Cinema and Media Studies Cognitive Film Theory
Ted Nannicelli
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 November 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0142


Cognitive film theory, as its advocates often point out, is not actually a unified theory of film. Rather, it is a research tradition—one that originated in the 1980s with the work of a handful of scholars and today boasts a scholarly society, an annually held international conference, and a dedicated journal. In part, cognitive film theory emerged as a reaction against and a critique of the psychoanalytic-semiotic theoretical paradigm that then dominated the discipline. Relatedly, cognitive film theory proposed and began to develop alternative accounts of various elements of the film viewing experience that drew upon research in the flourishing interdisciplinary fields of cognitive science and analytic philosophy. Since the 1980s, the original research program has expanded to include film theorists who draw upon work in a diverse array of fields and disciplines, as well as an increasing number of researchers who are trained in such areas as literary studies, experimental psychology, philosophy of art, and neuroscience. For this reason, the name “cognitive film theory” threatens to mislead because contribution to the research tradition does not necessitate a commitment to cognitive science broadly, as an area of inquiry, or narrowly, as a particular doctrine about how the mind works. Seeking to offer a broad, inclusive description of cognitive theory, Ted Nannicelli and Paul Taberham, the editors of the recent anthology, Cognitive Media Theory (New York and London: Routledge, 2014), suggest the following characteristics, which have all been highlighted as significant by a number of cognitivist scholars: “(1) a dedication to the highest standards of reasoning and evidence in film and media studies and other fields . . . , (2) a commitment to stringent inter-theoretical criticism and debate, (3) a general focus on the mental activity of viewers as the central (but not the only) object of inquiry, and (4) an acceptance of a naturalistic perspective, broadly construed” (p. 4). This article foregrounds work that has been conducted within film studies but, given the interdisciplinary and loose-knit nature of the research tradition, also includes citations of important research in philosophy of art, experimental psychology, and neuroscience.

General Works and Comprehensive Surveys

The entries comprising this section, all single-author monographs with the exception of Bordwell 1989, are diverse in terms of the issues they address and the extent to which they can be classified as “cognitivist.” Bordwell 1989 is the first extended proposal of a cognitive approach to the study of film. More specifically, (as well as in Bordwell 1985 and Bordwell 1989, both cited under Narrative, Narration, and Comprehension), Bordwell embraces constructivist psychology—a widely accepted account of perception and cognition, according to which “perceiving and thinking are active, goal-oriented processes” (Bordwell 1985, p. 31). These processes involve the “construction” of perceptual or cognitive “conclusions” based on nonconscious inferences, which are in turn constituted by “premises” offered by perceptual data, internalized rules and schemata, and additional prior knowledge (Bordwell 1985, p. 31). In contrast, Anderson 1996 departs from constructivism in favor of an ecological approach that emphasizes connections between the organism and its environment, as well as “direct” perception. Still, Anderson 1996 is one of the earliest books to draw upon cognitive psychology in an attempt to answer theoretical questions about the film experience. Both works are seminal in the development of the research tradition. So, too, is Currie 1995, although this book is an exercise in philosophizing about film that is informed by cognitive science. Similarly, Carroll 2008 and Gaut 2010 are significant, comprehensive contributions to the philosophy of film by leading figures in the subfield, but these books also engage with film theorists and share the fundamental assumptions underpinning the cognitive approach. Branigan 2006 also combines insights from cognitive science with a philosophical approach, albeit a rather more specific one along the lines of the language analysis proposed in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s later philosophy.

  • Anderson, Joseph D. The Reality of Illusion: An Ecological Approach to Cognitive Film Theory. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1996.

    Outlines an approach to a number of core issues in film theory—visual and auditory perception, character engagement, and narrative comprehension—based upon J. J. Gibson’s ecological theory of perception, which emphasizes the interaction between the perceiver and his environment as well as the putatively unmediated (by mental representations) nature of perception. Recommended for intermediate to advanced students.

  • Bordwell, David. “A Case for Cognitivism.” Iris 9 (1989): 11–40.

    Seminal article surveying research in cognitive science and remarking upon its potential application to the study of film viewing. In particular, Bordwell suggests the cognitivist approach might be aligned with film theorizing in terms of its “constructivist explanations in terms of mental representations functioning in a context of social action” (p. 17). Recommended for intermediate to advanced students.

  • Branigan, Edward. Projecting a Camera: Language-Games in Film Theory. London and New York: Routledge, 2006.

    Drawing on the later philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein and work in second-generation or “embodied” cognitive science, this volume offers a detailed and subtle analysis and critique of a variety of ways in which the concept of “the camera” has been used in film theory. Recommended for advanced students.

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

    A concise and accessible summary of Carroll’s work on the philosophy of film that approaches perception, narrative comprehension, and affective engagement with film from a cognitive perspective. Recommended for students of all levels.

  • Currie, Gregory. Image and Mind: Film, Philosophy, and Cognitive Science. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1995.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511551277

    Influential philosophical exploration of cinematic representation and spectatorship that draws upon research in cognitive science to reject various formulations of illusionism and to advance the claims that cinematic images are perceptually realistic and afford imaginative experiences. Recommended for intermediate to advanced students.

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

    Comprehensive and clearly written book, intended primarily for philosophers, but also engages and shares affinities with cognitivist work on perception, narrative comprehension, and affective response. Recommended for advanced students.

  • Persson, Per. Understanding Cinema: A Psychological Theory of Moving Imagery. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2003.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511497735

    Analyzes viewers’ understanding (broadly construed) of point-of-view editing, variable framing, and character psychology in terms of a cultural-psychological model underpinned by the concept of “dispositions”—mental structures that represent “the totality of expectations, assumptions, hypotheses, theories, rules, codes, and prejudices that individuals project onto the world” (p. 13)—that are shaped by both nature and nurture. Recommended for advanced students.

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