Astra Taylor, Examined Life, 2009, still from a color film in 35 mm, 88 minutes. Sunaura Taylor and Judith Butler.

THE PRESS RELEASE for Astra Taylor’s documentary Examined Life (2009) describes it as a film that “pulls philosophy out of academic journals and classrooms, and puts it back on the streets.” Most of the philosophers it features are beyond question among the brightest stars of the discipline, but the philosophy each professes belongs as much to the streets as to the classroom, which would not be true of what their colleagues for the most part teach—the technical canon of epistemology and logical analysis or the disciplines of metaphysics and philosophical psychology. The basis of their fame lies in their concern for what John Dewey designated “the problems of men,” by which he was being critical of how philosophy is practiced. “Philosophy recovers itself,” he wrote, “when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method, cultivated by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of men.” Putting philosophy “back on the streets” is a picturesque way of phrasing Dewey’s agenda.

It also serves one of the film’s cinematic aims, of situating its stellar thinkers in various sites in major American cities, each of which ideally serve to make visual commentaries on what they say. In one of the film’s most successful episodes, Judith Butler, who holds a chair in the Department of Rhetoric at Berkeley, is filmed walking with a colleague, Sunaura Taylor, identified as an activist and a specialist in disability studies. (Butler, of course, is famous for her contributions to gender theory and queer studies, via such watershed texts as Gender Trouble [1990].) At a certain moment in their conversation, Butler speaks of a young man whose exaggerated style of walking had provoked some others to throw him off a bridge. That prompted her to think of styles of walking as a topic in gender theory, as well as in disability theory. The camera draws back, underscoring their vulnerability as they walk amid the automobiles transecting a busy intersection in San Francisco’s Mission District. The moment also connects with another scene, in which Martha Nussbaum, walking though a park in Chicago, discusses the “state of nature”—a concept central in the political philosophy of Hobbes, Locke, and Hume—against which humans construct social organizations that serve protective functions. The original literature mainly speaks of protection from one another—overlooking, Nussbaum reminds us, disabled persons, as well as women and children.

The film shows Cornel West taxiing through Manhattan, soliloquizing in raplike cadences, improvising on words that begin with d—death, domination, dogmatism, democracy—but working his way round to Beethoven’s great Opus no. 111. Peter Singer, responding to the luxury emporiums of Fifth Avenue, riffs on how we spend money and, ultimately, on his signature topic of animal rights. Avital Ronell’s giggling riff on a park path alludes to Heidegger’s image of thought as a path. Slavoj Žižek, in an orange vest, declaims, in a London dump, that ecology is garbage. Michael Hardt cannot help smirking in his skiff as he paddles about a Central Park lake, ringed by luxury condominiums, talking about revolution. The film is a series of plein air examinations of facets of life as we live it—a tribute to Socrates, from whom the title is appropriated, whose philosophizing mainly took place in the open.

Astra Taylor’s Examined Life will be released on DVD from Zeitgeist Films on February 23, 2010.

Arthur C. Danto