Philosophy as Narrative, Dialogue, Disruption: An Interview with Paul W. Kahn

Finding Ourselves at the Movies: Philosophy for a New Generation, Paul W. Kahn

Next up for our feature on Paul Kahn’s Finding Ourselves at the Movies, we highlight excerpts from the author’s recent interview with Critical Margins. Here, Kahn details some of the themes found in his book, as well as touches on some of the problems faced by philosophy today and how film can help to address them.

First of all, Paul, one of the first statements in your book is the following, “philosophy begins with narrative, not abstraction.” Could you give us some examples from both ancient times and our own day?

While there are fragments preserved from the pre-Socratics, Western philosophy begins its written tradition with Plato. Plato, however, wrote nothing that we would identify as a philosophical text. He wrote something that looked considerably more like drama. They were dialogues that addressed particular questions in a dramatic context.

The tradition of writing dialogues continued for some time in classical thought. Cicero and Seneca, for example, wrote dialogues. In modern philosophy, David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion may be the most famous. The narrative form of reflective inquiry is rooted for Westerners in Christ’s use of parables. Modern philosophers have sometimes used a narrative form – most famously in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. In popular culture, I am reminded of the very successful work Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig.

You say, “Increasingly, what we have in common is the movies.” Is that mainly because so many movies now are of the blockbuster type that millions flock to whereas other forms of media that we once shared (e.g., the evening newscast) have declined?

It is true that the movies that we most share are the blockbusters, which link us to audiences around the world. There is nothing else quite like that, except perhaps some television series that endlessly rerun, and maybe the Oscars. Movies with less popular appeal than blockbusters often link the members of smaller groups. We share the viewing habits of those with whom we are likely to find ourselves. I suspect that whatever we see, we want to talk about with our friends, partners, coworkers, and associates.

One of the aims of your book is to discuss the relationship between film and philosophy. On that note, could you please tell us what films you think reflect this statement from your book, “To imagine the possible is to construct a narrative?”

Every movie imagines the possible through the construction of a narrative. An account of natural development does not include the possible. We don’t say that an earthquake was one of several possible events. We say it happened and it had to happen because of shifts in the tectonic plates that preceded it. A narrative does not work that way. A narrative always sets the actual against the possible. We are interested in human stories because of the choices made, but choice requires a belief that other possibilities were present – the choice could have been different.

Could you tell us what you mean by the idea that the defense of philosophy is the practice of philosophy?

Philosophy is not a means to some other end. I cannot prove the usefulness of philosophy by showing you that it will improve your job prospects, find you a partner, or make your life easier. We engage in philosophy because we are drawn to self-reflection. We not only act, we think about what we are doing. At times, we think about our entire lives, what we are committed to and why. Everyone, in some way or another, is drawn to these reflections. That is part of what it means to be a person. Philosophy is only a more sustained effort to engage in this sort of self-reflection. The importance of that experience in one’s own life is the only ground upon which philosophy can be defended.

You write, “Promising more than it could deliver, traditional philosophy has lost its audience. Most people believe it has also lost its point.” When did this decline in popular interest in philosophy commence? Who would average people name as prominent philosophers these days?

There were never large numbers of people reading the classics of philosophy. Philosophy was never popular in that sense. For one thing, reading philosophy can be hard; it requires a commitment of time that most people are not able to make. Yet, knowing something about philosophy was at the core of a “liberal education.”

During their college years, students did have the time to read and they were expected to engage these texts. That is no longer true. Perhaps things just speeded up, and philosophy could not keep pace. Students lost the taste for these texts and they lost the patience required to read them. Meanwhile, the profession became increasingly technical, addressing questions of less and less interest to those outside of the field.

Do you think most philosophers would agree with you here, “Philosophy’s role, if it is to have one outside of the university, is not to ground but to disrupt?” Can you give us an example of something that could use some disrupting and how would philosophy differ there from political thought or activism or the activities of policymakers?

Most philosophers think of their activity as one of explaining. I don’t disagree with the urge to explain, but I think we need to get people enthusiastic about looking for explanations. That is the role of disruption: to shake people out of their ordinary assumptions about themselves and their world and to get them thinking.

One of the disruptive points I pursue in the book is to explore the relationship between family and politics. Political theory today generally assumes the perspective of the individual entering a social contract on her own in order to advance her interests. In popular films, we almost never find a film about politics that is not also about family. I explore that connection to disrupt political theory, but also to disrupt ordinary assumptions about the nature of political commitments.

One thing I found interesting in your book is that you argue that most of us interact with movies in a communal fashion. You write, for example, “Interpretation binds us to a common world.” But don’t many of us watch films alone and never discuss them with other people because the films mean so much personally? You even refer to the state of being alone as a sign of “personal and social pathology.” Could you tell us what you mean by that?

Philosophy, I believe, is dialogue. There is, however, no reason to think that the philosophical dialogue cannot be with oneself. I don’t think that one can start out this way.

One needs teachers and companions to challenge the self and with whom to argue. But a dialogue begun with others can certainly continue with the self. A habit of thinking that starts in actual conversations can become an internal conversation.

I spend many hours every day essentially talking to myself, as I write about an idea, read what I have written, reject it as not quite right, and then try again. These forms of being alone – as well as many other private experiences – are not pathological, but to be without friends or people to talk with as a general condition is a problem for most people. Not many of us cultivate that sort of loneliness.

As for films that are so personal that one does not want to talk with others about them, I have no doubt that people have that experience. Not everything has to be talked about with everyone. The point here is no different than with a good book or a painting. The work offers an opportunity for a conversation, but it does not require it.

Be sure to read the rest of the interview here. Also, don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Finding Ourselves at the Movies!

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