Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Examined Life

(cross posted at A Ku Indeed!)

Most of the books I get shipped to me by publishers are ones that will never get their spines cracked — a motley assortment of logic, ethics and introduction to philosophy textbooks that I have no need (nor the time) to read. Every once in a while, however, I get one that does actually look interesting. Like today: waiting for me at the University Post Office was The Examined Life by James Miller (at the New School for Social Research).

I haven’t read any of it, but I have thumbed through it and it seems like an interesting possible read for an Introduction to Philosophy class, actually. Miller writes the book as a biography of 12 thinkers from Socrates and walking though history to Nietzsche. From what I can tell, Miller basically tries to capture how each thinker attempted to pursue the project of “examining life” and in the process how each crafted an idiosyncratic project (Kant’s is built around the importance of “autonomy” for instance). Miller crafts each story while also talking about the actual private and public lives of each thinker, exposing not only larger reasons why each thinker may have pursued their specific project, but also in order to highlight how each thinker’s philosophical project and their actual life didn’t exactly mesh perfectly.

Sounds interesting, and it looks like an easy read. Has anyone out there read it or heard anything about it? (The WSJ has a review here.)


  1. The absence of even one woman among the 12 thinkers makes it a poor choice for any intro to philosophy course. As a medievalist I am also perplexed that ancient philosophy appears to get four entries to the medieval's one. Miller could have improved the book on both counts by profiling Heloise, about whose life and work we know plenty.

  2. Perceive -

    A perfectly reasonable critique. As someone who primarily studies eastern thinkers, I thought the same thing about the absence of the folks on other side of the globe, many of whose stories are also well known.

    Still, I wonder whether rooting around for supplements (and making the reason for doing so explicit to students) might help the situation as opposed to just not using the book (again, I haven't read it, so I'm talking hypothetically).

    In the case of eastern thinkers, a chapter could be pulled from Annping Chin's "The Authentic Confucius" as a helper. I can easily think of a gazillion such chapters on the Buddha. Not sure about Heloise, as I'm not familiar with the Middle Ages to that degree!

  3. In Socrates’ wake
    one must forsake
    the aroma of rose
    to entwine thy nose
    for the wise master did dine
    and produce farts from wine

    Phuck fonics, that’s the best moi can do, without financial remunerations, @ this hour.

  4. Haven't read it, but it looks interesting. Here are a couple more reviews--one at NPR:


    One at Bookforum:


  5. And a review at the New York Times, largely positive:


  6. A.C. Grayling makes the following, uh, misguided comments in his review of The Examined Life in Slate:

    "The 12 he writes about (and Miller expresses the regretful inevitability that they are all men) are Socrates, Plato, Diogenes, Aristotle, Seneca, Augustine, Montaigne, Descartes, Rousseau, Kant, Emerson and Nietzsche. Nearly half of them do not figure in the canon of philosophy as studied in contemporary universities, these being Diogenes, Seneca, Augustine, Montaigne and Emerson. Socrates is not studied at all, being taken as the mouthpiece of Plato in the latter's dialogues (no doubt the method, and some of the doctrines, are genuinely Socratic, but it is impossible to peel the master and pupil apart). The closest Rousseau gets to philosophy is political science, cultural history and literature. Nietzsche is certainly studied in philosophy departments, but as something sui generis; unlike the remaining four fully paid-up members of the standard curriculum, he does not fit into the orthodox mold on epistemology or metaphysics, logic or ethics."

    (Review's at: http://tinyurl.com/4k5fdymr)


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