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r o b e rt b . p i p p i n
The ways in which serious thought about film and philosophical reflection
might intersect are various, and those dimensions have been much explored in
the twentieth century, especially with the establishment of the academic study
of film in the seventies and eighties.1 At that intersection, there are various
philosophical questions that can be raised, primarily but not exclusively, about
filmed fictional realist narratives, or “movies.” There are related questions about
photography and other types of recordings of movement or figuration: documentaries, art videos, and non-representational avant-garde films, for example.
But both Hollywood (or commercially produced narrative films) and art
cinema, considered as new art forms, have drawn the most attention.
The most natural philosophical attention to film or movies has been as a
subdivision of aesthetics, or philosophy of art. There is the obvious question of
what kind of art object a filmed narrative is and so how it compares with plays,
paintings, and so forth, a question that now must include not just celluloid
recording but digital recording and projection, and narratives made for television. (So “film” is now often used to refer to any and all such technologies, not
just celluloid recording.) This is sometimes called the problem of film “ontology.” There is also the question of the specific character of the cinematic
experience, whether the ways in which we understand what is happening are
connected to our cognitive processing of events in general, and if so, how? In
what ways is our relation to what we see and understand connected to what we
see and understand in the real world? If there is that connection, how is the
There are several good surveys of these developments, up to and including the current divisions. See
especially Wartenberg 2015; the first chapter of Wartenberg 2007, “Can philosophy be screened?”
(1–14); and the introductory remarks in Sinnerbrink 2011: 1–11. There are also a number of readers
and anthologies (see Sinnerbrik’s list, 2011: 208). More than anything else, changes in the technology
of film viewing have made possible a studied attention to film never before possible without great
expense and investment of time.
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Robert B. Pippin
connection made and maintained? This is also relevant to our emotional
involvement. Why do we care about fictional characters as much as we do,
recoiling in fright or weeping in sympathy with what befalls them, but in no
way that prompts us to do anything about their fates, fictional as they are. I will
discuss in a moment the question of our understanding these narratives as shown
to us, displayed, made for an audience. This raises the question of the “narrator”
of the film. (Who is showing us what?) Is there an “implied narrator” in the film
world? (And what is a film world?) Is the narrator primarily the director, the
so-called “auteur,” or is the whole apparatus for the production and distribution
of the film, and the performers, the collective “agent” responsible for the
product? Can that agent be said to have “intentions”?
But thanks largely to the work of the Harvard philosopher Stanley Cavell,
and, from a different tradition, the French philosopher Giles Deleuze, a distinct
intersection has evolved, one that in some circles is now designated “filmphilosophy.” (There is an online journal with that name.) This “style” of
philosophizing,” one could call it, sometimes occurs within film studies (as in
the work of D. N. Rodowick) or in philosophy departments, a fact which raises
another issue too large for an economical discussion: the relation between “film
theory” and “film philosophy,” as practiced in the two departments. The idea
I want to explore briefly here is one that has gained currency in recent years,
and about which more and more is being published: that films can be considered a form of philosophical reflection itself, given a capacious enough
understanding of philosophy, one not limited to the marshaling of arguments
in support of explicit theses. Moreover, the strongest claim is not that film might
inspire a viewer to pose philosophical questions or that film can serve as
examples of philosophical problems (like moral dilemmas, for example), or that
they pose “thought experiments” that prompt philosophy (although films can
certainly do all of these things very effectively and we might want to know what
is distinctive about cinematic means for doing so) but that film, some films
anyway, can have philosophical work to do.
It is not easy to give a formulaic account of just what in the work
“demands” such closer and, for want of a better word, “aesthetic” attending,
the kind we would direct at so-called “high art,” and then what a “philosophical” version of that attending consists in. At least it is hard to point to
anything beyond this abstract appeal to “questions raised by the work” that are
not questions about plot details, but are like: “Why are we so often looking
from below at figures in shadows in some noir?” Or “What does it mean that
Gary Cooper’s character throws his marshal’s badge to the ground in obvious
disgust at the end of High Noon?” Or “Why does the director ‘twin’ Grace
Kelly’s wedding ring with that badge”? Or “Why is Hitchcock so apparently
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The Bearing of Film on Philosophy
indifferent to the obvious artificiality, the blatant, even comic phoniness of the
back projection techniques he uses frequently in Marnie?” It is even more
difficult to present a general account of when those questions are “distinctly
philosophical” in character.
And it is certainly a controversial claim. Many academics who think and
write about film, and a great many philosophers of all kinds, would vigorously
dispute this view. It is also a far more complex issue than it might at first seem.
One of philosophy’s chief topics is itself and the endlessly contested question
of what philosophy is. Asking this sort of question about film puts us at the
center of such centuries-old disputes. It is a more familiar idea among philosophers who occupy themselves with historical figures in the tradition who
had something close to this “complementary” view about philosophy and the
arts, primarily but not exclusively philosophy and literature. These would
include Hegel’s treatment of Sophocles or Diderot in his Phenomenology of
Spirit, Kierkegaard’s use of Don Giovanni, Schopenhauer’s theory of the
philosophical significance of music, Nietzsche’s reflections on Greek tragedy
and an “aesthetic justification of existence,” or Heidegger’s appeal to Hölderlin. In the case of Hegel, for example, art in general, together with religion
and philosophy, is treated as part of a collective attempt at self-knowledge
over time, and is viewed not as a competitor with religion or philosophy but as
a different and indispensable way (a sensible and affective way according to
Hegel) of pursuing such a goal. The notion is also not foreign to philosophers
influenced by Wittgenstein, concerned with, as it is put, how we came to be
in the grip of a picture of, say, the mind’s relation to the world, or our relation
to each other, and how we might be “shown” how to escape that picture.
(This is especially so with Cavell’s work, concerned as he is with various
dimensions of skepticism and given his view that film is “the moving image of
skepticism” [Cavell 1981: 188–9]).2 The central question in Heidegger’s work,
the meaning of being, since a question about meaning in the existential not
linguistic sense, is understandably a question that might be informed by how
such a meaning might be “disclosed,” as Heidegger sometimes puts it, in a
work of art.
But, as noted, that notion of “philosophic work” in film remains controversial. If it is to have some currency, we need a clearer idea of what might
distinguish a “philosophical reading” of a film, and how such a reading might
contribute something to philosophy itself. To begin, consider the simplest issues
that arise when we watch a film. Issues like the following.
See also the chapters by Cerbone and Mulhall, this volume.
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Robert B. Pippin
The basic question is: what must we do in order to understand what we are
shown?3 The question raised above might be formulated: even if the “cognitivists” in film theory are onto something about our simply “following” a movie
(see Bordwell and Carroll 1996; Currie 1995), is there a way of working to
understand a film that goes beyond working to understand the details of its plot?
When, at what point, have we “understood a movie,” and might we be said to
have learned something from having thus understood it? That is, is it possible
that, in working to understand a movie better, we could just thereby understand
better something of philosophical significance? Cavell has said that what serious
thought about great film requires is “humane criticism dealing with whole
films” (Cavell 1979b: 12) and he later calls such criticism “readings.” What are
readings of films, and, our question, are there “philosophical” readings?4 One
way, among many ways, of beginning to think about the issue can be suggested
by the following two points.
First, there is the issue of our mode of attending. We can consider the
conditions that must obtain for a cinematic experience to be an aesthetic experience, an experience directed at a work of art. I mean only that when we are
attending to a work as a work of art, we could not be doing so unless we knew
that this is what we were doing. Not all filmed narratives are works of art. There
are home movies, orientation videos, documentary records. But knowing what
we are doing “in” doing it (not doing it and observing ourselves doing it) is
difficult to account for philosophically. The situation is roughly similar to cases
attended to by philosophers where, in general, we could not be doing what we
were doing unless we were aware, in doing it, that we were doing it – marrying,
promising, etc. So if we wander into a large building, and stand up and sit down
when other people do, and even if we are indistinguishable in our conduct from
everyone else, if we do not consider ourselves to be attending mass, we would
not be. This involves no conscious application of the concept “mass” to what
we are doing. It is in doing it, succeeding in doing it, or doing it competently,
that we know we are attending mass. We are not monitoring ourselves constantly, but if we did not know that saying or doing this or that counts as
participating in a mass, what we were doing would not count as participating.5
I rely here on material I have also discussed in these terms (Pippin 2016; 2017).
As Cavell writes: “I do not deny that there is a problem about the idea of ‘reading a movie.’ Is it
greater, or other, than the problem about the idea of ‘reading a poem,’ when, of course, that is not
the same as reciting the poem?” (Cavell 1979b: 9).
This is actually not an uncommon predicament in movies, like the “marriage” between the Native
American, Look, and Martin in John Ford’s The Searchers.
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The Bearing of Film on Philosophy
Aesthetic experience is, again roughly, like this. It does not simply happen
to one. It requires a particular mode of attending. It is conceptually articulable
in more extensive exfoliations, but in that rough sense, when we go to a
movie, we take ourselves to be doing just that, and we have an equally rough
sense that a movie is an art work, a product of the human imagination, not a
secret recording of various people dressed in the garb of the 1940s, if we are
watching a film noir. Perhaps we even have that concept, noir, but it is not
necessary to the point. It is important to stress constantly that this knowingwe-are-so-attending is nothing like a self-observation, an attending to ourselves as an object. It is a constituting aspect of aesthetic attending itself, not a
separate noting of that fact. It is in attending this way that we are, in George
Wilson’s terms, “imaginatively seeing” what we are seeing (Wilson 2011). Or,
at least, this is how I understand his claim. We are not seeing actors on a big
screen and imagining who they are. We see Ethan in The Searchers and we
wonder what Ethan is doing and why. We do not see John Wayne and
imagine, in a separate act, Ethan. And, since The Searchers is a work of art,
we wonder what it means to be shown that he acts as he does. We can of
course wonder why characters do what they do in the movie, what it means
that they act as they do in the sense of asking what could have motivated that
fictional character – why they would do something so self-destructive – and so
forth, and not get very far. The work may have a narrow or limited ambition.
By the ambition to be a work of great or “fine” art, I mean that the point of
being shown such actions is defined by the way a question of some generality –
typological, historical, moral, etc. – is broached, and sometimes that generality
is of a philosophical sort.
It is also not the case that attending aesthetically – knowing what we are
doing when we are experiencing, attending to, the work – is something that
need interfere with or compete with our direct emotional absorption in the
plot, our anxious concern for some character. And we can begin seeing a
movie on the assumption that its ambition is merely to entertain us or frighten
us pleasurably (however that actually works). We attend to it in such a way,
take ourselves to be on about such an experience, but someone can point out
for us that there are elements in the movie that might be entertaining, but, our
friend shows us, they also raise questions beyond cinematic pleasure itself,
questions that cannot be explained by that function alone, and we can begin
to attend to the movie in a different way, a way I want to follow Wilson in
calling imaginative seeing, or, in the term used above, aesthetically attending.
(The same sort of “parallel track attending” is possible in admiring the
performance of Wayne, even as we follow and try to understand what Ethan
is doing. The main point is the same. There are not two steps: seeing Wayne
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Robert B. Pippin
and imaging Ethan.)6 Then we can say that the imagination or attending in
question is not limited to an emotional involvement in the events we see
(imaginatively attending to the lives of characters and what might happen) but
ranges over many elements. We try also to imagine why we are shown things
just this way. When that happens, we begin to attend aesthetically, to see
imaginatively. A philosophical answer might be the appropriate answer; that
“the film” (however we designate the agency responsible for its making)
presents this view of love as illusory (and can show us the “inevitable”
illusion), and this other view as close to what romantic love actually amounts
to (the presentation compels conviction, although how it does so is something
that would require extensive discussion).
Second, consider that films can be treated as very much like speech-acts
addressed to an audience, which narrate some tale (the analogy is far from
perfect, but serviceable in this context; it brings out the relation between seeing,
and being shown what one sees), and we can sometimes (as suggested above) ask
what the director – or the collective intelligence we can postulate behind the
making of the film – meant by so narrating a tale.7 We want to know the point
of showing us such a story at all, and showing it to us in just this way, with just
this selection of shots, from which point of view at what point in the film, with
just this selection of detail. In the same way that we could say that we
understood perfectly some sentence said to us by someone, but that we cannot
understand the point of his saying it now, here, in this context, given what we
had been discussing, we can also say that we can understand some complex
feature of a movie plot, but wonder what the point might have been in showing
us this feature in such a way in that context.
This allows us to put the point in an even broader way. Visualized fictional
narratives, movies, can be said to have many functions, can be said to “do” or
This is no more mysterious than our concentrating on the promises being made in the marriage
exchange, while aware that it is by saying them, in this context, with the right authority present, that
we are thereby marrying. That is, it is not mysterious.
I am adopting the so-called “fictional” or “as if” narrator position, an implication of which is that the
attribution of intentions to such a narrator has nothing to do with what some historical individual,
e.g. the director, actually had in mind. I am in agreement here with what Cavell says about an
“artist’s intention” in his discussion of whether Fellini can be said “to have intended” a reference to
the Philomel myth in La Strada (see Cavell 1976: 230–1). It also is important to understand something
that Wilson, in the book just cited, stresses: this narrator should be conceived in cinematically
minimalist terms. The agency of such a narrator “is merely minimal; e.g. generally invisible and
inaudible to the spectator, uniformly effaced, and characteristically inexpressive” (Wilson 2011: 129).
“Characteristically” is the key word here. Our attention can be explicitly directed to the fact of
narration by the director, something quite prominent, say, at the beginning of Psycho, with its
expansive, searching pan (from no point of view that could be occupied by anyone in the film), and
an intrusive, “spying” descent through an open window. For a longer discussion of Wilson’s thesis,
see Pippin 2013.
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The Bearing of Film on Philosophy
accomplish various things. They please, for example, or they are painful to
watch, but painful that is in some odd way pleasant as well. We can also say, in a
straightforward, commonsense way, that some films can be a means of
rendering ourselves intelligible to each other, rendering some feature of human
life more intelligible than it otherwise would have been; all, if we are attending
aesthetically, appropriately. This can be as simple as a clearer recognition that,
say, some aspect of the implications of a violation of trust is as it is shown, and
other than we might have thought. And this might be so in relation to that
general issue, not limited to that representation of that violation at that time.
This might require, in some cinematic presentation of this drama, a rich
narrative about a decision to trust in a situation of great uncertainty8 and this
narrative might be able to show us what is “generally” involved in such a
decision, and what “follows” from the violation, what “backshadowing” effects
it has, what it portends for the future, all in a way that a philosophical example
in a discursive account could not do very well.
Now, if the question is what the director (or, again, the collective intelligence
we can postulate behind the making of the film) meant by so narrating a tale,
sometimes the answer will certainly be: he, or she, or they, meant only to be
narrating the tale, because the tale is in itself entertaining, thrilling, hilarious. But
some films can be said to attempt to illuminate something about human
conduct that would otherwise remain poorly understood. The point or purpose
of such narrating seems to be such an illumination – a vague word, but it gets us
started. There is some point of view taken and not another; and so there is an
implicit saying that some matter of significance, perhaps some philosophical or
moral or political issue, is “like this,” thereby saying that it is “not like that.” And
one other way of rendering intelligible or illuminating is to show that what we
might have thought unproblematic or straightforward is not that at all, and is
much harder to understand than we often take for granted. Coming to see that
something is not as intelligible as we had thought can also be illuminating.
(Bernard Williams once wrote that there can be a great difference between what
we actually think about something and “what we merely think that we think”
[Williams 1993: 7], and great literature or great film can make clear to us in a
flash, sometimes to our discomfort, what we really think. In the same way, a
film noir’s credibility and illuminating power might throw into doubt that we
ever really know our own minds, and so can function as the agents that
Think of Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956), where the main character, Fontaine, must decide
whether to trust a boy he does not know well at all if his escape plan is to work. He must trust not
only the boy, but his own judgment, one based on a sense of a brief, epiphanic insight. We come to
realize that in all this the question of faith, the meaning and implications of faith, are being raised.
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Robert B. Pippin
philosophical theory requires [see Pippin 2012b]; we might begin to entertain
the idea that such theories require an idealization that comes close to being
completely counterfactual.)
Now this linkage of topics only gets us to the brink of an unmanageably large
question. If at least part of what happens to us when we watch a film is that
events and dialogues are not just present to us but are shown to us, and if the
question that that fact raises – what is the point of showing us this narrative in
this way? – does not in some cases seem fully answered by purposes like pleasure
or entertainment, because something of a far more general, philosophical
significance is intimated, some means of understanding something better, and
all this occurs in an aesthetic register, in our attending aesthetically to what is
shown, then that much larger question is obvious. This issue of its philosophical
significance, with philosophy understood in some sort of traditional way, is,
admittedly, quite a specific one, and those same issues can be considered in some
other way. For one thing, movies, after they are made and when they are
distributed, enter a complex social world, charged with issues of hierarchy,
power, gender roles, social class, and many other fields of significance, and they
can come to mean a variety of things (across historical times) never anticipated
by the makers of the film. But one perspective, a sociohistorical one, need not
exclude others, like a philosophical one, and the test for any perspective is the
quality of the readings that result from looking at a film one way rather than
another, or in addition to another. (This is one of the most difficult aspects of
this issue. The question of a philosophical reading demands a kind of reading,
and so a kind of writing, that is both true to the experience of watching the film
and to the larger issues “screened.” Writing that does justice to the specificity of
the film experience and to its philosophical stakes is not one that has any rules or
even, as of yet, many paradigmatic examples. And that writing is the test of
whether there is such a thing as film philosophy.)
But such an approach faces the obvious problem just noted and it must be
addressed at least briefly. How could such a visualized fictional narrative,
concerning such particular fictional persons and particular fictional events, even
or especially when marked out by an aspiration that is aesthetic, bear any
general significance? Generality, we know, is a matter of form, and it is
possible at least to imagine that the events we see are instances, perhaps highly
typical and especially illuminating instances, of some general form of human
relatedness. Shakespeare, for example, would not be able to portray so well, so
credibly and powerfully, Othello’s jealousy, unless the origins and conditions
and implications of jealousy itself were also somehow at issue, illuminated in
however particular a case. (If that were not so, wherein would lie our interest
in the display of a singular pathology?) But how might such a level of
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The Bearing of Film on Philosophy
generality be intimated by a narrative with a very concrete, particular plot, and
what would explain the illumination’s relation to some truth, not to mere
psychological effectiveness? (A film after all can at the same time be powerfully
compelling, can suggest an ambition to reach this level of generality, and, if
the director is technically talented, can carry us along with this point of view,
only for us on reflection to realize that the point of view we had been initially
accepting is in fact infantile, cartoonish, pandering to the adolescent fantasies
of its mostly male fans.)
This example suggests a set of further examples that are recognizable
philosophical questions, but do not seem to admit of anything like Socratic
definitions, or necessary and sufficient conditions for their having the determinate meaning they do. Many involve so-called “thick” concepts that require
a great deal of interpretative finesse to understand whether the concept is even
applicable, and how we might know, in some complicated context or other,
whether it is relevant at all. I mean moral issues like: Does this count as a
violation of trust? Should that consequence have been foreseen? In this
particular situation of wrong-doing, who (if anyone) is morally blameworthy
and why? When rightly blaming someone, when is it wrong to keep blaming
him or her? Who might seem to be, but finally not be, blamable? How does
such seeming and distinguishing work? What does forgiveness require before it
is reasonably granted? (Is it ever reasonably granted, or is it beyond reasons?)
Who, under what conditions, is worthy of trust, and who is not? How would
one decide that? What is an acceptable risk in exposing oneself to betrayal or
manipulation? Can the same action be said to be at the same time both good
and evil, noble and ignoble, loving and self-interested? Is the relation between
such value contraries one not of opposition, but of gradations, as Nietzsche
claimed (Nietzsche 2002 [1886]: §§24, 25)? What would that look like? In what
ways might all such issues look different in different communities at different
times? All of these cases must touch on what it is to trust, to blame, to forgive,
and again the successful evocation of that generality is a matter of writing that
is difficult to formalize.
And there are issues raised by some films, questions we seem to confront in
trying to understand the films, in what has come to be called moral psychology.
How do people come to understand what they are doing, what act description,
in some contestable context, is rightly self-ascribed, and what accounts for them
getting it right, when very often we get it wrong? Why do they often wrongly,
and sometimes culpably wrongly, understand what they are doing? Or, in other
words, how is self-deceit possible? And again, a question that could be asked as a
corollary to each of these: What does that phenomenon look like? What do we
detect when we think we detect the presence of self-deceit, deliberate
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Robert B. Pippin
fraudulence, a lack of self-knowledge? How do we make ourselves intelligible
to each other, especially when desire and self-interest make that very hard to
do? How do we figure each other out, and why, in the most important
situations of love, danger, and trust, do we often seem to be so bad at it? (Is
there some general point being made by the fact that in so many of Hitchcock’s
films, the wrong person is blamed or suspected of something?) What is romantic
love; that is, does it exist, or it a dangerous fantasy? And do we know it when
we see it? How important is it in a human life? What is the best, the most
admirable, way to live with, to bear the burden of, the knowledge that we face
eternal nonexistence, death? What distinguishes how we live, now, from how
we used to live? Is how we live now a good way to live? What is objectionable
about it? If a movie can, speaking very informally, “shed light” on such issues,
then is there a limited but potentially important kind of illumination: primarily
by means of filmed photographs moving in time? Such a “coming to understand” is not something formulatable in Socratic definitions and is closer to what
Aristotle meant in his account of practical wisdom: knowledge but not something that can be taught and transmitted, the kind of knowledge that requires a
wide range of experience. And as noted, its being a kind of knowledge that is
Socratic amounts to a deeper knowledge of ignorance, a more nuanced state of
The basic idea of the pertinence of drama to philosophy is as old as Aristotle’s
claim in his Poetics that drama is “more philosophical” than history because of
the generalities and probabilities suggested, and as relatively recent as Hegel’s
notion of the “concrete universal,” an instance that best expresses its kind,
revealing the kind’s essence much better than an abstract definition. (Wittgenstein on “perspicuous representation” is also relevant.) The question is how such
generality can be intimated.
One way such a level of generality can be suggested is by the relation of the
films to other films, to films by other directors, referenced in a manner that
suggests the general thematic purposiveness of that director’s overall project, and
especially by reference to the filmmaker’s other films, directly suggesting again
such a commonality and so generality of purpose. At some point such repetitions and similarities can suggest a sort of mythic universality.9 That is certainly
true of Hitchcock’s films. There is something like a “Hitchcock world,” a set of
problems repeatedly faced by his characters, many having to do with the
painfulness and the dangers of our general failure to understand ourselves or
each other very well, or to make effective use of what little we do understand to
For a fuller discussion, see Pippin 2012a.
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The Bearing of Film on Philosophy
direct our actions accordingly, all as recognizable as the formal cinematic
markers of what is called, what he himself called, his “style.” With the issues
set out like this, we can ask about that world, the claim to truth that its
representation makes on us. For example, Hitchcock’s masterpiece, his 1958 film
Vertigo, is about quite a distinct individual, a neurotic with vertigo caused by
acrophobia, obsessed with a woman who is impersonating another woman.
What could be more idiosyncratically unique than such a tale? Could anything
of any general significance follow from answering the question: “What is the
point of Vertigo?” – the point of showing us just this narration in just this way?
I want to say that it has a great deal to do with, let us call it, a general, common
struggle for mutual interpretability in a social world where that becomes increasingly difficult. The film, in a kind of hyper-exaggerated way, can be said to
explore why it is a struggle; what kind of society makes such failure more likely,
and why; how and especially why we so often manage to get in our own way in
such attempts; what, mostly by implication, would count as success in such a
struggle and how it might be achieved. Such a non-discursive treatment of
aspects of human irrationality can be said to be attempting to show us the
“nature” of these phenomena, what we need to understand in order to to
understand systematic and deep mutual misunderstanding, self-opacity, selfdeceit, and other forms of limitation we are subject to when we try to learn
what we need to know (but cannot) in cases of trust, love, and commitment.10
All of this, the perspective suggested above, certainly does not amount to a
theory of film, or an intervention in academic film theory. Such academic
“research” requires, understandably, for its inclusion in an institution dedicated
to the creation of new knowledge, a structure that resembles the modern
paradigm for such claims to know – modern natural science for the most part.
One advances a theory about how movies – let us say, realist narrative fiction
cinema – are understood, what effects they have on an audience, why some
community at such a time would make and consume such things, what it means
that they do, what effect on society at large their doing so produces. And then
one finds instances to exemplify and support the theory, to show that the theory
works in making sense of what would otherwise not be as explicable. Such a
So I disagree with Noël Carroll’s understanding of the philosophical importance of Vertigo. He
argues that because the philosophy at issue is “not for the graduate seminar room of a research
university,” it is philosophically revelatory, if it is, for its “target audience,” “the general public”
(Carroll 2007b: 113). A good deal of the film’s philosophical revelation is certainly accessible to “the
general public,” but a very great deal more depends on multiple viewings, extremely close
attention, and some awareness of the philosophical tradition. A very great deal is also simply very
difficult to understand, apart from sustained and careful attention, of the sort we would not associate
with “the general public,” and much of it would indeed be a fit subject for a graduate research
seminar, if the seminar were about the nature of the human struggle for mutual intelligibility.
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Robert B. Pippin
theory can be a Freudian or Lacanian one, or a feminist one, or a Marxist one,
or a structuralist one, or, more and more frequently, one informed by cognitive
science, and, given the point made previously, that not all films are “movies,”
and given that many such theories actively resist any canonization of greater
versus lesser films, the range of the objects studied can be quite wide. In fact, if it
is to be a successful theory, it aspires to as wide a range of explicables as possible,
from Hollywood gangster films, to Chinese silent films, to European art cinema,
to Bollywood films, to experimental films. This accounts for the understandable
recent move to “media studies” as the genre for which digital films are a species,
analog films another species, movies a subspecies of that, and Hollywood
movies a subspecies of that. (It has become especially popular recently, across
a wide range of different theories – affect theory, cognitive science approaches,
neuro-aesthetics, feminist criticism, psychoanalytic approaches, postmodernist
art, post-Danto philosophical aesthetics – to consider the art work, film in this
case, as in the first instance an occasion for an experience, suggesting that our
attention should be devoted to understanding that experience. Deconstructive
theory has also played a role in this by attempting to undermine the notion that
the work has a meaning that is the proper subject for more or less adequate
A concentration on a cinematic treatment of a complicated philosophical
problem (or, said inversely, a philosophical reading of film) need not be
considered a competitor to all this, but something simply different. Of course,
there will inevitably be some disagreement. Some such approaches presuppose a
relatively unproblematic access to something like “the movie,” and then proceed to ask what such an object would mean for some audience, or for women,
or for men, or in what way it operates ideologically, or psychoanalytically, or
what “code” it invokes. This is also possible and can be valuable. But there are
movies that present us with a number of elements that are very hard to take in
and process on a first viewing. Such a taking in and responding to a movie can
be initially confusing and incomplete, with only a dim initial sense of how the
elements might fit together. This is not restricted to following details of an
intricate plot. We might be quite puzzled about the point of being shown this
or that episode, character, or even by means of this or that camera position or
camera movement. “The movie” is not something “given” for subsequent
subjection to a categorical or a theoretical framework, any more than, in trying
to understand an action, “what she did” or “what she was trying to do” are
simply “given” empirically. Or a film like Psycho might seem to fit a conventional genre, a horror film, in a way that allows it to be taken as nothing but a
work of craft meant to entertain by scaring, even though there are elements of
the film, from Marion Crane’s visualizations of the results of her theft, to the
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The Bearing of Film on Philosophy
kind of paintings Norman Bates has on his office walls, to the stuffed birds
hovering about, to the treatment of marriage and its relation to other Hitchcock
films that raise the same issue, to an unusually broad and philosophical conversation between Marion and Norman about “traps,” and being either caught in
one, or stepping into one, that disrupt any putatively seamless horror movie
This is because, so my suggestion goes, such movies (by no means all movies
or films) embody some conception of themselves, a distinct form, such that the
parts are parts of one organic, purposive whole. Just in the way that a bodily
movement in space can count as an action only by virtue of the selfunderstanding embodied in and expressed in it, an art work, including any
ambitious movie, embodies a formal unity, a self-understanding that it is always
working to realize. Such a formal unity (what I earlier called the “point” of
making and showing the film) requires investigative work focused on the details
of the film, both stylistic and substantive, covering as many details as possible. In
fact, the movie, one has to say in an ontological mode, is the movie it is only by
means of this emerging, internal self-conception, a dimension we can miss if we
too quickly apply some apparent formal unity, like a genre designation, or a
sociohistorical concept. In ambitious films – and such a category is by no means
limited to “art cinema” – such a self-conception is unmistakably philosophical,
and so what it asks of us is a kind of thought and writing that we are just
beginning to explore.
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