Philosophy and Film – course proposal

This course will use film to discuss philosophy, and philosophy to discuss film. Many of the film selections will be science fiction because, despite the name, that genre of film tends to be an exploration of philosophical and even theological questions.

Rationale for Including the Written Word

Written philosophy, fiction, and literature will also feature prominently in the course because those who are the most literate tend to have the most insightful, interesting things to say about what they are viewing, and also to understand what they are viewing better. Many directors of meaningful films assume that their art house audiences are readers who are used to applying themselves assiduously to intellectually demanding tasks, thinking about what they are engaged with, are comfortable with ambiguity, and do not expect easy answers.

There was an attempt in the 1990s to argue that students who did not read were just “differently” literate – they were “media savvy.” This idea turned out to be chimerical and not supported by the facts.

Movies and TV Series to Be Studied,

and Their Corresponding Books and Reading Material

  • Film: Stalker – by Tarkovsky

Books: Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky Brothers, We by Zamyatin. Article summarizing The Mastery and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist

A movie about the role of imagination, creativity, and intuition in human life. And, as René Girard argues, like any good story, a conversion story; from prosaicism and despair, to a rejection of nihilism and the fear that people might make bad use of free will, and creativity.

  • Film: Solaris – by Tarkovsky

Book: Solaris by Stanislav Lem

A scientist with the lack of imagination of soulless accountant, rediscovers a love for earth, love for a woman, and an acceptance of mystery at the core of existence. Solaris is a planet that appears to be conscious and is either defending itself, torturing the astronauts, or trying to communicate with them, by manifesting their subconscious fears.

  • Film: 2001 Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick

Reading: Summary of Deceit, Desire and the Novel, by René Girard

HAL the computer starts to kill the crew one by one. He appears to be driven by resentment. Resentment is such a peculiarly human emotion, that permeates so much of human existence, that HAL demonstrates his humanity in the act of destroying his crew mates.

  • Blade Runner by Ridley Scott

Book: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? By Philip K. Dick. The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout

Also, a conversion story, the androids (replicants) in the movie start by trying to deal with the fact of their mortality – a four year life span – with one of them turning around to save the life of the very man who has been hired to kill him. The books ask about the borderline between sociopathy and normal individuals. What exactly is the difference between them?

  • True Detective First Season, 8 episodes, written by Nic Pizzolatto

Book: The Call of Cthulu by H. P. Lovecraft.

The TV series explicitly explores the arguments for and against nihilism, while trying to figure out who is involved in sacrificial, ritualistic murders modeled on those described in H. P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulu. Nic Pizzolato has degrees in English and Philosophy and it shows!

  • Groundhog Day by Harold Ramis

Reading: Nietzsche – Eternal Recurrence

Groundhog Day may seem like a light comedy, but it is philosophically rich. The Buddhist screenwriter, a Jewbu, commented that Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, Platonists, Buddhists, Hindus, and pretty much every other religion under the sun considered the movie to be about their religion and/or philosophy. Phil (love in Greek) slowly makes his way from morally repugnant to morally enlightened by reliving the same day over and over – according to the screenwriter – for ten thousand years, although never made explicit in the movie.

  • Tampopo by Juzo Itami

The Meaning of Life boiled to down to the quest to make the perfect bowl of soup, done with panache and humor.

  • Still Life by Uberto Passolini

A city counsel worker whose job it is to take note of and hold funerals for those who die with no friends or relatives willing to attend their funeral. Making a scrapbook for each dead individual who has so alienated everyone in his or her life that she or he has died alone, and lovingly remembering them, this city worker avoids one of the worst of fates for the dead – dying unloved and immediately forgotten. A profound, thoughtful, and ultimately cheering movie.

  • American Psycho by Mary Harron

Book: American Psycho

The movie and the book are a frequently misunderstood satire of 1980s New York City, Wall Street materialism. Everyone is doing cocaine, wearing designer clothing, and trying to get into the most exclusive restaurants. One of them might or might not be slowly killing off his mimetic rivals. Mimetic rivals being people who have come to desire the same thing, putting them at odds with each other, and filling each other with resentment.

  • Revanche by Gotz Spielmann

Revanche is a German word that means “now we are even,” or “evening the score,” rather than “revenge.” The protagonist has to decide whether to forgive the policeman who shot his girlfriend and accomplice in crime. While trying to decide, he shares the home of his grandfather who admires his excellent work ethic.


7 thoughts on “Philosophy and Film – course proposal

  1. I’m afraid I know next to nothing about movies, and have never used them in class. I don’t doubt that it can be done well, but as a student had the strong impression that movies were often an excuse for the teacher to put his feet up on his desk and take a nap. (Indeed, they were often an excuse for the students to follow his example.) It seems to me that one very large challenge is what I can only think to call the immersive character of movie viewing. As you know, we have the word theory from the word theater, but a movie theater is not conducive to theoretical detachment. The fact that students have been stewed in passive consumption of movies exacerbates the problem. How do you propose to change students from passive consumers into active critics?

    • I wouldn’t show movies in class. Students would be expected to watch them in their own time. i would then quiz them on them, as I do with every single thing I ask them to read. They would have to answer pointed questions on the films. Students have been so brainwashed by PC culture that often asking “their” opinions is actually asking the Zeitgeist to comment. When teaching I try to model philosophical thinking and to introduce them to new ideas partly by demonstrating the contradictions in their current, inherited views. E.g., cultural relativism is self-contradictory. What else might be true? Having said that, I give them every chance to give thinking a try through small group discussion and then quizzing them on that in a whole class context. I rest contented with a glimmer of understanding here and a dissenting view there.

      • A splendid idea! I’ve hosted film and discussion events before, and they’re a lot of fun. Students (well, once upon a time) loved talking about movies, and the format allows for people who may be shy about talking about “big ideas’ to venture a bit beyond their comfort zones. I agree that such would be a waste of class time, but watching a film together as a group and then talking about it immediately afterward have many advantages (over private viewings — though they have their peculiar value, too, of course). You could probably reserve a library or student center room on the early Monday evening and then add some food and make the showings an serial event — Cerebral Celluloid Film Festival or something silly like that. If you’re worried about scheduling conflicts, then you could require a number (or simply one) movie event rather than all and then offer the showings on different days. This worked well for my peers when I was in school, for students born in the 80s, and even for those born in the early 90s. Whether it works for Gen. iPhone is another question. I get the impression that most contemporary students refuse to leave their dorm rooms to do anything interesting. So, maybe it’s not perfect for the solipsistic of the Current Year.

  2. Pingback: Philosophy and Film – course proposal | Reaction Times

  3. Excerpts from the syllabus of my long-running but now deleted science fiction course:

    I. Course Description & Justification. [A] ENGLISH 376, or Science Fiction in Literature & Film, uses the study of the speculative genres as the opportunity to focus on the emergence of the scientific worldview from theological, physical, and metaphysical speculation beginning in the Greek phase of Western Civilization, on the renewal of the debate between competing theological and naturalistic worldviews at the inception of the modern world, and on the tendency of applied science – technics or technology – to disturb the settled way of life in unforeseen and sometimes cataclysmic or apocalyptic ways; the course examines these historical and cultural phenomena through their representation in stories, novels, and films. Science Fiction in Literature and Film is also a course concerned with the debates between immanent and transcendent views of existence and between immanent and transcendent versions of causality. These debates are ongoing and might well be said to structure the modern Western mind. Consider in this regard the popularity of books on atheism by Dawkins, Hitchens, and others. The issue of whether existence has a metaphysical component or “ground” has never been settled and possibly never can be settled.

    [B] Although the modern world is permeated and structured by the scientific outlook – as that outlook emerged in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries – and although applied science, in the form of technology, has thoroughly altered the habits and existential assumptions of Western peoples: Nevertheless a prevailing blitheness of attitude tends to take the technologically altered environment for granted and tends to know little or nothing either about the origins of science and technology or about the profound impact that the scientific view and technical development have had on the Ancient and Medieval assumptions about life. Or else one “knows” such a thing as a mere verbal formula without really grasping the enormity of the idea or the extent of its details. Simultaneously, a certain ideology, one that its critics designate as “scientism,” disseminates the simplistic view that, sometime at an unspecified date in a vague past, purely immanent and inductive explanations of existence superseded various superstitious or magical explanations of existence – in sum that, among other results, “science” disqualified “superstition” and that somehow the adequacy, material and ethical, of the reigning dispensation (“we’re all scientists now”) was the result.

    [C] These two widely current positions (the immanent and the transcendent) obscure the actual historically close relation – in both its Greek phase and in its later European Renaissance phase – between rational theology and metaphysics on the one hand and the rational investigation of the cosmos or science on the other; and it is the case that these same two positions foster an attitude, first explicitly identified by Jose Ortega y Gasset in The Revolt of the Masses (1936), that all too frequently mistakes the achieved boon of material development at any given point for the equivalent of a natural fact. The sequence of “Speculative Fictions” from Plato’s Timaeus (360 BC) through Kim Stanley Robinson’s recent Mars trilogy (1990s) puts the blitheness of modern intellectual parochialism under severe critique. In reading the sequence of assigned texts for the course, students will have the opportunity to reassess their indebtedness to a rational tradition (which is, however, not reductively rational) that expressed itself theologically and philosophically as well as scientifically first in the flourishing of Greek Classical Civilization and then, after a lapse, in the specifically modern phase of Western Civilization, starting in the Sixteenth Century. Students should gain an appreciation of the fact that, while at its beginning the scientific outlook included a resounding naturalistic critique of religion, religion itself, in its refined or speculative modes, came to entail not only a critique of superstition but also a critique, quite rigorous, of naturalism. Plato’s opus may be understood in this way: as correlating an encyclopedia of the sciences, including a theory of knowledge, with an intuition of Ho Theos (“The God”), or the transcendent ground of existence; so too in a modern context Henri Bergson’s idea of the élan vital.

  4. Pingback: Cantandum in Ezkhaton 10/13/19 | Liberae Sunt Nostrae Cogitatiores


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