Philosophy and Film

Week of: 
Sunday, December 17, 2006
What is it: 

Despite the crass commercialism that drives the production of many movies, there's no doubt that film is a distinctive and distinctively powerful art form.  Cinematic representations move us in ways that few others do.  Film has also proven to be an outstanding vehicle for conveying philosophical ideas.   Join John and Ken as they explore both the philosophy of film and philosophy within film.

Listening Notes: 

Ken introduces today’s show by asking two questions: What is film as a distinctive art form and what is film as a distinctive medium of philosophizing? As an art form film certainly has many unique qualities, and both John and Ken consider where film stands in relation to other forms of art (such as novels and plays). John notes how it is a bit perplexing to him that we as viewers can get emotionally invested in two-dimensional characters on the big screen. Ken questions today’s guest David Thomson about just what changed in the art world when film showed up. To David, there was a fundamental change, and it has so much to do with the important role of the audience in film. The audience is constantly providing meaning when watching movies, and is kicking the film forward all the time. Film also makes certain thoughts and feelings accessible by externalizing them on the big screen for people to watch. David shares his thoughts on film as realism, as documentation, and the historical significance movies play and the trust placed in film. It is important to Ken to consider the role of the director and editor in shaping and molding actors and films as well, and just how powerful their ability to dictate the information conveyed.

Historically, there is an important cultural role that film plays. David discusses how different governments have viewed and received film in different ways, and how fantasy can creep into reality. He addresses the violence and torture seeping into our culture, as seen in both video games and international policy. To David, film and television are arguably the most powerful art forms for effecting culture. Film provokes some of the best philosophical problems and critical thinking about culture and society. At the end today’s episode, David recommends some of the all-time best directors and films that should not be missed.

  • Roving Philosophical Reporter Devon Strolovitch (SEEK TO 00:04:17): Our roving philosophical reporter takes us on a tour through Woody Allen and his films, and how they come to bear on philosophy. Guest Mary Nichols expresses how Allen can be viewed as a philosopher mocking philosophy. Though he often uses philosophy as a punch line to a joke, the theme of the existence of god and questions about the moral structure of the universe are pervasive in his films. 
  • Ian Shoales The Sixty Second Philosopher (SEEK TO 00:49:53): Ian Shoales brings us back to the roots of the movie industry in Thomas Edison. He discusses how Edison created the motion picture camera and viewer, in addition to many other technologies. Movies progressed from first being shown to one person to entire theaters of people with the advent of the projector. Edison’s patents to protect movie production led to the full-blown industry we know today.

David Thomson, Film Critic and Author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film

Related Resources: 

Allen, Richard and Smith, Murray. Film Theory and Philosophy.
Fieser, James. "Philosophical Films." (A list of philosophical films.)
Online academic journal dedicated to analyzing film for its philosophical tenets:
Film-Philosophy. (ISSN: 1466-4615.)
Geivett, Douglas and Spiegel, James S. Faith, Film and Philosophy: Big Ideas on the Big Screen.
Litch, Mary M. Philosophy Through Film.
Read, Rupert and Goodenough, Jerry (editors). Film as Philosophy: Essays in Cinema after Wittgenstein and Cavell.
"Research Guide in Film Studies." Film Theory, Philosophy, and Aesthetics. Yale University Library.
Smith, Murray. Thinking Through Cinema: Film as Philosophy.
Thomson, David.

Wartenberg, Thomas. "Philosophy of Film." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Wartenberg, Thomas E. and Curran, Angela. The Philosophy of Film: Introductory Text and Readings.

Get Philosophy Talk


Sunday at 10am, PST, KALW, 91.7 FM, Local Public Radio, San Francisco


Individual Downloads  via CdBaby or Itunes.  Multipacks and The Complete Philosophy Talk via Iamplify

John Perry and Ken Taylor

Continue the Conversation

Sidebar Menu

Upcoming Shows

  • August 3 : Summer Reading List 2014
    What philosophers, philosophies, or philosophical issues would you like to read up on over the summer? John and Ken discuss one of this year's most...
  • August 10 : Captivity
    Whether it's people incarcerated in prisons, or animals confined in zoos, aquariums, laboratories, farms, and in our own homes, millions of upon...
  • August 17 : Remixing Reality: Art and Literature for the 21st Century
    For decades, literary critics have been questioning the relevance of the novel as a literary form, with some going so far as to declare its death....
  • August 24 : What Might Have Been
    When we make claims about things that could have been—what philosophers call counterfactual statements—we are, in some sense, sliding between...
  • August 31 : Is Intuition a Guide to Truth?
    Turns out that Galileo was right and Aristotle was wrong: in a vacuum, a feather and a bowling ball will fall from a tall building at exactly the...

Support Philosophy Talk


Philosophy Talk relies on the support of listeners like you to stay on the air and online. Any contribution, large or small, helps us produce intelligent, reflective radio that questions everything, including our most deeply-held beliefs about science, morality, culture, and the human condition. Make your tax-deductible contribution now through Stanford University's secure online donation page. Thank you for your support, and thank you for thinking!