The Examined Life and the Task of Public Philosophy

This phrase is over 2400 years old, dating back to 399 BC when Socrates first uttered the words at his infamous defense trial, and retold by his pupil Plato around 387 BC in the Platonic dialogue the Apology of Socrates. Beyond modeling the examined life himself, Socrates pressed ordinary Athenian citizens to question their notions of justice, virtue, piety, and love, and never held set definitions himself. Since Socrates, the aphorism of the “examined life” has given rise to analogous sayings such as “life of the mind,” vita contemplativa, and “learning for learning’s sake,” and is the subject of countless books and courses. One could even consider the project of philosophy, which itself began with Socrates, one of calling this phrase into question.

But the examined life, as fundamental to human life as it was for Socrates, has never been available for all human beings. Even in the birthplace of democracy, the agora of ancient Athens, Socrates only spoke to male citizens and ignored women and slaves. Even so, Socrates would consider the current state of philosophy pathetic. Since Socrates, philosophers have both started writing down their work and grown pale and bookish in the confines of universities. Socrates’ gift to mankind, elenchus—the Socratic method of dialogue—has been snatched from the public forum and cloistered so exhaustively in the confines of academia so as to have disappeared from democratic life entirely. Socrates spoke:

While many consider philosophy a purely theoretical project, Socrates considered his work a great and necessary service for Athenian democracy. In his portrait of the ideal state in the Republic, Socrates even places rule of the state in the hands of “philosopher-kings.” Instead of TV after communal dinners, his people go to lectures and talk philosophy. By contrast, one sees the glaring absence of philosophical discourse in America’s “talk-radio” political culture. In post-Citizens United America, whoever has the most authority or money and can shout the loudest wins in our increasingly polarized and polemical democracy.

As theoretical as Socrates’s philosophy can seem, it was always a practical, public project at heart. To Euthyphro, an Athenian citizen on his way to court to charge his father with manslaughter, Socrates asks, “What is piety for one’s father?” Just asking this question in calm argument saves a family from ruin. This kind of scenario is unfathomable in today’s climate of rushed self-assuredness. We need philosophy more than ever, and we need it for everyone. This article will examine three projects in “public philosophy” inspired by that of Socrates but occurring thousands of years after him: the 2008 documentary Examined Life: Philosophy in the Streets, the role of philosophic liberal education in the work of philosopher Martha Nussbaum, and a program called Winning Words that brings philosophy to historically underprivileged young people on Chicago’s South Side.


The Socratic Tradition

More literally translated “the unexamined life is no life for a human being,” this phrase meant something different for Socrates than it does for we moderns. Socrates was, above all, a rationalist. He held that human beings could transcend their earthly confines and mortality by participating in the eternal forms of reason. Moreover, he reasoned that humans have an obligation to do so in order to live well, as they alone of all creatures are endowed with the gift of reason. Unlike later thinkers who devised alternate aims for the human life (i.e. Aristotle’s “good life” as the life of practical virtue, the Christian good life canonized by St. Augustine, or Nietzsche’s morality-free life of the will to power), Socrates rests the meaning of life squarely upon man’s rational capacity.

The tradition of philosophy begun by Socrates was handed down first to Socrates’ student Plato, who recorded all of the Socratic dialogues we have today and founded the School of Athens, at which the later Aristotle studied philosophy. Practical thinkers like Aristotle would later reject Socrates’ rationalism as simplistic in the Nicomachean Ethics, insisting that “The proper function of man consists in activity of the soul in conformity with a rational principle,” not merely “possession of the rational element” (NE 1098a). For Aristotle as well as much later thinkers like Hannah Arendt, politics and “the forum” become the ultimate stage for living the good human life. Counter to Socrates’ theoretical bent, Aristotle is the ancient forefather of pragmatism, the idea that philosophy ought to be useful and supply us with the tools to live an ethical life.


Examined Life

This demand for practicality is the imperative that drives philosophy after Socrates and forms the backbone of Astra Taylor’s 2008 film Examined Life. The 29-year-old filmmaker subtitled the film “philosophy in the streets” and interviewed eight of the world’s foremost philosophers in public spaces, physically weaving philosophical discourse into everyday scenes of American life. Taylor explained in an interview:

Philosophy, as much as I love it, is really associated with academia, with a certain professionalization right now. Most philosophers are professional philosophers, including all the people in my film. I wanted to break philosophy out of that rarefied ivory tower space and show how compelling it can be when it’s directly connected to ordinary life. [1]

Countless dollars of state and federal funding go into philosophy departments, but what do we get out of them? Of what use is philosophy if it never leaves the ivory tower and remains inaccessible to a vast majority of people? This inspired a certain artistic and educational logic to the film as explained on the DVD’s case:

Peter Singer’s thoughts on the ethics of consumption are amplified against a backdrop of Fifth Avenue’s posh boutiques. Slavoj Žižek challenges current beliefs about the environment while sifting through a garbage dump. Michael Hardt considers the nature of revolution while surrounded by symbols of wealth and leisure. Judith Butler and Sunaura Taylor stroll through San Francisco’s Mission District questioning our culture’s fixation on individualism. And while driving through Manhattan, Cornel West… compares philosophy to jazz and blues, reminding us how intense and invigorating a life of the mind can be. [2]

By Taylor’s rationale, discussing a type of philosophy in the physical space to which it applies is the best way to grasp its implications. The effect is astonishing. So frequently characterized as aloof and detached, philosophy in Examined Life takes on a sense of intimate relevance, even urgency. The film, while not always entertaining–eliminates typical barriers to philosophy and shows great minds in their most distilled and practical expressions. In one of my favorite scenes, moral philosopher Peter Singer strolls through 5th Avenue boutiques, asking the question: “If you had to ruin your expensive shoes to save a drowning child, would you?” “Of course,” you say. “Well then,” he asks the camera, “Why would you buy those shoes in the first place when you could give the money to Oxfam?” I highly encourage you to watch the film, which is, in accordance with its mission, available in one complete YouTube video. (Philosophy can’t get any more accessible than that!) If you’re struck by one of the interviews, pick up a book by one of the more approachable authors like Singer or Nussbaum, and examine away.

Criticism of Examined Life

Though the film’s mission to publicize philosophy is admirable and it is artistically well-executed, critics of the film see it as ultimately un-Socratic and un-philosophical. Martha Nussbaum, a public philosopher who appears in the film, wrote a review titled “Inheriting Socrates” that appeared in The Point, a Chicago-based journal of contemporary life and culture. She writes:

I found Examined Life upsetting, because it presents a portrait of philosophy that is, I think, a betrayal of the tradition of philosophizing that began, in Europe, with the life of Socrates… One might quarrel first with the choice of participants… [some] aren’t–even in their books–all that concerned with rigorous argument, or with the respectful treatment of opposing positions.

But I have not yet said what philosophy, as I understand it, is. So, let’s think about Socrates… [He] has a passion for argument. He doesn’t like long speeches, and he doesn’t make them. He also doesn’t like authority. He takes nothing on trust, not from the poets, not from the politicians, not from any other source of cultural prestige and power. He questions everything, and accepts only what survives reason’s demand for consistency, for clear definitions and for cogent explanations. This also means that Socrates and his interlocutor are equals: the fact that he is a philosopher gives him no special claim, no authority. Indeed, he practices on himself the same techniques of examination and refutation he practices on others.

What Socrates says to a democratic culture impatient with deliberation and vulnerable to demagoguery of all sorts is: “Slow down. Think clearly. Do not defer to authority or peer pressure. Follow reason wherever it takes you, and don’t trust anything else. Indeed, don’t trust even reason: keep probing your arguments for faults, never rest content…”

American culture, like the ancient Athenian democracy, is susceptible to the influences of authority, to peer pressure and to seeing political argument as a matter of boasts and assertions, of scoring ‘points’ for one’s side. That is why Socrates has so much to offer us. [3]

Nussbaum’s critique of the film begins with the fact that “the philosopher is always alone.” Unlike the production of the film, which involved conversation between the interviewer and philosopher, not to mention the decades of Socratic practice it took for the philosophers to reason out the views they offer, the final film displays each philosopher as “a pronouncer, a talking head,” under which “the philosopher is a kind of deep and venerable guru” that “the spectators are supposed to find inspiring.” The effect is to replace argument, which can be Socratically critiqued, with authority, the very construct Socrates sought to uproot in ancient Athens. The film portrays “the philosopher as a solitary profound thinker” rather than the Socratic one who has developed his arguments from dialogue and critique. Nussbaum writes:

Authority is all over the place in our culture; we certainly don’t need more of it. What we need is deliberation and careful listening to one another, careful dissection of one another’s positions.

When approached by another filmmaker to speak on the ethical implications of the financial crisis, she organized a seminar at the University of Chicago involving law students, philosophy students, and professors from diverse political, academic, and ideological perspectives and recorded the resulting discussions. Nussbaum describes the resulting film, The Chicago Sessions: Law and Ethics of the Credit Crisis (also available in full on YouTube):

It was the students who did all the real work. I appear only once or twice in the finished product–contrary to the initial expectations of the producers, who… expected me to play a sort of starring role. But then they too got into the Socratic spirit… Despite the bleakness of the topic, I think there is reason for hope if a group of young people so gifted, headed for positions of leadership, can listen to each other this well, and exchange ideas about matters touching their lives in an atmosphere of respect for reason.

Peter Singer

Slavoj Žižek

Judith Butler and Sunaura Taylor

Martha Nussbaum

Philosophy and the Future of Liberal Education

The education of such “young people” has been Nussbaum’s lifelong mission. She wrote her 1998 book Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education [4] in response to the “culture wars” of the ‘90s sparked by the controversial book The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students [5] published in 1987 by Allan Bloom, then her colleague at the University of Chicago. Bloom’s book criticized the “politicizing” of liberal education in America away from reverence for the Western canon (still defended in the University of Chicago’s “Core” curriculum, despite much debate). For Bloom, college students have become “relativized,” which is to say liberally brainwashed, tolerant of everything, and doomed by this relativism to democratic apathy and a loss of character and values. Nussbaum denounced Bloom’s book in a review titled “Undemocratic Vistas” for the New York Review of Books. She summarizes Bloom’s argument:

Both teachers and students have been taught that all conceptions of the good human life are equally valid, and that it is not possible to find any objective viewpoint from which to make rational criticisms of any tradition or any study, however apparently trivial or even base…. [These students] speak of “my values,” thinking of them as expressions of subjective preference that cannot be criticized with reference to any objective norm. They prefer the radical individualism of the term “self,” with its emphasis on the subjective and idiosyncratic, to the ancient idea that human beings have a “nature” that can be objectively specified. [6]

She gives Bloom credit for re-centralizing the historical goal of the modern university–“the idea of a rational search for the best human life”–but calls out his methodology as deeply un-Socratic. Whereas Bloom claims that the return to Western core curricula from “relativizing” liberal arts curricula will instill allegiance to Western values, Nussbaum isn’t prepared to make that claim: “Bloom knows that he knows. Socrates knew that he didn’t.” In her book Cultivating Humanity, Nussbaum explains how Bloom got Socratic scrutiny entirely wrong. Rather than leading to cultural relativism and all views being equally defensible,

Socratic scrutiny… implies that we should cling to that which we can rationally defend, and be willing to discover that this may or may not be identical with the view we held when we began the inquiry… If Bloom and others do think that American traditions are so fragile that mere knowledge of other ways will cause young people to depart from them, why are they so keen on endorsing and shoring up these fragile traditions? What is excellent in our own traditions will survive the scrutiny of Socratic argument. (33)

Unlike Bloom, who drew his claims from students at Harvard and other elite schools, Nussbaum interviewed students at all tiers of American higher education while a visiting lecturer at over a dozen universities for brief stays on a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. She criticizes Bloom for returning to the philosophical tradition (i.e. un-Socratic authority) that has served the interests of white, Western males and persistently marginalized non-elites, women, and minorities. In this sense, Bloom really wants to keep philosophy to the elect few, to store it away in the ivory tower where it will be best protected from relativist “gadflies.” Under the guise of safeguarding the Socratic method, Bloom attempts to salvage increasingly indefensible reverence to the authority of the Western canon. Though the curriculum wars wage on, Bloom lost the battle.

Democratic Self-examination

Beginning in Cultivating Humanity, Martha Nussbaum has repeatedly defended Socratic inquiry and a liberal education that fosters it as essential ingredients for an effective democracy. She writes in Cultivating Humanity:

Socrates knew [that] it is essential to a strong democracy that is reflective and deliberative, rather than simply a marketplace of competing interest groups, a democracy that genuinely takes thought for the common good, we must produce citizens who have the Socratic capacity to reason about their beliefs. It is not good for democracy when people vote on the basis of sentiments they have absorbed from talk-radio and have never questioned. This failure to think critically produces a democracy in which people talk at one another but never have a genuine dialogue. In such an atmosphere bad arguments pass for good arguments, and prejudice can all too easily masquerade as reason. To unmask prejudice and to secure justice, we need argument, an essential tool of civic freedom. (19)

Yet, it turned out that the problem of authority and neglect for the humanities only worsened after her 1998 book, as President George Bush’s 2001 No Child Behind Act gave established economic incentives for public schools to “teach to the (standardized) test.” These standards were imitated by developing countries like China and India, eager to improve national competitiveness in math and science. Nussbaum freshened her argument in Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (2010), which calls out still-pervasive deference to authority as a cause of major scandals and catastrophes such as the Enron and WorldCom busts to the Nazi Holocaust [7]. She refers to the psychological experiments Stanley Milgram conducted at Yale University in 1961, which were designed to examine how Holocaust perpetrators readily obeyed orders from authority figures despite the fact that they found them morally objectionable [8]. An unquestioning and submissive democracy is simply a horrible democracy. Its citizens make choices based on self-interest and emotions like disgust or reward rather than reason or compassion.

Economic advancement and success have undoubtedly usurped the role of the examined life in education today, whatever nostalgic university mottos might suggest to the contrary. Most American colleges were founded without today’s rigid academic departments and valued the humanities just as much as and alongside math and science. Today, the fact is that most college students around the world are not required to study philosophy, ethics, or cultures or religions different from their own. By this “for-profit” educational model, a business degree should teach business, an engineering degree should teach engineering, and a humanities degree resembles nothing more than red-hot debt. Of course, this is not a new phenomenon, but rather an escalating trend. Nussbaum cites passages from two turn-of-the-century philosophers of education as epigraphs to Not for Profit:

History has come to a stage when the moral man, the complete man, is more and more giving way, almost without knowing it, to make room for the… commercial man, the man of limited purpose. This process, aided by the wonderful progress in science, is assuming gigantic proportion and power, causing the upset of man’s moral balance, obscuring his human side under the shadow of soul-less organization.
– Rabindranath Tagore, Nationalism, 1917

Achievement comes to denote the sort of thing that a well-planned machine can do better than a human being can, and the main effect of education, the achieving of a life of rich significance, drops by the wayside.
– John Dewey, Democracy and Education, 1915

For these highly influential philosophers of education, practical education without a deeply cultivated moral awareness leads to the conversion of youth into automatons, however skilled and profitable. Our incentive structure plays straight into this; technically educated people bolster national GDP and bring hefty alumni donations back to universities. Everyone would agree that “achievement” in the West is defined in large part by profit and prestige. But if these students are spoon-fed the only notion of the “good life” as wealth and culturally dictated success, what’s the value of such an education? What have they ever truly examined?


Philosophy in the (South Side) Streets

‘The unexamined life is not worth living,’ Plato says in line 38a of the Apology. How do you examine yourself? What happens when you interrogate yourself? What happens when you begin to call into question your tacit assumptions and unarticulated presuppositions and begin, then, to become a different kind of person? … 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 than it does for a soldier to fight on the battlefield.’
– Cornel West in Examined Life

“What did he just say?” a student interrupts, leaning in closer to my MacBook. “He talks too fast! Play it again,” another says. “What the hell is he doing in a car? I don’t get it,” says another. We’re sitting on the carpeted floor of a University of Chicago classroom on a Saturday afternoon. The lights are off and we’re enjoying some snacks. I look at the eight students huddled around me, somewhat disappointed by their reaction to the film clip that was to frame our lesson for the day. “Sorry if it’s rushed, guys,” I answer, doubting my choice to change things up with a film. “Just slow down and think about what he’s saying.” I replay the clip twice before turning on the lights and getting into my lesson on, of all impossible questions, the meaning of life.

Thus began a May 5th session of Winning Words, a philosophy advocacy program, for the students of the College Prep Program at the University of Chicago, an intensive program held each Saturday for most of the year that aims to prepare underserved Chicago Public Schools students for college [9]. Winning Words coaches are undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Chicago who try to emulate their best experiences in the Chicago Humanities Core in their sessions. Students range in age from 3rd grade to seniors in high school, but the program’s premise remains the same. Bart Schultz, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy and director of the Civic Knowledge Project, started the program 10 years ago with a handful of students whom he coached himself. The program has taken on various forms over the years, from a bike club to a debate league, and in its current form coaches around 150 students at 15 schools on Chicago’s South Side.

“Do you agree with Dr. West that ‘It takes more courage to examine the dark corners of your own soul than it does for a soldier to fight on the battlefield?’” I ask. In just two days, Cornel West, an acclaimed public philosopher and leftist political theorist, is to speak at U of C at a talk several of the students will attend. The class is split on the question and many hands are up in the air. “I don’t think we know what the dark corners of our souls are, and we can’t ever know. So yeah, that’s terrifying,” one student says. “But it’s just thinking! How could that be called ‘courage?’” another blurts out. On we go, trying to distil and question the fundamental claims of each argument.

Understandably, you might ask, “can 10-year-olds really do philosophy?” Searching for an answer, I sat down with Bart Schultz, founder and director of Winning Words, for an interview originally published in The Chicago Maroon and quote from it here:

Schultz, who works with continuing education students as well, answers this question with an enthusiastic “yes!” “Young people are extremely receptive to abstract thinking. Impossible questions are ones that kids are actually very capable of asking,” Schultz said. By encouraging those “impossible questions” and independent thinking, the program aims to fill a void left by Chicago Public Schools, which cannot facilitate student questions as well as a personalized setting can. “Philosophy strongly pushes back against the current education system. It forces you to slow down, question things, and think for yourself. These are things that CPS just can’t deliver,” Schultz said.

He added that, particularly for students underserved at school, Winning Words can be a constructive outlet for a student’s neglected opinion. “What amazes me most is how aware the students are of their own circumstances. But nobody listens to kids when they do have serious thoughts and questions. It’s not enough to have the occasional school assembly–students need to think things through themselves,” Schultz said.

Winning Words presented a philosophical discussion between fourth-graders at the annual American Philosophical Association conference in February, led by second-year Winning Words coach and student coordinator Shayan Karbassi. “You’d be amazed how capable these students are, though they’re so often dismissed by adults. One of my fourth-graders often talks as if he were a UChicago student,” Karbassi said.

Winning Words is also establishing a journal that will showcase philosophical and creative work by its students to be distributed online, on campus, and to the schools in the program. “Ideally this program should be emulated by other universities in other cities. This journal is an opportunity for us to widen our reach and to show that this kind of program is really possible and also necessary for our community,” Karbassi said.

Though Winning Words students learn about great philosophers and their ideas, the program ultimately emphasizes the philosophic method over any specific knowledge or content. As Schultz described Winning Words’s mission, “Our ultimate goal is to get young people to appreciate the value of inquiry for its own sake, to simply enjoy a great book and a great conversation.” [10]

A weekly dose of philosophy might just be enough to return students to asking those naive “big questions” that parents so often discourage their kids from asking. But as admirable as the Winning Words program’s educational ends are, they’re notoriously challenging to teach and to gauge (hence their absence from most public school curricula). The constructive discourse Nussbaum praised as necessary for democracy is glaringly absent from the education of most young people, not to mention the South Side students in my classroom who don’t all have access to regular meals, much less a meaningful education. Still, that discourse must be cultivated. My turn on the Socratic imperative is that all human beings have not the obligation Socrates suggested, but a right, to live an examined life, and that today the obligation has shifted to society to provide each individual the tools to do so.

Back in class, we move on to reading passages from Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus. “What does it mean that Sisyphus is ‘superior to his fate?’” I ask. “What makes his story absurd and not merely tragic? Why must we ‘Imagine Sisyphus happy?’” I get muddled responses–we need to reread the key passages. Slowly, students warm up to the idea of absurd happiness, and one makes a connection to religion, “This guy [Sisyphus] is his own Jesus Christ! I mean, he’s suffering for his own kind of freedom and happiness, right?” Another student objects, “absurdism sounds just as irrational as the religion Camus condemns.” “So can Sisyphus decide the meaning of his own life by himself?” I ask. “Is that allowed?” The students are puzzled. “Could that mean his life is irrational? Is that a problem if it makes him happy?” I urge them on. Hands are back in the air. “People should be able to do whatever they want if it makes them happy. I’m with Sisyphus,” one student says. “But then nothing has permanent meaning,” another responds. “How could people live and work together in a world like that? There has to be some kind of stable, universal meaning to life. There just has to be, but I can’t say what it is.”

I conclude our session by asking students to state and defend their answer to the meaning of life. “YOLO!” I hear from a boy in the back. After a few laughs, I help the student rephrase his answer in philosophical terms: “Okay, so you think it’s fine to defy convention and live the life you want, without listening to authority. You should read Nietzsche!” Around the room, I hear answers like “to make a difference” and “to have a family and to love the people around you.” Our one-hour time slot is up and the students begin to pack up. “Mr. Catlin, what’s your answer?” one girl asks. I’m totally unprepared. “Umm…” I glace at the jumble of diagrams and philosophical terms on the chalkboard from the day’s lesson. After a brief pause, I tell her, “It’s cliché, I know, and I’m far from being able to defend this, but it’s to dedicate my life to knowledge and share that knowledge with whomever I can. Basically, to live the examined life.” She shakes her head dismissively and smiles before she leaves. “I knew you’d say that.”


Jon Catlin

Jon Catlin

Jon Catlin is a first-year at the University of Chicago studying great books and the humanities. He’s primarily interested in philosophy as it relates to happiness, Holocaust studies, religion, human rights, and other ethical questions. Jon spends his time exploring libraries, teaching young people philosophy, and taking long jogs on the Chicago lakeshore.


[1] IFC interview with Astra Taylor on Examined Life
[2] Examined Life: Philosophy in the Streets, 2008 film, Astra Taylor
[3] Martha Nussbaum. Inheriting Socrates. The Point, 2010.
[4] Martha Nussbaum. Cultivating Humanity. Harvard University Press, 1998.
[5] Alan Bloom. The Closing of the American Mind. Simon and Schuster, 1987.
[6] Martha Nussbaum. Review: Undemocratic Vistas. The New York Review of Books. November 5, 1987.
[7] Martha Nussbaum. Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Princeton University Press, 2010.
[8] Milgram Experiment
[9] Winning Words Website
[10] Interview with Bart Schultz in The Chicago Maroon

Mike Cygan

Feature image by Mike Cygan

Mike Cygan is a student at the Columbia College in Chicago, IL studying photography and communications with a specialization in marketing. His hobbies include perusing the countryside, photography, and even you!

Other images from:
The Atlantic: Cornel West Peter Singer
National Film Board of Canada: Zizek, Nussbaum
Similinton: Butler
Keep it Tight: Movie Poster
Wikimedia: Nussbaum, Death of Socrates
Atlanta Blackstar: Cornel West