Film and Philosophy

January 26-28, 2017

Philosophy as a pursuit of ontological and epistemological questions has existed for millennia, because of humans’ curiosity about the world. If we follow Aristotle’s Metaphysics, we might consider philosophy a pursuit of questions such as “What is being? What is a thing?” and of the related questions of “What is thingness?” or “What does it mean that our world is full of things?”  Aristotle maintains that we seek answers to such questions because of our innate wondering about the world: “Human beings began to do philosophy even as they do now, because of wonder, at first because they wondered about the strange things in front of them, and then later, advancing little by little, because they came to find greater things puzzling” (Metaphysics Book 1, Chapter 2). Philosophy, roughly speaking, could be considered a questioning about existence, and how we know what we (think we) know about it.

Film as a narrative medium has only existed since the late nineteenth century, after Thomas Edison debuted the kinetoscope at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Not long after Edison amazed throngs of fairgoers with the new technology, film came to be perceived as having more than a merely narrative function; rather, it came to be seen as an art form. In 1911, Ricciotto Canudo published The Birth of the Sixth Art, arguing that film was a new art form that managed to encompass all five of the media classified by ancient authors as comprising art (painting, sculpture, architecture, music, poetry; Canudo later added dance to the list, making film the seventh art). The difference between film as a narrative of events and film as art is similar to Aristotle's well-known distinction between narrative history and aesthetic poetry: that history speaks of things that have happened; poetry, on the other hand, describes things as they might have happened and as they pertain to the universal, and is therefore intrinsically more philosophical (Poetics Chapter 9). Film arguably stands closer to poetry as an art form that can describe things as they might have happened, and like poetry, is therefore philosophical.

Could this extrapolation from Aristotlean categories be persuasive? Given film's wide acceptance as an aesthetic medium, to what extent and under what conditions is it also inherently also a philosophical medium? Would this philosophical status include films with a narrative orientation, like documentaries? This seminar will engage with film as an aesthetic medium and engage with what that aesthetic status means for our understanding of film and also its relationship with philosophy. Film can certainly convey messages or narratives about philosophy: but can it also stand as a form of philosophical thought? Film is one method to communicate philosophically; but can it also be a crucial tool that we can use to work through philosophical conundrums? How can film, the new kid on the block, help us understand millennia-old questions about human existence? How can films, which tell particular stories, lead us to new conceptions about life that hold universally?

This seminar addresses these questions about the philosophical nature and power of film while also considering the disciplinary relationship between the two fields: what might be the pitfalls and the advantages of tracing the connection between film and philosophy? Is the connection contingent, perhaps a helpful heuristic for understanding the meaning of film’s content, or might it be the case that there is a necessary link? If film might be capable of illuminating philosophy, how can philosophy help to illuminate film?

To inquire into these important questions, our speakers will include James Conant (UChicago Department of Philosophy), Robert Pippin (UChicago Department of Philosophy), Garrett Stewart (University of Iowa, Department of English), and Jennifer Wild (UChicago Department of Cinema and Media Studies).