Philosophy Philosophy of Film
Katherine Thomson-Jones
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 December 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0071


For almost as long as there have been films, there have been philosophical theories about their art status, inherent realism, and distinctive aesthetic character. But philosophy of film did not become a unified field of study until the 1990s, the period in which analytic aesthetics generally began to pay more attention to the individual arts. Among the various philosophies of art, philosophy of film is distinguished by the degree to which it draws on a broader theoretical tradition. Many scholars in film studies are important contributors to philosophy of film. There is a particularly rich and productive collaboration between cognitive film theorists and philosophers on our engagement with films. In addition, some of the most influential views in the tradition of film theory influenced by psychoanalysis and semiotics have been subject to philosophical critique. It is important to note that philosophy of film is not the same thing as the increasingly popular practice of “doing philosophy” with film—using particular films to illustrate philosophical problems. There is some overlap, however, in interpretive work that also sheds light on distinctive features of the art form—for example, on how film narration works. There is also overlap in the growing subfield of film as philosophy: with the use of particular films as case studies, authors develop general accounts of the way film, as a distinctive artistic medium, can prompt and sustain philosophical reflection. Work in this subfield involves careful analysis both of the nature of philosophical activity and the nature of film as an art. Given the relative youth of the field, there is still plenty of work to be done in philosophy of film. The focus so far has been on narrative fiction film, and so more work is needed on nonfiction film—for example, documentary—as well as on experimental film. The main topics currently pursued in philosophy of film are described below, but with more work on different kinds of film, as well as on specific film genres and filmmaking traditions, new topics will undoubtedly emerge. Another important source of growth and development in the field is reflection on the significance of technological changes in filmmaking. Most notably, the ongoing shift from filmstrip-based to digital film has profound implications for our understanding of the art form. Philosophers have only just begun to explore these implications.

General Overviews

There are now some excellent resources available for becoming acquainted with philosophy of film. Livingston and Plantinga 2009 serves as a comprehensive reference text, with expert entries on all the major topics and thinkers in the field. There are also four single-authored overviews of the field. Carroll 2008 and Gaut 2010 synthesize the views of their respective authors, both of whom are leading figures in the field, in order to offer unified philosophical accounts of film as an art form. Shaw 2008 and Thomson-Jones 2008 provide useful teaching tools with summary chapters on each of the major debates in the field.

  • Carroll, Noël. The Philosophy of Motion Pictures. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008.

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    Many of the arguments in this introduction are familiar from Carroll’s extensive earlier work in the field, but he reframes the arguments in such a way as to highlight their thematic unity. In particular, the book emphasizes the role of function over medium in defining the art of film.

  • Gaut, Berys. A Philosophy of Cinematic Art. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

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    Another unified philosophical account of film as an art form. Whereas Carroll’s account is based on a strong denial of medium-specific claims, Gaut’s account relies on considerations of filmmaking technology and technique to explain many of the distinctive features of film art.

  • Livingston, Paisley, and Carl Plantinga, eds. The Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Film. London and New York: Routledge, 2009.

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    The first comprehensive work dealing with the main themes, topics, thinkers, and issues both in the philosophical study of film and the study of film’s philosophical aspects. The work consists of sixty specially commissioned chapters organized into four parts: issues and concepts, authors and trends, genres and other types, and film as philosophy.

  • Shaw, Daniel. Film and Philosophy: Taking Movies Seriously. Short Cuts 41. New York: Wallflower, 2008.

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    In order to defend the intellectual seriousness of the philosophy of film, this introduction provides a series of paradigmatic cases involving philosophers and philosophically minded film scholars discussing questions relating to the art status of film.

  • Thomson-Jones, Katherine. Aesthetics and Film. London and New York: Continuum, 2008.

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    A clear and comprehensive introduction to central issues in the philosophy of film, intended for use by advanced undergraduate students, graduate students, and nonspecialist scholars.

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