Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Philosophical Ideas Through Movies Part I: Relativism

Philosophical Ideas Through Movies is a series of posts I began several years ago based on lesson plans for my homeschooled teens. I started this at my neglected homeschooling blog: Confessions of an Erratic Eclectic Homeschooling Mom. I'm reposting them with significant changes and revisions. They're meant to be springboards for discussion, with some Big Ideas sprinkled in, rather than heavyweight philosophy courses.

Note: The movies discussed in these posts are often not "family friendly" fare, but they may be suitable for adults and mature teens. I am O.K. with my teens seeing films with strong language, violence, nudity, and sex. Your mileage may vary. I recommend checking parental advisories at IMDb or Common Sense Media for more information.

There are no facts, only interpretations. -- Friedrich Nietzsche

This post is on philosophical relativism and explores the idea of multiple perspectives. The lesson is based on the excellent film Hilary and Jackie, which Sarah reviewed here. This idea was borrowed from Philosophy Through Film by Mary M. Litch and Philosophical Films by Professor James Fieser, who uses this material in his university philosophy classes.

I. The Philosophy
  • Is it accurate to say that there is an objective "truth," and the challenge is discovering what it is? Or does "truth" vary according to a person's point of view?
  • Is there an objective right and wrong, or can morality be relative?  How do we know?
  • If your answer to the question "is there an objective right or wrong" is an emphatic "it depends?" ... it depends on what? In what cases are people all bound by the same rules and in what cases do we have the right to decide for ourselves?
  • As Sarah said in her review, is it possible to fully know another person? 
As you can see, there is enough fodder for discussion here to give philosophers job security for centuries. These might be interesting questions to bounce around with your teens, and the discussion may vary according to your family's personal and spiritual beliefs.

We see relativism in movies: For example, in Citizen Kane, the question seems to be "who was Kane, really?" The answer remains elusive, because he never appears in the movie except in others people's stories and flashbacks. We never see him outside of someone else's perspective.

We also see the same story from different points of view in He Said She Said, Rashomon, Courage Under Fire, and 12 Angry Men (Some of these might be about the unreliability of human testimony, not about the relativism of truth.) I'll return to 12 Angry Men and the unreliability of eyewitness testimony in the next unit.

A. Three Kinds of Relativism
  1. Aesthetic Relativism -- Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Aesthetics is a branch of philosophy that deals with the question "what is art?" 

  2. Moral Relativism -- "Right" and "wrong" may be open to interpretation. We'll talk more about good and evil in the next unit.

  3. Cognitive Relativism -- "Truth," even seemingly objective events we see around us, are relative, not absolute.
B. Cognitive Relativism 

German philosopher Immanuel Kant pointed out that what we perceive as objective reality is filtered through our individual schema, or conceptual frameworks for understanding the world. In order to make sense of what would otherwise be an incomprehensible, chaotic world, our brain naturally organizes everything we see and experience based on what we already know.

Imagine my toddler has been raised in a houseful of large dogs. When she sees a cat for the first time, she says "dog!" According to her conceptual framework "furry and four legs = dog." When she learns what a cat is, that information will be added to her conceptual framework. Maybe she decides that "furry, four legs and small = cat." After all, she's only known large dogs. Upon meeting a chihuahua for the first time, she assumes it's a cat. When she learns this isn't the case, her conceptual framework will be changed again.

That's how we learn. We need these frameworks so we don't treat every situation we encounter as if it were uncharted territory. If you meet 528 different dogs, of different colors, sizes, and breeds, you don't have to be taught each time that you're looking at a dog. And we don't need to have every new situation we encounter explained to us. If we did, we wouldn't accomplish enough to make it worth getting out of bed in the morning. It's all good, right?

On the other hand, I suspect most of us aren't aware of how much our perceptions and memories are colored by our experiences, beliefs, and preconceived expectations. Think about the prejudices people have, many of them unconscious. And memory can be surprisingly unreliable.

In one well publicized study, subjects were shown a photo of a professionally dressed white man holding a knife on a sloppily dressed black man. When questioned later, what do you think most of these subjects remembered? Yup. They'd "seen" the black dude holding the knife. Chilling.

Furthermore, our world views, conceptual frameworks, and forms of knowledge differ. Diverse individuals, groups, and cultures may have fundamentally different but equally legitimate ways of viewing or understanding the world. And each of us is filtering what we "see" and "know" through these frameworks. And we're often battling on behalf of our particular perceptions of what's true.

Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote: "The word is made up of points of origin of perspectives ... occupied by active powers, wills, each seeking to organize the world from its perspective, each locked in combat with the rest." So which perspective will win, emerging as the accepted one? Probably the one that enables us to thrive or to maintain the status quo.

C. Variability of Memory

I often enjoy watching a movie or T.V. show I liked years ago. The funny thing is, it's often different from what I remembered. Sometimes I distinctly remember seeing shots or hearing lines in the film that weren't there.

That leads me to wonder how accurate my own memories were. After all, as they were being recorded by my busy brain, they were being filtered through my reactions at the moment, my emotions, and my preconceived expectations. In fact, in talking to my brother, I've often wondered if we were really raised in the same family or if we were living in parallel universes. We remember the same events so differently. Keep this in mind while watching Hilary and Jackie.

"Memory is a complicated thing, a relative to truth, but not its twin" -- Barbara Kingsolver

From the movie Memento, which will be discussed, in detail, in another unit:

Leonard Shelby: Memory can change the shape of a room; it can change the color of a car. And memories can be distorted. They're just an interpretation, they're not a record, and they're irrelevant if you have the facts
This relates to the unreliability of eyewitness accounts, an interesting aspect of cognitive psychology.

D. Postmodern Relativism

After World War II, having seen the Holocaust and Hiroshima, thinkers became convinced that humanity was NOT progressing toward some rational truth. According to postmodernism, all judgments are colored by human values and emotions. So all points of view can be legitimate.

Just as postmodernist philosophers profess that there are no objective facts, postmodern literary and film criticism say there is no such thing as a MEANING of a film or book. The meaning emerges when a person brings his point of view to the book or movie.

We have also discussed Postmodern Film.

II. Movies to Ponder and Discuss

A. Hilary and Jackie 

Are anyone's memories and perceptions of events ever wholly accurate? Why do we often perceive and remember things so differently from other people?

Emily Watson was nominated for the best actress academy award for her work in this film. Based on Hilary du Pré’s book A Genius in the Family, the movie highlights the rise to fame and physical decline of world famous cellist Jacqueline du Pré. Sisters in a musical English family, Jackie and Hilary are both gifted, but Hilary is eclipsed by her younger sister. Jackie's career is tragically ended by multiple sclerosis.

The movie is presented from alternating perspectives, first through the eyes of Hilary, and second through the eyes of Jackie. Later the points of view shift back and forth more quickly, without clear dividing lines. We essentially see the same story twice. Yet while many of the basic events are the same, the stories are very different. Each sister sees their relationship -- and the events that shaped it -- through different eyes.

Discussion Points:
  • We see two women's versions of reality. This could be seen as an example of  epistemological relativism (i.e. truth is relative). Do these two versions of Hilary and Jackie's story fundamentally contradict each other in some important respect – like when test subjects remembered the black guy holding the knife instead of the white guy -- or are the two stories reconcileable?
  • Is it possible to tell which version of events is the true one? Or are both/neither of them accurate?
  • Do you have an opinion on which sister's story is more reliable? Would this opinion have changed at all if Jackie's version had been presented before Hilary's instead of the other way around?
  • Is your point of view affected by knowing that this film is based on events recorded by Hilary after Jackie's death?
  • Jackie was clearly mentally off balance when she stayed with Hilary and her husband Kiff. Would Hilary and Kiff have conceded to Jackie’s odd request if they had realized that her erratic behavior was the result of undiagnosed MS?
  • The movie suggests that Jackie’s and Hilary’s identities were in some sense intertwined, such as when they read each other’s minds. The camera work also suggests this when the two dance together, swinging around in circles like a propeller blade. To what extent were their identities really intertwined?

B. A Separation 

When two people differ dramatically on the "right" thing to do, is it possible to determine who is right? Why do they see things so differently?

I haven't seen this yet, but I understand it highlights the conflict between an Iranian couple, torn between leaving the country so their daughter can have a better life and staying in Iran to care for an aging parent with Alzheimers. According to one reviewer: "The tragedy is that their decisions differ. Nothing more. This is a recurring theme in the movie: everyone is as reasonable as a person in his or her circumstance could be expected to be."

C. Citizen Kane

Is it ever possible to really know another person, since his actions and experiences are being filtered through the perceptions of people around him?
A publishing tycoon's struggle for power negatively affected everyone around him. As the protagonist is dying, different people who knew him reminisce on his life and rise to success. A portrait of a complex individual emerges, but we never see him except through the stories and memories of others.

D. 12 Angry Men

Is eyewitness testimony ever reliable? What unspoken -- often unconscious -- prejudices color our "knowledge" of events?

At the end of a murder trial, a young man's life is at stake -- he allegedly murdered his own father. The case against him is a damning mix of circumstantial evidence and eyewitness testimony. The facts seem clear, but one juror argues that there's a reasonable doubt. As the men debate, under intensifying pressure and in sweltering heat, various facets of their character emerge. Hidden prejudices surface, and at least one juror discovers hidden wellsprings of strength.

E. A Time to Kill (idea borrowed from a post at And So It Begins)

Is it ever morally acceptable to kill someone except in self-defense?

Many of us embrace moral relativism in relation to many issues, but most of us believe there are some basic moral principles and rules we all have to follow. I think we can all agree that "thou shalt not kill" is a big one. Most of us believe there are occasional exceptions. The law recognizes a person's right to take a life if it's directly in self defense or protecting an innocent person. And I challenge you to find any parent -- no matter how peaceful and mild-mannered -- who wouldn't kill to protect her child. But what about other motives? What about revenge?

I haven't seen this movie, but I read the book it's adapted from and I thought it was one of the better Grisham novels.  After two white racists brutally rape and beat a 10-year-old black girl, the child’s father has no hope that justice will be served. He exacts his own form of "justice," shooting the perpetrators inside the county courthouse. Should he be exonerated? Or should the tragic assault on his daughter be considered a mitigating circumstance?

What say you, readers? Thoughts? Ideas? Suggestions?

I Borrowed from these Sources:

Philosophy Through Film by Mary M. Litch

Philosophical Films by Professor James Fieser

Great Issues in Philosophy, by James Fieser


  1. Oh my, this post went over my head a little, Steph. You are one smart cookie! Great examples of films here, though I missed a few of them. I need to rectify that soon, especially Citizen Kane! All the questions you posed here are very thought-provoking indeed.

    1. Me? I'm not that smart. I just have an insatiable curiosity and high speed internet access. That and a shitload of books. ;-) Thanks for your kind comment, Ruth!

  2. I like the idea that there is no such thing as truth, only perception of truth. But admitting this brings us back to the idea of questioning authority that we spoke about earlier. I mean, if truth is only perceived, than why should anyone even bother with authority in the first place?

    You're in charge? That's not the way I see it That kind of thing.

    Every single one of your questions unearths a similar conundrum. Answers that start with maybe, well...in a certain situation, possibly yes at best.

    That gray area is my favorite place to live, as long as those currently residing have some semblance of intelligence. Ideally, the people pondering this stuff are smart enough to not think they're incredibly intelligent, if that makes sense.

    Good read. Though, to be honest, a little heady for a walking the dog reading. :)

    1. First of all, I'm very impressed that you read blog posts while walking the dog. Now that's multi-tasking!

      Second I love, LOVE what you said here: "That gray area is my favorite place to live." That describes me perfectly. I am all about the gray areas -- I always have been. Of course, my dad is a philosopher -- what do you expect? ;-)

      One of the things that scares the hell out of me is that society seems full of people who expect -- or are willing to accept -- simple, black and white answers to complicated questions.

      "Ideally, the people pondering this stuff are smart enough to not think they're incredibly intelligent." Absolutely! It's important to be intelligent enough to understand our limitations. Often the more educated we become, the more we realize we don't know shit. :-) It's the people who think they really "get it" who worry me a bit.

      "Answers that start with maybe, well... in a certain situation, possibly yes at best." Exactly! Which is why I hope these questions are good starters for open ended conversations. Maybe over lots of wine ... Oh wait, this was supposed to be for my kids. :-)

  3. Great post ! I really need to watch Citizen Kane.

    I really like your inclusion of that Nietzsche quote. For university the question of what is real often seems to come up (especially during 9am seminars, unfortunately), and discussion often turns to Baudrillard's simulacrum work. And the Ceci n'est pas une pipe art piece - always! In fact, philosophy so often correlates with literature that I study, which then leads to art, film and other cultural aspects. I love links such as this, and I find that comparing different mediums makes philosophy so much easier to understand. And being able to watch Fight Club or The Matrix instead of working is always good :P

    Thanks for mentioning so many films that I'd like to watch! I'll definitely let you know my thoughts if I get round to watching them.

    1. Thanks, Lucy. I think you'd like Citizen Kane. People talk about it as if it's the Holy Grail of Cinema. :-) I didn't love it *that* much, but I did like it.

      Did you actually watch The Matrix and Fight Club in philosophy class? Very cool!

      I appreciate your input. I knew you'd be more well versed on philosophy than I, and I always enjoy gleaning new ideas. I'll look up Baudrillard's simulacrum work & the Ceci n'est pas une pipe art piece when we get to the section on Skepticism. :-)

  4. Love love love this. Seriously intriguing work. The films you chose, and the respective question you choose to ask for them, are perfect.

    The Citizen Kane question is one I love asking people, and I find that it changes with age. Most of the older people I know (60+ or so) say no, you can never really know another person, which is very interesting to me.

    Again, great work here. Can't wait to see the next post!

    1. Thanks, Alex. I really appreciate your encouragement -- it may help me stay motivated. ;-) That's a thought-provoking point about the "Citizen Kane" question. It never occurred to me that a person's response might be linked to his age.

      Just curious, do you think you can never really know another person?

      I would say "no." This is partly because of my temperament. I lean toward being an introvert, and there are parts of myself that I don't reveal, even in intimate relationships or close friendships. So others are likely to see things differently.

      I do believe it's possible to know a person quite deeply. It's not an either/or thing -- it's a matter of degree, getting further and further along without ever reaching 100%. Just my 2 cents.

    2. That's a tough question. Funny story: When I was looking for a little funding for Earrings, I let my aunt read the script, and her email response was simply:

      "Answer this, do you think one person can every really know another person?"

      We talked for like 2 hours that night on the phone, and the only real answer I could come up with was, no. And that's because I think a lot of people don't really know themselves, for a multitude of reasons.

      But hell, who knows? Ha.

    3. True ... who knows? Those are the kinds of questions I like best. And I agree that many, if not most, people don't completely know themselves.

      Your aunt sounds like a very cool person. Though considering how tough it is to be open to feedback on one's writing, such a cryptic response must've been a bit frustrating. :)

  5. Fascinating post. Haha, I don't know where to start. I minored in Humanities, and postmodernism was my favorite topic. Love how you've introduced so many stimulating questions through these films. (I really must watch Hilary and Jackie and A Time to Kill.)

    I agree with you on the question you raise with Citizen Kane. How can one ever truly know another person? We can't get inside each other's heads. There's only so much we can (and choose to) communicate with our friends and family. It's interesting how various relationships can reveal different parts of one's self. Since we don't behave the same way around every person we know, there is a lot to be gained from multiple perspectives and interpretations.

    Great discussion post!

    1. Thanks, Josh!

      "It's interesting how various relationships can reveal different parts of one's self" ... I love that. It could definitely trigger a fascinating discussion by itself. And I love the way you articulated your thoughts on "how can one ever truly know another person?" I think you summed it up perfectly -- you definitely have a tremendous gift for writing.

      I never heard of Humanities as a college major/minor -- that sounds intriguing. I could definitely learn loads from you about postmodernism, and other stuff, if we ever have time to discuss it. ;-)

    2. Aww, thanks for the compliment! :)

      Ha, I'm no expert, but the subject was the most intriguing part of Humanities for me. I just love how postmodern thinking spreads across so many areas and is, as such, tough to define. Plus, it's based on a more freed way of thinking, which appeals to me.


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