In Examined Life, writer-director Astra Taylor attempts to reposition philosophical discourse as something not confined to the hallowed halls of academia, but as a force capable of shaping the way we actually live. Interviewing a handful of distinguished thinkers, from the stars (Cornel West, the ubiquitous Slavoj Žižek) to the relative unknowns, Taylor elicits a discourse that centers around the responsibility of people toward each other and the question of the proper functioning of society, concepts articulated most cogently by Princeton professor Kwame Anthony Appiah under the rubric of what he labels “cosmopolitanism.” Rejecting such once fashionable theories as the social contract and a nostalgic romanticism, Taylor’s subjects make compelling cases for a humane philosophy in which to interrogate one’s place in the world is to come to terms with the interdependency of society. And while each subject is forced to boil their philosophy down to a 10-minute distillation, scarcely affording any great leisure to delve into the intricacies of their work, and though the interviews occasionally tend toward the gaseous (NYU prof Avital Ronell in particular), most of the pundits offer a clear articulation of their intellectual concerns, skillfully drawing on concrete examples to drive home their points.
Taylor’s basic method is to follow each subject in long walk-and-talk tracking shots as they amble through parks or city streets, occasionally cutting away to shots of passersby, who look on in indifference or mild curiosity. Apart from the visual variety these shots afford, they also serve as an attempt to draw a link between the discourse of the film’s roster of intellectuals, most of whom make their home in academia, and the surrounding citizenry who form the subjects of their philosophies. But what this juxtaposition mostly reveals is the alienation between the high-minded discourse being espoused and the unmoved masses, pointedly in the case of Peter Singer’s condemnation of the commercialism of shoppers on ritzy 5th Avenue who buy expensive baubles while letting the poor go to hell, disastrously in Ronell’s off-puttingly academic discourse, where she discusses the proper relationship to “ulteriority” while those “others” she treats as abstractions stare on uncomprehendingly from surrounding park benches. To the degree that an examined life can help us become more responsible citizens, Taylor’s film makes a case for the continued relevance of organized systems of thought, but in bringing philosophy to the street, the director unwittingly points up the disconnect between the academic inclination to think critically and the apparent indifference of the masses. As a call to arms, the film is occasionally rousing, but given its inevitably limited distribution, it’s pretty much preaching to the converted.