Film as a Philosophical Resource
Lester H. Hunt
University of Wisconsin - Madison
1. What sort of contribution can the narrative fiction film (what I will henceforth call "film" for short) make to the sort of understanding that philosophy seeks? At first hearing, this question might seem almost absurd. Philosophy, after all, is like science in that it possesses various resources for getting closer to the truth, including traditions and conventions that require participants to make their ideas about the world and our place in it as clear and explicit as possible, and to subject them to ruthless criticism. Although films often (perhaps always) express ideas about such matters, the activity of making films utterly lacks these sorts of traditions and conventions. It is a completely different sort of activity from those that produce new science and new philosophy, and it has a completely different function.
Though everything I have just said is true, it would be fallacious to jump to the conclusion that film has no contribution to make to philosophical inquiry. I will argue for the claim that film is an instance of a wider category of things that not only can but already do make a substantial contributions to the philosophical search for truth: namely, narrative. Along the way, I will also offer a few comments on the difference between filmic and other narratives.
2.) I will begin by focussing my attention on a fairly simple case of something that, at least in a sufficiently broad conception of the matter, can count as an example of film: namely, an episode of a dramatic television show. The episode I have in mind is "A Quality of Mercy," from the third season of The Twilight Zone.(1) The script, written by series creator Rod Serling, was inspired by his experiences in the airborne infantry during the "mopping up"activities that came at the end of Allied operations in the Philippines during World War II. The episode begins with the date, "August 6, 1945," superimposed over a downward pan through dense foliage, into a camp of American infantry, somewhere in what we later learn is the Philippine Islands. The soldiers in the camp are "observing" for a mortar company: calling them by radio with reports on where their shells are actually landing and trying to guide their aim onto the target. The target is a cave on the other side of a clearing, where a small company of Japanese solders, many of them sick, wounded, or starving, is holed up. The shelling is not going well. Though the Japanese in the cave are not positioned to do much damage, they seem to be immune to an artillery assault. For the moment, the men persist with the shelling, since the most obvious alternative - a direct ground assault - would most likely be quite deadly to both sides. The man currently in charge is Sgt. Causarano (Albert Salmi), the Lieutenant having recently been killed. When one of the men asks him what they are likely to do next, he says "Well, they're going fire for effect until late this afternoon and if they can't smoke 'em out, maybe we'll bypass 'em." The men are very relieved to hear this. They are mortally weary of fighting and, now that it is obvious that the Japanese are beaten, they have little desire to do something that will have a heavy cost in human lives and cannot be expected to do much good. Obviously, they are concerned that the lives spent may be their own, but they also seem to be feeling some compassion for the enemy. Staring thoughtfully into the mouth of the cave, St. Causarano says, "There's no one to tell them the war's over for them. Those poor guys."
Suddenly, a Jeep rolls into camp. It brings Lt. Katell (Dean Stockwell) the replacement for the officer who was killed. Katell brusquely demands an account of their current situation, and is told of the fruitless shelling of the cave. His immediate reaction, as he examines the cave through binoculars, is: "[I] think we're going to have to do it frontally. Just move right in there and wipe 'em out." The men are very unhappy with this idea. St. Causarano suggest that, at least, they wait until the end of the day before making any decisions. He points out that, sinced Lt. Katell has never been in combat before, he should take very seriously the advice of those who have more experience. Katell is suspicious of the motives behind this advice. He suspects that their brutal combat experience has caused a general failure of nerve: "Are you tired of killing Japs, is that it? Or you've just got no stomach for it?" He berates the men for various infractions military discipline and courtesy.
At nightfall, the men are gearing up for a frontal assault. St. Causarano makes one last attempt to dissuade Katell:
"Look, we could bypass them. There aren't twenty Japs in there and they're sick and half starved."
"But they're Japs."
"They're men, Lieutenant."
"When you're ordered to fight a war, you fight a war. And you kill until you are ordered to stop killing."
"What's your pleasure Lieutenant? How many have to die before you're satisfied?"
"Offhand, I'd say say all of 'em. No matter who they are or where they are. If they are the enemy, they get it!"
At that moment, as he reaches for an ammunition pouch, Lt. Katell knocks over the binoculars. They fall to the ground, broken. But the man who picks up the binoculars and hands them to him is a Japanese soldier, who addresses him as Lt. Yamuri. Katell - actually, he is apparently now Yamuri - simply stares at him, too stunned at first for words. All the men around him appear to be Japanese. A few baffled questions reveal that the date is May 4th, 1942. They are on Corregidor Island, and he is a Lieutenant in the all-but-victorious Japanese army. The men in the cave across the clearing are a twenty or thirty Americans who have failed to escape from the Philippines with their lives. Artillery having failed to destroy the American position, the men are about to launch a frontal assault, which Yamuri is ordered to lead. He is of course not inclined to do so. Realizing that it would be very foolish to try to convince these men that he is somehow in the wrong army, he tries to play the hand that fate has dealt him. Dazed and awkward, he points out to the Captain in charge (Jerry Fujikawa) that the Americans are wounded and can do little harm. "Perhaps we can leave them there," he suggests, "by-pass them" - offering the same advice he rejected when offered by Causarano. The Captain is appalled by the suggestion:
A reminder Lieutenant, the identity of the men in the cave: They are Americans. They are enemy. Healthy, wounded, walking or lying, they are the enemy. ... The comparative health and well-being of the enemy, his comfort or discomfort, the degree of his anguish or incapacities, have no more bearing on a tactical move or decisions of command than the fortunes of an anthill that you step on as we move out to attack! They are enemy! They are American!
When Yamuri feebly protests "But they are men!" the Captain yells, "They are enemy and this is war! And in war you kill! You kill until you are ordered to stop killing!" When Yamuri yells "No!" the Captain strikes him to the ground.
As the Japanese soldiers move out to destroy the American position, Yamuri stops the Captain long enough to ask him, "May I ask the Captain, what is his pleasure? How many must die before he is satisfied?"
"Offhand, Lt. Yamuri, I would say, all of them. I don't care where they are or who they are, if they are the enemy, they are to be destroyed."
Lt. Yamuri stoops again to pick up the broken binoculars and finds that he is facing St. Causarano. He is Lt. Katell again. As he gropes for the words to tell Causarano what has just happened to him, a message arrives over the radio announcing that Hiroshima has been bombed and all units are ordered to pull back and wait to see if the Japanese surrender. Causarano misinterprets Katell's look as he stares silently at the cave. "Well, I wouldn't fret," Causarano says, "there'll be other caves, other wars, other human beings you can knock off." "God help us," Katell mutters, "I hope not."
3. There are several things I would like to say about this filmic work, things that seem important for our present purposes and also seem close to being obviously true.
First, as I hope my retelling has made clear, it seems to have the character of an argument. That is, it seems to be, and to be presented as, a collection of considerations tending to either increase or diminish - in this case, probably the latter - the plausibility of a certain possible belief, and these considerations moreover are presented as reasons for having either more or less confidence that this belief is true. It appears to be an argument against a certain belief.
Second, the belief against which it argues seems to be a philosophical idea. The fundamendal idea that both Katell (in his first incarnation) and the unnamed Japanese Captain advocate seems to be this: none of the normal moral strictures against killing apply to enemy personel in the conduct of war. This is just the sort of idea that is discussed in a branch of ethics that is often called called "just war theory." In particular, it seems to be an application or a version of a familiar doctrine, called "realism," which maintains that moral judgements (at least in anything like the usual sense of that term) do not apply to the conduct of war.
Third, though the episode consists of dialogue with little action, and depicts mostly heated debates, it does not function as a philosophical dialogue.(2) Though its words state positions and they are delivered in tones of voice that would be appropriate to attempts to persuade, its author does not try to persuade us by means of verbal arguments. In fact, the most eloquent statement of Katell's initial realist claim comes after the course of narrated events have placed both Katell and the audience in a position that sets them against the idea. The Japanese Captain's impressive peroration produces not enhanced belief but mounting horror, culminating in the moment that Yamuri shouts "No!"
The fourth almost-obvious point I wish to make is that the author of this narrative seeks to operate on our beliefs by means of the narrative itself. The course of events itself is crucial to the argument he presents. When Lt. Katell expresses his realist notions of warfare, there is probably a significant part of the audience (the audience at which the narrative was originally aimed, at least) that would not find the idea at all unreasonable. The way in which he applies it to the present case may be too extreme, but the idea in itself has something to be said for it. When Katell becomes Yamuri, and is asked to apply it to Americans, the same idea seems less reasonable.(3) Yet no character says this in so many words, nor does Serling's voice-over narration. It is effected by the narrative itself.
4. It is almost obvious that the narrative here constitutes an argument against a philosophical position. Nonetheless, it is not entirely obvious how to put this argument into words, partly because there are different ways in which the narrative and dialogue might be interpreted. One fairly straightforward formulation of the argument would be to say that it presents a counterexample to Katellian realism. This would involve interpreting Katell's words - "If they are the enemy, they get it!" - as an expression of a universal principle: people who are at war (whoever they might be) may blamelessly kill their enemies without limit (whoever they might be). The narrative then presents Kaatell, and through him the audience, with a case in which this universal principle yields results that are unacceptable.
On the other hand the same narrative might be interpreted as a sort of generalization argument. In that case, Katell's words would be interpreted as meant to apply only to his country and its enemies: Whoever is our enemy, just because they are the enemy, may be destroyed without limit. The course of events in which he becomes Yamuri, together with the fact that the Japanese Captain is giving the same reason for exterminating Americans that he himself gave for exterminating Japanese, indicate to him (and therefore to the audience) that the characteristic that allegedly qualifies the Japanese for potential extermination was also possessed by the Americans when they were hopelessly besieged on Corregidor. If it is what gives us the right to destroy them completely, then it would also have given them the same right to destroy us in like circumstances.
My point here, of course, is not that these arguments are sound and ought to convince the viewer that some version of realism is wrong. That would be a curious claim to make for any brief treatment of the issue, even one that takes place in the medium of overtly philosophical prose. What is relevant to my point, and I think obviously true, is that this narrative raises considerations that should be taken seriously in any philosophical discussion of realism. More exactly, it raises difficulties that, were they presented to the proponents of the relevant sort of doctrine, would deserve a thoughtful attempt at a response. If this is representative of the sort of thing that film can do, then film clearly has a non-negligible capacity to contribute to philosophical enlightenment.
Here some would object that there is an obvious way in which "A Quality of Mercy" is not at all representative of what films in general are like. The particular way in which it reduces the credibility of the ideas that it subjects to criticism relies on a feature of its plot that is very peculiar and not at all like those of most films (and indeed most narratives in general): namely, the fact that the unfortunate Katell is transformed into Yamuri while retaining the beliefs, values, and the inner "self" of Katell. He is then asked to apply one of his own ideas in this new context, where it turns out this same self, using these same beliefs and values, finds unacceptable. The objection would be that my comments on this narrative would only apply to a very narrow genre of fiction: namely, "fantasy" narratives, in which obviously impossible events (such as this one) are essential plot elements. Nothing relevantly similar happens in other sorts of fiction.
My answer to this objection is, quite simply, that relevantly similar things do happen in other sorts of fiction, both filmic and non-filmic. First, notice what is actually going on in Serling's narrative. As I just suggested, it isn't quite accurate to say that Katell becomes a different person. What, for the sake of brevity, I have spoken of as "becoming Yamuri" could be more accurately described as finding himself in different circumstances (something like: having the body, name, and physical location of a Japanese officer), circumstances in which he has to consider factors that he has not foreseen or considered before. Finally, he does not remain in this circumstance, but "becomes Katell" again (if I may put it that way) and, moreover, retains the new thoughts that he acquired while he (so to speak) was Yamuri. That is, these thoughts are not ones that he had just because he was Yamuri and had Yamuri's options and interests. Though having to entertain Yamuri's circumstances are what brought him to these thoughts, their truth and importance does not seem to him to depend on his actually being Yamuri. As he stares silently into the mouth of the cave at the end of the drama, the cave looks different to him than it did the last time he was Katell. The fact that he once contemplated Yamuri's circumstances continues to make a difference.
As odd as this may sound, I submit that, in all these respects, Katell is like the viewer of films. Viewers of films, as they view them, they must consider circumstances - those of the fictional characters - which are distinct from their own and which it may be they have not foreseen or considered before. Of course, they do not become the characters who inhabit these circumstances, nor do they think that they do so, and they judge of them using their own beliefs and values. The fictional world that for the moment they must consider present them with a wealth of concrete particulars to which these ideas and beliefs can be applied.(4) Since these particulars may differ widely from those in which the viewer first acquired these beliefs and values, this process might produce surprising results. These results can affect the beliefs they hold when they are no longer viewing the film and actively contemplating this fictional world, because that world might well be logically relevant to what their beliefs ought to be.
In addition, Serling's little narrative suggests an interesting truth about the way in which film - and narrative in general - makes its contribution. In both the interpretations I have given, the argument I have found in it works mainly by use of example. In fact, the narrative itself, or part of it, is the example that drives the argument. Katell changes his mind as a result of a process of reasoning, but this process is not prompted by any previously unfamiliar ideas or principles that someone has expressed to him. The Japanese Captain expresses certain ideas, to be sure, but they are ones with which Katell is already familiar. Crucial to his changing his mind is the fact that for the moment he these ideas are applied to a concrete situation in which they yield results that he finds unacceptable. Given this, he finds that he must change his ideas. The details of the process by which this happens depends, as I have said, on how one interprets the argument in the narrative. We may suppose that his realism is a universal claim and that Yamuri's circumstances constitute a counterexample to it, or we may suppose that he had never thought of universalizing it and events in Yamuri's circumstances invite him to universalize it an test it against these unforseen conditions. Further, insofar as the viewer has entertained the possibility that Katellian realism is correct, the narrative has, from a logical point of view, precisely the same significance for the viewer that it has for the fictional Katell. What the narrative contributes to the viewer's cognition is not so much the abstract and universal as the concrete and particular. To the extent that it works on the viewer's mind in an argument-like way, it works as an argument-by-example.
5. This, finally, suggests a fairly definite answer to the question with which I began: namely, the question of the contribution that film can make to the sort of understanding that philosophy seeks. The answer, however, is only available if one has shed a common preconception concerning what philosophical discourse is like. It is natural to think of philosophical argumentation as if it were a process that moves from one putative universal truth to another. This sort of reasoning is of course typical of philosophical discourse, but it is by no means the only sort there is. Philosophers often argue by means of example. One familiar case of this is the passage in Plato's Meno in which he enhances the plausibility of his notion of the innateness of knowledge by narrating an episode in which Socrates elicits a mathematical truth from the untutored slave-boy simply by asking him questions. I think the logic that underlies Plato's narrative is basically the same as the one at work in, to cite another example, a little scenario that I sometimes present to students in order to show them the inherent plausibility of utilitarianism. Suppose, I say, that you are about to dial the phone and order a pizza for yourself and some friends. You have asked for everyone's preferences as to what toppings they want and found that their preferences are all quite different. You can't afford to have everyone get exactly what they want. In addition, some people find other's preferences offensive (eg., anchovies). What do you do? And why? Of course, there are various answers to the first of these two questions, but they tend to have certain things in common, such as giving everyone part of what they want, and avoiding making anyone too unhappy. Again, there are many ways of formulating an answer to the second question as well, but they tend to have a lot to do with making the people affected by your decision, in general and all around, as happy, or as little unhappy, as you can. And that appears to amount to some sort of utilitarianism.
As I have said, I think the logic of this bit of argumentative discourse is fundamentally the same as that of the dialogue with the slave boy in the Meno. Plato's narrative carries with it the unstated but crucial premise, that this is just the sort of thing that could happen: it is possible to elicit knowledge just by asking questions, provided that they are asked in the right order. The issue that Socrates addresses is, how do we explain this? He points out that it could be explained on the basis of the supposition that the knowledge actually came from within the boy himself, so that it lends some plausibility to his doctrine of anamnesis. My own argument for utilitarianism works in essentially the same way. The students consitructs their own narrative of how they would solve the pizza problem. Each thinks that the solution he or she arrives at is a reasonably good one. The challenge is to explain why it is a good one. The answer is something that looks like some form of utilitarianism. In both cases, the example that serves as the basis of the argument does so by way of an additional unstated premise - that some event in it could happen or would be right or good if it did. An idea that can satisfactorily explain this the putative truth of this additional premise, to the extent that it can do so, gains plausibility by virtue of that fact.
Clearly, there are philosophical ways of arguing that proceed primarily by giving examples. Further, such examples are commonly, as in both these cases, narratives. This, then, is an important contribution that film can make to the sort of understanding that philosophy seeks: filmic narratives can serve as philosophical examples, in many cases as vivid an gripping ones. In addition, though a full discussion of the various ways in which philosophical argument can advance by presenting examples is obviously more than I can attempt here, we already have reason to think that there are a variety of ways in which narrated examples can advance philosophical argument. First, and rather obviously, they can be used as counterexamples to one theory or another. In addition, even when functioning as a counterexample, a narrative can play a distinct sort of role as part of a more complex argumentative framework, such as a generalization argument. Beyond that, there are the cases in which a narrative becomes a basis for new insights by providing the occasion for an explanation.(5) In these cases, the story resonates with our pre-existing notions of what the world is like, or should be like. This assumption, applied to the example, indicates that the story calls for an explanation. The story is perceived as a tale of something that happens, or can happen, or of something that would be right or wrong, or good or bad if it were to happen. How can one best explain the (assumed) fact that the events in the story could happen, or be right or wrong, and so forth?(6) The ideas that would best explain it thereby gain plausibility and, if it is not something one already believed, is shown to be worth a closer look.(7)
6. As I have suggested repeatedly, everything I have said so far about film as a philosophical resource also applies to narrative in general. This leaves us with the important question, what difference is there in this respect between film and other sorts of narrative. In particular, to focus on what is probably the most important contrasting sort of narrative, what is the difference between filmic and literary narrative? I think the answer to this question is that, unfortunately, film is less philosophical than literary narrative insofar as it is less suited to the task of embodying arguments. To explain why, I must make a few more comments - obvious ones, I hope - on the nature of film and on the sort of argument I have said film can convey.
In my comments so far about "argument by example," I have at times spoken for economy's sake as if examples can be arguments. Strictly speaking, though, this is not true. A narrative, insofar as it is serving as an example, is simply a representation of a concrete series of events. It can only be presented as a reason for believing something if that something, the conclusion, is either expressed or implied. There must also be ideas involved that imply a relevant connection between the concrete narrated events and the conclusion. Some of these connecting ideas must be general in nature, and not simply about the concrete series of event. This, I think, is more or less obvious, once one thinks of it.
The point I wish to make about the nature of film is, I hope, at least as obviously true. Film resembles literature in that one of the expressive resources that it uses is language: it can contain dialogue between the characters, voice-over narration, inter-titles projected on the screen, documents (such as letters and telegrams) directly represented on the screen, and so forth. However, it differs from literature in that words are a less prominent expressive resource. The sheer difference in quantity of words is impressive. In a novel, the words of the author are the medium through which the events in the narrative reach the novel's audience. In film, the medium is the image track and sound track. The sound track, of course, conveys words (usually), but also conveys music and sound effects: non-verbal sounds. As a novel is adapted to film, it is transferred to a medium that has means of representation not available to the novel, and in the process the medium that is the sole resource of the novel, words, slips considerably in importance. There are far fewer words in a film than there are in a novel.
Finally, and once again obviously, consider the simple fact that if a narrative is to either express or imply a conclusion or a general truth that connects in the relevant way the events in the narrative with the ideas in the conclusion, there is no medium that can do this as effectively as words. Though visual images or music could perhaps suggest what general truth the artist has in mind, nothing can do so as lucidly as stating that truth in so many words.
If we consider these three rather obvious comments together, we can see something which is not quite so obvious: that the capacity of film to present us with an argument, or even with an implicit argument (an argument with some premises implied and not expressed) is more limited than that of literature. In Walter van Tilberg Clark's novel, The Oxbow Incident, the author presents a narrative that is plainly meant as an argument against lynching, and against the sort of impatient, let's-get-it-over-with view of justice that (in his view) lynching represents.(8) The narrative, which superficially resemples a conventional western, tells of a posse hastily formed to pursue some men who have stolen some cattle and reportedly killed a ranch hand in the process. They find some men with cattle from the ranch that has been robbed. The men claim that they bought the cattle but have no receipt to prove it. Relying on circumstantial evidence and driven by impatience with recent failures on the part of the courts to do justice to thieves and murderers, the group decides to hang the culprits on the spot, rather than turning them over the sheriff and the judge. It turns out that the men are innocent, and that the ranch hand, though slightly injured by the real rustlers, has not been killed. This narrative in a sense speaks for itself. It is rather obvious what the implicit conclusion and general premise are. The author wishes to conclude that mob justice is always a bad idea, on the grounds that it goes wrong in this case because of faults and limitations that it shares with any attempt at summary judgement. But in the course of the narrative, dialogue between some of the more philosophically inclined characters offers a variety of possible ways to interpret the bare narrative events of which they are a part. The liberal-minded merchant Mr. Davies, obviously the author's mouthpiece, goes to considerable lengths to explain why decision-making through legal and democratic frameworks is superior to decision-making by individuals, including a herd of individuals, such as a lynch-mob. In addition, Mr. Sparks, an itinerant African-American preacher criticizes the actions of the posse as an attempt on the part of mortals to usurp the position of God, and the bitter, quasi-Nietzschean Gerald Tetley explains the same actions in terms of a cowardly submission to a herd instinct. In Lamar Trotti's excellent script for the William Wellman film based on the book (1943), most of these philosophical dialogues disappear. A simple version of the core of Davies' argument is presented, but it is expressed in a letter from the hanged man to his wife, which the Henry Fonda character reads aloud after it has been proven that the author of the letter is in fact innocent. The effect is powerful and memorable, but conceptually it is a stripped-down version of what the book conveys. In the comparative absence of philosophical comment, the speaks-for-itself meaning of the narrative becomes much more prominent: the film reminds us that quick "justice" can easily get the wrong person.
7. So far, my argument can be summarized very briefly as follows. Film can make a contribution to philosophical inquiry because it can offer arguments on subjects of philosophical interest. What it offers is narratives, and narratives can function as philosophical examples. Insofar as philosophical enquiry can proceed by means of argument by example, there is clearly a potential for film to make a contribution. However, an example by itself is no argument. Some observations about the example must be added. To the extent that the capacity of film to make such observations is limited compared with that of literature, its capacity to contribute to philosophy by means of argument is comparably limited.
Having said this much, I should quickly add that perhaps the most important way in which a film can lead to philosophical enlightenment is by means of arguments in which an interpreter uses the concrete narrative to make a point in which may or may not have been part of the film-maker's intentions but supplying connecting ideas which may or may not have been in the narrator's mind.(9) The interpreters who do this may be philosophical writers who are trying to convince others of their theories, but they may also be the audience members themselves, as they reflect on the implications of the tales they see projected on the screen.
Further, it is possible that the most important way in which narrative films contribute to philosophical insight is not by functioning as part of an argument at all. In philosophy, examples serve not merely as basis for arguments for ideas, they also serve as illustrations of ideas. As such, they play a role that is quite different from convincing us that some proposition is true or not. Rather they help us to decide what a given idea is, or should be. They can help us to distinguish, among other things, between what it truly part of a concept and what is merely associated with in by habitual associations. This function is in particular one of the benefits of the sort of film that has genuine value as a work of art, inasmuch as such films have a marked tendency to avoid cliches. The chubby little homunculus played by Peter Lorre in M deviates sharply from our standard notions of what a serial killer is like. The deceived and abandoned lover in Max Ophuls and Howard Koch's Letter from an Unknown Woman begins her relationship with her seducer by stalking him, and ends by writing a letter that causes his death, jarring against the standard conception of woman as victim. If we insist that love is, by definition, a morally elevating force, then a careful consideration of Scotty's obsessive manipulation of Madeleine/Judy in Vertigo should challenge us to either revise our definition of love or change our ideas of what it is to be morally elevated. Ultimately, though, film may resemble the humble white rat in that its cognitive value may be found in what we do with it, rather than in what it tells us.
1. It aired for the first time on December 29, 1961.
2. I should emphasize the predominance of dialogue in this drama, as it is one of several ways in which it manages to deviate from cliche. The it is about the "horrors of war" and is set in the midst of combat, it depicts no act more violent than a slap in the face.
3. This brings up another way in which this episode deviates from the cliche treatment of these issues: the usual way in which to make this sort of case against realism would be to ask: How would you like to have the enemy apply this idea against you? Instead, what Serling does is ask: How would you like to have to apply this idea against your own people? I suspect the reason he did it this way was more or less practical. He wanted to have someone express the idea in a circumstance that would speak against it. If Katell had been transformed into one of the Americans in the cave in Corregidor, he would not have been interacting with anyone who would be interested in defending realism. The Americans in the cave would all be against it. If the author is to explore the issue in dialogue, Katell must find himself on the Japanese side.
4. Martha Nussbaum, in her Poetic Justice (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), rightly makes much of this idea, the notion that fictional narrative can invite us to contemplate the worlds of people who are differently circumstanced from ourselves. However, she stresses the contribution this makes to the education of our moral sentiments, while I am stressing the cognitive effects.
5. Bruce Russell, in "The Philosophical Limits of Film," this volume, claims that the only philosophical role of film (other than introducing philosophical problems) is to provide counterexamples to theories that allege necessary truth, by showing that the things the theory claism to be impossible are in fact possible. I think this assumes an excessively narrow conception of what examples can accomplish.
6. The judgements we make, to the effect that events in the story are probable, or would be right or wrong (and so forth), are important, and if they are suggested by the way the story is narrated, they may be said to be part of the argument that the narrative presents. Bruce Russell (p. .....) cautions us that: "A film might remind us of evidence that we already know, but it cannot supply the relevant evidence itself. Imaginary situations cannot supply us with real data." This is true, but the implications of this truth depend on whether it is applied to an idea functions as a premise or as the conclusion of the argument presented. If a story reminds us of something we already know in order to build on this knowledge by drawing conclusion from it, it is not doing anything any more illicit than any other argument that contains premises that are not justified by the argument itself.
7. I should emphasize that this sort of argument only increases the plausibility of the conclusion, merely gives it some evidentiary support, and does not apodeictically prove it. Bruce Russell (see fns. 5 and 6) appears to frame his discussion of film as a philosophical resource in terms of whether a narrative "establishes that" a conclusion is true, a practice that would tend to bar from consideration this sort of explanation-based reasoning, which lacks such logically overwhelming force.
8. The novel, which was written in 1937 and 1938, was inspired by Clark's horror at the rise of Nazism, which he saw as a product of this conception of justice. See "Afterward," by Walter Prescott Webb, in Walter van Tilburg Clark, The Oxbow Incident (New York: Signet, 1960), pp. 223-24.
9. Two interesting books that use films in this way to explore issue of philosophical interest are: Thomas E. Warberg, Ulikely Coupless: Movie Romance as Social Criticism (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1999), and Joseph Kupfer, Visions of Virtue in Popular Film (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1999).