Philosophy in Film


Black Mirror and Philosophy

Black Mirror and Philosophy edited by David Kyle Johnson


Leander P. Marquez

Editor’s note: Black Mirror and Philosophy: Dark Reflections treats Black Mirror as a work of philosophy—as if it each episode is trying to raise a philosophical question or make a philosophical point. In the following piece, Leander Marquez (who helped the editor write the introduction to Black Mirror and Philosophy) defends the idea that films (and in turn Black Mirror episodes) can not only do philosophy, but do it well.

In Norman Malcolm’s memoirs on his encounters with Wittgenstein, he described the philosopher as someone who frequents the cinemas after lecturing in a challenging philosophy class at Cambridge University (in Gilmore 1). Interestingly, Goodenough asks, “Why might a philosopher want to go to a cinema?” (1). Apart from entertainment, he offers four reasons why a philosopher, in his/her capacity of being a philosopher, would go to a cinema.

Firstly, a philosopher may care about the cinema itself, about the technology and processes and social meanings of watching films … The philosopher may have an interest in the nature of film as a perceptual experience, a process whereby a series of slightly different still pictures are projected onto a surface in the darkness with sufficient rapidity to be understood by human minds as a single moving picture … A second reason for taking an interest in film is that a film may illustrate philosophical themes and issues. Watching such a film may provide the philosopher with illustrative examples, and this is particularly important for the philosopher – most of them, these days – who must also teach philosophy … A third reason for a philosopher to enter into the darkness with pop-corn and soft drink might be to watch a film in which philosophical issues are mentioned in a serious and central way. This is a much smaller category of film, film about philosophy … The final reason for luring the philosopher into the cinema is … to see film as philosophy, as in some sense doing philosophy. (Goodenough 1-3)

There is, however, a long-standing debate as to the extent by which films can do philosophy. One camp argues that films can do nothing more than raise awareness about certain philosophical problems, whereas the other argues that films can actually do philosophy. It may appear to be easy to concede the first three points enumerated by Goodenough, but it is not the same with the final point since it is the most controversial. Here, we are faced with the question, “Can films really do philosophy?” The answer seems to lean towards the affirmative. Films can be philosophy by: 1) illustrating philosophical theories; 2) serving as counterexamples; 3) making philosophical claims; 4) being self-definitional; and 5) becoming an avenue for social criticism (see Wartenberg, “Film as Philosophy” 556-558).

[There is] a number of different ways in which films can do philosophy. Foremost among these is the thought experiment. Thought experiments involve imaginary scenarios in which readers are asked to imagine what things would be like if such-and-such were the case. Those who think that films can actually do philosophy point out that fiction films can function as philosophical thought experiments and thus qualify as philosophical … Philosophers have also begun to pay attention to a strand of avant-garde filmmaking known as structural films. These films are analogues to minimalism in the other arts and thus give rise to the question of whether they are not actual experiments that seek to show necessary criteria for something being a film. If this view is accepted, then these films … could be seen as making a contribution to philosophy by identifying such putative necessary features of films. (Wartenberg, “Philosophy of Film”)

Interestingly, Wartenberg was also able to pinpoint at least four objections to the proposition that movies can do philosophy, namely: the generality, explicitness, imposition, and banality objections. Let us look at the gist of these objections very briefly. Firstly, the generality objection argues that “philosophy is characterized by a search for general truths … What stands out when the goal of philosophy is considered to be the discovery of general truths, the objection continues, is that this is not something that films, especially fiction films, are capable of doing … As such, the film is inherently specific and particular. How could it possibly communicate the sort of general truths that are taken to be essential to philosophy?” (“Film as Philosophy” 551). Secondly, the explicitness objection emphasizes that “the assertions that comprise a philosophical text are explicit and, as such, have a determinate propositional content. Even though films involve explicit claims, the explicitness objection maintains that they are not generally the ones that constitute a film’s philosophical contribution” (“Film as Philosophy” 552) because the claims in films pertain to a fictional world in the film and may not necessarily be applicable in the real world. Thirdly, the imposition objection asserts that what the viewer sees as philosophical in a movie is merely the product of the viewer’s “imposition of this philosophical claim upon the film, for the film itself is not capable of making such a sophisticated philosophical point” (“Film as Philosophy” 553). Finally, the banality objection contends that “whatever philosophical content films do have is trivial or banal. As a result, while agreeing with proponents of the film-as-philosophy thesis that films can philosophize, the banality objection simply minimizes the significance of the ideas presented by the films” (“Film as Philosophy” 554-555).

From what has been presented, it seems that there is, indeed, a number of considerable issues that requires settlement regarding film-as-philosophy. Nevertheless, there is the understanding that developed between both camps, through the course of the debate, that films can, indeed, be used to present philosophical issues. “Film is made for philosophy; it shifts or puts different light on whatever philosophy has said about appearance and reality, about actors and characters, about scepticism and dogmatism, about presence and absence” (Cavell 25). If this is true, then it appears that films are by nature philosophical, or at the very least, can be an avenue for philosophizing. Consequently, “the term ‘film-philosophy’ has been introduced to refer to the allegedly new form of philosophizing that takes place on film” (Wartenberg, “Philosophy of Film”).

To date, the belief that films can do philosophy has become so compelling that an open-access journal, aptly titled “Film-Philosophy”, which specializes on the subject-matter has been in circulation since 1997.

Film-Philosophy supports the strong argument that cinema can do philosophy in a way that is unique to the medium. Therefore, film is not only capable of presenting extended thought experiments or illustrating philosophical concepts, but is philosophy itself. Whether this is true of all films, or whether only some films do philosophy, or, whether some films do bad philosophy, is all part of our current research. Of course, this begs the question of what cinema is (and, of course, what philosophy is), but these fundamental questions are also the concern of film-philosophy. (Sorfa 3)

The said journal is published by the Edinburgh University Press, a renowned university press in the UK, which gives greater credence to the significance of film-as-philosophy as an area of study. “In institutional terms, film-philosophy is crucial as a concept that identifies a specific area of academic and scholarly activity. Thus film-philosophy as a term and Film-Philosophy as a journal, annual conference, and network of scholars, is absolutely central in legitimising and supporting research in this area” (Sorfa 3).

One interesting area of research in film-philosophy can be attributed to the thoughts of later Wittgenstein. In the Philosophical Investigations (PI), Wittgenstein presented his notion of aspect-seeing or “seeing as” where he used the image of the duck-rabbit as an example. He argued that when he looks at the image of the duck-rabbit, at one time, he sees the duck and at another, the rabbit. Whereas, he “sees” the same image, he saw a different aspect each time. Wittgenstein differentiated between two distinct usages of the word “see”. “The one: ‘What do you see there?’––‘I see this’ (and then a description, a drawing, a copy). The other: ‘I see a likeness between these two faces’––let the man I tell this to be seeing the faces as clearly as I do myself” (Wittgenstein, “PI” 193).

In these usages of the word “see,” Wittgenstein highlights the difference between the physical or visual” experience of seeing and its “mental or cognitive” experience. “A wall covered with spots, and I occupy myself by seeing faces on it; but not so that I can study the nature of an aspect, but because those shapes interest me, and so does the spell under which I can go from one to the next. The double cross and the duck-rabbit might be among the spots and they could be seen like the figures and together with them now one way, now another” (Wittgenstein, “Last Writings” 12). Thus, he argues that the visual experience of “seeing” the image may be different from the cognitive experience of “seeing the image as” something that may be different from what is seen in the visual sense each time that one looks at the same image.

To clarify this cognitive aspect of seeing better, Wittgenstein remarks: “Do I really see something different each time, or do I only interpret what I see in a different way? I am inclined to say the former. But why?––To interpret is to think, to do something; seeing is a state” (“PI” 212). Here, we can see that seeing in the cognitive sense is not a product of a process, as when we think or interpret, rather, it is instantaneous. This characteristic of seeing, I believe, further legitimizes the claim that movies are capable of doing philosophy.

When I see a movie, what I see is not simply the moving images on the screen, but the insights that the film may or may not intend to convey. I see these insights as I watch the film and not after because what I see before me as the plot of the movie unfolds speaks to me. In a sense, the movie dialogues with me. We may extend this further to our overall experience while watching a movie. John Hick, for example, extended the notion of “seeing as” to “experiencing as” as he argued that “the finding of meaning does not occur only through sight” (47). In this sense, philosophy in movies may not be only restricted to what is seen, but may include everything that is experienced. It is not only, therefore, through the scenes that I see that a movie dialogues with me, but also through the uttered sentences that I hear as well as the emotions that I feel.

It appears, at this juncture, that what I am driving at is that films can do philosophy because it dialogues with the viewer as their respective narratives unfold. In addition, what is cognitively seen, felt, or experienced has to be instantaneous and not a resulting product of a (thinking) process. If this is true, does this mean, therefore, that the realizations that come after watching the film fall outside the ambit of philosophy? I do not believe so. If we accept the premise that films can be used to raise awareness about certain philosophical issues, then we must also accept the implication that these films might raise questions that can only be further reflected on after watching the film. Thus, the resulting insights can still be squarely regarded as philosophical.

Intriguingly, Wittgenstein observes, “[b]ut if a sentence can strike me as like a painting in words, and the very individual word in the sentence is like a picture, then it is not such marvel that a word uttered in isolation and without purpose can seem to carry a particular meaning in itself” (“PI” 215). Applied to films, does this mean that just about any movie can do philosophy? Does this imply that all movies, in a sense, are meaningful? Does this suggest that there may be philosophy or philosophical thoughts that can be derived from any movie? I would have to answer all these questions in the affirmative.

Nevertheless, in granting this, one of the foremost issues that needs to be addressed is the quality of philosophy in film—or, more precisely, which films are genuinely philosophical. Inasmuch as there is a chasm that separates a sound argument and an unsound argument or a masterpiece and a fiasco, there is also a big difference between films that exhibit superior philosophical insight and those that fail miserably in passing themselves as philosophical. Interestingly, Wittgenstein suggests [that] “it is typically people who lack aesthetic expertise who employ such words [like ‘beauty’ or ‘beautiful’] in response to art” … the words that [those who truly understand art] use are ‘more akin to ‘right’ and ‘correct’,’ as in this is the right transition in a piece of music, or the images in a poem are ‘precise’.” (Turvey 473) In the same way, it is only those who do not truly understand philosophy who would call just about any film genuinely philosophical. Fortunately, however, there is plenty of genuinely philosophical films to choose from.


Cavell, Stanley. “An Interview with Stanley Cavell.” Harvard Journal of Philosophy, vol. 7, pp. 19-28, 1999.

Gilmore, Richard. “Introduction: What It Means to Do Philosophy.” Doing Philosophy at the Movies. 2005.

Goodenough, Jerry. “Introduction I: A Philosopher Goes to the Cinema.” Film as Philosophy: Essays in Cinema after Wittgenstein and Cavell, edited by Rupert Read and Jerry

Goodenough, Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 1-28, 2005.

Hick, John. “Seeing-as and Religious Experience.” Philosophy of Religion: Proceedings of the 8th International Wittgenstein Symposium, edited by Wolfgang Gombocz, Hölder-Pichler-Tempsky, 1984.

Sorfa, David. “What is Film-Philosophy?” Film Philosophy, vol. 20. Edinburgh University Press, pp. 1-5, 2016. [September 2017,].

Turvey, Malcolm, “Wittgenstein.” The Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Film, edited by Paisley Livingstone and Carl Plantinga, Routledge, pp. 470-480, 2009.

Wartenberg, Thomas, “Film as Philosophy.” The Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Film, edited by Paisley Livingstone and Carl Plantinga, Routledge, pp. 549-559, 2009.

Wartenberg, Thomas. “Philosophy of Film.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2015. [August 2017,].

Wittgenstein, Ludwig, “Last Writings on the Philosophy of Psychology,” ed. by G.H. von Wright and Heikki Nyman, trans. by C.G. Luckhardt and Maximilian A.E. Aue, Blackwell Publishers. 1992.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig, “Philosophical Investigations,” trans. by G.E.M. Anscombe, The Macmillan Company. 1953.

Leander Penaso Marquez is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of the Philippines Diliman. His research interests include Epistemology, Ethics, Philosophy of Education, Philosophy for Children, and Philosophy and Popular Culture. He has published a number of works in these areas and has presented academic papers in various conferences in Asia, Europe, and North America. Leander teaches a course in philosophy in films and has given lectures on philosophy in manga/anime. He has also conducted training workshops in bioethics teaching and research using Philosophy for Children and currently sits as a co-chair for the bioethics working group of the Association of Pacific Rim Universities (APRU) Global Health Program.


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