Popular science is part of popular culture: our shelves teem with tomes that flatter and patronize us in equal measure, and every fallen senator is the victim of his genes. But what about popular philosophy? Is there a philosophical version of Steven Pinker? Various names spring to mind—Simon Blackburn, A.C. Grayling and Alain de Botton among them1—but despite impressive sales it seems fair to say that none has achieved the cultural significance of a Richard Dawkins or Steven Levitt. Moreover, their work has done little to appease critics who charge that in a time of “culture wars” philosophers have abandoned their posts, retreating to the crusty comforts of academic armchairs rather than facing up to the avarice and fundamentalism around them. Contemporary philosophy, these critics allege, has next to nothing to say about the nature of the contemporary world. The makers of Examined Life, a 2008 documentary, concur; they claim their film “pulls philosophy out of academic journals and classrooms, and puts it back on the streets.” This suggests that philosophy is supposed to be popular, but has somehow ended up the exclusive province of eggheads and boffins. But how can such an intricate, elusive, arduous discipline ever be popular?
The accusation of scholasticism is disagreeable to scholars. No one likes to be told their work is pointless; academics don’t like theirs to be termed “academic.” They claim that such criticism betrays ignorance of current work and, more importantly, of the nature of philosophy itself. “Impatience with the long haul of technical reflection is a form of shallowness, often thinly disguised by histrionic advocacy of depth,” writes Timothy Williamson in The Philosophy of Philosophy. “Serious philosophy is always likely to bore those with short attention-spans.”
Examined Life is certainly not boring. Astra Taylor, the director, selects eight thinkers and gives them each ten minutes to talk philosophy in various choice locations, from the Bergdorf Goodman luxury department store on 5th Avenue—also used as a location for Sex and the City 2—to the Chicago lakefront. As they speak the camera wanders inquisitively, almost distractedly, as if to emphasize the spontaneity of the conversations and the fragility of human concentration.
In Cornel West, Examined Life has a star. Film suits West. Cooped up in the back of Taylor’s car as she drives across New York, he jabbers like a jack-in-the-box, all staccato spurts, bobbing back and forth, half Pentecostal preacher, half Shakespearean fool, veering wildly across topics and epochs, his register shifting with his whims. He does make some substantive points, warning us for example against the disappointments dictated by a Romantic conception of time as productive only of loss and never of gain, and neatly defining philosophy as “a critical disposition of wrestling with desire in the face of death, wrestling with dialogue in the face of dogmatism and wrestling with democracy … in the face of structures of domination.” But overall West makes us want to behold his presence, to sit at his feet, to take his every eccentricity as evidence of genius. Taylor seems to share this yearning, splitting his interview in three and punctuating the film with the rhythm and urgency of his diction, letting it begin with him invoking Socrates and end with him crossing a busy Manhattan intersection. It scarcely comes as a surprise when, just as the last shot seems settled, an awestruck blonde comes from nowhere to shake his hand: a philosopher with a Facebook fan page, West is nothing if not popular.
Most academic philosophers will cringe at the alliteration in West’s definition of philosophy, worrying with Williamson that “shoddy work is sometimes masked by pretentiousness, allusiveness, gnomic concision, or winning informality.” Charismatic rhetoric may make you popular, but it proves nothing; in the end, debate will expose bad arguments. With this in mind, it is a shame that Examined Life keeps its subjects apart. Martha Nussbaum and Judith Butler, walking around Chicago and San Francisco respectively, both deplore mistreatment of the disabled, so it would be natural for the viewer to assume they make common purpose. In fact, they have a history of bad blood. Ten years ago, Nussbaum mounted a very public and personal attack on Butler, denigrating her brand of feminism as “hip quietism” and accusing her of willful obscurity: “Mystification as well as hierarchy are the tools of her practice, a mystification that eludes criticism because it makes few definite claims.” A rematch over disability would be amusing at the very least. As it happens, Examined Life shows Butler in fairly lucid and insightful form; the literary theorist Avital Ronell might have been a better target for Nussbaum’s ire this time round. Weighing her paces as only those with profound inner lives can, Ronell confides that it is “very hard to keep things in the tensional structure of the openness, whether it’s ecstatic or not, of non-meaning.” But this is just false modesty—for the difficulty of achieving non-meaning is one that Ronell overcomes with no little flair just moments later: “The minute you think you know the Other you’re ready to kill them.”
Naturally, argumentative structure is not always clear in an edited interview; rigor will never be the strength of philosophy on film. The most successful parts of Examined Life therefore harness the force of a philosopher’s personality in order to make troubling thoughts linger longer in the mind. Watching Slavoj Zizek is like being in an elevator with a stand-up comedian: it’s great but you hope it won’t last forever. The ecological movement, he claims, assumes the earth would be a stable and benign system if it weren’t for our intervention; this is simply not true. If it’s stability we want, shouldn’t we be trying to move further away from nature? Kwame Anthony Appiah, the very model of cultivated urbanity in a Toronto airport departure lounge, notes that although morality evolved when humans lived in small groups, today we sometimes see more people in an hour than our ancestors saw in their whole lives. How should we understand moral obligation in such a global context? Peter Singer is the Puritan you wish you hadn’t invited round for Christmas. Just as your beloved tears the wrapping on her present and the Bergdorf Goodman logo peeks out, he fixes you with an earnest eye and asks: if you had to ruin your expensive shoes to save a drowning child, would you? Why yes, you reply, of course. Well then, he continues, turning his gaze to the gift, why would you buy those shoes in the first place when you could give the money to Oxfam?
When Singer is on camera, the thought occurs that in philosophy questions are more important than answers, and that the most serious work a philosopher can do is to persuade people to question themselves. Any film would fall short of Williamson’s “long haul of technical reflection,” since only the broadest contours of an argument can be sketched; however elevated their subject matter, documentaries are essentially aimed at those with short attention spans. So Examined Life cannot be a model for the serious yet popular philosophy we crave. But perhaps its most successful moments point to someone who can.
It is Socrates who gives the film its title. “The unexamined life is not worth living for men,” he said. He believed that “it is the greatest good for a man to discuss excellence every day,” which is why he used to walk around Athens looking for conversation. Oh, he says, bumping into a friend, I see you’re off to court to sue your father for impiety. By the way, what is piety? What distinguishes Socrates from most philosophers is that he claims to have no answers, only questions. Told that the Oracle at Delphi had deemed him the wisest man in Athens, Socrates took it to mean that he alone knew that he did not know: his wisdom lay in being open to questioning his assumptions. Although he did want to find answers, he considered discussion a good in itself. We might therefore think of him as a missionary for the Examined Life.
Was Socrates a popularizer, then? Following Stanley Cavell’s remarks in the foreword to Must We Mean What We Say?, we should note that the meaning of “popularize” varies. To popularize science is to take something which in itself has no necessary audience outside the research community and to simplify it for public consumption. Socrates was not a popularizer in this sense. He had no results to simplify; in fact, he treated the desire for results as itself an evasion of philosophy. On top of that, his philosophy was intrinsically aimed at an audience. In that sense, it was already essentially “popular”: Socrates could never be accused of scholasticism, since questions like “what is piety?” arose in everyday life and he discussed them with everybody. Nonetheless, he was not a “popular” philosopher in the way that West or de Botton are: like Singer, Socrates was irritating to most people, so much so that his fellow Athenians put him to death. We might therefore call him “popular” but not “populist.” Both great art and populist trash are aimed at the public, and in this sense popular as opposed to scholastic. The difference is that great art does not pander to the public; it challenges us to be worthy of it. Yet despite being defiantly non-populist, both great art and Socratic philosophy can be “popularized”—but then the goal is not so much to simplify as “to widen the audience for the genuine article,” in Cavell’s words. Since Socrates refused to write—apparently on the grounds that writing encouraged the transmission of mere facts rather than the teaching of wisdom—what is to be popularized is reflection itself.
Philosophy has changed since Socrates: for one thing, philosophers now write; for another, they dwell in universities. Williamson, described by Julian Baggini as “without doubt the pre-eminent [British] philosopher of his generation,” believes that writing philosophy and communicating with non-philosophers are two separate tasks, even if they can sometimes be done by the same person. “Popularization has its place, in philosophy as in physics, but should not be confused with the primary activity.” As is evident, Williamson’s distinction depends on his belief that philosophy is a kind of science, capable of regularly and reliably producing knowledge by means of a secure methodology. The arguments he gives for this view in The Philosophy of Philosophy are flawed in many respects, as P.M.S. Hacker noted in a sadistic but ultimately accurate review.2 But even if we take Williamson as proving that, for instance, metaphysics is an “armchair science” that proceeds via thought experiments and formal logic to counterfactual truths, a fundamental problem remains. Despite Williamson’s many mantras on patience and rigor—”the fear of boring oneself or one’s readers is a great enemy of truth”—he makes no attempt whatsoever to take account of areas of philosophy beyond his own, such as ethics or aesthetics. “The Philosophy of Philosophy is no easier than the philosophy of science. And like the philosophy of science, it can only be done well by those with some respect for what they are studying,” he proclaims. And then, in the very next sentence:
The book makes no claim to comprehensiveness. For example, it does not engage in detail with critics of analytic philosophy who do not engage with it in detail. I preferred to follow a few lines of thought that I found more rewarding. I hope that philosophy as I have presented it seems worth doing and not impossibly difficult. At any rate, I enjoy it.
That the secure path of science so quickly gives way to the rambling of personal preference is important, for it constitutes an evasion of the very question that hangs over Williamson’s project: Can there even be a comprehensive philosophy of philosophy?
The philosophy of philosophy has been central to philosophy ever since Plato distinguished his activity from sophistry and thereby inaugurated the (still thriving) tradition of dismissing opponents as non-philosophers. But why assume there must be one feature that unites philosophy? What do Frege’s The Foundations of Arithmetic and Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra have in common? Well, they were both written by Germans in the 1880s. Such examples make it plausible to suppose that philosophy is in fact what Wittgenstein calls a “family resemblance” concept, one whose instances (like the faces of a family) are held together not by one single feature common to all but by “a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing.” Even if sub-disciplines like metaphysics and epistemology are as scientific as Williamson thinks—which is doubtful—there is no reason to assume the rest of philosophy will be.
Bernard Williams was perhaps the most widely respected moral philosopher of the late twentieth century. At its best—in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, for instance—his writing is so extraordinarily subtle, so finely poised and compressed, that it begins to exert a strange erotic pull, as if the reader is being invited to march in step with reason itself. The Oxford philosopher Gilbert Ryle described conversing with Williams, 29 years his junior: “He understands what you’re going to say better than you understand it yourself, and sees all the possible objections to it, all the possible answers to all the possible objections, before you’ve got to the end of your sentence.” It must surely be of interest, then, that Williams passionately rejected the idea that philosophical ethics ought to imitate science.
Williams argued that science has two characteristics that ethical discourse does not. First, the ideal of giving an “absolute conception of the world,” i.e. “a representation of it which is to the largest possible extent independent of the local perspectives or idiosyncrasies of enquirers.” Second, the possibility of giving a “vindicatory” history of developments in a given field, in such a way that a later outlook “makes sense of itself, and of the earlier outlook, and of the transition from the earlier to the later, in such terms that both parties (the holders of the earlier outlook, and the holders of the later) have reason to recognize the transition as an improvement.” Neither possibility obtains in ethical discourse. To describe the world “absolutely” is to leave out the ethical, since in making ethical judgments we must use not only so-called “thin” concepts like “ought” and “good” but also “thick” ones like “treachery,” “brutality,” “courage” and “gratitude,” which are essentially bound up with particular cultures. And although we tend to presume our “thick concepts” are superior to those of past societies, it is extremely hard to construct a narrative of their genesis that vindicates them as products of a collective learning process. When women were finally allowed access to education, was it really that those we now call “misogynists” woke up one day and suddenly saw the force of an argument Plato had made more than two millennia earlier? Were misogynists really in a debate with feminists over the best way to realize female potential? Any reasonable explanation of the women’s rights movement would have to invoke some extra-moral and historically specific factors like industrialization and urban development. It is therefore hard to see how a putative ethical science could ever converge on a theory that would both yield “a general test for the correctness of basic ethical beliefs and principles” and be accepted by every reasonable person of every creed and culture.
For Williams, the goal of ethical thought is “to construct a world that will be our world, one in which we have a social, cultural and personal life.” To do this it must be addressed to us, to people in our particular historical situation. So it’s not some kind of unfortunate limitation on ethics that it can never produce a systematic theory that tells us what to do “from the point of view of the universe”—it shouldn’t even aspire to that.
Theory looks characteristically for considerations that are very general and have as little distinctive content as possible, because it is trying to systematize and because it wants to represent as many reasons as possible as applications of other reasons. But critical reflection should seek for as much shared understanding as it can find on any issue, and use any ethical material that, in the context of the reflective discussion, makes some sense and commands some loyalty. Of course that will take things for granted, but as serious reflection it must know it will do that. The only serious enterprise is living, and we have to live after the reflection; moreover (though the distinction of theory and practice encourages us to forget it), we have to live during it as well.
The critical reflection that Williams calls for would be intrinsically aimed at an audience beyond the academy, no matter how narrow; it would be popular if not populist. But although we might understand Williams’ Shame and Necessity and Truth and Truthfulness as instances of serious popular philosophy, his last essays reveal a man disillusioned with his academic career, which had “consisted largely of reminding moral philosophers of truths about human life which are very well known to virtually all adult human beings except moral philosophers.” It was, he owned, “less than clear that this was the most useful way in which to spend one’s life, as a kind of flying mission to a small group isolated from humanity in the intellectual Himalaya.”
The difficulty for philosophers who share Williams’ belief that ethical thought is critical reflection on one’s own time, a kind of cultural criticism, is how to produce such work within the academy. Most academics build careers on doctoral dissertations that fill gaps in the scholarly literature on a given micro-topic; they then publish them in journals read by other academics who want to keep abreast of advances in order to measure their own interventions; their job prospects are shaped by how many articles they get into which journals and how many citations those receive. Such a structure encourages an ever-increasing division of labor, since it takes so long just to stay on top of the literature in a given sub-field; it also encourages scholars to focus attention on problems bequeathed by others. This makes sense insofar as progress in a discipline is cumulative: an invisible hand guides academic entrepreneurs to correct others’ mistakes and hence increase the body of knowledge. The assumption of cumulative progress seems to hold in the natural sciences for the most part and in the social sciences to a lesser degree. But how would it work in the humanities? In what respects do we understand King Lear better now than we did fifty years ago? Scholarship must have been cumulative as regards the historical background of the play, its subsequent influence, the different manuscripts and so on—but these are essentially social-scientific questions. If literature departments were merely branches of the social sciences, what would justify them attending to good literature? Surely bad works could provide just as much evidence about social, historical and psychological structures? To put the point another way: suppose all the social-scientific questions about King Lear had somehow been answered. Would we then be able to move on? If not, why not?
Excellence is the word we’re looking for. Shakespeare wrote an excellent play and part of the reason is that in considering it we necessarily reflect on our own lives. (How long can unenforceable commitments last? What is the relation between outward expressions and the inner life? How ought we to grow old?) Furthermore, contemplating exactly why it is a great play gets us thinking about what plays are for, what role they have in the cultural economy and in our lives more generally, and so engenders reflection on the wider culture and its institutions. This rationale for the humanities brings us back to Socrates: “It is the greatest good for a man to discuss excellence every day.” That should be our motto as we institute a new model for the humanities.
Examined Life has its failings, as philosophy on film must, but it should be understood as an invitation to philosophers to take their place in public life by writing work that is popular in the Socratic sense, that is, aimed at an audience beyond academia. This is partly a question of style: we will write differently once we give up trying to be scientists. The Socratic ethos seeks to keep a question alive and so encourages dialogues, letters and essays rather than treatises, since these forms embody the fragility of human conversation as much as writing can. When we no longer aspire to the last word, we will drop the pretense that qualifications and counter-examples are, as Williams puts it, “the philosophical equivalent of a biochemical protocol.” But there is also the question of subject matter. Rather than taking their topics from library shelves, humanists ought to write about puzzles that come up in their own lives. For all her faults, we might see Judith Butler’s contribution to Examined Life as an example of how to do this. Rather than arriving on the scene with a theory in her back pocket, awkwardly scouring her surroundings for illustrative examples, she seems truly open to conversation and to her surroundings. Not that she’s a blank slate—just that she draws reflection out of experience at a natural pace, managing not to sacrifice its essential spontaneity. Humanist writers can do likewise, as essayists from Montaigne to Mencken have shown us over the ages. Of course life experience can motivate works that go far beyond essayistic explorations—systematic studies of King Lear, for instance, or even of the stars. The point is only that they be genuinely motivated. But this makes a difference: studies sparked by our own lives will most likely end up traversing disciplinary boundaries, since life’s problems do not come neatly divided into “history,” “philosophy” and “literature.” It might turn out better, then, to consider the humanities as one large discipline with various sub-disciplines, so that ignorance of literature and history would be as inexcusable for a moral philosopher as inability to teach logic currently is to a metaphysician. The critical reflections that spring from such a mega-discipline may turn out to be complex and dense, and they may well bore those with short attention spans—but they will never be scholastic, and that is not nothing. Because for those with the courage and humility to truly and truthfully examine their lives, Socrates was there as model and friend. And for those who care to look, he still is.