What is a good philosophical documentary

Popular subdiscipline: film as philosophy

by Susanne Schmetkamp (Basel)


Philosophical texts, as their colleagues Cox and Levine write, are often “as dry as a desert”, dust-dry, like desert sand that makes it difficult to breathe, makes your voice difficult, and clouds your eyes. Philosophy should give us a voice to lend, the eyes to opento clear our view for what we otherwise do not want to see (hear, say) or do not want to see (hear, say), as Plato's allegory of the cave most prominently describes. Plato is a very good example of how philosophy does not have to be dry when it is looking for conversation or creating mind games. In ancient times, the "popular" and the "philosophy" were therefore not such a contradiction as they seem to be today, where philosophy is obviously not popular, but must first be made into it, or where philosophy is reluctant to measure itself against "pop", and if it does, it shoots itself academic offside. These tendencies will (and can) be understood according to their nature and work more popular Approach philosophy, which at the moment is perhaps more likely to be played out at festivals, in philosophical cafes or in the feature pages, although it was recently criticized that academic philosophy, beyond all social developments, theorizes that most of the "great voices" of philosophy are not exactly close to the people and understandable or not communicated at all. This in turn led to the objection that philosophy is not the place of intellectual fashions or dazzling diagnostics of the times, it also does not (or not always) have to be publicly communicable. In fact, it cannot always do that; there are subjects in philosophy - as in other academic research - that are difficult to access, and perhaps the arguments and counter-arguments about how philosophy sees itself and its popularity are in fact either excessive or complacent. Is it really the case that philosophy (including academic) eludes popular topics, which also include social and political problems of our time, from migration to poverty to populism? Or what about the many “poppy” topics in contemporary aesthetics about jazz, design, dance and performance?

For some years now there has been a subdiscipline in this area that has taken one of the most popular media as the subject of its research and both engages in sophisticated thinking and illuminates new methods of philosophy (in both self-understanding and communication): film philosophy is a "fashion" in the best, namely "contemporary" sense, the beginnings of which lie in the beginnings of film history when the philosopher and psychologist Hugo Münsterberg asked "why we go to the cinema". For him this is not a purely empirical, but also a normative question: Why should we go to the cinema? That and Why we do that and that film (and television) is one of the most popular media (and why) are therefore issues that this discipline faces, and it is genuinely (and not opportunistic) inter- and transdisciplinary, but it is neither necessary from the philosophical methods and ways of thinking alienated nor is it necessary trivial.

But we are not here to continue the debate about what philosophy is, may, can and should, but to ask specifically what popular philosophy can be, what forms it can take, and today's film philosophy may offer an answer, not only , but also because it deals with the mass medium of film and communicates philosophy in a different way and to a wider audience through the use of film. A film philosophy moves away from the traditional paths of philosophical reflection and reasoning when it precedes its investigations with a provocative premise: It elevates “thinking in” or “through images” to a philosophical method that is at least equal to that which can lead to knowledge. Thought radically, this means that film can also be philosophy or that through film one can think philosophically, a thesis which, incidentally, (with different formal criteria) also some representatives of a «literary philosophy», a «philosophy of dance», of «theater» , «Computer game», «music» etc. would sign.

But first «cut» and «to the beginning». What is and actually does «film philosophy»? This question can be viewed from four angles:

  1. Philosophy of Film I: A Philosophy of In a first sense, films can refer to the sub-discipline that asks about the essence, the ontology of film, for example what makes film into film: the movement of the image through space and time? The screen that separates the audience from what is happening on the screen (behind the camera)? She asks what the world of the film (for example in contrast to our real world) or what is cinematic fiction is (the philosophy of the film is not limited to fictional, narrative film). She investigates whether film (or even television) art is and what a film aesthetic Experience different from other aesthetic experiences. Many of these questions are interdisciplinary, but can and must not be necessary beyond of the philosophical (film, literary and cultural studies etc.) discourse always and be understood by everyone; they are complex questions that cannot be trivialized just because they arise from dealing with one of the most popular media.
  2. Philosophy in film: film - in this case especially the fictional narrative, but also the documentary film - is also a medium in which philosophical topics and questions are negotiated directly or indirectly, for example on the relationship between reality and fiction (e.g. inception), on the conflict between free will and determination (e.g. Matrix), on moral dilemmas (e.g. Sophie's Choice), on the meaning of life (e.g. The Tree of Life), on the question of the conditions of self-confidence (e.g. Her), on the ethics of Dying and human dignity (e.g. Amour), personal identity (e.g. Mulholland Drive), the subjectivity of the human mind (e.g. Being John Malkovich), the conditions of life that can reverse our morals (e.g. Breaking Bad) to the responsibility of Consumers for nature and animals (e.g. We feed the World) and much more, whereby most of the films mentioned here are characterized by the fact that they not only feature these, but also raise their philosophical questions. Such films can be purely an illustration for philosophical reflection on the questions mentioned, they can serve as a springboard for philosophical laypeople or "adolescents" to think about such questions (in philosophy lessons, in discussion forums, at festivals) or they can serve as a source to articulate the right and important questions in the first place. However, these films can also be viewed as works that philosophize themselves, with their own methods and paths of knowledge. The latter would be a "philosophy of film" in a second sense. But let's first come to the illustration function:
  3. Philosophy with film: precisely because many films deal with philosophical topics, questions or even philosophers (e.g. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Iris Murdoch) themselves, they are predestined for philosophy lessons or public film series, as her colleague Andrea Kloschinski describes in more detail here . Students and non-academic philosophical laypeople are introduced to questions in a different way than with the sometimes really dry or difficult to access philosophical text; they usually also discuss more lively because they fall back on the rich, dense film material and the narrative (here mainly fictional, narrative films are used), which address epistemic, ethical and social issues vividly and condensed, play through philosophical theories, perhaps even, as in some of Woody Allen's classics, discuss them in a cinematic dialogue. The film is not supposed to work on the philosophical text replace, but he can do this complete and lead to new perspectives and approaches, motivate to creative and critical, active thinking. The philosophical discussion work with drafts of ideas such as the popular (= popular!) "Trolley Case", with its questionable variant of the "Fat Man", the aforementioned "allegory of the cave", or Rawls "veil of ignorance" is basically nothing more than illustration and Allegory, only that it reduces a problem to its essentials (which can be advantageous for logical reasoning and for basic knowledge), but at the same time the complexity and plurality of, for example, moral dilemmas, as they usually occur in real life (and not in the laboratory ) occur, undermined (which is a disadvantage for a life- and application-oriented knowledge). If, however, popular examples of films and series can be used in philosophy lessons - the new quality television series in particular now form a canon that can then be referred to without much ado - in some cases it is much easier to attract the students' attention. And the philosophical problem areas condensed in the narratives are often demanding: To reflect on which moral theoretical principles Sophie in Sophie's Choice may have decided to hand over one of her children to the concentration camp guard (and thus to certain death) in order to do this Saving others is anything but easy, and in this case, chewing through utilitarianism, Kantianism and Aristotelianism in an application and problem-oriented manner poses challenges even to advanced thinkers.
  4. Philosophy of film II: The philosophy of film in a narrower or more demanding sense runs analogously to a philosophy of literature (and generally corresponds to an "art as philosophy" approach), which recognizes some philosophical texts as literature or some literature as philosophy - see above Plato's dialogues alone are methodically, linguistically and content-wise much closer to narrative literature, to theater, to film than a text by Kant, for example; conversely, Musil's “The Man Without Qualities” or Proust's “In Search of Lost Time” are hardly disputed as (also) philosophical texts. It is not just a matter of the fact that these texts are written in a particularly literary language (which might raise questions from Category I, what distinguishes a literary text from a philosophical one, what literature is in general, etc.) and it does not just happen insist that literary texts (or cinematic narratives) deal with philosophical subjects (e.g. what is time? what is memory?) but that they do so in a way that not different that can't be done replaced can be achieved, for example, through a truthful proposition in the form of “time is a sequence of events” or “memory is the non-original occurrence or recall of a past event”.

A «philosophy of film» accordingly sees philosophical potential in the film itself and assumes that film self thinks and generates ideas and thoughts (see also the contribution to the performance philosophy by Christoph Müller) by making arguments, theses or questions in a certain way that we through and with the film experience - in its expressive and narrative diversity - experience and in this way come to another form of knowledge or knowledge: an above all non-propositional knowledge that does not correspond to the knowledge dictum of the "justified true belief", but still allows us to recognize something: a (film) aesthetic, who advocates this assumes that there is tacit knowledge that is itself shows instead of saying that expressed is called instead of by name. It ensures that through the aesthetic experience we obtain “knowledge how” instead of “knowledge that” and that this “knowing-how” can exist as a separate form of world and self access on a par with propositional knowledge. The (film) philosopher Stanley Cavell therefore regards film, literature and theater as essential dialogue partners for philosophical thinking and in turn brings philosophical theories and artistic works into a "conversation" through his own texts in a very original way that changes the view of tradition. .

Is film philosophy - as a subdiscipline of epistemology, the philosophy of spirit, aesthetics - in view of the abundance and complexity described above popular Philosophy? Yes and no. She goes with that, of course popular The medium of film (and television) (and obviously operates a form of popular philosophy), it makes philosophical topics easier and more vividly conveyable using narrative and expressive examples (and thereby perhaps also makes philosophical topics popular), but it also asks the big questions (What is knowledge anyway? What is reality? What is time?), Which are difficult to understand without knowledge of philosophy and also do not have to be, but in this way could justifiably become more popular within their own guild. Popular philosophy doesn't have to be synonymous with a trivial, interchangeable fashion. It can have its place in the academic world for a variety of reasons. Replace she should read the philosophical text - which can also be "as dry as a desert" - and the strenuous argumentation but not, because there are questions and methods that are hardly treated otherwise than dry (factual and analytical) and intensive thinking can and should be. Philosophy makes itself (more) popular when it is open to what concerns us humans, touches, worries and when it deals with what we surround and deal with on a daily basis - and this includes what was also received by academics in their free time Novels, theater, visual arts, film and, for some time now, the very popular quality television series. If philosophy is popular, then it is also democratic and anti-elitist, because then it includes people and forms of expression in its thinking who would otherwise be excluded from the discourse. Why do we go to the cinema is not a trivial question.


Susanne Schmetkamp is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Philosophy Department at the University of Basel and a lecturer in Philosophy at the University of St. Gallen. She conducts research in the areas of aesthetics and ethics and their interfaces.