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Finding Ourselves at the Movies

Finding Ourselves at the Movies: Philosophy for a New Generation

Paul W. Kahn
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Finding Ourselves at the Movies
    Book Description:

    Academic philosophy may have lost its audience, but the traditional subjects of philosophy -- love, death, justice, knowledge, and faith -- remain as compelling as ever. To reach a new generation, Paul W. Kahn argues that philosophy must take up these fundamental concerns as we find them in contemporary culture. He demonstrates how this can be achieved through a turn to popular film.

    Discussing such well-known movies asForrest Gump(1994),The American President(1995),The Matrix(1999),Memento(2000),The History of Violence(2005),Gran Torino(2008),The Dark Knight(2008),The Road(2009), andAvatar (2009), Kahn explores powerful archetypes and their hold on us. His inquiry proceeds in two parts. First, he uses film to explore the nature of action and interpretation, arguing that narrative is the critical concept for understanding both. Second, he explores the narratives of politics, family, and faith as they appear in popular films. Engaging with genres as diverse as romantic comedy, slasher film, and pornography, Kahn explores the social imaginary through which we create and maintain a meaningful world. He finds in popular films a new setting for a philosophical inquiry into the timeless themes of sacrifice, innocence, rebirth, law, and love.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-53602-8
    Subjects: Philosophy, Film Studies, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)

    • [PART I Introduction]
      (pp. 1-4)

      Philosophy, broadly conceived, is a practice of critical reflection on our beliefs and practices. In this sense we all philosophize at some points in our lives. We may think that little will come of it, but we are all concerned with understanding ourselves and with finding meaning in our own lives and in the lives of those about whom we care. Everyone confronts death and wonders how to make sense of this ending to the enterprise that is his or her own life. Similarly, we all confront issues of justice: we wonder what we should do for others or how...

    • CHAPTER 1 Philosophy, Democracy, and the Turn to Film
      (pp. 5-28)

      In a democracy we are entitled to ask of any organized pursuit whether it contributes to our collective activity of governing ourselves under the rule of law. This is not the only question we want to ask; nevertheless, it is an important question because a democratic polity’s first obligation is to preserve the conditions of its own operation. Politics is, in this sense, the condition of all other activities, public and private. We know this not just from Hobbes’s theorizing of the state of nature but from the history of great wars of the twentieth century. Total war really does...

    • CHAPTER 2 Freedom and Persuasion
      (pp. 29-58)

      Philosophy, I have argued, must defend itself in a democratic society. If it cannot do so, it risks being dismissed as antiquarian, elitist, or both. Dismissal is hardly the same as prohibition, but those who believe that there is something important at stake in philosophy must make the case. That case has to convince without appealing to claims of some sort of special knowledge that is to be applied in and through our political practices. A political practice is not an effort to implement a theory, and philosophy is not a study of the possibility of political reform. Theories of...

    • CHAPTER 3 On Interpretation
      (pp. 59-84)

      If we imagine a situation in which there is no consciousness—the universe before the emergence of life forms—we cannot make sense of a claim that anything is distinct from anything else. We have problems of scale and problems of boundaries. We know that the elementary forces in the universe bind everything to everything else. What would constitute a unit in and of itself? There is nothing “natural” about where one unit ends and another begins. Time and space are not divided into segments by nature. What makes something the same through time? What are the spatial boundaries of...


    • [PART II Introduction]
      (pp. 85-88)

      I described in part 1 a democratic approach to philosophy, which takes as its object of inquiry the products of the social imaginary. I turn now to a direct examination of those products in the form of popular, contemporary films. Up to this point I have chosen particular films to illustrate my arguments. In this part my ambition is to create a sense that “any film will do.” Our beliefs and practices are always on display—in successful as well as unsuccessful films. A particularly good film is not necessarily a better vehicle for critical reflection upon ourselves than a...

    • CHAPTER 4 Violence and the State
      (pp. 89-127)

      Two great themes of film are violence and love. One could press even further and say that there is just one great theme, love. The violence that interests us most is sacrifice: the violent act done for the sake of love. Of the films that I have discussed so far, most have love at the center:The Artist, The Sweet Hereafter, The Secret in Their Eyes, Crazy Heart, Elegy, The Box, The Other Man. The exception isThe Hurt Locker, but that exceptional quality is exactly what the film is about. The overwhelming presence of love and sacrifice in these...

    • CHAPTER 5 Love, Romance, and Pornography
      (pp. 128-176)

      The previous chapter revealed a puzzling gap between political theory and the political imagination. Political theory today is dominated by a liberal approach to the fundamental structures of the state. In this view the measure of a legitimate political organization is whether it can be understood as the result—direct or indirect—of a hypothetical contract among the individuals who constitute the community. An individual will join a political order that appears to contribute to his or her long-term advantage. That is not likely to be so unless the basic framework, the constitution, respects fundamental rights—no one wants to...

    • Conclusion: Film, Faith, and Love
      (pp. 177-194)

      In the end we watch movies for many of the same reasons people have traditionally gone to church. Before there were movies coming from Hollywood, there were itinerant preachers who would bring the community together in revival meetings to hear the good news brought from afar. Indeed, the modern movie theater resembles a church—especially those large evangelical churches with enormous parking lots. Not surprisingly, there is a convergence of aspects of the “entertainment” industry across faith and film. Both combine text, image, and music in a spectacle. Today, we even have drive-in churches. Arguably, the calendar of the saints...

  7. NOTES
    (pp. 195-220)
    (pp. 221-230)
  9. INDEX
    (pp. 231-242)