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Philosophy in the Streets
The Examined Life

In legend, at least, philosophers were once great sages who walked among the people. Plato and Socrates in the public square.

These days, they seem locked away in ivory towers, writing inscrutable treatises for each other.

Filmmaker Astra Taylor has sprung them from the tower. Taken today’s big-name philosophers and put them in the street, in the backseat of a car, on foot, in public — turned the camera on, and given our wise ones ten minutes each to tell us what they’ve got.

It’s funny. It’s fascinating. And maybe we need it.

This hour, On Point: Our philosophers, on the hoof, on film.

You can join the conversation. Do you live the examined life? Do we need our philosophers to climb down with us, into the streets? What would you ask a big thinker in the backseat?


Joining us from San Francisco is Astra Taylor. A writer and documentary filmmaker, her latest film is called “Examined Life: Philosophy Is in the Streets.”

And from Hanover, N.H., is Jack Beatty, On Point news analyst and senior editor at The Atlantic.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Sabato

    Let’s not assume that philosophers are all benign social workers, they are not. Some of the best ones have been in love with totalitarian dictators, have supported antisemitism and have been misogynists.
    Think of Nietzsche and Lukacs of Heidegger and Foucault’s embrace of the Iranian theocracy.

    The author and critic Adam Kirsch has written a devastating critique of Zizek whom he unmasked as an antisemitic red fascist:

    You can read the article here:

    “The Deadly Jester”
    by Adam Kirsch


    Among the points he makes are these:

    “And there is no doubt that this scale of killing is what Zizek looks forward to in the Revolution. “What makes Nazism repulsive,” he writes, “is not the rhetoric of a final solution as such, but the concrete twist it gives to it.” Perhaps there is supposed to be some reassurance for Jews in that sentence; but perhaps not. For in In Defense of Lost Causes, again paraphrasing Badiou, Zizek writes: “To put it succinctly, the only true solution to the ‘Jewish question’ is the ‘final solution’ (their annihilation), because Jews … are the ultimate obstacle to the ‘final solution’ of History itself, to the overcoming of divisions in all-encompassing unity and flexibility.” I hasten to add that Zizek dissents from Badiou’s vision to this extent: he believes that Jews “resisting identification with the State of Israel,” “the Jews of the Jews themselves,” the “worthy successors to Spinoza,” deserve to be exempted on account of their “fidelity to the Messianic impulse.””

    Read the whole article.

  • http://rascality.wordpress.com Phil O. Nous

    A similar argument can be made against Augustine, Aquinas, and contemporary Catholic philosophers for supporting an institution that, among other things, was deeply involved in the Crusades.

    At some point thinking people — provided they don’t have an automatic aversion to philosophy — need to engage important thinkers critically, as (I assume) Kirsch tries to do. But his is not the last word on a complex thinker, and I doubt Zizek himself would endorse the claims made on his behalf.

    What would be a real shame is if the social, moral, or political criticism of a philosopher worked to dissuade younger people as well as the wider public from reading thinkers of consequence.

  • Sabato

    “A similar argument can be made against Augustine, Aquinas, and contemporary Catholic philosophers for supporting an institution that, among other things, was deeply involved in the Crusades.”

    Phil, Augustine lived way before the Crusades and way before the Catholic Church became the monolithic power it became during the Middle Ages, hence your argument is species.

    As for Aquinas, he didn’t as far as I know write about crusaded and he did write about the concept of “just wars.”

    In any case, each was a thinker of their own time and can’t be compared to Zizek’s intemperate outburst about Jews which he tries to pretend that it all a joke.

  • Sabato

    “But his is not the last word on a complex thinker, and I doubt Zizek himself would endorse the claims made on his behalf.”

    Zizek did reply to Adam Kirsch at TNR website denying everything and stating that there was “no common ground for a discussion.”

    Kirsch retorted with more evidence of Zizek’s endorsment of totalitarian politics.

    Calling a thinker complex is not necessarily a sign of praise nor is it a sign of being profound.

    Heidegger was complex yet that didn’t stop him from becoming a member of the Nazi party nor did it stop him from turning against his Jewish teacher Husserl.

    Plato on the other hand was not “complex” but he was very, very deep.

  • Scout

    Anything can be art, are is in the eye of the beholder, but not everything is philosophy. “Media-friendly” philosophy is more likely to be poetry (art) than philosophy that means anything.

  • Scout


  • Jane Morley

    Philososphy makes us question how we have lived our lives and how we should be living them. It provides us with alternatives to explore as we all search for truth, social and economic justice, and the ability to be empathetic and compassionate living things

    One profound problem with American society today is that there are few mainstream (i.e. widely available) philosophical alternatives. Those that are (for example, fundamental Christianity) posit themselves as *the* answer instead of one of many possible answers.

    In a perfect world, I guess, philosophy should be *the* question and *not* a variety of answers.

  • http://rascality.wordpress.com Phil O. Nous

    I think you meant specious. Anyway, let me try again.

    Good: “Hey, people in whom I’ve (rightly, wrongly) placed my trust tell me [philosopher] was a Nazi or made an anti-Semitic, homophobic, or racist remark.

    Nevertheless, [philosopher] is regarded by many as one of the most important thinkers around. Think I’ll read their stuff and see for myself; there might even be some aspect of their work recoverable from their political mistakes.”

    Bad: “[Philosopher] is a(n) [bigot], I’m sure of it. I’ll never read their stuff, and I’ll try to keep others from doing so as well.”

  • Meenal

    Growing up in India, I was used to philosophy at every junction (as the joke goes, even when you go to the train station in India to buy a ticket, the clerk at the desk will make some philosophical statement such as oh the whole life is just coming and going). In fact, so many of the poets have put very difficult questions about life and spirituality in very simple verses of their poems that almost every one recites every day.

    I am always amused as how philosophy in America has remained only as an academic discussion and in very deep writings devoid of any emotions that lead one to ask these hard questions.

    I am glad you are raising this issue in the program and happy about this movie.


  • http://akubot.typepad.com Harry

    Check this out

    Philosophy Talk Radio


  • Scout

    Arg, more mush…”jazz”, “tattoo that on your arm”…fine to call it a poetic offering or entertainment, but why feel the need to pawn it off as philosophy?

  • ga73

    I think Peter Singer is from Australia, not New Zealand.

  • Melecia Miller

    Paraphrasing Tom Ashbrook et al, Everyone has a philosophy. It is important for everyone to understand their philosophy.

    My sentiments exactly.

  • Paul

    In my own skewed viewpoint, the only real philosophical inquiry is how we can use reason to understand why we exist. Unlike science and religion, the question is asked without any real expectation of settling on an answer. Whether it’s called philosphy or not, this is the fundamental project: thinking about being. A lot of people who claim to study philosophy fail to grapple with this question, and a lot of people who do call it something other than philosophy.

  • Melecia

    Did the filmaker ask ordinary people who are not identified as philosophers about their philosophy?

  • Wolfe

    Is the famous philosopher Emo Philips in the film?

  • michael avellar

    Can someone explain to me how so many philosophies of enlightenment preach ego loss. Sort of taking what comes. I believe some said a seedling has treeness in it. Yet I feel it somehow takes a great ego to achieve any type of greatness that trickles down to inspire others.

  • Sang Ze

    I have not seen the film, so my comments may not hold up upon seeing it, but listening to the materials on the radio waves, I fear that it risks trivializing philosophy in the same way that sportscasters have when they discuss the merits of some coach’s “philosophy” of backfield defense in a football game.

  • Bob Volpe

    I love this conversation.

    The idea of speaking in front of trash is symbolic for me. The parallel between trash and the current communications vehicles that prize brevity, quickness, the soundbite, and the entertainment value of the “talking head” is interesting.

    The conflict between the “requirements” of current communications vehicles and the basic requirement for longer dialog among people is a barrier philosphers can’t knock down on their own.

    How do we change the expectations of the audience? The voice of the truck driver’s frustration about a lack of time for contemplation needs to be linked in some way with an expansion of time for discussion.

  • Bob Volpe

    Another point is that blogs offer time and places for conversation, but most of them have lost their structure of respect for others and actually trying to listen. Most anonymous bloggers become terrible critics.

  • Troll Doll

    Zizek wrote some genius stuff about hitchcock but what a blowhard!

  • Nora

    On point radio is a great joke.

    Support your local mediocre “philosopher”
    listen to Tom Ashbrook.

  • Louise D’Agosto

    What a wonderful conversation. At the moment students in my Composition course are examining the philospophy of Thoreau and Franklin. This program expands their research moving them to explore their own concepts about a purposeful life. At least I hope so.

  • http://?? Peter Dorfman

    I enjoyed the discussion of modern philosophers on today’s On Point program. But it was ironic to hear Tom Ashbrook holding forth about why philosophy is not heard more frequently in our public media. If you are going to present a discussion of the role of philosophy and philosophers in modern society, you should not start off by trying to tell your audience how inaccessible, difficult and irrelevant philosophers are today! These facile comments simply provide a self-serving and self-fulfilling prediction. If you don’t even have sufficient interest in, or respect for, philosophers to discover for yourself how relevant, meaningful and in-touch many of them really area, then for god’s sake, don’t embarrass yourself by delivering such a naive commentary on them.

    Your guest had clearly taken the philosophers whom she interviewed seriously, and didn’t consider them irrelevant. But you are either talking down to your audience — who have found the subject of your program interesting enough to spend time listening to it — or you are talking down to your guest — who in your view seemed to have taken an inexplicable interest in this subject. It would have been far better if you had shown enough respect and humility to explore the ideas of the subjects of her film without attempting to place them within the limitations of your preconceived ideas.

    Perhaps the reason why philosophers don’t have more of a presence in modern media — as you pointed out — is that the pontificators on the media outlets take the view that you appear to do. This is a view that, as Ms Taylor’s film apparently demonstrates, derives from ignorance (however self-satisfying) rather than experience.

    There are a number of reasons why most people do not devote much of their lives to the challenging activities that Cornell West described as requiring so much courage and that Jacques Derrida believed should be inherently disturbing. But the kind of low-brow view of reflective activity espoused by Mr. Ashbrook is surely a significant factor in the smug popular disinterest in this subject.

  • Charlie Mc

    The inability of modern philosophers to

  • Charlie Mc

    The philosophy of Thomas Aquinas is so often seen as a theology. The high water mark of his philosophy can be summed up by his: “All we can know of God is THAT He is and WHAT He isn’t”. Whereas as a theologian, his greatest observation was one he made to his scribe, “(everything I have written) is as so much straw, compared to what I have seen (in prayer)”. Thomas then spent his last days in a monastery of contemplatives.
    If philosophers possessed more of Thomas’ humility,
    then they would be easier and more “profitable” to listen to.

  • Philosophy Student

    It’s too bad that Ms. Taylor scarcely interviewed any actual philosophers in her movie, and even worse that On Point didn’t seem to notice.

    The blurb for this segment indicates that the film takes”big name” contemporary philosophers out on the street, scholars who are usually “locked away in ivory towers.” Ironic, since among Nussbaum, Butler, Zizek, Hardt and West, only Nussbaum actually works in a philosophy department and was trained as a philosopher (sort of). Hardt, Butler and Zizek are literary critics, and West is a scholar of African-American studies! They may be intelligent thinkers, but philosophers they ain’t.

    Why not include some actual philosophers from actual philosophy departments if you’re going to set out to critique all those philosophers in their “ivory tower”? Give them a chance to defend themselves and represent their own field!

  • mitch hampton

    I am not a professional philosopher but a philosopher I most surely am, if an “amateur” one. I have not yet seen the film, some of which certainly promises to be invaluable. One tendency I see in the film is its bias or tendency towards engaged philosophy, allied with specifically moral and political realms. I hope there are other approaches represented. The man on the Left I most respect is Cornel West because he has a through and sincere understanding of the full scope of problems with late capitalism, to use a term beloved of some of these profs. At the end of the day I applaud Taylor for even making a film like this! And I think Zizek, for all of his many errors and excesses, is to be commended for problematizing assumptions about “tolerance” and “diversity”. Much needed.

  • rusty

    can the author of previous comment refer to any book on foucault that talks about his embrace of the iranian theocracy? not that I’m disputing he did, i’d be curious to read more about it. Didn’t he support mao’s regime at one time as well?

  • Tom

    I’m a graduate philosophy student and I’m pretty disillusioned with it. I’ve come to decide that only science is capable of making progress toward better understandings of the human condition or anything else. Philosophy can generate much fascinating literature but the process is not social enough to converge on anything resembling progress. The same ideas keep coming around like clothing fashions. Dualism is constantly popping its head up even though there have been times that it was almost thoroughly discredited. This is because there are no accepted standards or criteria by which to measure the success or failure of philosophic ideas. It is underdetermined to use a criticism philosophers sometimes apply to science itself.

    I’ve been working on a theory that rationality is impossible for individual persons and only marginally possible for people interacting with each other in diverse groups of people where the contest of ideas can weed out some of the really bad ideas and converge toward something that might marginally meet the criteria for rationality. This does not describe the process engaged by academic and professional philosophers. It does describe the process engaged by scientists, however.

    You want to know why philosophy has produced nazi sympathizers and other anti semites, eugenicists and social darwinists? Its because its an ivory tower pursuit where philosophers, once they get academic appointments are happy enough to leave their colleagues to their own delusions while pursuing their own particular delusions. Its kind of an academic, don’t ask don’t tell scenario. Bad philosophic ideas don’t die. Only philosophers die. New philosophers pile on further bad ideas. And there is little convergence. Many of the new ideas are diverge off in orthogonal directions. The wheel is being reinvented constantly, many of them square, triangular, or some other non circular shape. And for the philosopher who comes up with a circular wheel there is a heap of scorn and ready assortment of arguments to prove that such a wheel is either impossible or no good.

    Philosophy is bunk.

  • Dave

    “Philosophy is bunk.” And yet what would we do without it? I’m not talking about strictly academic philosophy–the philosophy of diligent workers (like spiders and not bees) in university philosophy departments–but the philosophy that emerges from the impulse that we feel, under certain conditions, to contemplate the meaning of our existence. Given adequate resources and creature comforts (true, comforts that not all creatures–human or otherwise–are fortunate to possess), can we help but philosophize? And what if it does amount ultimately to nothing? All of life’s other activities amount to nothing, too, as long as we are talking “ultimately.” Do we not, like Abraham, have to make some significant choice, the significance of which we can’t understand but can only hope to approach asymptotically as life approaches infinity, which it won’t (and we know it), and yet we still try?

  • http://www.ArchUSA.com Philip Hresko

    Thanks Tom.
    One of the many programs that you hosted that caused me to think.
    Caused me to share with my family.
    Caused me to listen.

  • mitch hampton

    To Rusty:

    Janet Afary has a new book on Islam and Foucault – though I have not read it there is a good deal of fact in it. Alas, so many intellectuals during that time supported Mao and Maoism. Read Mark Lilla for a good critique of French radicalism. Though earlier French figures like Raymond Aaron are good. (Opium of the Intellectuals for example). In general the high-brow, high- flung thinkers of the 70s were opposed in various ways to liberalism, even in the modern welfare-state form. Some of this tendency lives on, for example, in the anarchism of Michael Hardt. But all of this is a topic for another time.

  • Karl Wee

    I believe the vast majority people are moral and want to lead the good life. However they are confused by the myriad of rules of life, some of which contradict others. Since poorly conceived rules usually benefit those who will take advantage of them for personal gain, there is a real danger of people slowly losing their faith in morality. Philosophy should be about how we make the rules better (more coherent, more efficient, and more universal.)

    The discussion of philosophy is of great importance.

  • GRR

    the attachment to belief systems, fears and egocentric ideas is suffocating in these shares…how about approaching life – examining life with curiosity – an openess and willingness to question EVERYTHING….leave the judgment at the door – as one fine Persian poet put it, “sell your cleverness and purchase bewilderment”…

  • Mike Mosley

    The beauty of philosophy is inherent to its bunkness.
    Imbuing social utility to thought is wonderful, but doesn’t touch at the core of what philosophy is, an exploration of all that is possible. It is the ultimate in free speech. Giving us plenty to argue about as a species. Reflections on why? are sadly lacking today.

  • GRR

    “Reflections on why?”

    what do you mean by that Mike?

  • Mike Mosley

    why as in Why-nothing more than the willingness to question the everything ro refer to!

  • Karl Wee

    GPR – the luxury of “bewilderment” is only purchased by (thankfully, still today) a general willingness to enslave ourselves to (thankfully still roughly functional) belief systems.

  • gabrielle

    really great show. one of your best to date… astra is a great filmmaker…

  • erika

    try the good weekly podcast by two Stanford profs called “Philosophy Talk” They have archived over 120 shows. Some on philosophers, several on different ideas, quite a few on genetics and neurosscience and many on every philosophical issues like gender, identity, PCism, etc.

    The “60 second philosopher” is very funny, and their guests (maybe half are philosophers) are often interesting.

    The Archive

  • GRR

    why is bewilderment a “luxury”? there we go again screwing up “will or willingness or willfulness” with the belief that bewilderment is a luxury…if it were, i sure as hell could not afford it…

  • GRR

    thanks Mike for the clarification.

  • I.Kiraly

    Dear Mr T.Ashbrook,
    would you please keep to politics-your giggles(misplaced) give you away,
    and your understanding of philosophy(arcane !).But do keep in mind that
    politics to philosophy is what pornography is to love.

  • steve ehrlich

    The one that really ticked me up was Avidal Ronell. You’ve never done enough. If you say you gave a homeless person 5 bucks it’s nothing and you should be ashamed of yourself for mentioning it. As hard as people work and as unbelievably difficult and complicated as life is this lunatic Avidal Ronell has the gall to say that it’s not difficult enough and we have to spend every waking moment only doing things for others, if she allows us to sleep. No act is ever noble with her. What Bill Gates and Warren Buffett did giving away $50 billion to various global causes is nothing to her. She’d probably say they should give all their money away and live in abject poverty….This Avidal Ronell is a monster, the most despicable character I have ever heard. Absolutely no compassion for the human condition and expecting us all to be selfless robote. Ronell should be committed. She is not of this earth, worse than Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter combined.

  • steve ehrlich

    Correction: Ronell expects us all to be selfless robots.

  • Dean Broga

    I have a physics text from 1890 which is titled “Natural Philosophy”. It is a physic text and
    covers force, mass, and all of the other traditional areas of physics at that time. You will also not
    that Ph.D. stands for doctor of philosophy. Throughout most of history physics and philosophy
    were strongly linked together. The big break came in the 1930′s with relativity and quantum
    theory. The science just got to complicated for the average armchair philosophers. This
    disconnect maybe part of the reason that modern philosophy has less appeal than it did back in
    the old days.

  • James Coley

    Broga: I don’t think you have any historical basis for your claim that the link between physics and philosophy was broken with the advent of relativity and quantum theory, which were “to [sic] complicated” for philosophers. Theroetical physicists are armchair types, too. I also think you have no basis for saying that philosophy has less appeal than “in the old days.”

    It is often said that philosophy makes no progress towards consensus on the questions it tries to answer. In fact, the history of thought shows that it has made progress in certain areas, but when it does those areas separate off and come to be called “science.” Thus, the branch called “natural philosophy” became the separate field of “physics.” Philosophy gave birth to the sciences, and well-educated scientists understand this deep connection and respect the philosophical roots of science, instead of trying to make fun of a field they do not understand.

    These days, philosophy seems to have more appeal than ever. It is the field of thought in which questions that resist consensus continue to be explored.

  • http://Cinema-Poet Lalit Rao

    Philosophy is an essential art for human soul without which everything else is dull.

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