Philo-Teach Film List

Philo-Teach was a discussion list started in 1996. During its run, there was a discussion of films that might be relevant to philosophers. The exchange is below, and the resulting list is at the bottom of the page.

Bruce Janz

There was sufficient interest in the list of movies useful for teaching philosophy that I am posting that list which begins with my original query. I have included the email addresses of those who made the suggestions and compiled an index by subject at the end. Some people from PHILO-TEACH sent in further suggestions and I have added them to the original list. This is still clearly as small fraction of what could be used and I would be happy to know of any other ideas.

Re: my original question of movies to illuminate the distinction between higher and lower pleasures it has occurred to me that Dangerous Liaisons might work very well. Does anyone have experience of using this film?

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Robert Halliday, Utica College, Syracuse University

I regularly use commercially available (ie rented from Blockbuster) movies to illustrate philosophical points in class. For instance, I use Total Recall to discuss the memory condition for personal identity, Blade Runner or an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called "The Measure of a Man" to discuss conditions for personhood and moral worth, Educating Rita to discuss the utilitarian distinction between higher and lower pleasures, The Doctor to discuss virtue ethics in a medical setting, and Moonstruck to discuss personal virtues. I occasionally use Antigone for virtue conflicts, but it is a bit long.

These are my well worn favorites, but I would like to expand my repertoire. I would appreciate any suggestions of movies that illustrate points one might wish to discuss in an introduction to philosophy course. I would particularly like any suggestions of movies dealing with virtue ethics and dilemmas raised by conflicting virtues. I would be happy to post a compilation list if there is a sufficient response.


From: Paul Raymont

Angel Heart, with Robert De Niro as Satan, is a gripping 1980's Faust that can be used to illustrate some of the same points about personal identity and memory as Total Recall, but with the emphasis on one's moral relation to the forgotten deeds.


From: Kate Lindemann

The Shop on Main Street offers more for " basic ethics" and role of personal stance in one's society than any film I know. It is on video now and some clubs sell it. Well worth the price!


From: Lise Charlebois

I don't know if you have seen it, but the original Dutch The Vanishing (late 80s early 90s?) has an interesting angle on action and perception.
The villain, a psychopath? realizes at a young age the power of will—he contemplates jumping off a balcony just because he can, and he does. But this action was just for him, just to test his limits. Maybe he discovers that there are no limits beyond our own will. This plays itself out in two ways throughout the film. First, he jumps into a river to save a young girl, and his called a hero. But then he fixates on a similar action where the perceived results are not at all heroic: putting someone in a position which he fears more than death, being claustrophobic. I won't spoil the film for you if you haven't seen it.

You might not find it useful for your class, but I sure got to thinking after seeing it.


From: Erich von Dietze

I have used Harrison Ford's Witness to discuss a variety of issues including: truth, giving evidence and what constitutes evidence, crime and terrorism, cultural and community issues. There are plenty more too.

I have also used films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark to discuss issues about reality / fantasy, what it means to pretend and how far can pretense go before it becomes something else.


From: Gilles Gour

May I submit Rainman by Levinson as a good way of illustrating what happens to a person devoid of almost all capacity to think conceptually. When I teach the nature and logic of concepts in my introduction to philosophy course, I use that film as a way of showing by contrast what one could call "conceptual behavior". I have notes on that subject (in French though...) if you are interested.


From: David Montgomery Munsey

I would suggest Chinatown to illustrate the ethical truth that there is no one more impotent than a moral person without power.


From: Stephen Clark

Eastwood's Unforgiven

Let me know when you have a list, and I'll store it on the web, or link to your page from mine.


From: Christopher Borst

I used The Net as a interesting reflection on the social construction of identity and particularly as an example of how the Cartesian doubt has been institutionalized (in such fashion as to undermine the central Cartesian certitude!).

I also discussed Seven in a more explicitly what-is-the-meaning-of-film session (specifically, why do critics never like popular movies, but only ambiguous or depressing movies?), but it would be superb to discuss in the context of virtue ethics. Let's face it, the movie's about the Seven Vices. And the finale is one of the most artfully constructed dilemmas I've ever seen. It also has an interesting sub-theme on the desirability of marriage or similar ties for those pursuing true virtue (or true vice).


From: Valerie Hardcastle

He Said/She Said for illustrating the question of whether there is any reality beyond our perspective of what is going on in the external world. Inherit the Wind for issues surrounding the creationism debate. Whose Life is This Anyway? for the body criterion versus the memory criterion of personal identity. Blade-Runner for AI and personhood. The Last Temptation of Christ, Agnes of God, Leap of Faith, and Rapture for questions concerning God, faith, and the problem of evil (Rapture is esp. good on the last one.)


From: Robin Roth

Try In The Name of the Father for classes on human rights and social justice

Quiz Show for classes on ethics--utilitarianism vs. deontology


From: Mike Awalt

I have used High Noon to talk about Kantian ethics, Runaway Train to talk about the Existential Hero, Chinatown, to talk about epistemology, the philosopher as detective, and anti-foundational issues, Housesitter in connection with Nietzsche's Truth and Lies in Non-Moral Sense, Pulp Fiction in connection with Postmodernism and Philosophy, I have also used Unforgiven, Ride the High Country, and The Wild Bunch to talk about various issues in Philosophy. I have used Colossus: The Forbin Project to talk about personal identity. Dead Poets Society to talk about Comparisons with Socrates. I am also interested in compiling a list of films. Let's keep the list expanding!!


From: Mike Donovan

I use Bill Murray's Groundhog Day when reading about the myth of Gyges and Egoism. I use The Simpson's in my Critical Thinking courses to illustrate inductive Hypothetical Reasoning. Bart Simpson's ability to catch "Side Show Bob" is truly Holmes-like at times.


From: Roger

There is a film called Private Schultz which was made for discussion. It's about 30 minutes and is a true story about a German soldier who is unwilling to shoot civilians and has to join them in the line up.

The 'Animal Farm' cartoon is good.


From: Peg Tittle

I will be teaching a Contemporary Moral Issues course for the first time this spring and am planning to use not movies but television show episodes:
Star Trek is already on my list (as you know, there's at least one moral issue in every episode); other sci-fi shows are not as good, but can be useful,

Earth 2, Seaquest DSV; Alien Nation is excellent (lots of racism/speciesism/ personhood stuff) if you can still get it; Picket Fences is another often-moral-issued show; the hospital shows are pretty good for biomedical ethics--Chicago Hope more than ER or Side Effects; we don't get any 'lawyer shows' here now but I've asked a friend to tape at least one promising episode of L.A. Law or Street Legal; the 'cop shows' are pretty useless; the 'newspaper shows' are pretty good if you still get them, the old Lou Grant and the more recent E.N.G.


From: finsen

I have in the past taught a course about the Holocaust that introduced issues through film. One thing I try to do there is use films from other countries -- films like Shoah, Mr. Klein or Transport from Paradise. Obviously there are myriad issues you can get into there -- e.g., Mr. Klein is a wonderful piece for raising the question of what is the proper response for a bystander in the face of enormous evil and considerable personal risk. Another film raising similar issues in a pretty different way is The Shop on Main Street.


From: Thomas Cavanaugh

Although I do not show films in class, I allude to them insofar as they serve as illustrative examples known by the students. Crimson Tide has a scene that illustrates the principle of double effect, when the submariners have to close one of the flood doors (thereby trapping a number of their comrades) in order to preserve the submarine and the majority of the crew.


From: David Munsey

For epistemology the classic has to be Antonioni's Blow-up, and for human rights both The Battle of Algiers and Burn! by Gillo Pontecorvo.


From: Guillermo Barron

A slightly different philsophical film: The Accident screenplay by Harold Pinter. Dirk Bogarde and Michael York. About a young Austrian philosophy student at Oxford. Quite loosely based on a true story.


From: George Williamson

Ach! Can it be true --- a discussion of film and philosophy with no mention of My Dinner with Andre? Where the topic is the meaning and value of existence? Well, but perhaps it is too explicitly philosophical.

Or how about the Australian film Truth? In this film, a young man blind from birth takes up photography, believing that if he finds someone who he can trust to describe what is in his photographs, which he then stamps in braille on their backs, he will have the truth that everyone else has. He is working out his mistrust for his mother, who described his surroundings to him when he was a boy, but who died suddenly and he was never sure if she didn't just leave him.

It is good for exhibiting the issues in truth other than strict representation and for highlighting the metaphor of vision predominant in discussions of truth. (Our hero paradoxically has considerably greater awareness of his surroundings by hearing than do his companions by sight, but because he can be lied to about the visual appearance of things, does not trust himself.)


From: Lise Charlebois

I believe the title of the film is Proof, not Truth.


From: Mason Cash

While folks are still talking about films relevant to philosophy, I should mention The Addiction, a just released film about a philosophy student writing her Ph.D dissertation on existentialist philosophy, (Nietzche, Kierkegaard, and Sartre feature a lot) who's bitten by a vampire, and becomes a blood-junkie.

It's not a "nice" film, in fact overall it's pretty disturbing. A look at the "evil" side of humans, and humanity's addiction to evil/violence—but also illustrates (and talks about quite explicitly) the existential crisis created by becoming an evil creature whose addiction causes her to spread her evil, and who can't kill herself (she's already undead).


From: Tony Dardis

The Thin Blue Line is great for epistemology.



Two other suggestions of films that can be used:

1. Alexandre le bienheureux (french film of the seventies -sixties?- with Phillipe Noiret. On happiness and the meaning of life.)

2. Crimes et delits (original title is, I think, Crime and misdeameanors), by Woody Allen. (Could be used in ethics courses. A paper was published on its use in Teaching Philosophy a few years ago.)


From: Paul Raymont

There's a 70's movie called Deliverance (Burt Reynolds and Jon Voigt) that might also be good in connection with ethics. I won't simply recommend it, though, since it's been a long time since I saw it and it's pretty foggy in my memory. But you might want to check it out.


From Mark Sheldon
For higher and lower pleasures, how about Five Easy Pieces


From Dennis Holt

For existentialism (or philosophy and literature) courses, there is a new film, premiered at the Sundance Festival in 1995 of Dostoevsky's *Notes from Underground* set in contemporary LA. The reviews are generally good. I don't know whether it is available on videocassette yet.


From: Bruce B. Janz

One that I use regularly is Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times. It is a great picture of someone struggling to find the good life, but never quite getting there. I use it when talking about existentialism (at the end, Charlie voices this absurd faith in meaning, while living under the weight of societal expectations the rest of the movie), modernity (obviously, from the title), and Marxism (there is a nice critique of class structure). There is also a very interesting scene in which Charlie imagines the good life -- material comfort and security, mostly -- which always raises the question about what a truly good life would be, in Charlie's case. BTW, I keep calling him Charlie because he has no name in the movie (anonymity and alienation, right?), and so Charlie becomes the figure in the movie, while Chaplin is the person telling the story. Anyway, students have always been surprised at how good something 60 years old can be. It has worked well.


From Anne Collins Smith

I have made reference to My Fair Lady for this purpose. At the outset, Eliza is interested only in material pleasures, as exemplified in the song All I Want is a Room Somewhere--she is basically interested in being warm and well-fed. After she is taught to speak correctly, she is taken to a social event where she horrifies everyone by speaking, in very correct accents, about very lower-class subjects, and Higgins realizes that he must teach her not only how to speak but what to say. This involves introducing her to the higher pleasures, so that she can carry on a reasonable conversation with educated people. After her success at the ball, Higgins takes all the credit and Eliza angrily runs away, trying to return to her old life. She finds out, however, that she is a stranger in her former home (once having experienced the higher pleasures she is no longer content with a life in which only the lower ones are possible) and eventually returns to Higgins, preferring a life in which she is able to exercise the higher pleasures even if she is in some other ways discontented.

(This analysis doesn't work quite as well for the original Pygmalion.)

Hope you find this helpful--


List by topic


Crimes and Misdeameanors
The Shop on Main Street
Mr. Klein
Transport from Paradise
Private Schultz
Animal Farm
Groundhog Day
High Noon
Quiz Show
Angel Heart
The Vanishing (The original Dutch version)
The Doctor
Alexandre le bienheureux

Higher/Lower Pleasures

Educating Rita
Dead Poets Society
My Fair Lady
Modern Times
Dangerous Liaisons
Modern Times

Human Rights

The Name of the Father
The Battle Of Algiers

Personhood/Moral Worth

Blade Runner
Star Trek: The Next Generation "The Measure of a Man"

Logic/Critical Thinking

The Simpsons


The Thin Blue Line
Runaway Train
Notes From The Underground

Personal Identity

Colossus: The Forbin Project
Whose Life is This Anyway?
The Net
Angel Heart
Total Recall


Pulp Fiction

Philosophy of Religion

The Last Temptation of Christ
Agnes of God
Leap of Faith


Inherit the Wind


Ride the High Country
The Wild Bunch
He Said/She Said
Raiders Of The Lost Ark
The Vanishing (The original Dutch version)
My Dinner with Andre
The Accident