, , , , , , , ,

I just saw a screening of Examined Life, Astra Taylor‘s movie about philosophy. It’s a little surprising in the first place to see a movie about philosophy (as opposed to a movie that expresses philosophical ideas, of which there are many). But there’s something about the film that’s in its way even more surprising: although all of the eight philosophers in the film is a professor, only one (Kwame Anthony Appiah) is actually a professor of philosophy. Two of them (Martha Nussbaum and Peter Singer) have minor appointments in philosophy, where they might teach a few philosophy classes on the side but most of their work is done elsewhere. The majority, however, have no current official association with academic philosophy whatsoever. They’re in departments of French and Italian, rhetoric, sociology – anything but philosophy. This despite the fact that every large university and nearly every small college has a philosophy department, full of people who consider themselves philosophers. The film makes no comment on the fact.

Those familiar with the “scene” of contemporary philosophy will have already guessed the chief reason for the film’s apparently curious choice: the enduring divide between analytic and “continental” philosophy. Philosophy departments, by and large, are home to analytic philosophers, who focus on the precise dissection of rigorous arguments; except for Singer and possibly Appiah, most of the philosophers in this film are anything but. Nussbaum and Cornel West have analytic training, but the style in which they do philosophy now is quite different: aiming at the big picture, at synthesis over analysis. (In my experience, most academics’ opinion of Nussbaum varies inversely with the amount of training they have in philosophy departments.)

I don’t know how conscious a choice Taylor made to avoid philosophy departments and analytic philosophy. I do think, however, that she made the right choice. Analytic philosophers model their precision after natural science – which means that watching analytic philosophers think is typically like watching scientists work, but without any of the funky lab equipment. It can be fascinating, if you already know the extended implications of the things they’re talking about, the reasons why their carefully delineated topics matter. If not, even if you understand what they say, they’ll look dull as dishwater. As such, they don’t make great subjects for a set of 10-minute interviews.

The limitations of “continental” philosophy, on the other hand, are generally the same as the philosophical limitations of the film itself: a lack of argumentative rigour, and a consequent difficulty in sorting truth from falsehood. This is particularly apparent in the early interview with Avital Ronell, the one thinker I wasn’t familiar with. Ronell throws out claims like “If you feel you know another person fully and completely, you want to kill them” – a view that makes some sense if you’re familiar with the thought of Emmanuel Lévinas, on whom Ronell’s arguments are clearly based. If you don’t know Lévinas, however – and presumably the film’s target audience doesn’t – it comes off sounding bizarre. At best it’s a perplexing claim you want to investigate more, but you have no reason to take it as true.

It’s difficult to make a really compelling argument when one has so few words with which to do so, though, and most of the thinkers in the movie come across as deep rather than true. Singer does the best at convincing, mostly by rehashing what he himself notes is the same argument he had already made 37 years ago; but even there it’s hard for him to be convincing without the cut and thrust of debate, of objections and replies. One could have made a very different film – perhaps one somewhat more suited to analytic philosophy – out of dialogues, the dramatic form that Western philosophy took at its beginning. The trick there, though, is that dialogues among philosophers today are often unintelligible to the uninitiated, and a movie that watched these thinkers talk to each other could have been disastrous.

The movie’s “continental” approach wound up reminding me of one of my own choices for the blog, which I hadn’t yet articulated but have found myself generally sticking to: I strive to be “continental” in the posts and analytic in the comments. The posts are the space where I can stake out the big issues, draw out the relevance of the issues I’m examining and make what I hope are the most stimulating and insightful claims. The comments, on the other hand, are the place to make clearer arguments and examine the truth or falsehood of the post’s claims in more detail. I’m fortunate that, a few months in, I already have a solid group of commenters who are unafraid to take me to task on my claims. I couldn’t write the blog this way without them. (Thank you all!)