Philosophy of Film (Fall 2008) - Syllabus

Philosophy 3210 | CRN: 089929 | T 2:40-5:30 PM | Anderson Hall 721

Course Syllabus

Instructor: Dr. Aaron Smuts | | office hours: 746 Anderson Hall, 2:30-4:15 R


Often, when one hears “philosophy of film,” one imagines something that would be better called philosophy in (or through) film. On this model, one picks a handful of philosophical films and then discusses whatever philosophical issues happen to be relevant. Although this may improve one's understanding of those particular films, such courses are typically too diffuse and do little to increase our understanding of philosophy. As such, we won't be doing much philosophy in film; instead, this course focuses on as a set of philosophical problems having to do with the nature of film and our experiences of it.

We will address questions such as: Can movies be art? What is film? What distinguishes narrative fiction films from documentaries? Do films have narrators? How do films move us? Why do people watch melodrama and horror if such movies depress and disgust audiences? Do films have authors whose artistic intentions matter? Can ethical flaws detract from the aesthetic value of a film? Can films instruct or corrupt us morally? What makes a good critic? Are some better than others? Can films “do philosophy”? In other words, is “philosophy in film” possible?

Students will gain a clear understanding of the major problems in the philosophy of film and several central issues in the philosophy of art. Focusing on these problems is the most effective way to sharpen the critical vocabulary used in film theory and criticism.


About half of the reading will come from articles posted on Blackboard.In addition, there are three required books for this course:

1.Noël Carroll and Jinhee Choi, editors. Philosophy of Film and Motion Pictures: An Anthology (Blackwell, 2006). ISBN: 1405120274[PFMP]

2.Noël Carroll. The Philosophy of Motion Pictures (Blackwell, 2008). ISBN: 1405120258 [PMP]

3.Noël Carroll. The Philosophy of Horror: Or, Paradoxes of the Heart (Routledge, 1990). ISBN: 0415902169[PH]

I also recommend four other collections:

  1. Noël Carroll and David Bordwell, editors. Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies (Wisconsin, 1996)

  2. Noël Carroll. Theorizing the Moving Image (Wisconsin, 1996).

  3. Thomas Wartenberg and Angela Curran, editors.The Philosophy of Film: Introductory Test and Readings (Blackwell, 2005).

  4. Richard Allen and Murray Smith, editors.Film Theory and Philosophy (Oxford, 1997).

Movies Each week I have assigned a movie to help anchor our discussion.I will show short films and clips in class.But you are responsible for watching the others outside of class.You should watch each movie before class on the week it is assigned.I reserved copies of the movies in the Paley library.You can check them out for 4 hours at a time.Note, many of the movies can be watched on Netflix and they can all be found at decent video stores.


There will be three forms of coursework: quizzes, papers, and examinations. Each week I will give a short quiz at the beginning of class that will require one or two sentence answers. Early in the semester there will be a very short (1 page) paper followed a couple of weeks later by a short (3 page) paper. These will be used to hone your philosophical writing. About 2/3 of the way through the course, we will have a take-home midterm. You will also be required to write a longer term paper of 10-12 pages.

Quizzes (10%) + Paper 1 (5%) + Paper 2 (15%) + mid term (30%) + term paper (40%).

Attendance Policy

If you miss 3 or more classes, you will receive a 0 for your quiz grade. If you miss 6 or more classes, you will receive an F for the course.

Academic Honesty

Plagiarism--claiming someone else’s ideas or written work as your own--will not be tolerated. Anyone caught cheating will be given a failing grade in the course.

Schedule (tentative)

  • Week 1(9/2) Introduction

    • Movies

      • “The Blade” (Tsui Hark, 1995) [selections screened in class]

    • Readings

      • Carroll, “Prospects for Film Theory: A Personal Assessment” [Blackboard]

      • Wartenberg, “Philosophy of Film” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Topic 1 (The Nature of Cinema)

  • Week 2(9/9) Film as Art

    • Movies

      • "Sunrise" (Murnau, 1927)

    • Readings

      • Carroll, PMP Ch. 1

      • Arnheim, selections from Film as Art: "Film and Reality" and "The Complete Film" [Blackboard]

      • Scruton, "Photography and Representation" [PFMP]

  • Week 3(9/16) Medium Specificity

    • Movies

      • "The Rules of the Game" (Renoir, 1939)

      • "Touch of Evil" (Welles, 1958) [selections, screened in class]

      • "Prince of Darkness" (Carpenter, 1987) [selections, screened in class]

    • Readings

      • Carroll, PMP Ch. 2

      • Carroll, "Medium Specificity Arguments" [Blackboard]

      • Bazin, selections from What is Cinema?: “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” “The Myth of Total Cinema”, and “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema” [Blackboard]

    • Optional

      • Bazin, selections from What is Cinema?:“The Virtues and Limitations of Montage” and “Cinema and Exploration”

  • Week 4 (9/23) What is Cinema?

    • Movies

      • "La Jetée" (Marker, 1962)

    • Readings

      • Carroll, PMP Ch. 3

      • Carroll, "Defining the Moving Image" [Blackboard]

      • Yanal, "Defining the Moving Image: A Response to Noel Carroll" [Blackboard]

  • Week 5 (9/30) Documentary and Fiction Film

    • Movies

      • "Grizzly Man" (Herzog, 2005)

      • "Sans Soleil" (Marker, 1983) [selections, screened in class]

    • Readings

      • Carroll, "Fiction, Non-Fiction and the Film of Presumptive Assertion" [PFMP]

      • Currie, "Visible Traces" [PFMP]

    • Optional

      • Carroll, "Photographic Traces and Documentary Films" [Blackboard]

      • Currie, "Preserving Traces" [Blackboard]

Topic 2 (Film and Philosophy)

  • Week 6 (10/7) Film as Philosophy

    • Movies

      • "Modern Times" (Chaplin, 1936)

    • Readings

      • Livingston, "Theses on Cinema as Philosophy" [Blackboard]

      • Wartenburg, "Beyond Mere Illustration" [Blackboard]

      • Frampton, selections from Filmosophy: (Ch. 10 "Filmosophy") [Blackboard]

      • Deleuze, selections from Cinema 2 [Blackboard]

    • Optional

      • Smith, “Film Art, Argument, and Ambiguity” [Blackboard]

  • Week 7 (10/14) Film as Philosophy, cont.

Topic 3 (Film and Affect)

  • Week 8 (10/21) Cinema and Dream

    • Movies

      • "Spellbound" (Hitchcock, 1945)

    • Readings

      • Sparshott, "Vision and Dream in Cinema" [PFMP]

      • McGinn, (chs.4 and 5) from The Power of Movies [Blackboard]

      • Carroll, Carroll, (ch.1) from Mystifying Movies [Blackboard]

      • Baudry, "The Apparatus" [Blackboard]

  • Week 9 (10/28) The Paradox of Fiction

    • Movies

      • "Point Blank" (Boorman, 1967)

    • Readings

      • Carroll, PMP Ch. 6

      • Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror Ch. 2

      • Walton, “Fearing Fictions” [PFMP]

    • Optional

      • Radford, "How Can we be Moved by the Fate of Anna Karenina?” [Blackboard]

      • Smuts, “Haunting the House from Within” [Blackboard]

  • Week 10 (11/4) Horror

    • Movies

      • "Carnival of Souls" (Harvey, 1962)

      • "Suspiria" (Argento, 1977) [selections, screened in class]

    • Readings

      • Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror Ch. 1

      • Shaw, "Power, Horror, and Ambivalence" [Blackboard]

      • Smuts, "Horror" [Blackboard]

    • Optional

  • Week 11 (11/11) The Paradox of Painful Art

    • Movies

      • "Au Hasard Balthazar" (Bresson, 1966)

      • "Scenes From a Marriage" (Bergman, 1973) [selections, screened in class]

    • Readings

      • Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror Ch. 4

      • Hume, "Of Tragedy" [Blackboard]

      • Smuts, "The Paradox of Painful Art" [Blackboard]

    • Optional

  • Week 12 (11/18) The Paradox of Suspense

    • Movies

      • "Rear Window" (Hitchcock, 1954)

    • Readings

      • Carroll, "The Paradox of Suspense" [Blackboard]

      • Yanal, "The Paradox of Suspense" [Blackboard]

      • Smuts, "The Desire-Frustration Theory of Suspense" [Blackboard]

Topic 4 (Evaluation)

  • Week 13 (11/25) Evaluation

    • Movies

      • "Stroszek" (Herzog, 1977)

    • Readings

      • Carroll, PMP Ch. 7

      • Hume, "Of the Standard of Taste" [Blackboard]

      • Daniel Kaufman, "Normative Criticism" [Blackboard]

  • Week 14 (12/2) Evaluation, cont.

    • Movies

      • "Don’t Look Now" (Roeg, 1973)

    • Readings

      • Carroll, selections from On Criticism [Blackboard]

      • Goldman, selections from Aesthetic Value [Blackboard]

      • Bender, "Sensitivity, Sensibility, and Aesthetic Realism" [Blackboard]

  • Week 15 (12/9) Art and Morality

    • Movies

      • "In the Company of Men" (LaBute, 1997)

    • Readings

      • Carroll, "Sympathy for Soprano" [Blackboard]

      • Carroll, "Moderate Moralism" [Blackboard]

      • Smuts, “Aesthetic Properties and Moralism About Art” [Blackboard]

    • Optional

      • Smuts, "Do Moral Flaws Enhance Amusement?" [Blackboard]

      • Smuts, "The Joke is the Thing: 'In the Company of Men' and the Ethics of Humor" [Blackboard]

      • Devereaux, "Beauty and Evil" [PFMP]

      • Anderson and Dean, "Moderate Autonomism" [Blackboard]