PHIL 395: Philosophy and Film





Philosophy and film: the general connection between philosophy and film

Philosophy in (though) film

Philosophical issues raised in a film’s plotline or dialog

Pedagogical value in illustrating philosophical points

Well-chosen examples that reach the masses

Thought experiments

The Problem of Evil: Seventh Seal

Free Will: Gattaca, Minority Report

Appearance and reality: Matrix, Terminator

Personal identity: Heaven Can Wait, Memento

Moral relativism: Crimes and Misdemeanors

Conflicting moral obligation: Casablanca, The Music Box, The Third Man, Fail-Safe, The Seige

Individual vs. community: Antz

Dehumanization in modern society: Modern Times, The Trial

Philosophy of film

A branch of aesthetics, parallel to philosophy of literature, which investigates the essence of film

Philosophical questions raised by the medium of film itself

e.g., is film an art form, what is film, is there a cinematic author, why do we react emotionally to film, is there an implicit narrator in all films, can documentaries be a vehicle to objectivity


THOMAS WARTENBERG: “PHILOSOPHY AND FILM” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

1. The Idea of a Philosophy of Film

Contributors to discussions in philosophy and film

Includes non-philosophers

Includes writers in film theory (subset of film studies)

Justification for philosophical input on the subject: Anglo-Americans do not share the psychoanalytic assumptions of many film theorists, and thus think that they need to overhaul the discipline

Philosophers have always been interested in specific art forms (e.g., Aristotle’s poetics)

Cognitive film theory (Carrol): modeled on studies of natural sciences

Emphasizes viewers' conscious processing of films

This is opposed to a more humanistic approach, modeled on Wittgenstein

2. The Nature of Film

Whether film is an art form: two problems

Problem 1: films were originally vulgar entertainment (vaudeville, peepshows)

Problem 2: films borrow too much on other art forms (plays, music)

Classical film theorists on the essential nature of film (from Wartenberg)

Technical devices

Hugo Münsterberg (1916): technical features of films differentiate it from other art forms, e.g., flashbacks, closeups; these features are objectified mental functions that parallel what goes on in our own mind (closeups parallel paying close attention to something)

Capturing motion

Rudolph Arnheim (1957): sound movies are a decline from film’s original art form; its essential nature is capturing motion, and sound adds a new artistic medium


André Bazin (realism, 1967): film has its basis in photography, which captures the real world; film has an ability to present the world to us as frozen in time. (Draws on Wells and Renoir)

Emphasizes the long shot, rather than the close up

Kendall Walton (1984): transparency thesis: since film is based on photography, we actually see objects that appear on the screen

3. Film and Authorship

Auteur theory: the director of the film is the creative intelligence who shapes the entire film (similar to authors of literature)

Francois Truffaut: to be a work of art, the director must have complete control over the screenplay and direction of the actors

Criticism of Auteur theory

The auteur theory underestimates the impact that other contributors to a movie have (specifically, the actors, cinematographers, and editors)

Most major films are the product of established film industries, e.g., Hollywood

Post-modern “death of the author”: films are the products of social contexts

4. Emotional Engagement: why should we care about a film’s fictional characters

We identify with them, particularly as idealized characters

Crit: why do we care about characters that we don’t identify with

We imagine things taking place that we care about

Simulation theory: our emotional response is running offline, and thus we do not express our emotions as we normally do

Account of horror movies: we enjoy having the emotion while being safe in our offline environment

Crit: no clear explanation of what it means to be “off line”

Thought theory: our mere thoughts give us emotions

e.g., by imagining an injustice, we have emotions about the injustice

Crit: it’s not clear why we would have emotional reactions to mere thoughts, rather than stronger mental states such as belief

5. Film Narration

Problem of unreliable narrators: how does the audience come to know that the narrator has a distorted view of the world

Implicit narrators: whether, in narratorless narratives, an implicit narrator is needed to give the audience access to the film’s fictional world

Imagined seeing thesis: viewers are imagining to see photographically-derived images of the narrative, not the narrative itself

What viewers actually see is not a pure view of the narrative, but one affected by film editing; thus they imagine seeing something like a movie of the narrative

6. Film and Society

Oppression in traditional film narrative: popular Hollywood film narratives perpetuate an unrealistically positive view of society that obscures the reality of social domination

Socially conscious films: many films do critically portray the realities of class, race, gender, and sexuality (e.g., guess who’s coming to dinner)

7. Film as Philosophy

Film’s substantive contribution to philosophy

Film only have pedagogical value

Wartenberg: films provide valuable philosophical thought experiments

Stanley Cavell: many films portray philosophical skepticism

Minimalist avant garde films help show the necessary features of films

8. Conclusions and Prognosis