PHL 395 Philosophy and Film


Dr. Dennis Weiss

Fall Semester, 2015


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I see this course as responding to a challenge set forth by Stephen Mulhall in his book On Film, one of our course textbooks. In On Film Mulhall focuses on popular Hollywood films, especially the Alien Quadrilogy, and urges us to understand these films as philosophy in action. As he writes in the opening pages of the book: “…I do not look to these films as handy or popular illustrations of views and arguments properly developed by philosophers; I see them rather as themselves reflecting on and evaluating such views and arguments, as thinking seriously and systematically about them in just the ways that philosophers do. Such films are not philosophy’s raw material, nor a source for its ornamentation; they are philosophical exercises, philosophy in action—film as philosophizing.” So Mulhall challenges us to take mainstream Hollywood genre films as philosophy. But he doesn’t really tell us what it means to say that these films can philosophize. It doesn’t mean simply turning a camera on a philosophy lecture and filming it. Nor could it mean simply turning to film as handy illustrations of philosophical problems. I routinely draw on Star Trek to illustrate this or that problem in philosophy. So one can turn to the transporter, for example, to raise questions about the continuity of the self and the nature of personal identity. But this is just handy illustration of a philosophical problem and not philosophizing itself. Clearly both film and philosophy each address fundamental and perennial concerns to human life. They overlap in this regard. But is this sufficient to suggest that films philosophize? Equally clearly, they are entirely distinct media and it is not clear what it could mean to say that film somehow does something analogous to philosophical discourse.

So we’re left wondering: what does it mean to say film can philosophize? This is the core question this course seeks to address. Our key issue: whether films can do philosophy; whether films have the ability to do philosophy. As Thomas Wartenberg puts it: “The crux of the debate is whether films within the standard genres of filmmaking – from fiction films to documentaries and even avant-garde films – can actually do more than raise a philosophical question or record a philosophical argument, whether some films should really be counted as doing philosophy on their own.” And Wartenberg sums up the key debate: “Although all the participants in this debate acknowledge that films can, at a minimum, bring a philosophical issue to the awareness of their audiences, there is disagreement about how much more films can do philosophically. While some believe that film’s philosophical contribution is limited to little more than raising philosophical problems in an accessible form for film audiences, others assert that films can actually philosophize, that films can be, to use Stephen Mulhall’s pregnant phrase, ‘philosophy in action’ (Mulhall 2001: 4).”

 We’ll examine these issues by watching and reading about film and considering the different ways philosophers have used film and film maybe has used philosophy. If you enjoy movies and you enjoy philosophy, I hope you’ll enjoy this effort to examine film from the perspective of philosophy.