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Philosophy on Film

support to this non-Cartesian posItIon which one can find, for
instance, in both Hegel and Wi ttgenstein – authors whom Laing
has read. In Hegel’ s Phenomenology of Spirit, in the section on
the dialectic of Master and Slave, the non-Cartesianism is
perfectly clear:

ating morally would render their children morally dependent.

When Laing and Esterton say that she ‘could not know . . . ‘

(see quotation above) this ‘could not’ is a logical could not:

it is not that the girl failed to exercise her cognitive
skills; she simply had no sure cognitiVe skills to exercise as the authors put it “Her difficulty was that she coufd not
know when to trust or mistrust her own perceptions and memory
or her mother and father”. (p. 43)

“Self-consciousness exists in itself and for
itself, in that, and by the fact that it exists
for another self-consciousness; that is·to say,
it is only by being acknowledged or ‘recognised”‘.]

One could say that with Maya the educational process has
broken down. If education is about leading out a child into
autonomous existence, then epistemological education is about
making the child cognitively autonomous.

In transferring
their cognitive skills to their children, parents dissolve
the position of ‘natural’ (perhaps ‘contingent’ is a better
word) authority which initially they have. It is precisely this
and other dissolutions or abolitions of authority which Maya’s
parents will not tolerate. They cannot let their daughter grow
up. (cf. parents who try to stop sexual growing up.) Here IS
Maya’s mother speaking, the first and last sentences being those
of Laing and Esterton:

But Maya does not appear to have adopted Wins ton Smith’s
strategy. There is no reference to her keeping a Diary. More
to the point, she’ has not left home. Her way out has been to
withdraw into her own world’ though (significantly) ‘feeling at
the same time most painfully that she was not an autonomous
person’ (p.43). I say ‘significantly’ for her way out is doomed
to failure. It is only in the intersubjective \Iorld that
criteria for knowledge can be found, and hence only in this
world that the distinction between real and imaginary, and the
stability of perceptions and conceptions, can be maintained.

Maya’s withdrawal is an impossible project. It cannot (logically
cannot) lead to autonomy. For autonomy is tied to knowledge and
the knowledge of kno\lledge. Here again \le have some sort of
empirical illustration of the philosopher’s thesis about the
connexion between knowledge and freedom.

“She recalled a ‘home truth’ a friend had given her recently
about her relation to Maya.

‘She said to me, you know, “well, you can’t live
anyone’s life for them – you could even be punished
for doing ie” – And T remember thinking “What a
dreadful thing to think”, but afterwards I thought
she might be right. It struck me very forcibly.

She said to me, “You get your life to’live, and
that’s your life – you can’t and you mustn’ t live
anybod yl”51ife for them”. And I thought at the
time, “Well, wha t a dreadful thing to think.” And
then afterwards I thought, “Well, it’s probab1 y
quite right”.

Without levity, one can suggest after this reading that
if Maya needs anyone it is an epistemologist, not a psychiatrist.

Unless, of course, some psychiatrists are really epistemologists. 4

This insight, however, was f1e&ting.” (p.47)

The study of th how parents can maintain
their children in dependence not merely by material means or
control of the purse, etc. – but also by cognitive means. These
means inc lude, in particular, the fai lure to transmit epistemological criteria, the Knowledge of Knowledge. The parents keep
these criteria to themselves, and in the conversations reproduced
in Sanity, Madness and the Family one can see them using these
criteria as instruments of control and coercion. l
This ‘is plain from the dialogues which daughter and mother
have about daughter’s memory'” Memory is a source of knowledge,
but can be invoked in justification for knowledge claims only to
the degree that it is reliable. Our individual assessment of the
reliability of our own memory is made not just on the basis of
our awareness of how often and in what sorts of cases we can’t
remember something which we think we could or should be able to
remember. It also depends on the frequency etc.with which other
people in a better position to know (epistemological authorities)
validate our memory claims. Maya’s mother uses her position as
an epistemological authority2 with respect to her daughter’s
memory as a means of controlling and, hence, denying autonomy to
her child. Thus, according to Laing and Esterton:

“Mrs Abbott persistently reiterated how much she
hoped and prayed that Maya would remember anything
i f it would help the doctor to get to the bottom of
her illness. But she fe1 t th2t she had to tell Maya
repeatedly that she (Maya) could not ‘really’ remember
anything, because (as she explained to us) Maya was
always ready to pretend that she was not really ill.


‘arbiter’ is the word Laing and Esterton use (p.43).


It would be better if some psychiatrists were really

child-snatchers. For Maya and those like her are not in
a position to take the obvious way out and leave home;
they can perhaps only be taken away and certainly they
need help in establishing their own independence. It
would be even better to abolish the form of family which
Laing and Esterton study; but I am trying to interpret
the situation of its victims not simply from the point
of view of proving the necessity of this aholition hut
also to discover what can be done in the situation with
which we still have to live.

It will be clear from these remarks that I do not accept
what Laing and Esterton have to say in the Preface to the
second edition of the Sani tv, Madness and theFaiiiily. The
disclaimers they make there are so obviously contradicted
by their own text as to appear Simply bizarre. They have
explicitly produced a theory of .ocial causation in
schizophrenia, though one which, admittedly, does not
preclude the possibility of an organogenetic component.

But whatever the constitution of Maya’s brain cells,
there is no good reason for accepting the behaviour of
her parents.

Michae1 Chanan has recently completed a series of six
documentary films on Oxford Philosophy. In this article he
discusses the project and the problems which it presented.

Here I am reminded of George Orwell’s 1984, where control
over the records against which one could check1J1e veracity of
one’s memory eliminates this as a possibility and throws people
back entirely on their own resources. But without any intersubjectively accessible sources, or inter-subjective confirmation of memories, each individual’s memory capacity is itself
weakened., The first act of defiance which Orwe 11 ‘s hero,
Winston Smith, commits is to keep a Diary – an objectified
record against which he can check his own memory and which is,
in principle, publicly accessible. In philosophical terms,
Orwell is working with a non-Cartesian conception of the
thinking self: the thinking self for Orwell does not exist,
essentially, in isolation from other thinking selves; its
existence is interdependent with their existence.

It seems
to me that Laing and Esterton’s work gives some sort of empirical
It is usual to add at this sort of point a phrase: “no
doubt unconsciously”. But in these families there is
room for some doubt.

Hegel – Phenomenology of Mind, trans. J.B. Baillie. (AlIen
&Unwin, 2nd edn, revised, 1949), p.229.

Michael Chanan

She frequently questioned Maya about her memory in
general, in order (from her point of view) to help
her realize that she was ill, by showing her at
different times ei ther that she was amnesic, or
tha t she had got her facts wrong, or tha t she on1 y
imagined she remembered what she thought she
remembered because she had heard it from her mother
at a later date~’. (p.46)




Can there be anything of interest in a series of films on
Oxford Philosophy, especially to a group of philosophers whose
relationship to Oxford Philosophy is essentially critical?

hope the answer is yes. In the first place, the idea of such a
film series is sufficiently out of the line of thinking of both
philosophers and television programme planners (for whom this
series is initially intended) to make the outcome undetermined.

In the second place, the films should serve a teaching purpose
(they will also go to the American Campus circuit, and we hope
to make them available for non-television screening in this
country, too) by documenting graphically various aspects of
Oxford Philosophy which otherwise remain vague in students
minds. I’m talking about the concrete way in which Oxford
Philosophy is situated in the world. Transcribed on paper the
content of these films may seem to some to have only a marginal
interest. But to see and hear, not in strange surroundings but
in their natural habitat, the Oxford philosophical sub-species,
is one of the main opportunities these films are intended to
provide. (They also have historical and archive value, and
include a unique tape of Austin lecturing). Unlike the printed
page, celluloid has a built in alienation effect always available

to the film-maker:the viewer can apprehend the totality of manner,
appearance and so forth, characterising the background out of
which any set uf ideas, any life style, comes, but at a distance
and without himself being physically invol-ved in the scene.

Whatever people say is mediated by the phenomenological facts,
and it may not even be necessary for the film n,aker to add
directives, although it is established documentary technique
that he should do so. These films, therefore, are intended not
just to be seen, but to be used.

One of the problems in shooting such sequences is one that
every documentary maker has in relating to subject-matter with
which he is de facto only partially acquainted, namely, how far
he is portraying what’s there, and how far he is imposing his
own structure on what’s there. But the aesthetic questions
raised here are beyond the scope of these notes.

You will recall the Conversations with Philosophers series
on Radio 3, now published in book ferm, in which Bryan Magee
interviewed some thirteen British philosophers. Apart from the
issues which were raised about their narrowness (which the
Radical Philosophy Group has been formed to combat) the criticism
was made against this series that Magee, since he was not
conversing with the philosophers but interviewing them, failed
to show what philosophizing is actually like, or about. One of
my first aims in this series was to set up real conversational
situations (insofar as anything in front of film cameras and
contained by them is real) between pairs of philosophers, and
simply to let the cameras run. I used two cameras for all
conversations, one on each speaker, so as to be entirely free
in editing to choose which interlocutor to show on the screen,
in other words to show non-verbal as well as verbal conversational interaction. I also left it up to the interlocutors themselves to decide in advance how much or how little their
conversation would be pre-structured. All that had been determined was the general area of each conversation. I was able to
film up to half an hour of conversation without interruption,
although I didn’t always do so;
I planned to film as much as
three hours of conversation to produce each fifty-five minute
film, which would also include other sequences, but as it turned
out it wasn’t for the most part necessary to film so much. In
editing, I tried as far as possible to follow the chronology of
each conversation , but felt myself free to structure them by
my own (filmic and philosophical) judgement.

What is important, however, is that not all of these
additional sequences were pre-planned. The possibilities
sometimes emerged only after the main shooting, and in at
least one case I shot material on a pure hunch that it would
come in useful. This was when I found an open air
dramatization of Alice in Wonderland taking place during our
main shooting period. Knowing the relevance of its verbal
wit to language philosophy, I filmed some of it on the
probability that I would be able to use it somewhere, which
has proved to be the case. (I had already, for various reasons,
had to drop the idea of using clips of a similar verbally
witty nature, from such films as the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup
and Hardy’s A Chump at Oxford.) The problem I conceived myself
to be attacking here is perhaps related to the importance of
examples in language philosophy, namely, how to concretize
what you’re talking about. The difference is that in language
philosophy the search for examples should be leading you through
your philosophizing, whereas I was merely trying to provide
concrete instances on an interpretive level. But isn’t it
possible that this kind of procedure in films could be used
as a philosophical tool?

Only the first film differed in ground-plan from this
simple general pattern: this is a historical retrospective
by A.J. Ayer covering his philosophical career, and includes
large chunks of him ‘speaking to camera’, but it is critical
in approach, descriptive of Oxford’s social background, and in
general follows the established pattern of television
documentaries, using diverse illustrative and contrapuntal
visual material. This material falls into several groups:

i) newsreel illustrating various period aspects;
ii) specially shot material of Oxford today;
iii) still photographs of personalities, book titles,
jv) sections of interviews or of conversations later
in the series freely intercut to make narrative or
thematic points.

have used the words ‘ illustrative’ and ‘contrapuntal’, but
these are not mutually exclusive categories. A shot of Moritz
Schlick or Wittgenstein is illustrative in more than a trivial
sense – when the viewer sees Schlick in stiff collar and tie,
and recalls Wittgenstein in open-neck shirt, a point has been
made. But more t”han that, material in categories (i) (ii) and
(iv) was always (with one exception) used to make some thematic
or conceptual point. Sometimes the picture would make a verbal
point more concrete. For example in describing the social
background of Oxford I placed a sequence of a post-Schools
champagne party in Trinity College garden against Hilaire
Belloc’ 5 lines,

I have tried to do something approaching this in the
conversation between Ayer and Bernard Williams (the only nonOxford philosopher in the series) on the theme of whether the
scientific description of the world conflicts with the commonsense description. This conversation was on a suitably lay
level and was well-shaped. It attacks, of course, a central
theme in English philosophy, namely the respect shown for
common-sense. Ayer put forward a pragmatic and utilitarian
point of view, and Williams placed Ayer on the defensive by
enlarging the terms of reference.- I have tried to take this
a step further. In the first place, during the filming, I
asked Williams, when he was talking about the question of a
world without observers, to make reference to the (usually
unthought about) presence of the cameras, and had the two
cameras turn to face each other as he did so. I then shot
introductory and closing sequences in which each camera shows
the other camera looking at the scene. (The film is called,
by the way, Appearance and Reality.) I then extended this in
editing the film, by incorporating clips from educational
science films showing, at points where they refer directly or
obliquely to such phenomena, atomic structures, crystal growth,
diffraction patterns and so forth. On one level I wanted to
give the viewer a chance himself to wonder at the things which
gave rise to this philosphizing, and not just allow him to
appreciate the business intellectually. But I also wanted to
set him a problem which he is free to discern and worry about
as he chooses or not. R.D. Laing has called the problem
“Experience as Evidence”. At the beginning of The Politics of
Experience he writes, ” ..• facts become fictions without
adequate ways of seeing ‘the facts’. We do not need theories
so much as the experience that is the source of the theory.”
And, “Natural science is concerned only with the observer’s
experience of things … Natural science knows nothing of the
relation between behaviour and experience. The nature of this
relation is mysterious – in Marcel’ s sense. That is to say,
it is not an objective problem. There is no developed method
of understanding its nature.”
Some European phi losophers
have struggled to deal with this problem. I am optimistic
that film is a medium that can be used to present it clearly
and with force – and that this is just one of the many types
of problem which film, inhabiting the twilight world between
discourse and image, can bring into consciousness and make
available for philosophizing.

“The accursed power that stands on privelege
And goes with women and champagne and bridge,
Broke, and democracy resumed her reign,
Which goes with bridge, and women, and champagne.”

Sometimes the picture would be used to make a point that the
words didn’t make, but related to them. Sometimes the picture
would be used. to contradict the words.

All these are general procedures regularly followed in the
making of documentary – and of course ‘feature’ – films. They
have to do with the multi-dimensionality of the medium. To
anyone with some knowledge of European philosophy, the word
dialectic springs to mind. And this is where, making films about
philosophy, one comes up against the fundamental problem:

phi losophical argument, at least in the analytic tradition, is
unidimensional and linear. And yet the films, in order to be
good fi lms, had to be dialectical in character.

One apparent constraint that exists within the medium (as
opposed to the constraints that are imposed on it from without
by producers, programme planners, distributors and so on) is the
need to structure time. Philosophical argument is totally
ideational and therefore does not come up against this problem.

In general however, time is not felt by the film-maker as a
constraint (unless in the same way that the philosopher might
feel words to be a constraint) for it is the very means of his
trade: he can expand it, contract it, reverse it, jump it, go
against it. (McTaggart would have blown his mind on L’ Anee
derniere a Marienbad.) An external time constraint exists,
however, in the need to standardise the length of one’s fi lm
to fit rigid television schedules. A further consideration
that arises at this point is that it would be totally
unreasonable to expect a lay audience to concentrate on
intellectual argument for almost an hour.

Taking all this to mind, I decided it was necessary in
film to provide non-intellectually-demanding sequences,
preferably ones with some lyrical and positive content, which
would serve several purposes: to gain the viewer’s confidence
at the beginning of the film; to portray each participant in
his concrete environment; and to break the film up at
structurally controlled points where the viewer would be able
to relax attention a little.


I would characterize this loosely as the business of
using film conceptually, or cognitively. It is an important
problem in aesthetics as to how much cognitive content works
in the medium of art possess. It can be a task for the filmmaker to develop film’s potency for cognitive expression. I
remind you of Leibniz’s description of music as ‘a hidden
arithmetical activity of a mind that does not know it is
counting,’ and Schopenhauer’ s: ‘a hidden metaphysical acti vi ty
of a mind that does not know it is philosophising.” Many
films have a very strong identifiable philosophical content.

But would it be too outlandish to suggest that say,
Wittgenstein’ s Philosophical Investigations were the hidden
imagistic activity of a mind that did not know it was composing
a film?


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