Interview with Paul W. Kahn, Author of Finding Ourselves at the Movies

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“Plato may have done philosophy, but he wrote dramas.” That is one of the first lines in Paul W. Kahn’s new book, Finding Ourselves at the Movies: Philosophy for a New Generation (buy from Columbia UP or Amazon). Kahn points out that many of us get little exposure to philosophy in school or elsewhere in our lives. In his book, he makes the case for the value of philosophy and argues that one of the best venues for exposure to it is popular culture: the movies, specifically. I wrote to Mr. Kahn to ask for an interview. He graciously agreed and this is the result.

First of all, Paul, one of the first statements in your book is the following, “philosophy begins with narrative, not abstraction.” Could you give us some examples from both ancient times and our own day?

While there are fragments preserved from the pre-Socratics, Western philosophy begins its written tradition with Plato. Plato, however, wrote nothing that we would identify as a philosophical text. He wrote something that looked considerably more like drama. They were dialogues that addressed particular questions in a dramatic context.

Finding Ourselves at the Movies
Finding Ourselves at the Movies


The tradition of writing dialogues continued for some time in classical thought. Cicero and Seneca, for example, wrote dialogues. In modern philosophy, David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion may be the most famous. The narrative form of reflective inquiry is rooted for Westerners in Christ’s use of parables. Modern philosophers have sometimes used a narrative form – most famously in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. In popular culture, I am reminded of the very successful work Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig.

You say, “Increasingly, what we have in common is the movies.” Is that mainly because so many movies now are of the blockbuster type that millions flock to whereas other forms of media that we once shared (e.g., the evening newscast) have declined?

It is true that the movies that we most share are the blockbusters, which link us to audiences around the world. There is nothing else quite like that, except perhaps some television series that endlessly rerun, and maybe the Oscars. Movies with less popular appeal than blockbusters often link the members of smaller groups. We share the viewing habits of those with whom we are likely to find ourselves. I suspect that whatever we see, we want to talk about with our friends, partners, coworkers, and associates.

One of the aims of your book is to discuss the relationship between film and philosophy. On that note, could you please tell us what films you think reflect this statement from your book, “To imagine the possible is to construct a narrative?”

Every movie imagines the possible through the construction of a narrative. An account of natural development does not include the possible. We don’t say that an earthquake was one of several possible events. We say it happened and it had to happen because of shifts in the tectonic plates that preceded it. A narrative does not work that way. A narrative always sets the actual against the possible. We are interested in human stories because of the choices made, but choice requires a belief that other possibilities were present – the choice could have been different.

You say that your book is not really a scholarly study aimed at the professional or film studies communities. Whom do you see as your ideal reader and what do you hope that person will learn from your book?

My ideal reader is the student in college or graduate school, but I hope the book will appeal to anyone interested in the traditional questions of philosophy. I do not engage the professional scholarship of film studies. Rather, the book addresses the questions that have always motivated philosophy: for example, freedom, faith, love, death, and justice. I hope readers will engage these questions and learn that they are still very relevant to our modern experience.

"Movie Night" (Photo credit: Kristel Jax | flickr)
“Movie Night” (Photo credit: Kristel Jax | flickr)

Could you tell us what you mean by the idea that the defense of philosophy is the practice of philosophy?

Philosophy is not a means to some other end. I cannot prove the usefulness of philosophy by showing you that it will improve your job prospects, find you a partner, or make your life easier. We engage in philosophy because we are drawn to self-reflection. We not only act, we think about what we are doing. At times, we think about our entire lives, what we are committed to and why. Everyone, in some way or another, is drawn to these reflections. That is part of what it means to be a person. Philosophy is only a more sustained effort to engage in this sort of self-reflection. The importance of that experience in one’s own life is the only ground upon which philosophy can be defended.

You write, “Promising more than it could deliver, traditional philosophy has lost its audience. Most people believe it has also lost its point.” When did this decline in popular interest in philosophy commence? Who would average people name as prominent philosophers these days?

There were never large numbers of people reading the classics of philosophy. Philosophy was never popular in that sense. For one thing, reading philosophy can be hard; it requires a commitment of time that most people are not able to make. Yet, knowing something about philosophy was at the core of a “liberal education.”

During their college years, students did have the time to read and they were expected to engage these texts. That is no longer true. Perhaps things just speeded up, and philosophy could not keep pace. Students lost the taste for these texts and they lost the patience required to read them. Meanwhile, the profession became increasingly technical, addressing questions of less and less interest to those outside of the field.

Do you think most philosophers would agree with you here, “Philosophy’s role, if it is to have one outside of the university, is not to ground but to disrupt?” Can you give us an example of something that could use some disrupting and how would philosophy differ there from political thought or activism or the activities of policymakers?

Most philosophers think of their activity as one of explaining. I don’t disagree with the urge to explain, but I think we need to get people enthusiastic about looking for explanations. That is the role of disruption: to shake people out of their ordinary assumptions about themselves and their world and to get them thinking.

One of the disruptive points I pursue in the book is to explore the relationship between family and politics. Political theory today generally assumes the perspective of the individual entering a social contract on her own in order to advance her interests. In popular films, we almost never find a film about politics that is not also about family. I explore that connection to disrupt political theory, but also to disrupt ordinary assumptions about the nature of political commitments.

Would you please tell us what you mean by the three dimensions of freedoms? What films of the last five years illustrate that concept?

Films interest us because they are both a result of and a reflection on free action. We don’t interpret a natural event; we analyze its causes.

A free act is one that occurs for reasons. The meaning of a free act is a function of the reasons we assign to it. We might disagree about the reasons; we may be uncertain. Reasons, accordingly, call for interpretation.

There are three different dimensions to the freedom at stake in a film ­– that is, the reasons put in play by the film. First, a film is the product of free, creative action by all those involved in its production: writers, directors, actors, musicians, etc. All have their reasons. Second, unlike other creative acts, the subject matter of a film – its narrative – involves the free acts of its characters. We are interested in these people because we believe that they are freely responding to the problem that the film defines. We judge the characters because we are attentive to their reasons. Third, we experience our own freedom as audience when we take up the question of interpretation. We try out different reasons; we argue with others and with ourselves.

This distinction among the three forms is analytic only. Reacting to the film, we move among all three levels. We can, for example, ask about the director’s reasons just as we ask about a character’s reasons, and, of course, we question each other’s interpretations by offering reasons to support our own views.

One thing I found interesting in your book is that you argue that most of us interact with movies in a communal fashion. You write, for example, “Interpretation binds us to a common world.” But don’t many of us watch films alone and never discuss them with other people because the films mean so much personally? You even refer to the state of being alone as a sign of “personal and social pathology.” Could you tell us what you mean by that?

Philosophy, I believe, is dialogue. There is, however, no reason to think that the philosophical dialogue cannot be with oneself. I don’t think that one can start out this way.

One needs teachers and companions to challenge the self and with whom to argue. But a dialogue begun with others can certainly continue with the self. A habit of thinking that starts in actual conversations can become an internal conversation.

I spend many hours every day essentially talking to myself, as I write about an idea, read what I have written, reject it as not quite right, and then try again. These forms of being alone – as well as many other private experiences – are not pathological, but to be without friends or people to talk with as a general condition is a problem for most people. Not many of us cultivate that sort of loneliness.

As for films that are so personal that one does not want to talk with others about them, I have no doubt that people have that experience. Not everything has to be talked about with everyone. The point here is no different than with a good book or a painting. The work offers an opportunity for a conversation, but it does not require it.

On a related note you write, “Not even friendship is enough of a ground for the narrative. The love at issue must always point beyond the political to that ideal of domesticity, which is the two-become-one of love.” As more and more people are choosing to remain single, will that societal development start to be reflected in movies?

I hope that the choice to remain single is not a rejection of the possibility of love. Love need not, of course, take the form of marriage. My point is that films are reaching for a representation of a love beyond friendship, by which I mean a love for which one will sacrifice the self. I think this idea of love is likely to remain central to popular film for the foreseeable future.

You hearken extensively in your book to the Judeo-Christian tradition. But as the U.S. becomes more diverse, will movies continue to reflect the ideas you set forth? You refer to the “Western social imaginary.” But isn’t that somewhat on the wane?

The United States is certainly becoming more diverse, but at the same time our popular culture is becoming more and more of a global force. I don’t think we should think of a zero-sum game here, in which the question is which culture will win. Rather, we should expect to see interesting interactions and synergies as we become more multicultural in our attitudes.

As for the Western social imaginary being “on the wane,” I think the opposite is more likely to be true. In part, this has to do with the spread of the Internet and the dominance of English. One need only go to any major city around the world and see the prevalence of Western – mostly American – popular movies.

Also, you refer quite a bit to Plato and Socrates. They are the classic dead white males. Do they really resonate with, say, young female moviegoers or female movie makers?

I’m not really in a position to say whether young women “resonate” with classical philosophers. I would hate to think that they are only interested in women philosophers, artists, and writers. Since our long tradition in all of these areas has only recently included substantial numbers of women, they would be cutting themselves off not just from the sources of our contemporary beliefs but from countless great works.

Of course, many of these writers were sexists. The point is not to excuse that or to be blind to it, but neither should we reduce all of their thought to that.

And on the subject of Plato and Socrates, aren’t references to figures of so many centuries ago one of the reasons that philosophy has faded in popular culture? Speaking as a woman, I must admit that I do feel a little marginalized when philosophers use as their touchstones the story of Abraham and Isaac to illustrate points instead of, say, Ruth and Naomi. Could you address how philosophy is addressing the matter of reaching female audiences?

I agree with your overall sentiment that philosophy will have to rethink the way in which it engages students and the public. It is not enough to say that people should read the classics, including Plato. Of course, that is the reason I wrote the book – to show that these themes are all around us, that we need not read Plato to think about the nature of justice or Kant to think about the nature of duty. We need only think seriously about what we have seen at the movies.

I hope that a female audience will be no less attracted than a male one to this way of trying to bring philosophy “up to date.”

You write, “Films offer us not a critique of our political narrative of sovereignty and law but rather a constant re-presentation of this narrative.” Could you elaborate and provide some examples of films of the last three years that do that?

Popular films are generally not trying to make policy contributions to our political debates; they are not trying to engage in a revolutionary reconstruction of the state. Rather, they are keeping before us the founding myths of the political order. In a traditional, oral culture, the same stories of state foundation were repeated over and over again. We don’t repeat the same story, but we do offer variations on the same themes.

We want to see the same order reaffirmed in the face of threats. If I were writing the book today, I would certainly consider Lincoln, The Hunger Games, and Django Unchained. All show us a political narrative deeply intertwined with a narrative of familial love; all show us how sacrifice is both political and familial.

You make some fascinating points about the expendability of the “extra” in films. Please tell us more. For example, I read recently that in crowd scenes the gender ratio tends to be trend more heavily male than it would in real life. Why might that be?

The extra is, by definition, expendable. He or she is body without a face. In contemporary philosophical terms, this is “homo sacer,” meaning a person that can be killed, but not sacrificed. There are no consequences – moral or legal – for killing the extra; because the extra is without personhood, her death cannot be a sacrifice for the community.

For a government actually to treat any person in this way is just what we mean by a human rights violation. For an individual to treat another person in this way would be a moral travesty, violating the other’s dignity.

The point is not that extras are a representation of our moral and political failings – although that can be true in some films. Rather, the point is that for the sake of representing one dramatic situation, the film does things with other people that we would ordinarily find morally unacceptable. As for more men than women in crowd scenes, I would wonder if it has to do with a resistance to treating women as homo sacer. My guess is that we see fewer women extras killed in action movies, for example: the audience would “trip” over that representation of violence rendering difficult the suspension of disbelief upon which a film relies.

In your discussion of pornography, you write, “It is a form of political heresy because it denies the metaphysics of sacrifice.” Could you elaborate?

A central argument of the book is that films show us the origin of the state in an act of sacrifice. This is a challenge to social contract theories that understand the state as solving a collective action problem: to advance the interests of all, without sacrificing the interests of any particular individual.

That is not what we see when we look at the representation of the political in films. Instead of a state advancing individual interests, we see a state for which individuals take up the burden of sacrifice. Films often pose the question: for what are we willing to give up the self? They always answer: for the sake of love, we will sacrifice the self. The state, in popular films, often appears to rest upon love and sacrifice, not contract and interest.

That the body might be given in act of sacrifice is exactly what pornography denies. Pornography relies upon a representation of a kind of ecstatic moment, but it is contained within the body. It is the ecstasy of pleasure – an extreme – not of sacrifice. For this reason as well, political drama always blends into family drama because both dramas are about the sacrificial character of love. Pornography, on the other hand, strips the individual away from family. Yet this idea is so difficult to sustain that pornography often falls back into a banal plot of reaffirmation of the traditional family once the exploration of the pleasures of the self alone have been experienced.

You write, “In the end we watch movies for many of the same reasons people have traditionally gone to church.” What do you mean by that? Doesn’t such a statement simultaneously demean churches in making them sound like mere venues of entertainment and inflate the value of movies as a moral force?

Since the thesis of the book is that more is at stake in movies than entertainment alone, I don’t think the statement demeans the church – just the opposite. We go to church to reflect upon the nature of the self and the range of moral responsibilities we face.

Watching movies invites the same sorts of reflection. Movies involve us in a problem, a site of tension, and they ask, “What would you do?” Of course, they often represent this in fantastical ways, but so does religion speak of miracles and fables. The movies are always “preaching” to us not because they are trying to be didactic, but because we are eager for narrative. We come out of a movie with a sense that something has happened. We want to think about it. Thinking about the meaning of parables is, of course, one of our oldest experiences of religion.

You discuss love extensively in your book. Could you please tell us what films of the last few years you think most effectively portray love of various sorts? And what does philosophy have to do with love?

Love, I suggest in the book, may be the central theme of popular films. I have noticed lately that this seems more true of American than of foreign films. That probably tells us something about our optimism, the Christian roots of our culture, and our sense of what is most important in a life.

The center of these dramas of love remains the family – a common theme of television as well. I don’t think it is a matter of identifying films that are better or worse with respect to this theme. The strategy of the book is not to look for great or excellent films, but to pursue a kind of anthropological approach of looking to whatever is playing at the cinema.

Popular culture, after all, is not ordinarily high culture. A bad film, I argue, can tell us as much about ourselves as a good film in its choice of themes, characters, and problems to be resolved. As for enriching the experience of viewers with respect to the topic of love, my main suggestion would be to pay attention to the dynamic of sacrifice. One way we know who or what we love is to ask for whom or what we are willing to sacrifice. Films often explore just his question: for what will the subject sacrifice?

Is there a takeaway from your book for those who teach film or philosophy? How have Twitter, Netflix, YouTube, and so on affected how people watch and discuss films?

The “takeaway,” I hope, is that films can be a point of access for doing philosophy. It tries to enrich the discussion of both film and philosophy by bringing them together.

I try to open film up to a different sort of exploration, focusing on the way in which we imagine a meaningful world and to bring the subjects of traditional philosophical concern into our ordinary experience. I don’t really know much about new forms of social media, but surely Netflix is making popular films even more accessible.

Are you confident that brick-and-mortar cinema has a future? Where do you view the films you do watch?

I often speak in the book as if we are watching films at the cinema; I write of a conversation that begins “as we leave the theater.” Such expressions are not meant literally. I don’t think it matters whether we watch popular films at home instead of at the multiplex.

We still share the films as common experiences; they still offer us something to talk about together. I watch more films at home than at the cinema. Watching at home, there are more disruptions. On the other hand, it is far more convenient, not to speak of less expensive.

Thank you for your time.