Examined Life: Excursions With Contemporary Thinkers


Examined Life boldly takes philosophy out of the dark corners of the academy and into the streets, reminding us that great ideas are born through profound engagement with the hustle and bustle of everyday life, not in isolation from it.

A companion to Astra Taylor’s documentary film, the book features interviews with eight iconoclastic and influential philosophers, conducted while on the move through places that hold special resonance for them and their ideas. Peter Singer’s ...

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Examined Life: Excursions With Contemporary Thinkers

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Examined Life boldly takes philosophy out of the dark corners of the academy and into the streets, reminding us that great ideas are born through profound engagement with the hustle and bustle of everyday life, not in isolation from it.

A companion to Astra Taylor’s documentary film, the book features interviews with eight iconoclastic and influential philosophers, conducted while on the move through places that hold special resonance for them and their ideas. Peter Singer’s thoughts on the ethics of consumption are amplified against the backdrop of Fifth Avenue’s posh boutiques. Michael Hardt ponders the nature of revolution while surrounded by symbols of wealth and leisure. Judith Butler and a friend stroll through San Francisco’s Mission District questioning our culture’s fixation on individualism. And while driving through Manhattan, Cornel West — perhaps America’s best-known public intellectual — compares philosophy to jazz and blues, reminding us how intense and invigorating the life of the mind can be.

Offering exclusive moments with great thinkers in fields ranging from moral philosophy to cultural theory, Examined Life reveals philosophy’s power to transform the way we see the world around us and imagine our place within it.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Taylor-director of the 2007 documentary Zizek!- takes philosophy out of the academy and restores it to its peripatetic origins by allowing the field's brightest minds to publicly ruminate on such classic themes as truth and ethics. A companion to her 2008 documentary of the same name, the book cannot convey the film's visual surprises-e.g., watching Slavoj Zizek discuss ecology in the middle of a London garbage dump and Peter Singer musing on consumerism in Times Square-but where the film winnowed 90-minute interviews into 10 minutes of conversation, the book contains the complete conversations: Kwame Anthony Appiah expounds on cosmopolitanism in an airport; Martha Nussbaum ponders justice; Cornel West hitches a ride with Taylor through Manhattan and delivers an electrifying discussion on his philosophy of the blues. The subjects are unfailingly erudite, charismatic and surprisingly funny (Zizek, in particular, delights in needling Taylor for her "liberal, vegan, hippie" tendencies). It is regrettable that Taylor does not challenge her subjects more-she is too often the earnest and assenting graduate student-but she shines in her introduction, which is both apologia and agenda for philosophy's future. (July)

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Library Journal

This accompaniment to Taylor's documentary film of the same name, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2008, is a peripatetic effort to bring philosophy to the streets. Taylor speaks with today's most influential thinkers in settings that give meaning and inspiration to the discussions. Most notable are Peter Singer's thoughts on ethics and consumption in the middle of busy Fifth Avenue, Michael Hardt's talk of revolution in a rowboat in Central Park, and Slavoj A½iA¾ek strolling through a garbage dump while criticizing environmentalism. There are also appearances by Cornel West, Avital Ronell, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Martha Nussbaum, and Judith Butler. Both the book and the film attempt to make philosophy approachable, and the majority of the discussions here do just that. Taylor, for better or worse, refrains from any overarching theme or commentary, although her interactions with these thinkers do go beyond mere interviews to productive philosophical debates. As in life, in the end it is the walks and the fruitful conversations that are important. Recommended for public libraries. [Look for the DVD review in a future issue.-Ed.]
—Steven Chabot

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781595584472
  • Publisher: New Press, The
  • Publication date: 6/30/2009
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 731,435
  • Product dimensions: 5.48 (w) x 8.22 (h) x 0.59 (d)

Meet the Author

Astra Taylor directed Žižek!, which was chosen as one of the top ten documentaries of 2007 by Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian and rated a “must see” by the Chicago Reader. She holds an MA in liberal studies from the New School for Social Research and has taught at the University of Georgia and the State University of New York, New Paltz. Her writing has appeared in Adbusters, The Nation, and Salon. She lives in New York.
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Table of Contents

Preface vii

Cornel West: Truth 1

Avital Ronell: Meaning 25

Peter Singer: Ethics 61

Kwame Anthony Appiah: Cosmopolitanism 87

Martha Nussbaum: Justice 115

Michael Hardt: Revolution 133

Slavoj &Zcheck;i&zcheck;ek: Ecology 155

Judith Butler with Sunaura Taylor: Interdependence 185

Acknowledgments 215

The Philosophers 219

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  • Posted January 19, 2012

    Somethings to think about...unscripted interviews with philosophers

    ‘Examined Life’ is another book of unscripted dialogues with philosophers (think of the interviews done many years ago by Bill Moyers). It has, as one of its overarching objectives, the goal of demonstrating the utility of a philosophical perspective in identifying and thinking through important questions in a way that non-specialists can grasp. Astra Taylor does this by filming (and transcribing for the book) a set of casual discussions with 8 philosophers as they drive, walk or move in a wheelchair through various urban environments. This format could easily have accommodated the barefoot, bearded fellow who started these discussions in the Agora of Athens 2500 years ago, with the real-world distractions of filming outside the studio (e.g., kids mugging for the camera, dogs running in the background, strangers coming up to ask questions) adding humor and reality to the presentations. Not all of the presentations were equally successful. Some people have trouble staying on topic or gearing what they say so the listeners can follow them. In particular, I could not figure out what Cornell West or Avital Ronell were talking about, both jumping around in their ideas and using unfamiliar jargon or references to make their points. But this could just be me. I’m looking forward to reading books by these two with the hope of getting a better grip on what their concerns were. But if Prof. West and Ronell were hard to follow, the other six philosophers are totally fascinating. I’ve read Peter Singer’s work since I was a kid (long, long ago) and was not surprised to find myself again nodding my head in agreement with his thoughts on consumerism and ethics (filmed in Times Square, New York City). Tony Appiah, in Toronto International Airport, talks about the idea of cosmopolitanism, which is much more than a catchy phrase, but reflects the idea that although we’re all interconnected in one huge village we don’t have to give up our individual identifies to get along. I’ve seen Martha Nussbaum on C-span books many times but walking along the Gold Coast of Chicago, she again had me thinking about what a just society would be like. And while she was more windblown than she appears in the C-span studios, her ideas and thinking were great. Michael Hardt spoke (while paddling himself and the film crew in rowboat!) about what a revolution needs to do to be successful in the context of making life better for society after the shooting stops. As an environmentalist I wasn’t surprised to find myself agreeing with Slavoj ¿i¿ek’s ideas on ecology and waste, but the setting in which he spoke (a garbage dump in London!) really drove his points home. Perhaps the most fascinating discussion was the last, between UC/Berkeley professor Judy Butler and Sunaura Taylor (sister of Astra Taylor, who developed the book and movie) about the interdependence of people. Much of their discussion centered on people with disabilities, including thoughts about how society views the unique ways some disabled people use their bodies…something I had never considered before. Get the book, get the movie. Hopefully you’ll understand the first two chapters better than I did, and then spend the rest of your time stimulated by reading (or watching) some great discussions!

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