Watch Cornel West in “Examined Life”

I had most of the day off and spent much of it with philosopher and activist Cornel West. So much that the hands eventually spun off the clock.

It began with a somewhat random YouTube recommendation, a bit between Bill Maher yelling over him. That led to a piece on James Baldwin, and eventually a more recent lecture, “Intellectual Vocation and Political Struggle in the Trump Moment“, recorded at Dartmouth College on 27 April 2017.

But the one I want to share is much less political –barely political at all– but more reflective, existential. It’s a 13min and 33sec excerpt from “Examined Life”, a 2008 documentary by Canadian film maker Astra Taylor which features interviews with eight contemporary philosophers walking and talking philosophical practicalities. West is actually interviewed in the back seat of a car, on his way to a debate. It’s all remarkably energizing. I can’t wait to track down the rest. A few excerpts from West:

On the project’s tagline, “philosophy is in the streets’:

I think philosophy is all about lived experience, which is to say life in the streets, life in a variety of different contexts. I don’t want to make it just urban; you can have life in the streets in the country. But it’s fundamentally about how you come to terms with living your life and trying to do it in a wise manner, and, for me, that means decently and compassionately and courageously and so forth.

See, I put it this way: that – for me – philosophy is fundamentally about our finite situation. We can define that in terms of we’re beings towards death, we’re featherless two-legged linguistically conscious creatures born between urine and feces whose bodies will one day be the culinary delight of terrestrial worms. That’s us; we’re beings towards death. At the same time, we have desire while we are organisms in space and time and so it’s desire in the face of death.

And then, of course, you’ve got dogmatism, various attempts to hold on to certainty, various forms of idolatry. And you’ve got dialogue in the face of dogmatism. And then of course structurally and institutionally you have domination and you have democracy. You have attempts of people trying to render accountable elites, kings, queens, suzerains, corporate elites, politicians, trying to make these elites accountable to everyday people, to ordinary people.

So if you’ve got on the one hand death, dogmatism, domination, and on the other you’ve got desire in the face of death, dialogue in the face of dogmatism, democracy in the face of domination, then 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 a very fragile democratic experiment in the face of structures of domination, patriarchy, white supremacy, imperial power, state power, all those concentrated forms of power that are not accountable to people who are affected by it.

And on the question of what is a philosopher:

.. A philosopher’s a lover of wisdom. 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. Courage to think critically. Courage is the enabling virtue for any philosopher – for any human being, I think, in the end. Courage to think, courage to love, courage to hope.

And finally, music, something you’ll know, if you’re at all familiar with his talks and writings, he mentions a lot:

“I’m a blues man in the life of the mind. I’m a jazz man in the world of ideas therefore for me, music is central.”

Which begs the question: what’s an appropriate soundtrack here?

I suggest John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” blending in from not too far away. Enjoy.


Today’s Pic du Jour, the site’s 1,279th straight, was snapped in Prague, Czech Republic, on 26 February 2009. (Yes, it’s the Czech capital’s famous astronomical clock.)




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