Julian Baggini takes a celluloid strollAs a breed, philosophers are not exactly cinematic. When they are occasionally captured on camera it’s usually as static talking heads. So when film maker Astra Taylor decided she wanted to make a feature-length documentary about how top philosophers make sense of the world, she “desperately needed a way to actually make a piece of cinema as opposed to just, I don’t know, a radio show or something.” The solution involved changing the traditional formula by just one letter: behold, the walking head.
In Examined Life, Taylor takes nine thinkers on walks in a variety of different settings. We see Peter Singer discussing the ethics of poverty and affluence outside the exclusive boutiques of New York’s Fifth Avenue, Kwame Anthony Appiah talking about cosmopolitanism at Toronto airport, and Slavoj Žižek critiquing ecology at a London rubbish dump.
This isn’t just a practical way of making sure the result was a genuine “movie”. There is a “nice history of philosophers thinking on their feet,” as Taylor explained to me over the phone from New York. She’s thinking about “Aristotle and the peripatetic philosophers, or Socrates walking around Athens and raising hell. Rousseau’s Reveries of the Solitary Walker is one of my favourite books, Nietzsche famously took his walks in the Alps, and there’s Kierkegaard with his melancholy rambling around. And it was also symbolic of this idea to break out of the conventional spaces of academic intellectual discourse. Not just in the sense of taking philosophy to the streets where philosophy isn’t usually found, but revealing the philosophy already in the streets.”
This is Taylor’s second film about philosophy, following up on Žižek!, a portrait of the eccentric Slovenian cultural critic which was a surprise art house and festival hit. Taylor has always been interested in political and ethical thought, right from the age of nine, when she started doing “ideology critique” by interviewing her fellow school kids in order to try to prove that “kids are innate vegetarians”, brainwashed by their family and society into eating meat. It seems a natural part of a hippy upbringing, in which she and her siblings were allowed to decide themselves whether to go to school. She took the option not to, until high school. “There was a maxim in the family that was: question authority”.
When she left school, Taylor initially continued to pursue these intellectual interests. “By the time I was 19 I went off to the New School, which was attractive to me because of its whole history of having a relationship with the Frankfurt School, critical theory and all this. I had immersed myself at that point in Deleuze and Guattari and A Thousand Plateaus, and I got obsessed with that, and then when I went to the New School my horizons broadened a bit. But there was a moment around 2000 when I just thought I was going off the deep end in an academic sense and I knew it wasn’t my nature to specialise. It didn’t feel right and there was this side of me which was much more interested in what was happening in the world politically.”
Despite having no experience in filmmaking, she managed to “finagle this gig going to make a documentary about infant malnutrition in southern Senegal.” The result was “this very literal-minded social justice film: there are people starving, make a film about it.”
Having caught the film-making bug, Taylor went on to combine it with her other philosophical interests with Žižek! “I always thought of the Žižek film as sort of getting away with something. It took me exactly two years from conceiving of it and its premiering, and I thought, well this is my film school.”
There is a link of message as well as medium between the Senegal film and the philosophical ones that followed. The thinkers that interest Taylor are those who deal with the ethical and political issues which connect with the social justice issues that move her.
“You’ve actually touched on my fundamental conflict that I’m always revisiting in such a tired way,” she says when I suggest this. “What is socially-conscious enough, or activist enough, and what is too arty, too self-indulgent and I sort of include philosophy on that spectrum, secretly. There’s a part of me that thinks I should be more on the front line, doing something of use.”
The diverse thinkers in Examined Life all share this concern for the ethical and the political. But originally, the idea for the film didn’t have this clear focus. “The first walk I actually filmed was with Colin McGinn (which will be a DVD extra) and was more about phenomenology and philosophy of mind. That walk turned out quite well: it was on the beach, and because of the subject matter there was lot more opportunity to play with visuals, look at light bouncing off water, and perception is a visually rich subject to address. Yet my heart wasn’t in it. Ethical conversations are what brought me into this stuff, from childhood, and I knew for me to be able to really commit to doing this project and do it well that had to be the fundamental theme: what are our responsibilities to others? This whole theme of basic interdependence is fundamental.”
The selection of thinkers was a combination of accident and design. Taylor had already met a few of them while working as an intern at the publisher Verso. The questions Taylor asked of potential interviewees were “did they say something that I had to mull over that lingered with me? Did they change my perception of an issue?” It was also important that “they all had to be already committed to the process of taking philosophy to a wider public. It’s not like I’m finding these left-field thinkers who are in their little offices and taking them out for some sunshine.”
What she is doing is presenting people as flesh and blood who are usually encountered solely through their words. Yet Taylor is not sure whether “this whole aspect of embodiment really matters. Does it bring anything to the table? I’m working through this question with these films. I haven’t really decided. Is philosophy a body of knowledge or does it require a body?”
There are certainly times in the film where the physical action does seem to be saying something. Martha Nussbaum, for example, walks so quickly while she talks, you wonder how the camera keeps up with her.
“She’s marching, she’s on an ethical mission, and she’s an unstoppable force,” says Taylor. “When you start reading the body language it’s interesting how it relates to the thought.”
Although Taylor was interested in bringing together “different thinkers looking at similar issues but from different angles”, she was keen that the result would not lead to “a sense of total moral confusion. Sometimes there’s this sense that if we don’t embrace a particular philosophy you’re going to be lost in this quagmire of conflicting viewpoints and moral relativism. I wanted to reveal what I’ve been calling an ethic of intellectual inquiry and political commitment, even if there’s not necessarily a consensus between all the philosophers in the film.”
The idea of filming philosophers on the streets might sound like a too-desperate plea for their relevance. In fact, the result is far more ambiguous. Quite often, there is a disconnect between the walking heads and the world around them that makes their thinking appear quite detached. So you have Peter Singer looking at the luxury shoppers as though he is a baffled anthropologist from Mars. You see Avital Ronell walking around the park talking about transcendental signifiers, with the camera going past people on benches, headphones plugged in, oblivious to this academic world of ideas. And you see Cornel West in the back of a car, talking about the people walking around with nothing going on in their heads.
“I had to include that moment with Cornel West,” says Taylor. “It was quite funny when he appeared with the film in New York, one of the first things he did was recall that scene and cringe and apologise for it. There are moments when they’re really connecting to the environment and then moments when you just realise they’ve got this whole world in their heads and it doesn’t matter what’s going on beyond them.
“Is philosophy connected, is it disconnected? That’s a question I’m still unresolved about. Should we be asking for relevance or for connection from philosophy? I’m not sure that’s a just demand. The fact that I’m still undecided on certain questions is what’s motivating me.”
It might also be what motivates people to go and see the film.
The DVD of Examined Life is already issued in the USA. The film will be screened at the ICA in London 20-30 November and released in the UK on DVD in February. The companion book, containing full interview transcripts, is published by New Press.