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.