Ideas of the Century: Film as Philosophy

Tv200Havi Carel and Greg Tuck in The Philosophers Magazine:

Film studies scholars have always drawn on philosophical ideas. Philosophers, and in particular those working on aesthetics and philosophy of art, have been interested in cinema for as long as it has existed. However, film as philosophy as an autonomous sub-discipline is relatively new, emerging in the 80s and coming into its own over the past five years. The 00s have seen the emergence of extraordinary interest and a large number of publications focusing on the conjunction of film and philosophy. This is not to say that it is a well-defined field of enquiry or one that has broad agreement amongst its practitioners on what exactly it is and what it should be doing. This lack of agreement is what, in part, contributes to the richness of this sub-discipline.

Cognitivist film theorists appeal to philosophy of mind and perception and even neuroscience to analyse the experience of film viewing. Wittgensteinians, such as Cavell, have linked film and representation to the general problem of scepticism. Other philosophers, such as Deleuze, Adorno and Baudrillard, have each inspired a different range of film-philosophical understandings. What this diverse work shares are the questions: what film can bring to philosophy, how it can broaden our understanding of philosophical activity as going beyond the written and spoken word, and whether this practice will transform our views of what philosophy is.

Much of the debate has focused on exactly what philosophers can do with film. On the simplest level, film can be used to illustrate existing philosophical ideas. The Matrix has often been used to demonstrate sceptical arguments about the nature of our perceptions and the reality of the external world. But increasingly, philosophers see film as not just illustrating but advancing philosophical views. Thus we can see Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanours as playing out the classical problem of inequity: how can an evil man flourish, while a righteous man suffers?

A stronger view still is advanced by Stephen Mulhall in his book On Film, in which he claims that films can actually do philosophy in a way that is as cogent and detailed as philosophical texts.