Film-Philosophy Conference, Film-Philosophy Conference 2012

Between Scepticism and the Fantastic. Scepticist Thought Experiments in Contemporary Mainstream Cinema

Philipp Schmerheim


This presentation attempts a systematic discussion of the way in which contemporary mainstream cinema configures scepticist thought experiments, and outlines the philosophical significance of a comparative analysis of such configurations.

Films such as MATRIX (Wachowski, 1999), THE TRUMAN SHOW (Weir, 1998), THE VILLAGE (M. Night Shyamalan), THE ISLAND (Michael Bay, 2005), S1MONE (Andrew Niccol, 2002) and, more recently, INCEPTION (Nolan, 2010) play with the narrative and aesthetic possibilities of the idea that the world (of the diegesis) is not the way its main characters believe it to be, and that these characters are, or might be, unable to determine the actual ontological status of their environment.

Such scepticism films – as I term them – are part of a long-standing cinematic tradition which from Méliès through the arthouse films of Fellini or Bergman to Christopher Nolan’s THE PRESTIGE (2006) explores the fragile boundaries between reality and illusion, waking life and dream, real life and fantasy. But scepticism films are not merely playing “mind-games” (Thomas Elsaesser) with their characters and audiences, since they tend to address fundamental philosophical concerns about human knowledge of the world more directly and less selectively than other, similar films.

Scepticism films such as the ones mentioned can be understood as configurations of scepticist thought experiments. Since the development of such thought experiments figures prominently in philosophical literature from Plato’s Politeia to Descartes’ Meditationes de Prima Philosophia or Hilary Putnam’s Reason, Truth, and History, it is apt to ask for the philosophical viability and significance of the narrative and easthetic configuration of similar thought experiments in cinema.

The presentation will analyze some of the configurations of scepticism in contemporary scepticism films and show how a comparative analysis of these films deepens an understanding of the philosophical potential of cinema.

Only abstracts are available on this site

About the Presenter

Philipp Schmerheim
Universiteit van Amsterdam (Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis)

Philipp Schmerheim is a PhD fellow at Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis of the University of Amsterdam (UvA) with a project on the configuration of philosophical ideas in mainstream cinema. Since 2005, he regularly teaches seminars at Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf (HHU). Philipp Schmerheim received an M.A. in Philosophy from Georg-August-Universität Göttingen and an MA in Film Studies from the University of Amsterdam. He also studied at University of California, Santa Barbara and at Sapienza University of Rome. His areas of specialisation are film philosophy, film theory, intermediality, methods of film analysis and children’s media.