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From the Author’s Perspective: Thinking on Screen
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Thomas Wartenberg, Thinking on Screen (Blackwell, 2007)

I am very grateful to the editors of the Newsletter for asking me to describe how Thinking on Screen: Film as Philosophy (Routledge, 2007) can be used in courses I teach on the philosophy of film. As I see it, the book can function in two different ways: as one part of an introductory level course on the philosophy of film and as the central text in a more advanced course on film-as-philosophy. In order to explain how it can work in these two contexts, let me give a quick statement of the book’s central argument. Thinking on Screen argues we need to recognize that films have the capacity to make contributions to philosophy. This is the first book that makes this case comprehensively and in a manner that is accessible to students.

Most introductory level courses on film and philosophy have focused solely on questions in the philosophy of film, that is, questions about film as an artistic medium. But there is growing recognition that the topic of philosophy in film or film as philosophy should also be included. TOSThinking on Screen can be used to present a synoptic discussion of how films can philosophize. Here is how I would use the book in such a course. The second chapter presents arguments for and against the possibility of cinematic philosophy, thereby establishing the case for film as a medium with philosophical significance. The fourth chapter, which includes an interpretation of The Matrix as well as a general discussion of the role of thought experiments in philosophy, serves as the basis for evaluating this possibility for philosophy being done on film, a theme that could be amplified by using the fifth (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) or sixth (The Third Man) chapters as well. It is worth noting that these chapters also raise issues in epistemology, philosophy of mind, and ethics respectively, and thus serve as a good way to introduce students to these areas of philosophy or to expand their knowledge of them. I chose the specific films I do to discuss precisely to make this possible. One could also include chapter 7 which focuses on avant-garde experimental films both because this would introduce students to a type of film with which they are not familiar and also because these films raise interesting questions about the nature of film. Such a unit in an introductory level philosophy and film course would show students the range of different ways in which films can impact philosophy itself.

At this point in time, however, I have only had the opportunity to use the book as the central text in a seminar on the Philosophy of Film. My class is an intermediate to advanced one for undergraduates with a concentration in either philosophy or film studies. Although the make-up of the class might be thought to cause some difficulties, I have found it to be a source of creative engagement, with the students from each discipline enriching the discussion as a result of their own area of expertise. It does mean, however, that I cannot assume any knowledge of philosophy, although most of the students who take the class have had at least some philosophy. (I discuss the mechanics of the course at the end of this article.)

Paralleling the structure of the book, the course consists of three units. In the first unit, we consider some theoretical objections to the possibility of cinematic philosophy in addition to one use of the medium for philosophical purposes, i.e. to illustrate a philosophical theory. I ask the students to read the first three chapters of Thinking on Screen. The first just sets the stage for our discussion, but the second presents some of the central arguments against taking films to make contributions to philosophy and shows why they are not devastating to the possibility of cinematic philosophy. Although the unit can stand independently, I chose to supplement it with readings outlining the objections to cinematic philosophy. As foils for my own view, I have used articles by Paisley Livingston and Bruce Russell to good effect.[1] Additionally, since their own positions are significantly different from each other, they allow me to develop a range of different positions that have been taken on the possibility of cinematic philosophy. The film that I screen for this segment of the course is Bertolucci’s The Conformist. I do so because it contains a stunning example of a filming of a philosophical discussion, more specifically a recitation of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Another option would be to use Waking Life, a film that includes sequences in which real philosophers discuss their philosophical views. One reason for using The Conformist is my desire to introduce students to film genres of which they are generally ignorant as well as to see the deeper philosophical content of films with which they are already familiar. I then turn to the third chapter of the book, which presents a deconstruction of the “illustration/serious philosophy” distinction. All of the writers within the debate over cinematic philosophy have dismissed films that “merely” illustrate philosophical theories. I problematize this idea by showing different ways in which illustrations relate to their “objects,” and then show how a film can do philosophy in this manner, using as my example Chaplin’s Modern Times and Marx’s theory of capitalist exploitation.

The second unit takes up the idea of films as thought experiments, a topic covered in chapters 4-6 of Thinking on Screen. Chapter 4 begins with an extended discussion of different types of thought experiments, showing how widely varied their philosophical uses are. This helps prepare the way for my initial discussion of The Matrix as presenting a contemporary version of Descartes’ Evil Genius thought experiment. Chapter 5 presents a more extended discussion of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as a counterexample to utilitarianism. Depending on a professor’s interest, this chapter could lead to a more extended look at different moral theories. The sixth chapter focuses on The Third Man, interpreting the film as both illustrating and criticizing elements of Aristotle’s theory of friendship from The Nichomachean Ethics. In this case, I do think it worth having the students read the relevant sections of Aristotle’s discussion of friendship and, in particular, the rationales for dissolving them.

Depending on the teacher’s interests, there are other options for expanding the readings in this section of the course. I was particularly interested in having my students read some theoretical accounts of the nature of thought experiments. This is important because some philosophers do not think that thought experiments play an essential role in philosophy, and I wanted my students to consider the question of why thought experiments are important philosophically. If one is to make a case that films do philosophy by presenting thought experiments, one needs to have an account of the cognitive function of thought experiments. The problem is that these readings are generally quite difficult for undergraduate students. The Stanford Online Encyclopedia of Philosophy article is somewhat helpful as a general introduction to some of the issues, but it does not canvas the ones most relevant to artistic media very well. The initial chapters of Roy A. Sorenson’s Thought Experiments provide a useful summary of their use as well as the skeptical case against their validity. Thomas Kuhn’s “A Function for Thought Experiments” is an important article that defends one crucial use of thought experiments against skeptics. The introduction and conclusion to Tamar Szabo Gendler’s book, Thought Experiment: On the Powers and Limits of Imaginary Cases, are manageable for undergraduate students and support some uses of thought experiments as cognitively significant. Catherine Z. Elgin discusses art as thought experiments in Considered Judgment from a Goodmanian point of view. And there are other articles and books that can be useful if one wants to explore this issue more generally.

The third unit takes up experimental films for their ability to present actual experiments that aim at demonstrating the essential characteristics of film as an artistic medium. I argue for this interpretation of avant-garde films in the structural tradition in Chapter 7. The idea is that, in order to justify “stripped down” conceptions of what makes a work a film, filmmakers have made films using only a minimal number of the elements they usually embody. The examples I discuss are Andy Warhol’s Empire, a seven plus hour film consisting of a single, static shot of the Empire State Building, and Tony Conrad’s The Flicker, a film made up of only alternating segments of clear and black filmleader. I think it very important to include this unit in a course, because philosophers have generally not paid adequate attention to avant-garde films in their discussion of the possibility of cinematic philosophy. Students enjoy these films and it expands their horizons in regard to what films can be like.

Again, this unit can be expanded by introducing additional readings and, in this case, films. One reading I use despite its obscurity is Trevor Ponech’s “The Substance of Cinema.”[2] What’s useful about this article is Ponech’s survey of a wide range of experimental films as well as his attempt to argue that they are actually experiments. I found screening some of Stan Brakhage’s short films – Mothlight and Night Music, for example – added to the course and our discussion of this issue. Nöel Carroll and Jinhee Choi have also written worthwhile essays on this topic that can be included in this unit.[3] In addition, one can introduce some basic issues from the philosophy of science concerning experimentation and confirmation. Probably the best source to use are the first couple of chapters of Carl Hempel’s classic Philosophy of Natural Science.

Thinking over my teaching of Thinking on Screen in general, one thing that I think is really useful about it is how it integrates questions in the philosophy of art and film with those from the philosophy of science. Since students tend to think of a field like philosophy of film as “soft” and philosophy of science as “hard” – encouraged, no doubt, by their professors – I find it beneficial to have a topic for a seminar that seemlessly blends the two fields. For this reason alone, I think it worth teaching this book, though I obviously think that there are other reasons to do so.

Since readers of the Newsletter may not have had experience teaching a film course, let me conclude with an explanation of how I do so. It is crucial for the students to actually watch films in an appropriate setting. Because the experience of being a member of an audience is such an important element of film going, I prefer they watch them together. For its aesthetic value, I also want my students to watch the film on as big a screen as possible. Unfortunately, given the economics of my institution, we can only watch DVDs and the occasional 16 mm film. Still, on the whole this is not a bad basis for our discussions. I schedule the screenings in the evening and then have either two 75 minute sessions or one three hour session each week. Although the technological capacity exists for students to watch the films on their computers, I am reluctant to give them this option. Still, it’s hard to resist, since their schedules make attending all the screenings quite difficult and it does allow them to watch films multiple times. An advantage to the two 75 minute sessions is that it lets me have a discussion of the theoretical readings prior to the film screening. Students tend to find these readings difficult and it is hard to get them to fully engage in a discussion of them once we have watched a film.


1. Paisley Livingston, “Theses on Cinema as Philosophy” in Murray Smith and Thomas E. Wartenberg, Thinking Through Cinema: Film as Philosophy (Blackwell, 2006), 11-18; Bruce Russell, “Film’s Limits: The Sequel,” Film-Philosophy.

2. Trevor Ponech, “The Substance of Cinema” in Thinking Through Cinema, 187-98.

3. Two of them can be found in Thinking Through Cinema, Choi’s “Apperception on Display: Structural Films and Philosophy,” 165-72, and Carroll’s “Philosophizing Through the Moving Image: The Case of Serene Velocity,” 173-86.


© Thomas Wartenberg

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