Teaching & Learning Guide for: Cinema as Philosophy



This guide accompanies the following article(s): Paisley Livingston, ‘Recent Work on Cinema as Philosophy’, Philosophy Compass 3/4 (2008): 509–603, doi: 10.1111/j.1747-9991.2008.00158.x

Author’s Introduction

The idea that films can be philosophical, or in some sense ‘do’ philosophy, has recently found a number of prominent proponents. What is at stake here is generally more than the tepid claim that some documentaries about philosophy and related topics convey philosophically relevant content. Instead, the contention is that cinematic fictions, including popular movies such as The Matrix, make significant contributions to philosophy. Various more specific claims are linked to this basic idea. One, relatively weak, but pedagogically important observation is that some films can be used to provide philosophy students with vivid and thought-provoking illustrations of philosophical issues. Film screenings stimulate discussion and may motivate renewed engagement with difficult philosophical texts. A stronger contention, however, seeks to link innovative and philosophically valuable thinking to ‘the film itself’ or to the ‘specificity of the cinematic medium’. Such claims raise interesting questions, including questions about the status of the increasingly prevalent philosophically motivated interpretations of particular movies. Who is actually doing the philosophizing in such cases? Is it the audio-visual display, the film-maker, or the philosopher who devises an interpretation of the work? What is the role of specifically cinematic devices in the philosophical points made in such interpretations? Is there any tension between the goal of appreciating a film as a work of art and the goal of arguing that a film has significant implications for a position on a problem in philosophy? A course in the general area of cinema as philosophy can focus on issues related to the locus and status of cinematic philosophizing. It can also delve into specific films and film-makers and philosophically oriented interpretations of specific philosophical topics, such as personal identity. Issues pertaining to interpretation, meaning, and authorship can be usefully investigated in this connection, as can topics in meta-philosophy related to the very nature of philosophical insight or knowledge.

Author Recommends

Carroll, Noël and Jinhee Choi, eds. 2008. The Philosophy of Film and Motion Pictures: An Anthology, Part VIII: Film and Knowledge. Malden, MA: Blackwell. 381–405.

Inclues a brief introduction by Carroll followed by papers by Bruce Russell, Karen Hanson, and Lester H. Hunt.

Kania, Andrew, ed. 2009. Memento. London: Routledge.

A number of philosophers elucidate philosophical themes in Memento and discuss more general issues pertaining to cinema’s philosophical significance.

Livingston, Paisley. 2009. Cinema, Philosophy, Bergman: On Film as Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Part 1 surveys arguments surrounding the cinema as philosophy theme, providing detailed criticisms of some of the bold theses in this area. Part 2 discusses issues related to cinematic authorship and the status of philosophically motivated interpretations of works of fiction, arguing for a partial intentionalist account of a work’s meanings. Part 3 illustrates the intentionalist principles in a discussion of Ingmar Bergman’s philosophical sources, providing insight into themes of motivated irrationality, inauthenticity, and self-knowledge in some of Bergman’s works.

Livingston, Paisley and Carl Plantinga, eds. 2009. The Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Film, Part IV: Film as Philosophy. London: Routledge. 547–659.

Offers a succinct survey by Wartenberg as well as entries on Ingmar Bergman, Terrence Malick, and Andrei Tarkovsky, discussions of film and specific philosophical topics (morality, skepticism, personal identity, and practical wisdom), and examples of philosophically motivated interpretations of three specific films: The Five Obstructions, Gattaca, and Memento.

Smith, Murray and Thomas E. Wartenberg, eds. 2006. Thinking Through Cinema: Film as Philosophy. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

A collection of papers that combines essays devoted to general positions on the cinema as philosophy topic as well as specific interpretations of works in different genres.

Turvey, Malcolm. 2008. Doubting Vision: Film and the Revelationist Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

A probing critical investigation into the assumptions underlying influential philosophical claims about the epistemic value of cinema.

Wartenberg, Thomas E. 2008. Thinking on Screen: Film as Philosophy. London: Routledge.

Ably surveys and responds to arguments against the idea that films can ‘do philosophy’. It defends a conditionalist form of intentionalism in response to the ‘imposition objection’ according to which it is only the commentator who reads philosophical themes ‘into’ the movie; illustrates the favored account of film as philosophy with interpretations of specific cinematic fictions.

Online Materials


Founded in 1996, this peer-reviewed online journal is dedicated to philosophically oriented interpretations of films and cinema studies more generally. The e-mail salon encourages discussion of related topics. Includes essays, festival reports, calls for papers, conference and job information, and book reviews. The archive includes contributions from 1997 to the present.

Wartenberg, Thomas E. ‘Philosophy of Film.’The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/film/>

A brief survey of a range of issues in the philosophy of cinema including a few paragraphs on the film as philosophy topic.

Philosophical Films

A briefly annotated list of philosophical films grouped in rubrics such as ‘The Meaning of Life’ and ‘Environmental Ethics’.

Sample Syllabus

What follows is a 4-week ‘start-up module’ followed by samples of optional units that focus on particular topics and cinematic examples.

Introductory Module

Week I: Introduction & Overview

Livingston, Paisley. ‘Recent Work on Cinema as Philosophy.’Philosophy Compass 3 (2008): 1–14, 20 (DOI: 10.1111/j.1747-9991.2008.00158.x).

Wartenberg, Thomas E. 2009. ‘Film as Philosophy.’The Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Film. Ed. Paisley Livingston and Carl Plantinga. London: Routledge. 549–59.

Russell, Bruce. 2008. ‘The Philosophical Limits of Film.’The Philosophy of Film and Motion Pictures: An Anthology. Ed. Noël Carroll and Jinhee Choi. Malden, MA: Blackwell. 387–390.

Week II: The Bold Thesis on Film as Philosophy


Livingston, Paisley, ‘Theses on Cinema as Philosophy.’Cinema, Philosophy, Bergman, Chapter One. 11–38.


October (dir. Sergei Eisenstein 1928).

Week III: Debating the Bold Thesis: The Case of October

Carroll, Noël. 1998. ‘For God and Country.’Interpreting the Moving Image. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 80–91.

Smuts, Aaron. 2009. ‘Film as Philosophy: In Defense of a Bold Thesis.’Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 67:4: 409–20.

Week IV: Cinema as Philosophy: Objections and Replies

Livingston, Paisley. 2009. ‘Arguing over Cinema as Philosophy.’Cinema, Philosophy, Bergman, Chapter Two. 39–59.

Additional Optional Units

Depending on the instructor’s areas of interest and expertise, any of the following units could be added (and in some cases, easily expanded into longer segments).

The Case of Ingmar Bergman

Livingston, Paisley. 2009. ‘Ingmar Bergman.’The Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Film. Eds. Paisley Livingston and Carl Plantinga. London: Routledge. 560–568.

Screening(s): Wild Strawberries (dir. Ingmar Bergman 1957), or The Seventh Seal (dir. Ingmar Bergman 1957), or Persona (dir. Ingmar Bergman 1966).


Fumerton, Richard. 2009. ‘Skepticism.’ In The Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Film. Eds. Paisley Livingston and Carl Plantinga. London: Routledge. 601–10.

Screening: The Matrix (dir. Andy and Larry Wachowski 1999) or Total Recall (dir. Paul Verhoeven 1990).


Kupfer, Joseph. 1999. Visions of Virtue in Popular Film. Boulder, CO: Westview. 35–60.

Falzon, Chris. 2009. ‘Why be Moral?’The Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Film. Eds. Paisley Livingston and Carl Plantinga. London: Routledge. 591–599.

Screening: Groundhog Day (dir. Harold Ramis 1993), or Crimes and Misdemeanors (dir. Woody Allen 1989), or Hollow Man (dir. Paul Verhoeven 2000).

Personal Identity

Knight, Deborah. 2009. ‘Personal Identity.’The Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Film. Eds. Paisley Livingston and Carl Plantinga. London: Routledge. 611–619.

Hanley, Richard. 2009. ‘Memento and Personal Identity: Are We Getting it Backwards?’Memento. Ed. Andrew Kania. London: Routledge. 107–126.

Martin, Raymond. 2009. ‘The Value of Memory: Reflections on Memento.Memento. Ed. Andrew Kania. London: Routledge. 87–106.

Screening: Memento (dir. Christopher Nolan 2000).

Freedom and (Genetic) Determinism

Sesardic, Neven. 2009. ‘Gattaca.’The Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Film. Eds. Paisley Livingston and Carl Plantinga. London: Routledge. 641–649.

Screening: Gattaca (dir. Andrew Niccol 1997).

Focus Questions

  •  Is there anything special about the experience of fiction films that is especially well suited to the stimulation of worthwhile philosophical reflection?
  •  Have any novel and philosophically significant ideas found their first expression in a cinematic work?
  •  Under what circumstances can the film medium be used as an expression of a cinematic author’s views?
  •  What sort of background knowledge has to be in place for a film to be interpreted as articulating reasonably precise philosophical theses and arguments?
  •  Does the goal of spelling out a film’s philosophical meaning sometimes conflict with the goal of appreciating its value as a work of art?