think to engage in the practice critical, self-examination that's at the heart of philosophy as a way of life and form of inquiry.
The other interviews focus on a range of moral and socio-political ideas from the ethics of spening money (Peter Singer) to revolution (Michael Hardt) to disability and interdependence (Judith Butler and (Sunaura Taylor). Zizek's discussion of shit in the ideological sense is not only entertaining, but comes across more as coherent than in many of his written works. In each interview these thinkers illustrate how their central ideas are relevant to the "real world." Taylor does a masterful job of situating each thinker in a setting that provides a visual to go along with each thinker's ideas. As somebody interested in philosophy and who has a strong desire to show how the discipline is relevant to issues beyond the Ivory Tower (FYI: They sold the ivory to make up for budget shortfalls), a documentary like Examined Life by Astra Taylor is a welcome addition to a growing body of documentaries about big ideas. However, the film does have its shortcomings. Two, to be exact.
The film focuses exclusively on moral and socio-political philosophy. While I can understand the choice to focus on issues that easily show philosophy's relevance to real world concerns the failure to include any thinkers that deal with questions about other philosophcial topics like the existence of god, faith vs. science, the self or the mind-body connection seems like a serious shortcoming in terms of giving the audience a better picture of the breadth of philosophical topics central to the examined life. While some these topics might be more abstact they are nevertheless the very sorts of issues that figure centrally in many peoples' worldviews and as such deserve inclusion. The second problem, in my opinion, with the film is its political one-sidedness. All the thinkers included in the film stand squarely on the Left. In fact, in some ways, they basically all say the same thing altough they might use slightly different vocabularies to do so. Philosophers, it is true, tend to lean Left as a group. But, it should not have been too hard for Taylor to find one libertarian-capitalist to interview in front of a homeless shelter or welfare office. Doing so would have provided a nice contrast and again helped show the breadth of philosophical concern. All in all though, Examined Life is well worth the rental price of a DVD. So, you should check it out if you're interested in the life of the mind. I went to so far as to buy a copy. I hope Peter Singer would approve.