Hanson 1987

Hanson, K. 1987. Minerva in the movies: Relations between philosophy and film. Persistence of Vision 5: 5 -15.

Anglophone philosophy typically associates the idea that film is a way of doing philosophy with Stanley Cavell and his coterie of disciples but perhaps the most compelling version of this doctrine is to be found in the work of someone who wasn’t even a professional philosopher, the French film critic, Alexandre Astruc (1948). Astruc’s piece, which appeared as a magazine article in 1948, is generally taken as one of the sources of the auteur theory but its aims were far deeper.

For Astruc, film was in the process of becoming a full-fledged language (and he took this very seriously); and because language is a way of conveying thoughts (rather than, say feelings), film was becoming our contemporary medium for doing philosophy. The auteur is thus a writer in this very literal sense. Philosophy is thus not like painting whic conveys feelings rather then thoughts. For Astruc, the visual aspect of film making and film experience is subordinated to the linguistic, perhaps no more relevant to what a film does than, in written works, good handwriting (or choice of font in today’s world) is relevant to what is said.

If seventeenth-century philosophers sat in their studies with their quilts and paper to record great thoughts (and Asruc has Descartes in mind), we should instead be sitting at computers editing video clips. (As I write this, confined to teaching online using audio and video files because of the COVID-19 fisaco, Astruc’s vision seems strangely prophetic. Of course, in 1948 he had not envisioned laptops and tablets. He was thinking of editing real reels of film.)

Hanson’s paper is a critique of Astruc though not a rejection of his thesis entirely: film cannot do everything philosophy does and, thus, cannot serve as a complete replacement of traditional philosophy. Hanson does not see how it can replace logic and metaphysics. (This is not a compelling argument, though: in today’s world logic is best delegated to computer science though  full development of this argument will be left for another occasion; and metaphysics is more than adequately replaced by science–in fact, arguably, much of what goes as metaphysics is an embarrassment to philosophy.)

But film can do what ethics and epistemology have traditionally done, explore issues where perspectives matter. (Note, though, that the claim that perspective matters or should matter, for ethics or epistemology is itself philosophically contentious.) According to Hanson, film does some of this better than philosophy, at least analytic philosophy with its tendency to present contexts in their bare essentials. For instance, film can explicate self-deception with more insight than analytic philosophy and, perhaps even better than Sartre in his famous passage describing an instance of it.

What Hanson does reject is Astruc’s insistence that film is, or at least is becoming, a language. The issue here is more subtle than it initially appears to be. Astruc was not defending some global linguistic turn in which everything becomes a language, a move that was popular across the philosophical spectrum back in the 1930s and 1940s (and later). Rather, as we saw earlier, being a language requires a capacity to express and communicate thought. Film (and, let us as usual restrict attention to narrative films, fictional or documentary) tells stories and stories do convey thoughts. This puts film on par with novels, short stories, etc., and Astruc is on solid ground even though much more needs to be said about the implications of the ability to narrate. They may be far less conclusive than Astruc took it to be. Hanson seems to reject Astruc on film as language primarily to retain the importance of visual experience for film. While this seems appropriate, has she successfully repudiated Astruc’s basic claim about film and language. That is far from clear.



Astruc, A. 1948. Naissance d’une nouvelle avant-garde: la caméra stylo. Ecran français 144 (30 March): 5.

07 May 2020

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