‘Thinking Cinematically before Deleuze’

The seven papers included in this special issue of Screening the Past were presented at a workshop on ‘cinematic thinking’ held at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, in December 2012. This workshop was the second of three organised as part of an Australian Research Council Discovery Project undertaken by Lisa Trahair, Robert Sinnerbrink and Gregory Flaxman from 2010 to 2013 entitled ‘Film as Philosophy: Understanding Cinematic Thinking’. The first ‘Workshop on Cinematic Thinking’ was held in December 2011 and the third workshop ‘The Ethics of Cinematic Thinking’ is to be held in December 2013. A related workshop organised by Kathleen Kelley and Lisabeth During on ‘Cinematic Thinking through Genre’ was held at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, in November 2013.

The aim of the ‘Film as Philosophy: Understanding Cinematic Thinking’ project has been to examine the recent ‘philosophical’ turn within the broader field of film inquiry, and to consider how the encounter between film and philosophy might open up new ways of thinking for both disciplines. We thought that the best way to explore this was to refocus questions deriving from the philosophy of film and film as philosophy towards the broader notion of ‘cinematic thinking’. Our intention was to explore how different philosophical, film theoretical and cinematic approaches conceive of cinema’s capacity to think. To this end, we expanded and refined previous understandings of the relationship between film and philosophy by investigating precisely how philosophical reflection can be rendered through cinematic means. Our interest is in understanding how film explores ideas that philosophy struggles to express, and how cinematic thinking permits an ethical perspective on film, thereby enabling nuanced insight into social issues.

Film theorists and cultural commentators have long noted the prescient vision of moving images depicted in Plato’s simile of the cave. Although Plato imagined an apparatus strikingly close to the cinema, he famously reduced it to a purveyor of appearances and simulacra. Shortly after the invention of cinema, Henri Bergson exhibited a suspicious regard for the apparatus, relating the illusion of cinematic movement and its purportedly false articulation of time and space to Zeno’s paradoxes and the mechanistic limitations of pre-Socratic philosophy. By the second decade of the twentieth century, film periodicals such as The Motion Picture Story Magazine and Photoplay ran regular columns inquiring into the relation between film and philosophy. The interest in connecting film and philosophy in this instance derived more from film enthusiasts wanting to make grand claims for cinema than philosophers explaining cinema’s philosophical significance. Indeed, while cinema entrenched itself as one of the dominant forms of mass entertainment in twentieth-century western societies, most philosophers displayed little interest in the medium. Merleau-Ponty (1964) is a noteworthy exception, writing a short essay on film and psychology and making occasional remarks on cinema in his phenomenological work.

Between the extremes of cinephiles hoping to find philosophy in film and philosophers indifferent to film, a diverse group of twentieth-century writers considered the ontological, epistemological, and aesthetic status of cinema. Critical theorist Walter Benjamin was among the most significant of those determined to understand how cinema and other mass-produced art forms changed the relation between art and the experience of social reality and thus demanded comprehension in philosophical and political terms. Despite mainstream philosophy’s neglect of cinema, many twentieth-century artists, literary figures, psychologists, filmmakers, and art theorists would inquire into both the aesthetic specificity of the medium and its philosophical implications (Virginia Woolf, Maxim Gorky, Franz Kafka, Antonin Artaud, André Bazin, Hugo Münsterberg, Béla Bálazs, Siegfried Kracauer, Rudolf Arnheim, Jean Mitry, Christian Metz, Sergei Eisenstein, Jean Epstein, and Jean-Luc Godard, to name some of the most prominent).

Not only did the philosophising about cinema take place outside the discipline of philosophy, the neglect of film in philosophy can be directly related to the rise and prominence of film theory in the 1970s and 80s. One could also speculate that in addition to doubts by many philosophers about cinema noted above, its neglect of film lay in a residual romanticism that could neither tolerate the contamination of art by commerce, nor the change in the scale of its apprehension from subjective contemplation to mass consumption. Philosophy’s reticence towards film doubtless facilitated its theorisation by other transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches (psychoanalysis, Marxism, cultural theory, and so on). Not only did much of the early attention to film come from psychologists, but film in turn generated one of the most intensive applications of the psychoanalytic method. Such investment highlighted the unconscious aspects of aesthetic production and appreciation, the nature of which remains troubling to mainstream philosophy. Film criticism nevertheless made incursions into popular philosophy by aligning the filmmaker with the figure of philosophical visionary. Directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Jean Renoir, Stanley Kubrick, Terrence Malick, Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais, and Michelangelo Antonioni, are regularly called philosophical filmmakers and their output is often considered within the genre of popular philosophy. Jean-Luc Nancy (2001) has attributed similar status to Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami.

In the last decades of the twentieth century the dynamic between philosophy, film, and film theory has altered dramatically. At the very time the dominant paradigm of film theory began to atrophy, philosophers began their reflections upon cinema. The engagement between film and philosophy is increasingly the subject of intense, innovative debate. In the last decade or so, dozens of books have been published that lie within the emerging genre of ‘film-philosophy’, including works by Rodowick (1997, 2007a, 2007b), Flaxman (ed.) (2000), Mulhall (2002/2008), Bersani and Dutoit (2004), Wartenberg and Curran (2004), Read and Goodenough (2005), Carroll and Choi (2005), Singer (2007, 2008), Rancière (2006, 2007), Frampton (2006), Trahair (2007), Wartenberg (2007), Marrati (2008), Phillips (2008), Stadler (2008), Constable (2009), Mullarkey (2009), Martin-Jones (2011), Rushton (2011), Sinnerbrink (2011), Pisters (2012), and more recently, Badiou (2013), Bolton (2013), and Brown (2013). The interest of publishers in the new hybrid genre testifies to a field that has become among the most vibrant and innovative in film studies and philosophy, a vitality also reflected in the establishment of annual conferences, dedicated journals, numerous research projects, and serious scholarly engagement over the last decade and a half.

Curiously, however, there has been little in the way of historical reflection on the precursors, context, or genealogy of philosophically-oriented film theory. Given the rapid growth of work in the broad field of ‘film-philosophy’, the time seems ripe for some historical contextualisation and reorientation of this flourishing current of film theory. More importantly, it opens up a more productive space for interaction and dialogue between film theory and philosophy, not to mention between philosophical traditions that have taken very different approaches to theorising cinema.

It is from this point of view that the 2012 Cinematic Thinking workshop sought to historicise the idea that cinema is a medium of thought, and to show that the idea of ‘cinematic thinking’ was operative well before the recent upsurge of interest in the intersection between film and philosophy. The workshop addressed the question of cinematic thinking in film theory and film studies before the publication of Gilles Deleuze’s two Cinema books during the 1980s. Our purpose in making Deleuze’s work a historical as well as philosophical reference point was to open up the field of writing on philosophical approaches to cinema before the Deleuzian inspired ‘philosophical turn’, and thus to reorient scholarly work more towards a pre-existing, if neglected, field of cinematic thinking, one stretching back to the early part of the twentieth century.

To be sure, the papers that we offer here do not present a systematic coverage of the works of cinematic thinking before Deleuze’s work (1986, 1989), but we hope that they will open the field of film-philosophy to further inquiry about what cinematic thinking has been in both the production and study of film over the previous century. Our aim in compiling these articles was to bring a more historically informed perspective to bear on the recent interest in the intersection between film and philosophy, and to show how historically slanted inquiry can enrich our understanding of the manner in which cinema is not only an object of philosophical inquiry but a medium in which thought can be screened and communicated. We refer the reader of this issue of Screening the Past to Felicity Colman’s comprehensive treatment of film-philosophers Film, Theory and Philosophy: The Key Thinkers (2009), and hope that the essays presented here will contribute to the ongoing historical reorientation of film-philosophy and film theory more generally.


Alain Badiou, Cinema. Polity Press, 2013.
Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit, Forms of Being: Cinema, Aesthetics, Subjectivity. BFI, 2004.
Lucy Bolton, Film and Female Consciousness: Irigaray, Cinema and Thinking Women. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
William Brown, Supercinema: Film-Philosophy for the Digital Age. Berghahn Books. 2013.
Noël Carroll and Jinhee Choi (eds.), Philosophy of Film and Motion Pictures: An Anthology. Blackwell, 2005.
Felicity Colman (ed.), Film, Theory and Philosophy. Acumen, 2009.
Catherine Constable, Adapting Philosophy: Jean Baudrillard and ‘The Matrix Trilogy’. Manchester University Press, 2009.
Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image. University of Minnesota Press, 1986.
––––––. Cinema 2: The Time-Image. Athlone Press, 1989.
Gregory Flaxman, (ed.). The Brain is the Screen: Deleuze and the Philosophy of Cinema. University of Minnesota Press, 2000.
Frampton, Daniel. Filmosophy. Wallflower, 2006.
Paola Marrati, Gilles Deleuze: Cinema and Philosophy. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, ‘Film and the New Psychology’ Chapter Four of Sense and Non-Sense Northwestern University Press, 1964.
Stephen Mulhall, On Film. Routledge, 2002; 2nd Edition, 2008.
John Mullarkey, Refractions of Reality: Philosophy and the Moving Image. Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
Jean-Luc Nancy, L’Évidence du film. Yves Gevaert, 2001.
James Phillips (ed.), Cinematic Thinking: Philosophical Approaches to the New Cinema, Stanford University Press, 2008.
Patricia Pisters, The Neuro-Image: A Deleuzian Film-Philosophy of Digital Screen Culture. Stanford University Press, 2012.
Jacques Rancière, Film Fables. Berg, 2006.
______. The Future of the Image. Verso. 2007.
Rupert Read and Jerry Goodenough, (eds). Film as Philosophy: Essays on Cinema after Wittgenstein and Cavell. Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
David Rodowick, Gilles Deleuze’s Time Machine. Duke University Press, 1997.
______. ‘An Elegy for Theory’. October, 122, 2007, pp. 91-109.
______. The Virtual Life of Film. Harvard UP, 2007b.
Richard Rushton, The Reality of Film: Theories of Filmic Reality. Manchester University Press, 2011.
Irving Singer, Ingmar Bergman, Cinematic Philosopher: Reflections on his Creativity. MIT Press, 2007.
______. Cinematic Mythmaking: Philosophy in Film. MIT Press, 2008.
Robert Sinnerbrink, New Philosophies of Film: Thinking Images. Continuum, 2011.
Jane Stadler, Pulling focus: Intersubjective experience, narrative film, and ethics. Continuum, 2008.
Lisa Trahair, The Comedy of Philosophy: Sense and Nonsense in Early Cinematic Slapstick. SUNY, 2007.
Thomas E. Wartenberg and Angela Curran(eds.), The Philosophy of Film: Introductory Text and Readings. Blackwell, 2004.
Thomas E. Wartenberg, Thinking on Screen: Film as Philosophy. Routledge, 2007.

About the Author

Robert Sinnerbrink and Lisa Trahair

About the Authors

Robert Sinnerbrink

Robert Sinnerbrink is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Macquarie University, Sydney. He is the author of New Philosophies of Film: Thinking Images (Continuum, 2011), Understanding Hegelianism (Acumen, 2007), co-editor of Critique Today (Brill, 2006), and is a member of the editorial board of the journal Film-Philosophy. He has published numerous articles on the relationship between film and philosophy in journals such as Angelaki, Film-Philosophy, Screen, and Screening the Past. He is currently a Chief Investigator (with Dr Lisa Trahair (UNSW) and Dr Gregory Flaxman (UNC)) on an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Grant project on ‘Film as Philosophy: Understanding Cinematic Thinking’ (2010-2013).

Lisa Trahair

Lisa Trahair is Senior Lecturer in the School of the Arts and Media at the University of New South Wales. She is author of The Comedy of Philosophy: Sense and Nonsense in Early Cinematic Slapstick (SUNY, 2007). She has published essays on film in numerous journals, including Screen, New Formations, Senses of Cinema, Film-Philosophy and South Atlantic Quarterly. She is currently working on an ARC funded project entitled “Film as Philosophy: What is Cinematic Thinking?” with Robert Sinnerbrink and Gregory Flaxman. Essays relating to this project have been published in The Philosophy of Radical Equality: Jacques Rancière and the Contemporary Scene, edited by Alison Ross and Jean-Philippe Deranty and Film, Theory and Philosophy: The Key Thinkers, edited by Felicity Colman. In 2012 she co-edited with Lisabeth During a special issue of Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities on Belief in Cinema which revisits themes from André Bazin (17.4, December 2012). Another essay on Stanley Cavell will appear in a forthcoming issue of Film-Philosophy.View all posts by Robert Sinnerbrink and Lisa Trahair →