Book Review

Examined Life: Excursions with Contemporary Thinkers edited by Astra Taylor. The New York Press, NY, 2009; 222 pages, ISBN 978-1-59558-447-2, paperback, $18.95.

Does philosophy have anything important to say about life today?  The eight thinkers interviewed here by Astra Taylor for her film Examined Life all show that contemporary philosophy is indeed relevant and diverse. Full transcripts of discussions shortened for the documentary are with Peter Singer, Martha Nussbaum, Cornel West, Michael Hardt, Kwana Anthony Appiah, Avital Ronell, Slavoj Žižek, and Judith Butler with the editor's sister Sunaura Taylor.  Of her project, she says: "... I want to bring philosophy to the streets and show and audience that philosophy is relevant and important.... [and] I'm challenging philosophy to see if that's actually true." (p. 26)  In the first interview Cornel West, when asked if philosophy is something taught in school, gives an impassioned definition of a philosopher:

No, a philosopher's a lover of wisdom.  It takes tremendous discipline, takes tremendous courage, to think for yourself, to examine yourself.  The Socratic imperative of examining yourself requires courage.  William Butler Yeats used to say it takes more courage to examine the dark corners of your own soul that it does for a soldier to fight on the battlefield.  Courage to think critically.  Courage is the enabling virtue for any philosopher – for any human being, I think, in the end.  Courage to think, courage to love, courage to hope. – p. 6

I found the conversation with Martha Nussbaum on justice and the basis of society particularly gripping.  Nussbaum argues that the social contract theory of social organization is too much of a simplification of human relation.  She proposes that instead of people forming societies for mutual advantage, they do so for mutual care: because of compassion and love not only of specific people but of humanity.  Her view centers on supporting human capacities and every conscious agent living a flourishing and decent life.  Older theories assumed that parties to the social contract were adult men with roughly equal mental and physical power.  This model excludes women, children, the aged, the mentally and physically disabled, and animals – groups that traditionally haven't been empowered politically or socially.  Rather than asking how much a person or group contributed to society economically or as a unit of production, she suggests we need a broader field of contributions, such as "life experience, understanding, just being there as who they are and being objects of love in families – that enrich all our lives." (p 120)  She is also concerned with nonhuman animals, saying:

a lot of people think that the problems of cruelty to animals are ethical problems, and that these are the sort of ethical problems that don't raise issues of justice.  And it's tricky to talk to people about this because justice is a very elusive notion.  But what I thinking is that whenever you have a creature that is an agent –  one that's got a point of view on the world and is actively striving to achieve a certain kind of life for itself – then you already have the question of justice on the table because then things may block that effort to live a decent life.  Sometimes it will just be an accident, but sometimes blameworthy action is the cause of a creature being blocked, and that's where we typically bring in the notion of justice.  Creatures are entitled to be able to pursue a certain kind of rich and flourishing life, so I just think there's no reason to draw the line at the human race.  Again, the very idea of agency and striving is enough to put the question of justice on the table. . . . most animals – the ones who are moving around, desiring things, moving toward what they desire, trying to live – those are the ones where we do have duties of justice.
... animals don't just want freedom from pain; they do want healthy lives, lives with bodily integrity, the ability to move around in an environment that's pleasing to their senses.  Animals want affiliation.  There's a lot of good new research about the social bonds of animal communities, and even animals as simple as mice and rats have complicated social perceptions.  So all of these things can be modified, and we can think of dignity in a new way.  Dignity is not just a human affair.  Nonhuman animals also have their dignity, and I think it's a useful notion when we think of what's wrong with the factory-farming industry, for example – namely, a creature that should have its dignity respected is being humiliated. – pp. 129-30

The entire interview, ranging over justice, the end of human life, the basis of society, how people should be evaluated, the role of emotions, is thought provoking.

Another particularly articulate interview with implications for everyday life is with utilitarian Peter Singer who discusses practical ethics.  He ends by addressing the question: How are we to live and what makes our lives most meaningful and fulfilling?:

We make our life most meaningful when we connect ourselves with some really important causes or issues and we contribute to them.  So we feel that because we live, something has gotten a little better than it would otherwise; we have contributed in however small a way to making the world a better place.  And it's hard to find anything more meaningful than ... reducing the amount of unnecessary pain and suffering that there has been in this world and making the world a little bit better for all of the beings that are sharing it with us. – p. 86

With its many different takes on life, this is a very interesting read. – Sally Dougherty (December 2009)   

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