Filmosophy: Introduction


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Philosophers, since the early 20th century, have invested a great deal of thought into questions concerning the nature of film, its relationship with reality, and why it is that we are emotionally affected by what we know to be fictional characters and events. In addition, films are increasingly being employed to exemplify philosophical views, arguments and to function as thought experiments - narrative devices of the imagination used in philosophy to prompt our intuitions with regard to a particular issue.

One of the most famous thought experiments in philosophy - the so-called Allegory of the Cave - was presented by Plato in his Republic (c.360 BCE). Here, we are invited to imagine humanity as prisoners who have been captive since birth in an underground chamber. There they sit, facing the back wall of the cave, unable even to turn their heads. Behind them, and higher up, a fire is burning, and between the fire and the prisoners runs a road, along which a wall has been built. Along the road there are men carrying artefacts and the fire projects shadows of these artefacts onto the back wall of the cave. The prisoners, states Plato, would believe that the shadows of the objects …were the whole truth. In what follows, we are asked to consider what would happen were one of the prisoners to be compelled to stand and turn to face the fire, and then dragged out into the sunlight. Although this would be dazzling and he would be bewildered at first, eventually, says Plato, the released prisoner would come to realise that what he used to take for reality was nothing but shadow and illusion, and he was now seeing things more clearly.

The meaning of Plato’s allegory is manifold, it reveals his view of reality (metaphysics) and his related position on knowledge (epistemology). It can also be seen as representative of the nature of philosophy in general - as the attempt to subject received wisdom and preconceived beliefs to doubt, with the aim of replacing error for truth. In addition, Plato’s Cave may strike us as very similar to the modern cinema. The cinema audience watches images projected onto a screen in front of them, these images are projected from a piece of film being moved past a light behind them, and the images on this piece of film are themselves merely copies of the real things outside the cinema.

This resemblance between the structure of the cave and the cinema entails a similar correspondence between Plato’s prisoners and cinemagoers. Of course, there are also important differences. Modern film audiences know about the outside world and its relationship to the film they are watching, whereas Plato’s prisoners only know the shadow world. Therefore, although the modern cinemagoer can be drawn in by fictions, they remain aware of the fact they are fictions. As such, film can fulfil an important philosophical role by providing us with an array of images and scenarios that can cause us - in much the way Plato’s allegory - to question ourselves and the world around us.

The Filmosophy season features four original and thought-provoking films that examine key philosophical issues: a discovery on dark side of the Moon invites us to explore what it means to be human (Moon, Jones 2009); a blind photographer forces us to question what we can know for certain (Proof, Moorhouse 1991); a revolutionary procedure allows us to realise the vital importance of our memories in making us the person we are (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Gondry 2004); a strange family, cut off from the outside world, causes us to consider how our own upbringing and environment affect our capacity to act freely (Dogtooth, Lanthimos 2009). 

Each film will be preceded by a short introduction and followed by an accessible and informal post-screening discussion. Accompanying programme notes will also be available. Join us and learn what film can contribute to philosophy, and how philosophy can contribute to our enjoyment and understanding of film.

James Mooney
Lecturer in Film and Philosophy 

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The University of Edinburgh
Centre for Open Learning

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