Astra Taylor is a gifted young filmmaker. Examined Life shows a keen visual imagination and a vivid sense of atmosphere and place. It also testifies to a personal passion for philosophy. What I shall say in criticism of the film should not be taken as denigration of Taylor’s talent, creativity or sincerity.
Still, I found Examined Life upsetting, because it presents a portrait of philosophy that is, I think, a betrayal of the tradition of philosophizing that began, in Europe, with the life of Socrates, although similar movements have flourished in other cultures.
One might quarrel, first, with the choice of participants. Peter Singer, Anthony Appiah and I are all solidly within philosophy, as that discipline is usually understood. Most of the others are figures in cultural studies or religious studies or some other related discipline (I’d call Cornel West a political theorist), but what they do is not exactly philosophy as I understand it. They aren’t—even in their books—all that concerned with rigorous argument, or with the respectful treatment of opposing positions.
But I have not yet said what philosophy, as I understand it, is. So, let’s think about Socrates, as he is portrayed in the early Platonic dialogues, such as Euthyphro, Laches, Lysis, Charmides, and as he describes his own way of life in the Platonic Apology. Socrates has a passion for argument. He doesn’t like long speeches, and he doesn’t make them. He also doesn’t like authority. He takes nothing on trust, not from the poets, not from the politicians, not from any other source of cultural prestige and power. He questions everything, and he accepts only what survives reason’s demand for consistency, for clear definitions and for cogent explanations. This also means that Socrates and his interlocutor are equals: the fact that he is a philosopher gives him no special claim, no authority. Indeed, he practices on himself the same techniques of examination and refutation he practices on others. If he is one step ahead of his interlocutors at times, it is only because he knows what he does not know, and they sometimes fancy that they have answers—which soon fall to bits.
What this Socrates says to a democratic culture impatient with deliberation and vulnerable to demagoguery of all sorts is: “Slow down. Think clearly. Do not defer to authority or peer pressure. Follow reason wherever it takes you, and don’t trust anything else. Indeed, don’t trust even reason: keep probing your arguments for faults, never rest content.”
Socrates also teaches this impatient culture a new way of dealing with political or cultural disagreement. Instead of thinking of an opponent as an enemy to be defeated by the sheer power of one’s words— what we might call the “talk radio” conception of disagreement— he teaches us to think of opponents as people who have reasons and can produce them. When reasons are produced, it may turn out that the disagreement narrows: the “other side” may accept some of the same premises that “my side” starts from, and then the exercise of finding out where and why we differ will become a subtle search rather than a contest of strength.
American culture, like the ancient Athenian democracy, is susceptible to the influence of authority, to peer pressure and to seeing political argument as a matter of boasts and assertions, of scoring “points” for one’s side. That is why Socrates has so much to offer us. I once talked with a student in a business college who had been required to take a philosophy course in which he studied the life and career of Socrates, and learned to argue in a Socratic manner. The instructor included a segment in which students conducted classroom debates on political issues, often being assigned to defend a position that was not their own. He said that this experience taught him a wholly new attitude toward people who disagree with him in politics. He had never understood that it was possible to argue on behalf of a position that he himself did not hold. Learning this, in turn, taught him that people on the “other side” could have reasons and be respected for those reasons. It was even fun and exhilarating to figure out where the source of disagreement lay.
It was this aspect of Socrates— this insistence on deferring to nothing but what one had figured out with one’s own reason— that inspired Kant and the philosophers of the Enlightenment, and his deliberative and egalitarian conception of philosophy continues to animate the teaching of philosophy all over our country and in many other countries. In our present polarized and hysterical political culture, we need Socrates more than ever.
In Taylor’s film, philosophers are cultural authority figures who think deep thoughts and make deep pronouncements. Trouble begins with the basic conception: the philosopher is always alone. This was not evident in the process of filming, since Taylor engaged me in a very intelligent Socratic process of question and answer, and she also allowed me to be Socratic with myself, so that throughout I expressed the objections to my own views and the give and take between me and my opponents. In the final version of the film, however, all this is lost, and each of us appears as a pronouncer, a talking head. There is no sense of equality: the philosopher is a kind of deep and venerable guru, and spectators are supposed to find that inspiring. There is also virtually no sense of the structure of an argument: we each come across as people who have positions, rather than arguments for conclusions. So we end up looking just like those poets and politicians that Socrates subjected to his stinging critique.
Portraying philosophers as authority figures is a baneful inversion of the entire Socratic process, which aimed to replace authority with reason. Taylor, instead, replaces reason (since I’m sure some of us were at least trying to offer arguments) with authority. But authority is all over the place in our culture; we certainly don’t need more of it. What we need is deliberation and careful listening to one another, careful dissection of one another’s positions.
It’s not as if Taylor’s portrait of the philosopher as a solitary profound thinker has no historical antecedents. One post-Enlightenment continental tradition does indeed portray the philosopher as a lonely thinker of profound thoughts. I’d mention Nietzsche and Heidegger as two sources of this view, which seems to animate the film. (Both, not coincidentally, preferred the pre-Socratic philosophers to Socrates.) Heidegger was particularly energetic in setting himself up as an authority figure and encouraging deference. This example had a lot of influence, but I’d call it a pernicious influence and a betrayal of the whole enterprise of philosophizing.
If I were making a movie about philosophy, I would try to show what philosophizing in the Socratic mode can contribute to a democratic public culture. This means that I would want to film interactions. I might start with a good philosophy class, showing the kind of enlivening that takes place under the pressure of questioning, and then I’d have the film follow up with the students later to talk about how the experience influenced their view of political and cultural debate. I would be sure to have opposing viewpoints represented and treated respectfully by all participants. There would be no stars in my movie: the professors would be there only as facilitators of dialogue.
In fact, I helped make something just like this. I was approached in 2007 by the Dutch public television company VPRO, which wanted to make a documentary about the ethical implications of the financial crisis, and its impact on thinking at the University of Chicago Law School, where Barack Obama taught. The film now exists on DVD as The Chicago Sessions: Law and Ethics of the Credit Crisis. I made the initial decision to entrust most matters to two very capable students: one a law student named Alexandra Kolod (a graduate of the College, where she majored in Philosophy), and the other a former NPR broadcaster named Gretchen Helfrich. I charged Alex and Gretchen with selecting a group of students diverse in political viewpoint, as well as gender, race, ethnicity and intellectual background. There were eight law students and four philosophy graduate students. We then selected pairs or trios of contrasting faculty members who would serve as the facilitators for each of the three sessions (six hours were filmed to make a one-hour program), and we told them that their role was to stimulate focused discussion of key ethical issues surrounding the financial crisis. We deliberately chose faculty with opposed starting points, and all of them were as committed to the rigorous and open exchange of critical argument as we were. I was one of the faculty, in the segment concerning “First Principles and Foundations.” I argued with Eric Posner, a utilitarian, but it was the students who did all the real work. I appear only once or twice in the finished product— contrary to the initial expectation of the producers, who knew me from another Dutch film and expected me to play a sort of starring role. But then they too got into the Socratic spirit.
I recommend this film. Like Taylor’s, it has its moments of haunting visual beauty. For example, one of our law students takes the producers on a walk through a South Side neighborhood with lots of boarded up houses, in the silence (it was a week so cold that nobody went out) and the deep white snow. But the real action was in the classroom. Even though the film is greatly cut from its original length, you will still see the atmosphere of argument and dialogue that we were trying to achieve. Despite the bleakness of the topic, I think there is reason for hope if a group of young people so gifted, headed for positions of leadership, can listen to each other this well, and exchange ideas about matters touching their lives in an atmosphere of respect for reason.
Our public culture needs philosophy, but what it needs is on display in The Chicago Sessions, not in Examined Life.