PICK Examined Life: Surprise! Philosophy Isn’t Boring

Ideas beam out from Astra Taylor's engaging new philoso-doc; the viewer basks in the intelligence on-screen and occasionally soaks up the rays. A purveyor of intellectual vaudeville, the 30ish Taylor has mobilized a group of professional philosophers. Coaxed from their classrooms to hold forth in the midst of life are Cornel West, Avital Ronell, Peter Singer, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Martha Nussbaum, Michael Hardt, Judith Butler, and the voluble subject of Taylor's previous doc, Slavoj Zizek, who typically steals the show by staging his rant—a critique of "ecology"—in a garbage dump. Something new under the sun? Very smart people explain how to live without religion even as they self-consciously attempt to be in the moment. Taylor's emphasis is on moral philosophy, and although her film's structure is not exactly dialectical, it's been assembled so that, without ever meeting face-to-face, the philosophers appear to critique one another's ideas. Thus, after West convenes the symposium by invoking Socrates' defense of self-reflection ("The unexamined life is not worth living"), Ronell pops up to interrogate the nature of self-reflection, questioning the filmmaker as to the nature of her project and slyly invoking Heidegger's "path to nowhere" as she strides purposefully through a Manhattan park as filled with layabouts as any Greek agora.

 
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