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Introducing Philosophy Through Film
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Henry John Pratt

As seen in a recent special issue of the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (Winter 2006), there is currently a great deal of interest in the ways in which films can be philosophical. It is a matter of some debate whether films can actually be works of philosophy, but there seems to be widespread agreement that, at the least, films can serve as concrete and provocative presentations of many of the issues about which philosophy concerns itself. With that in mind, I recently taught several classes that introduced students to philosophy through the use of film. What follows are some reflections on my experiences and advice for those considering developing a similar course.

The use of film, unsurprisingly, draws students into the classroom, perhaps because they assume that the course will be entertaining and easy. But beyond the possibility of increased enrollment, there are potential pedagogical benefits. Though most students at the introductory level have never taken a philosophy course before, their involvement in popular culture obligates them to face many of the issues that concern and challenge philosophers. Connecting students’ ideas about what they have seen in movies to what we study as philosophers not only opens their eyes to a new area of academic discourse, but also makes them realize that they have dealt with these problems before: they are not starting from scratch.

Moreover, films can serve a common goal of an introductory philosophy course: to nurture students’ abilities to think philosophically and recognize philosophy where they see it. In order to fill out their understanding of problems we encountered, my students often brought up the philosophical content of films that I had not assigned, which showed that they were beginning to find philosophy on their own. To galvanize this ability, I required, as a final project, a paper in which my students would pick a movie that we had not yet discussed and situate it within a philosophical framework. Students would explain their chosen film’s philosophical import, the point of view it expressed (if any), and articulate their own standpoint with respect to the issues it raised. It was my hope that the skills developed in order to complete this project would carry through into and enhance my students’ lives beyond our classroom environment.

Introducing students to philosophy through film has certain advantages, but it also requires the teacher to face a number of challenges in course design and implementation. Let me discuss three of these.

1. What films are you going to teach? Although this decision is similar to picking readings, an additional challenge is that it is much more difficult in the case of film to find something that suits your purpose exactly. Some subjects that are typically taught in an introduction to philosophy seem to be much better suited to cinematic representation than others; finding films appropriate to other subjects may not be possible. In my experience, there is a danger of orienting your course too heavily towards problems in metaphysics and epistemology (the most obvious, and also most readily available philosophical films have to do with personal identity or skepticism).

I learned that it is important to present films that cover a range of different topics, and to mix up the order of topics covered. To do otherwise is to run the risk that you will give students the wrong idea about the breadth of philosophy. Once, one of my students, in proposing a paper topic, told me that she wanted to write about a film that wasn’t very philosophical, but did have a good ethical problem in it. Needless to say, that was rather disconcerting.

In addition, students might not resonate with the same films that you do, because of differences in generation and taste. For example, when I used Blade Runner, most of my students reacted with vehement dislike (definitely not a response conducive to productive discussion). Much to my surprise, they thought that it was incredibly boring. For the next semester, I used I, Robot instead, but then some students felt that we were studying too many recent Hollywood blockbusters. By way of contrast, I was pleased to find out that my students did seem to appreciate some offbeat choices and old films or art films that they’d never seen before. But this is tricky: how much credit do you want to give to your students when it comes to their abilities to appreciate the crucial aspects of the films you choose? Do you pick movies that they’ve probably seen and like but which you find painful and philosophically unsophisticated (e.g. Minority Report or Vanilla Sky)? Or do you pick acclaimed masterpieces that they’ve probably never seen and may not be able to appreciate (e.g. The Seventh Seal)?

There don’t seem to be any easy answers here. Furthermore, given the differences among students from institution to institution, perhaps the best way to find films that work for an introductory class is through trial and error (which may be cold comfort for your students who end up experiencing the “error” side of things).

2. A second set of problems is logistical: how are you going to enable your students to see the films? While this issue may seem trivial, I found that it took considerable time and effort to arrive at a reasonable procedure, and even then, neither the students nor I were completely satisfied.

On the one hand, you could decide to show all of the films in class. This would insure that all students were able to see the film at the same time, and it would provide a nice captive audience for discussion. In a film course that was not also an introduction to philosophy, there would be good reason to use this method. However, in a philosophy course this is likely to be impractical unless the films are unaccompanied by any corresponding reading material. Teaching philosophical texts is time-consuming, and you can’t let the films use up all of the time you need to spend doing justice to the arguments and positions you encounter in the assigned reading.

On the other hand, for several reasons, it’s impractical to assign students to watch films outside class in the same way that you assign readings. Unlike the books assigned in a course, students are unlikely to own the films assigned. I suppose you could require your students to buy the films, but many students would find that economically burdensome. Films can’t be put on electronic reserve like articles (yet), so you have to put hard copies on reserve. But if you have a large number of students who all need to see a certain film within a certain time frame, many of them will find that the film has been checked out when they want to see it.

The solution I arrived at was to put films on reserve, to have two optional screenings of each outside of class, and to show short scenes in class. While some students still had trouble seeing the films, and others would have liked to spend more time viewing films in class, this seemed to work better than the other possible options.

3. Finally, the most difficult problem (for me, at least): how are you going to integrate the films with the readings? One decision you’ll have to make is about temporal order. Do you read texts first and then watch the films for illustrations? Or do you watch the films first and then study philosophical texts that make sense of the issues the films raise? In my course, I chose the latter tactic. In this way, I was able to pique my students’ interest in the problems we were about to discuss, to an extent that may not have happened if we had read first. After students watched each film, I had them write short papers on what they thought was of philosophical interest in it. I then used these papers to generate discussion and to interpolate their reactions into the specific philosophical context of the readings.

But there are complications here. Many films are rich enough that they raise more than one issue that is of concern to philosophers. My students, for example, found personal identity issues in practically everything we watched, even films that I wanted to deal with in the context of social and political philosophy. I found that it’s hard to stop students from having a freewheeling discussion about topics that are far afield of the particular concentrations of your course; teachers with a very linear sensibility when it comes to course design will probably want to find a way of restricting the focus.

Not only do films go beyond the issues you plan to address, but the texts you assign will also inevitably go far beyond the films. For example, The Matrix works well for getting students to think about the nature of reality and the extent to which we can know about it—the central emphasis of Descartes’ Meditations. But although it’s relatively simple to connect The Matrix to the first and second meditations, after that, things become much more tenuous. When I taught the Meditations, I found that at a certain point, I had entirely abandoned the film that started things off. While I did feel that the course was continuing on a good trajectory, my students had different expectations: they thought that since this was a course in philosophy and film, the latter should be continually informing study of the former.

In short, there’s a dilemma here. Do you watch a few films and trace out in a robust way the philosophical trails that they inspire? You achieve a deeper study of philosophy here, but risk losing the students’ interest. Or do you watch more films and do short readings that are very specific to each? This might hold the students’ interest better, but runs the risk of cursory engagement with the philosophy, at a level that never transcends the merely superficial.

I don’t know what the optimal solution is to this or to any of the other challenges I’ve raised. But my best advice is that although there are bound to be difficulties and setbacks, using film to introduce students to philosophy has the potential to be a great pedagogical tool. And it’s also, I should mention, a lot of fun.

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