In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Philosophy and Film

  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • The Analytic Tradition
  • Single-Author Anthologies
  • The Film Medium
  • Digital Film
  • Narrative and Narration
  • Philosophical Critiques of Film Theory
  • Film and Emotion
  • Genres and Types
  • Culture, Difference, and Ideology
  • Film as Philosophy
  • Philosophy through Film

Cinema and Media Studies Philosophy and Film
Carl Plantinga
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 October 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0050


Although the philosophy of film dates as far back as Harvard professor Hugo Münsterberg’s 1916 The Photoplay: A Psychological Study, the philosophy of film has only recently become a part of mainstream aesthetics and philosophy generally. Early film theorists such as André Bazin, Siegfried Kracauer, and Rudolph Arnheim, though not professional philosophers, engaged in examinations of the film medium that are clearly philosophical. Many film theorists have been trained in philosophy, and much of their work can be deemed philosophical as well. However, although a few professional philosophers made the study of film a major element of their work before the 1980s (Stanley Cavell, for example), it was not until that decade that academic philosophers began to train their attention on film in greater numbers. Since that time, the philosophy of film has become alive with debate, research, and excellent publications, with contributions by well-known aestheticians such as Noël Carroll, Gregory Currie, Cynthia Freeland, and George Wilson. We might also note the rise in the number of courses on the philosophy of film. One cannot draw a clear or concise line between film theory and philosophy; both aim at the general understanding of the film medium and its implications. The claim that only professional philosophers engage in the philosophy of film defines the field too narrowly; many film theorists are also trained in philosophy and employ philosophical methodologies. One might say, then, that the philosophy of film is more likely than film theory to draw on philosophical methodologies, to consult the work of philosophers, or to be written by professional philosophers. Yet much of the philosophy of film is also film theory, and vice versa. Given that there exists a separate Oxford Bibliographies Online entry on “Film Theory,” the idea of the philosophy of film will be more narrowly construed here than it might be otherwise. The relationship between philosophy and film extends beyond the philosophy of film. Recently there has been a flurry of scholarly examinations of the possibility, at one extreme, that films can “think” or “do” philosophy, ranging to more modest claims that films are philosophical in some sense, or that they can serve as prompts or aids in philosophical investigation.

Reference Works

Given the recent genesis of widespread interest in the philosophy of film, there exist few reference works in the field. By far the most extensive is Livingston and Plantinga 2009. Various entries in encyclopedias and “companions” also provide good overviews of the philosophy of film (see Carroll, et al. 1998, Smith 2001, and Wartenberg 2008).

  • Carroll, Noël, Paul Messaris, Carl Plantinga, Edward Dimendberg, David Bordwell, Cynthia Freeland, and Stephen Prince. “Film.” In The Encyclopedia of Aesthetics. Vol. 2. Edited by Michael Kelly, 185–206. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

    A very useful multi-entry section of this encyclopedia under the rubric “Film,” consisting of seven subentries on motion pictures, visual literacy, documentary, film noir, film theory, feminist film theory, and film and ideology.

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

    The most extensive coverage of philosophy and film to date, with sixty commissioned essays by philosophers and film theorists, serving as introductions to and overviews of diverse topics. The book is organized into four parts: “Issues and Concepts”, “Authors and Trends”, “Genres and Other Types”, and “Film as Philosophy”.

  • Smith, Murray. “Film.” In The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics. Edited by Berys Gaut and Dominic McIver Lopes, 463–476. New York and London: Routledge, 2001.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203390795

    Succinct and clear overview of major positions of and developments in film theory in relation to the philosophy of film, with a bibliography.

  • Wartenberg, Thomas. “Philosophy of Film.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2008.

    An easily accessible, brief, and useful on-line overview of philosophy and film, with a bibliography.

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