top of page

Philosophy & Film

Dr. Dennis Weiss

Spring, 2019

Contact Information

  • My office is in the Humanities Center, HUM 154. You'll find it in the English and Humanities departmental space.

  • My e-mail:

  • My office phone: 717-815-1513

  • My office hours:

    • MWF 12:00 - 1:00 PM

    • Tuesday 2:00 - 3:30

    • and by appointment

Course Description

I see this course as responding to a challenge set forth by Stephen Mulhall in his book On Film, one of our course textbooks. In On Film Mulhall focuses on popular Hollywood films, especially the Alien Quadrilogy, and urges us to understand these films as philosophy in action. As he writes in the opening pages of the book: “…I do not look to these films as handy or popular illustrations of views and arguments properly developed by philosophers; I see them rather as themselves reflecting on and evaluating such views and arguments, as thinking seriously and systematically about them in just the ways that philosophers do. Such films are not philosophy’s raw material, nor a source for its ornamentation; they are philosophical exercises, philosophy in action—film as philosophizing.” So Mulhall challenges us to take mainstream Hollywood genre films as philosophy. But he doesn’t really tell us what it means to say that these films can philosophize. It doesn’t mean simply turning a camera on a philosophy lecture and filming it. Nor could it mean simply turning to film as handy illustrations of philosophical problems. I routinely draw on Star Trek to illustrate this or that problem in philosophy. So one can turn to the transporter, for example, to raise questions about the continuity of the self and the nature of personal identity. But this is just handy illustration of a philosophical problem and not philosophizing itself. Clearly both film and philosophy each address fundamental and perennial concerns to human life. They overlap in this regard. But is this sufficient to suggest that films philosophize? Equally clearly, they are entirely distinct media and it is not clear what it could mean to say that film somehow does something analogous to philosophical discourse.

So we’re left wondering: what does it mean to say film can philosophize? This is the core question this course seeks to address. Our key issue: whether films can do philosophy; whether films have the ability to do philosophy. As Thomas Wartenberg puts it: “The crux of the debate is whether films within the standard genres of filmmaking – from fiction films to documentaries and even avant-garde films – can actually do more than raise a philosophical question or record a philosophical argument, whether some films should really be counted as doing philosophy on their own.” And Wartenberg sums up the key debate: “Although all the participants in this debate acknowledge that films can, at a minimum, bring a philosophical issue to the awareness of their audiences, there is disagreement about how much more films can do philosophically. While some believe that film’s philosophical contribution is limited to little more than raising philosophical problems in an accessible form for film audiences, others assert that films can actually philosophize, that films can be, to use Stephen Mulhall’s pregnant phrase, ‘philosophy in action’ (Mulhall 2001: 4).”

We’ll examine these issues by watching and reading about film and considering the different ways philosophers have used film and film maybe has used philosophy. If you enjoy movies and you enjoy philosophy, I hope you’ll enjoy this effort to examine film from the perspective of philosophy.

Catalog Description

This course will consider the manner in which film can raise and explore philosophical issues and the manner in which philosophers bring their insights to the analysis of film. It aims to examine and critically evaluate various philosophical themes and problems by means of the visual medium of film. These themes can include such perennial philosophical subjects as reality and appearance, good and evil, and knowledge and skepticism. An additional aim of this course is to examine the nature of film from a philosophical perspective, raising such issues as film’s status as an art form, film as a source of knowledge, and whether philosophy can take the form of, or be articulated through, film. Prerequisite: WRT 102 or FCO 105  

Generation Next

Satisfies Constellations - Aesthetics & Creativity and Media & Popular Culture for “Generation Next”

Constellations are groupings of courses around broad themes that can be addressed using multi- and interdisciplinary perspectives. Constellations build upon the skills acquired in the Foundations courses and the base of knowledge and methodologies acquired in the Disciplinary Perspectives courses.  Constellations will allow students to apply higher-level thinking and communication skills while increasing the breadth and depth of their education.  The Constellations will be structured to help students integrate ideas from different disciplines, as well as the co-curricular, in an intentional way.  They will allow students see the connections between what they have learned in different general education courses, as well as help them make connections between the general education curriculum and their major. Students will take courses in a Constellation from minimum of three disciplines.

The student learning outcomes for Constellations include:

  1. Evaluate alternate, divergent, or contradictory perspectives or ideas.

  2. Engage in inquiry that provides new insight or insight that crosses disciplinary boundaries.

  3. Apply knowledge and methods from two or more disciplines to a single issue or problem.

  4. Make connections or create a synthesis that links two or more seemingly dissimilar contexts.

  5. Engage in critical reflection on their work and the process of its creation.

  6. Demonstrate appropriate collaborative work skills, and the ability to work responsibly alone or in the context of a group as required.

  7. Present themselves and their work professionally.

Required Texts

  • There are no required textbooks for this course. I will be posting documents to Moodle and the Course Assignments page. You should download these documents to your hard drive and be able to access them in class without use of YCP wifi.

  • My expectation is that you will have read assigned texts prior to coming to class and that you will be able to access them while in class, either as a hard printed copy or as an electronic document.

  • If you choose to access course documents electronically, you should do so on a device other than a smart phone (a pad or laptop). You should also know that, "In a review of educational research published by SAGE Journals in July, Singer and University of Maryland professor Patricia Alexander discovered that readers may not comprehend complex or lengthy material as well when they view it digitally as when they read it on paper." READ THE ARTICLE HERE

  • Philosophical writing is usually complex and lengthy, so whether you are accessing our course documents in print or electronic form, you should acquire good practices of annotation. Work on learning how to annotate, both in print and digital forms. There are many good pdf annotators available (I use and like PDF Expert) and you should avail yourself of one.

  • Harvard University has a good website I highly recommend you review: Interrogating Texts

  • While there are no required texts that you will have to purchase for this course, you may incur some costs to view some of the films which will be assigned. I won't be screening films in class nor will I be scheduling screenings outside of class. In my experience, students generally prefer to watch movies on their own time and in their own way. Many of the films we will be discussing in class are popular Hollywood genre films and are widely available on various streaming services, some of which you probably already subscribe to. Some are not and you may incur a cost to view them online.

  • While I won't be scheduling class screenings, I highly recommend that you form a group in class and plan on watching course films together. Watching movies is of course an enjoyable communal activity and your appreciation of movies can be deepened as you watch them together and then talk about them afterwards with your classmates. I am happy to do what I can to help facilitate any group screenings you would like to organize.

I grade using a point system. Throughout the semester, I will ask you to complete many informal and some formal assignments, each of which will be worth a set number of points. At the end of the semester, I will simply add up the points you have earned and award you the appropriate grade.

Daily Micro Essays

You should immediately purchase a small package of 4x6 index cards (no smaller). With each new reading assignment, prior to that reading being discussed in class, I will ask you to write a brief, "micro" essay, usually analyzing some aspect of that day's reading assignment. Sometimes I will simply ask you to record your philosophical reactions to the reading. These micro essays serve a number of purposes: they motivate you to complete the reading and come to class, help to focus your reading, provide a study guide for your midterm and final, and stimulate class discussion. You should be prepared to share your micro essays with other members of the class during our class discussions. Your essays should be approximately150 words in length. Each day I will collect your card, review your essay to determine that you have adequately completed the assignment, record your having completed it, and return them to you the following class day. At the end of the semester I will award up to 100 points for these micro essays, deducting five points for each one you failed to turn in. 

What if I miss class? You can miss up to three micro essays with no penalty. You should count on saving these "misses" for days that you are sick or otherwise not able to make it to class. If you are sick or have to miss class for some other reason, you don't need to provide me with an excuse. You'll simply receive no credit for that day's micro essay. 

  • Micro essays must be completed before coming to class. 

  • No micro essays completed at the start of class or during class will be accepted. 

  • Essays can only be turned in on those days that you attend class. 

  • You cannot have other students turn your essays in for you. 

  • You can miss three micro essays without penalty.

  • If you miss no micro essays during the semester, I will award you 10 points for your good performance.

Course Essays: You must complete 3 of 5, with everyone required to write the first essay

Our course is divided into five sections and within each section I will be assigning an essay that asks you to critically engage in the material we have been considering in that portion of the course, focusing on assessing, reflecting, and expanding on the issues and materials discussed in class and applying them to media texts (primarily movies). These essays will presuppose your understanding of the material we have covered in class and will ask you to analyze arguments and philosophical theories and construct arguments of your own on issues relevant to the material discussed in class. The essays must be typed, double-spaced, and employ appropriate college-level writing skills. Late essays will be accepted up to one week past the due date but will be penalized ten points for each day late. Essays should be 1000 - 1500 words. 

Grading Rubric for Philosophy Essays
Course Project

You can find more information on the final course project by CLICKING HERE.

Course Engagement

In her article "Feminist Epistemology" Naomi Scheman argues that it is misleading to think of epistemic agency as ideally exercised in solitude. Knowing and coming to know, Scheman contends, are social and interactive. "They are things we do, and things we are appropriately held responsible for doing, in social and cultural settings that variously help and hinder our doing them well." I wholeheartedly agree with Scheman that knowing is a practice that ideally occurs in a social setting. Each of us is responsible for participating in a variety of communities of knowers and it is a responsibility we ought to take seriously. Our class is one such community, a community in which we must actively participate in the social practice of knowing. To encourage your participation in this community of learners and to encourage you to come to class prepared to discuss that day’s issues, at the end of the semester, you will receive a grade based on your class participation throughout the semester. The grade you receive will be based on, among other things, your regular attendance, your improvement over the course of the semester, and, to the greatest extent, your willingness to contribute in a meaningful way to the daily class discussion. Other indices of an engaged student include:

  • Your willingness to engage the texts and issues associated with the course in the spirit of learning more about yourself and the world you live in.

  • Your ability to respect a diversity of opinion as demonstrated by conducting yourself in a civil manner and by refraining from interruptions and ridicule of others.

  • Your ability to listen and participate during class.

  • Your ability to offer relevant, on-topic commentary.

  • Your ability to arrive at class on time and prepared.

  • Your ability to focus on class during class time. Habitual entrances and exits during class sessions will result in a grade penalty, as will holding private discussions during class and disruptions arising from cell phones, watches, pagers, and the like.

  • Your ability to avoid complaining and asking questions whose answers have already been provided (e.g., “Can I make up the quiz?” and “What is the response for next time?”).

  • Your ability to let me know ahead of time if you have to miss an appointment or conference.


Course Engagement Rubric: This engagement rubric details how you can assess your preparation and participation in the course and how I will award you points at the end of the semester.

A Note on Moodle and Grades

Most of our course documents and course information is available through this webpage and an additional webpage (linked at the top of this page) that has our daily assignments on them. I will occasionally use Moodle but don't use it daily. I especially won't be uploading grades to Moodle. I believe that as adult critical thinkers, you should be able to track and monitor your progress in this course, and that includes keeping track of your performance and your grades. And therefore I won't post grades to Moodle.

E-Mail Addresses

You are expected to have an active York College e-mail address and to check it regularly during the semester. I will send e-mail only to your address. If you wish to use other addresses, such as private internet service provided addresses, you should set up your YCP address so that it automatically forwards your mail to that address.


Attending class is a key factor in college success. Not only does regular attendance help you succeed, it also helps the class work well and succeed. As my course engagement guidelines make clear, a classroom is a community of learners in which we are all engaged in mastering material. It's far easier to do that when everyone attends regularly. When you fail to attend class, you lose points for your missed homework, your course engagement grade suffers, and your classmates lose out on the opportunity to collaborate with you on the day's coursework.


While I won't be taking roll in class each day, your homework will provide me with a record of your attendance. Attending class is a key factor in college success. Not only does regular attendance help you succeed, it also helps the class work well and succeed. As my class participation guidelines make clear, a classroom is a community of learners in which we are all engaged in mastering material. It's far easier to do that when everyone attends regularly. When you fail to attend class, you lose points for your missed homework and your class participation grade suffers. Additionally, if you miss the equivalent of one's week's classes, your final grade may be lowered by one-half grade (.5). If you miss the equivalent of two weeks of classes, your final grade may be lowered by one full grade. If you miss any class, please be responsible for getting class notes, assignments, etc. from another student in class. It may help to have available telephone numbers or e-mail addresses of one or two classmates.


Activities outside of regular class hours

As part of the regular course requirements, you will be expected to occasionally participate in events outside of the regular class hours. You may be asked to watch videos on your own time and attend evening events. Additionally, as part of the English and Humanities Department's efforts to encourage student participation in college cultural activities, I will ask that you attend two cultural events during the semester. These cultural events can include lecture and film series, theatrical or music events, galley exhibitions, disciplinary lectures or events. You can find information on the College's cultural events on my.ycp, on the College's website, and through other information access points. Following your attendance, you should write a brief 250 word reflective analysis of the event you attended describing what event you attended and your reflective thoughts about it. This should ideally be turned in within one week of the date of the event, so that you don't forget the details. You will receive 10 points for each of the two events you attend and write-up.

Electronic Submissions

Please note that I do not accept electronic submissions of assigned work unless otherwise detailed in specific course assignment instructions. You are responsible for insuring that I receive a hardcopy of your work by the assigned deadline.

Late Submission of Course Materials

All my courses require extensive reading, writing, and speaking, with overlapping assignments; please keep tabs on the syllabus so that there are no surprises. I do not accept late work, unless you and I have already made arrangements.  If you will be absent, you must make arrangements with me to submit any assignments before class begins.

Laptops in the Classroom

Your use of a laptop in class is a privilege and not a right. You are required to bring your readings to class and some of these readings are available electronically. I have no objection to your bringing your laptop to class in order to access the readings electronically or take notes during class (thereby cutting down on printing costs). You should know, however, that a number of studies have indicated that students who use laptops in class often perform poorly in comparison with students who do not. Laptops also are a source of constant distraction which take away your focus from the class and diminish your engagement with the course. For this reason, if I feel that your laptop use is undermining your engagement in the course or if I discover that you are using your laptop for other than class purposes, your laptop privileges will be immediately and permanently revoked for the rest of the semester.

Your Responsibilities

Please review YCP Academic Policies so that you better understand the standards that we will adhere to in this course.

It is your responsibility to remain apprised of all assignments and any changes in the syllabus or grading policies. I reserve the right to make changes to class policies and the syllabus as I deem necessary. I expect that you will be in class daily, having prepared your work and ready to discuss the material. 

You should obtain the names and contact information from several of your fellow classmates so that you have someone to contact if you must miss class. You should not depend on either e-mailing or phoning me to learn what you missed in class or find out your assignment for the following class.

I do not post grades to Moodle. It is your responsibility to track your performance in this course. Keep track of your graded assignments and track your performance in completing homework assignments.

You should strictly observe the following policies:

  • Attendance is not optional but strictly required.

  • Class begins promptly at the appointed time. Don’t be late.

  • Students should come to class prepared, having read and completed the day’s assignment, ready to discuss it.

  • You should bring the day's readings with you to class each day.

  • There is to be no sleeping in class. Stay awake and alert.

  • Do not leave the room during the class period without prior permission.

  •  Do not carry on private conservations while class is in progress.

  • Treat all class members with respect and civility.

  • Make sure that all cell phones and other electronic equipment is turned off.

If you are interested in studying Philosophy at York College, pleas check out the brochure I have prepared:

Studying Philosophy at York College

bottom of page