Mary Litch, Review of Philosophy Through Film (Routledge, 2010)
Reviewed by Luke Cuddy
If you are like me, you responded to your friends’ praise of The Matrix with a bit of smugness. After all, we philosophers have been familiar with the concept of people being unknowingly enslaved since Plato. While philosophical interpretations of The Matrix are not likely to impress a tenured philosophy professor, they just might have the capacity to jog a student out of her stupor. This jogging of the mind is one of the things Mary Litch hopes to help induce in introductory philosophy students with Philosophy Through Film.
The book is set up conveniently with an overview of each major film at the beginning of the chapter in which it is discussed. The films analyzed are The Matrix (Andy and Larry Wachowski, 1999), Vanilla Sky (Cameron Crowe, 2001), Hilary and Jackie (Anand Tucker, 1998), Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000), I, Robot (Alex Proyas, 2004), Minority Report (Stephen Spielberg, 2002), Crimes and Misdemeanors (Woody Allen, 1988), Antz (Eric Darnell and Tim Johnson, 1998), Equilibrium (Kurt Wimmer, 2002), The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1957), The Rapture (Michael Tolkin, 1991), and Leaving Las Vegas (Mike Figgis, 1995). While one could quibble with Litch over her choices (what, no Hitchcock?), they are quite diverse in genre and are based on two considerations: philosophical relevance and ability to engage the typical American undergraduate. In cases like The Seventh Seal where the latter consideration is minimal, the former consideration is much stronger. In some cases, a single film is used in multiple chapters. For instance, Crimes and Misdemeanors is discussed in both Chapter 6 (ethics) and Chapter 9 (existentialism). The chapters are divided according to subject (skepticism, relativism, the problem of evil, etc.). The appendix includes the story line of each film by elapsed time; this allows students to double check what happened at what time for the film in question. There is also a section at the end of the book with readings from primary sources that Litch refers to throughout the chapters when appropriate. As Litch notes in the preface, her book “is geared for use as the primary textbook in a first course in philosophy and covers the same topics as a standard introductory text.” She goes on to say that “in some contexts” the book might be used in an upper division course. This is ironic because after finishing the book I was left wondering whether it is more appropriate for upper division philosophy majors (and beyond) and less appropriate for undergraduates taking their first philosophy course. Nevertheless, I immensely enjoyed Philosophy Through Film.
Litch notes in the introduction that she is not responsive to criticisms of the form “you are reading too much into the film” because she will find philosophical content wherever possible regardless of the intention of the director. For instance, directors Andy and Larry Wachowski probably did not intend The Matrix to be an argument for skepticism. In fact, Descartes only needed dreams to discuss skepticism. But the incredible technological world depicted in The Matrix makes skepticism “an easier sell” (p. 13). Litch is trying to teach, she claims, not impress other philosophers. She offers a comparison between Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and a movie house, suggesting that Plato would approve of using movies to teach philosophy in light of a nuanced understanding of the shadows on the cave wall. Should we not do everything we can to guide students out of the cave, Litch suggests, even if it means using the shadows as teaching tools?
Of course if one does not buy the assumption that some feature films can be interpreted as attempts to answer classic questions of philosophy, then one will not be a fan of Philosophy Through Film. Is half-baked popular philosophy still philosophy? Philosophers are still arguing about this, as evidenced by the different viewpoints concerning the Pop Culture and Philosophy series of books started by William Irwin. The series includes titles on many popular films, from Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) to The Golden Compass (Chris Weitz, 2007). We know where Litch stands on the issue. Irwin’s defense of the series (in Philosophy and the Interpretation of Popular Culture, co-edited with Jorge Gracia) is worth reading if one has an interest in the topic.
Litch goes on to point out the importance of thought experiments to the history of philosophy, claiming that films can basically be used in the same way. She says that some films provide the context for events within the film to be interpreted as thought experiments. When a film leaves out relevant parts of a good thought experiment, Philosophy Through Film is there to fill in the missing links. For example, in Crimes and Misdemeanors, one of the characters, Judah, orders the death of his wife, causing him to struggle over the morality of his action. This event from the film provides a context for examining the moral positions of consequentialism and non-consequentialism. As it turns out, according to both positions Judah’s ordering of his wife’s death is wrong. So the event gives Litch the opportunity to discuss the different reasoning involved in each moral position, to extend the thought experiment engendered by the film.
While Litch occasionally sprinkles in a tenuous connection to some philosophical idea from one of the films (making her more vulnerable to the above “reading too much into it” criticism) most of her connections are deeper, and apt. The high points of the book come to the fore when Litch suggests that the content of one of the films complicates some philosophical position. For example, the circumstances of the protagonist in Memento, Leonard, complicate the psychological continuity theory of personal identity. Each day Leonard forgets what happened the previous day of his life; after several minutes go by he forgets what happened in the last several minutes. Despite all this, Leonard does have a clear idea of his identity before the accident that led to his short term memory loss. In other words, Leonard does not have the series of memory links necessary to establish psychological continuity, and yet he seems to have at least some coherent identity as a person. In what does his personhood consist then? Litch goes on to discuss different possibilities and interpretations, but the simple fact that the film presents a protagonist with such characteristics illuminates psychological continuity in a way which can lead the viewer to consider it, and to question its veracity. This process of illumination will be all the more fruitful for an undergraduate, with a professor’s commentary and Litch’s book at hand. Then again, it depends on the undergraduate.
For the engaged and motivated undergraduate, Philosophy Through Film seems very appropriate. On the other hand, a detailed discussion of psychological continuity and its complications might be more difficult to engage in for undergraduates who are less motived, or who have never heard any philosophical theories of personal identity. Upper division philosophy students who are already familiar with the theories might be more inclined to discuss, and more capable of tackling intellectually, the complications of psychological continuity. To be fair, Litch does present an overview of each topic in each chapter before discussing the film in question, and before going on to discuss how events in the film complicate the topic or illustrate it in more detail. But if a student’s understanding of personal identity is foggy due to having only been introduced to the topic recently, will he be ready to tackle the deeper complications? We are left wondering at Litch’s implication that the book is most appropriate for undergraduate students taking their first course in philosophy.
Furthermore, there are other parts of the book where one wonders about Litch’s priorities, given her focus on presenting detailed philosophical theory at what seems to be the expense of making material more digestible for general undergraduates (that is, leading them efficiently out of the cave). For example, in Chapter 4 (artificial intelligence) Litch devotes a lot of time to explaining different theories of mind and consciousness from the Turing Test to Searle’s Chinese Room, only occasionally bringing in the movie under discussion (I, Robot) for an illustration. I had no problem following Litch’s line of thought; in fact I quite enjoyed it. However, some undergraduates might not derive a similar enjoyment after reading pages of dense theory only to see a small paragraph or a couple of lines devoted to I, Robot.
Naturally, part of teaching is explicating the theory in the readings through lecture, so we cannot entirely blame Litch here. Still, I have related doubts about the effectiveness of using Philosophy Through Film in an introductory course based on my teaching experience. In my introductory philosophy course, we watch a couple of films, and even that takes up more class time than I would like. Litch’s book discusses twelve films in detail. Even if some chapters are skipped, a professor is left with six or more films to watch during class time. How much time will be left for discussion, lecture, and other activities? Can a professor expect students to watch six to twelve full length films on their own time? While these may seem like extraneous considerations, they are relevant because of Litch’s emphasis that her book is designed for use in a classroom, presumably limited by time constraints.
Despite a few weak points, most of the chapters in Philosophy Through Film do a great job of explicating a philosophical idea clearly, summarizing the movies, analyzing the movies for philosophical content, and sometimes offering new takes and complications to existing philosophical problems. It is not Litch’s ability to write a good book that is in doubt; it is her goal of the book being used as a primary text for introductory philosophy courses. The bottom line is that I did immensely enjoy Litch’s book. Then again, I am a philosophy professor who loves film, not an undergraduate, first time philosophy student.
2011 © Luke Cuddy