Examined Life: Being Cornel West

12 Sep 2008


One of the most engaging films screening at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival is Canadian-born director Astra Taylor’s Examined Life. The film follows a group of celebrated contemporary philosophers (including Cornel West, Avital Ronell, Peter Singer, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Martha Nussbaum, Michael Hardt, Slavoj Žižek, Judith Butler and Sunaura Taylor ) as they wrestle with ideas amid the backdrop of public spaces with special significance to them.

What makes Examined Life particularly interesting is that it takes these “rock star” philosophers out of the comfort and remoteness of the hall of academia and into the streets and the hustle and bustle of daily life.

The purpose of this experiment is to make the point that philosophy, politics, and the world of ideas, are primarily shaped through genuine engagement and dialogue with the real world around us.

So we follow renowned African-American scholar and public intellectual, sociologist and civil rights activist Cornel West through the streets of Manhattan as he reminds us, quoting Plato, that “an unexamined life is not worth living.”

Professor West puts it plainly. We are “two-legged linguistically conscious creatures born between urine and feces whose body will one day be the culinary delight of terrestrial worms. That’s us.”

So the purpose of our existence, while we are alive, is to interrogate ourselves by calling into question all of our tacit assumptions, biases, dogmas, and unarticulated presuppositions in order to become better human beings. In Cornel West’s view, this is a necessary process also in order to keep society’s elites and dogmatists in check and, ultimately, make them more accountable to everyday people. Prof. West continues:“So philosophy itself becomes a critical disposition of wrestling with desire in the face of death; wrestling with dialogue in the face of dogmatism; and wrestling with democracy, trying to keep alive very fragile democratic experiments in the face of structures of domination: patriarchy, white supremacy, imperial power … all those concentrated forms of power that are unaccountable to people who are affected by it.”

This film is definitely part of your recommended portions of good food the mind and soul.


Examined Life  has one remaining screening at the Toronto International Film Festival on:

Saturday, SEPT. 13th – 9:15AM @ AMC Theatre (Dundas Square)

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