The Thinkers: From left, Slavoj Zizek, Avital Ronell, Judith Butler and Cornel West discuss ideas in the documentary “Examined Life.” (Photo: Zeitgeist Films)

The title of this post of course is making reference to the famous line from Plato about unexamined lives not being worth much. That phrase was also the inspiration for Astra Taylor’s film “Examined Life” in which a slew of philosophers are given 10 minutes and asked to explain, in simple terms, their particular area of interest. Taylor states her challenge up front: Is it possible to move the experience of contemporary philosophical thought (which lives primarily in the form of written text) into everyday language? It is an interesting challenge, and some rise to it better than others. Avital Ronell speaks about meaning, Peter Singer on ethics, Martha Nussbaum on justice, among others. Oh, and of course, the inimitable Brother Cornel who gets to address the big one—TRUTH.

I agreed with the portrayal of Cornel’s guerilla style soliloquizing (he appears in snippets throughout the film) from A. O. Scott’s New York Times review of the film:

Cornel West, the Princeton professor whose back-seat ramblings punctuate the film (everyone else has a single, uninterrupted minicolloquium), clearly takes great pleasure in talking, and it is hard not to share it, at least in small doses. A man of great, one might say compulsive, erudition — not one to drop the name of a single great writer, composer or sage if five are available — he makes the case that thought can be a kind of performance art.

All in all, the film is worthwhile viewing. And there were moments when I was caught quite off guard. Like when Ronell quoted Derrida saying that if you are a person who has a good conscience, you are worthless. No one who is aware and paying attention can believe we have ever done enough to care for the other, she paraphrased. Good reminder, not that I’m swimming in any abundance of smug self satisfaction. But it hit me straight on. As was intended.

As a sidebar, a piece just recently appearing in the New York Times, The Examined Life, Age 8, deals with teaching young children about philosophy. It is an interesting variation on the film’s premise.