The Cinematographical Method of Thought


For a number of reasons, the relation between movies and thought can be difficult to pin down. Watching movies is often considered an idle pastime, and in terms of enjoyment, it is one of the more accessible forms of art. In some respects, it is clear that one film may be more intellectually demanding than another. However, it is not clear in which respects watching a movie requires thought. Some films may have a plot which requires careful attention, agile reasoning, and a strong memory to comprehend. But still, there may be some people who have no need to understand the plot in its entirety and are able to fully enjoy the movie without exerting any pronounced intellectual activity. A film might have subject matter that is more appealing to educated people than to non-educated people, but not be intelligently written. A film may be intelligently written and directed but not require intelligence to watch. Things such as the vocabulary or cultural context may add or detract from a film’s intellectual accessibility. Most of the things that would make watching a movie an intellectual experience seem to be inessential to the art form. The dynamic and multisensory stimulation of film has the power to compel despite a lack of effort on the part of the viewer. At the very least, watching a movie requires unconscious and sensory cognition, but it is less clear whether and how watching a movie requires conscious intellectual thought, or how film coincides with or augments intellectual activity.

Given that different viewers may enjoy a film for different reasons, and that a person’s general inclination towards intellectual activity does not necessarily predict their reasons for enjoying a movie, or which movies they enjoy, it is not at all clear that watching movies requires that the viewer engage in intellectual activity. It seems that watching a moving picture does not require any specified level of intellection. When reading a book, there is a baseline level of intellectual activity and attention which is the gatekeeper to the experience classified as reading a book. The criterion for watching a movie is at the level of merely looking in the direction of the screen playing the movie. Because of the basic intellectual requirement involved with reading, reading is classified as an intellectual activity by a large portion of the population, almost irrespective of the content of the literature being read.

But films may also appeal to a broad range of viewers coming from a variety of backgrounds, and what on one hand supports the populism of film may in another light support its transcendence and universality.

Despite intellectual activity being seemingly inessential to film, there are aspects of film which make it especially relevant to intellectual life. I wish to explore how film may play a role in intellectual life. Given that movies are possibly the most immersive art form beyond certain unorthodox forms of live theatre or installation art pieces, movies have great potential for intellectual richness and depth. I wish to draw upon Henri Bergson’s ideas about the cinematographical mechanism of thought in order to pose some possible ways of thinking about the intellectual nature of movies. On one hand, watching movies may appeal to our “preoccupation with action” in that they expand our ability to simplify and spatialize motion and other types of action and becoming. But watching movies also may appeal to our reasoning about “duration,” or the qualitative stuff of reality, or reasoning about things which do not pertain to our interests concerning action. In either case, I wish to argue that watching movies is appealing to the human desire to have “conquest over nought.”

The Cinematographical Mechanism of Thought

In Creative Evolution, Henri Bergson criticizes the conception of nothingness as being a self-sufficient idea. The “nought,” Bergson argues, is not on equal footing with existence. In terms of content, it is not “less than” the idea of something existing. Rather, it is a secondary form of affirmation which involves conceiving of something to be negated, and thus involves the idea of negation in addition to the idea of something to be negated. Bergson discusses how philosophers tend to “pay little attention to the idea of the nought” but that it is a hidden force which drives much philosophical inquiry (p. 299). Reality is fundamentally positive, and its essence consists in its duration, or its qualitative multiplicity. However, people tend to think of nothingness as the default. The reason that Bergson believes that we as human have this tendency to puzzle as to whether there is something rather than nothing rather than to recognize duration as self-sufficient, is that the purpose of thought is aimed at action, and action is centered around the progression from nothing to something. He claims that “All action aims at getting something that we feel the want of, or at creating something that does not yet exist” (p. 297). This is a strong claim which at times requires some loose interpretations of “getting” and “creating,” but Bergson is correct to highlight the human preoccupation with filling voids, going “from the empty to the full, from an absence to a presence, from the unreal to the real.” More puzzling than the fact that anything exists, is the fact that humans themselves exist, and given our fragile existential status, it makes sense that we would be preoccupied with the idea of being something rather than nothing. It is possible that since all of our experience of something existing happens via our own selves existing, we mistake our own fragility for the fragility of existence in general. It is not the condition of the world to constantly be at war with nothingness, but the condition of human beings and other living organisms.

While it is difficult to give a precise definition of what makes something a living organism, a mainstay of the biological theory of life is to say that it is necessary but sufficient to say that a living thing must maintain and perpetuate its existence through homeostasis, metabolism, growth, adaptation, response to stimuli, and reproduction. All of these activities of living organisms involve some sort of “conquest over nought,” because if not striving to grow, strengthen, empower, or augment its being, an organism is at the very least striving to perpetuate and maintain its existence, whether physically or through more abstract or displaced means. Living is a constant struggle to be something and to avoid becoming nothing.

Bergson claims that thought is “preoccupied before everything with the necessities of action,” and makes an argument that thought spatializes and simplifies for the necessities of action. We create “snapshots” of reality in order to stabilize it sufficiently to make decisions concerning action. We then combine these snapshots to form a mean image which seems to constitute motion or becoming. This is the cinematographical mechanism of thought, as Bergson describes it. As explained earlier, Bergson believes that the mind works this way because of its concern with action. Actions themselves are discrete. Whenever we decide to perform an action, we think of it in terms of its end. The following passage is Bergson’s very intriguing description of action’s discreteness:

The function of the intellect is to preside over actions. Now, in action, it is the result that interests us; the means matter little provided the end is attained. Thence it comes that we are altogether bent on the end to be realized, generally trusting ourselves to it in order that the idea may become an act; and thence it comes also that only the goal where our activity will rest is pictured explicitly to our mind: the movements constituting the action itself either elude our consciousness or reach it only confusedly. Let us consider a very simple act, like that of lifting the arm. Where should we be if we had to imagine beforehand all the elementary contractions and tensions this act involves, or even to perceive them, one by one, as they are accomplished? But the mind is carried immediately to the end, that is to say, to the schematic and simplified vision of the act supposed accomplished (p. 325).

We are not consciously aware of most of what happens when an action is performed. In order to perform an action, we must think of its end, and if the bulk of an action is too complex or unpracticed to perform subconsciously, the action must be divided into smaller discrete actions. Bergson describes actions as being “indivisible,” in that each action is performed with a discrete end or goal in mind, and if one attempts to “divide” that action, it ceases to be the same action. When people think about actions, they conceive them from period of rest to period of rest. Similarly, memories of motion pose a difficulty, since they tend to be loosely tied together images whose quality of motion is nowhere near as robust as what one perceives visually. In many types of thought, humans are quite used to pasting together various static images and augmenting them into a more continuous image. Mathematics is done by repeating and reflecting on various actions, abstracting from them, and forming processes from them. Most complex skills require isolating smaller discrete, unitary skills that can later be combined to form the more complex skill.

Since we think of actions in discrete steps, we must conceive of our environment as static and discrete in some way in order to allow it to be acted upon by our discrete conception of an action. In order to comprehend our environment to an extent that we may act effectively within it, we must simplify our perceptions in terms of what is most relevant to performing the action. In order to make a complex sensory experience of duration comprehensible, we must contract our various sensory data into a few summary statistics which we are capable of holding in our minds.

But Bergson aspires to a type of thought which goes beyond the concerns of action to a consideration of “the nature of things independently of the interest they have for us,” and this requires recognizing the ways in which the manners of thought preoccupied with action are not suited to philosophical speculation. We have some perception of duration as having qualitative multiplicity, a multiplicity which defies quantification by nature of its utter heterogeneity.

How is Action a Conquest Over Nought?

Action signifies our interaction with our environment. Performing an action affirms one’s existence, whether by the sensory experience of being an individual who is doing something, or by exerting force in order to make a change in one’s environment. Thoughts themselves are flimsy impressions with a tenuous existence. The bulk of human experience consists in perceiving and acting, and yet, our conscious thoughts and unconscious thoughts auxiliary to reasoning and intellection seem to be the things which are most quintessentially “us.” It is then desirable to find some way to transform these thoughts which constitute ourselves into something both intellectually and perceptually substantive. In order for a thought to go beyond its ephemeral nature as a faint impression in the mind, it must result in an action or be accompanied by a perception.

While I find it imprecise to say that all action is aimed at getting something or creating something which doesn’t exist, action is a development which allows for greater adaptation to one’s environment, and this confers survival benefits, and many of these actions consist in incorporating things into one’s being or augmenting the self by means of tools, material objects, social involvement, and by other means. Survival itself is a form of triumph over nought in which a self-maintaining organism strives for the things which will keep it alive and perpetuate its genetic material, and so long as it is able to do those things, the organism exists as a discrete being in the way that its internal system strives for its being.

Watching a film engages sensory processing required for adapting to one’s environment, at least in our evolutionary history. On the screen we may be presented with scenes similar to those which might have great significance for survival, were we to actually be in those situations. It seems advantageous that we would be interested to see how a physical fight plays out, since it would crucial for survival to pay close attention to this. In some vestigial sense, we watch movies to rehearse various scenarios which might be relevant to our survival and decisions concerning action, were we to find ourselves in those situations, despite how far-fetched the scenarios might be. Perhaps some of the entertainment value of movies is in considering far-fetched but high stakes scenarios. We can’t be constantly worried about the possibility of the more unfortunate occurrences in movies happening to us, but it might be advantageous to have a reason to consider these situations for a reason other than worry, and for thinking about these scenarios to actually be enjoyable rather than stress-inducing. Worrying about every possible scenario that could occur would overwhelm us, but if mentally, we have an incentive to consider novel situations because we find it enjoyable, we might find ourselves more prepared to handle novel situations when they do arise. With a greater ability to consider novel situations and adapt to one’s environment comes a greater ability to survive.

The Aestheticization of Modernity Through Film

Relative to the past, modern times always seem to be busier, more complex, and more fraught with concerns about how one relates oneself to the growing population and to the increasing competitiveness of various domains of life. In addition to this, the rate at which modernity accelerates only seems to increase with time. Film has served as a useful medium for exploring and aestheticizing modernity, and has been a popular medium since modernity reached its fever pitch a few decades after the industrial revolution, as evidenced by the appearance of the modernist movement. The aesthetics of modernity parallel the social, spiritual, and existential concerns that go along with modern life, and provide a means of exploring them. Two developments seem to characterize difficulties of adjusting to modern life, both of which engender feelings of alienation. One is urbanization and the problem of relating oneself to a crowd—a group of people much larger than humans have evolved to socialize with. The second is the loss of identification with work that comes with the mechanization of manual labor, and the increasing homogeneity of modern occupations driven by capitalism.

One of the ways in which people adjust to modernity is by aestheticizing it. While there can be comfort in ugliness and discomfort in beauty, one approach to finding comfort in austerity, in the coldness and bleakness of steel and concrete, and of strangers, is to highlight the beauty in them, and to form new associations with them. When something is associated with beauty, this perception of beauty is transferred to it. This is why marketing teams go to great lengths to make sure that the product they are representing is associated with beauty and other positive qualities. This is why when a behavior or lifestyle is glamorized in movie, we are more likely to think that the behavior or lifestyle is glamorous. But a type of beauty associated with something must be coherent with it. Aesthetic associations must complement one another, and finding this aesthetic coherence is not always an easy task. It is particularly difficult in the case of aestheticizing modernity, because modernity has unfamiliarity, artificiality, incoherence, bleakness, freneticism, and a lack of established traditions concerning beauty, which all can work against it in terms of aesthetic appeal. But when there is too large a rift between art and life, both can begin to seem ugly.

In the essay “The Painter of Modern Life,” Baudelaire argues the case of the particular beauty of modernity. All beauty, he argues, involves the beauty of the eternal and the beauty of the present moment. There is a harmony that is struck in the way that art echoes the particular tastes of a time period. Any age will have its mannerisms, its gestures, its gaits, and its fashions, says Baudelaire, and these trends are tied to what people value and what they often think about during that period of time. Baudelaire uses Constantin Guys as an example of an artist especially apt at portraying the constant motion of modern life, and what Baudelaire finds remarkable about Guys’ paintings is the way in which they seem to be searching for the essence of modernity. Baudelaire describes a project of aesthetics that arises when rapidly progressing modernity diverges from the existing ideas of beauty inherited from the past. A successful piece of art is one which uses both the modern and the eternal to its advantage, as the modern aspect provides the language with which the eternal is expressed. Baudelaire comments that many painters of their day dressed their subjects in the costumes of the “Middle Ages, the Renaissance or the Orient,” and expresses that this is “symptomatic of a great degree of laziness” (p. 13). The Old Masters, he argues, each had an element of modernity in their work, and because of this, their work combined to form a viable whole. There are inevitably traces of the time the artist is living in evident in their work, and a work that resonates is in harmony with the time that it is created in. There are styles or types of art that people find beautiful for reasons of their fundamental relationship to being human and to what we find beautiful, and there are things which we find beautiful because of our particular experiences of living at the time in which we live. Any piece of art intermixes these two types of beauty because the eternal needs some particular mode to express itself in and our circumstantial tastes must always be tied in some way to a more fundamental aesthetic taste. Baudelaire describes modernity as “the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable” (p.13).

Baudelaire takes an interest in Guys because of his endeavor to discover and articulate the beauty of the present day. There are several instances in which Baudelaire describes Guys art as reaching for, and remarkably, brushing up against those qualities of modernity which would soon be more suitably conveyed in film. These types were the predominant archetypes of film in its early stages which, in light of Baudelaire’s essay, seems emblematic of the public imagination preceding and during the early stages of film. The Flâneur was another type that Baudelaire described, whom he called the “connoisseur of the street.” This type contrasts with the Dandy, in that the Flâneur individuates himself through blending in with the crowd, thus freeing himself from the gaze of others, allowing him to define himself on his own terms and attain a sort of mastery of the city. The Dandy, on the other hand, individuated himself by his ostentatiously unique sense of style and distinct way of living. The Flâneur’s mode of existence is born of a need to situate oneself among the bustling activity of city life, and to be indifferent to the indifference of the city, or even revel in its indifference, and to be fully enrapt by the activities of the city regardless. The city was present to the Flâneur without him being present to it.

The alienation that comes from people being crowded too closely together is one that has been explored in film since its beginnings. In The World Viewed, Stanley Cavell argues that Charles Baudelaire’s essay “The Painter of Modern Life,” can be seen as an anticipation of film, particularly through his characterization of types of modern people, most importantly, the Flâneur, a figure of urban alienation. The Flâneur provided a model of how to make sense of oneself among a crowd and come to terms with the alienation of urban life. He provided a model of passionate spectatorship as a hobby. Movies would soon allow such observers to view the world in ways that would not have before been possible. While certainly a viable type for consideration on the silver screen, anticipated film chiefly by providing this model of spectatorship and way of reconciling oneself with alienation. Observation is his activity and not his idle pastime; it is something that he does, and is good at. Although he is not engaging in the activities he observes, he is not idle, because he is actively and busily striving to understand the myriad ways in which other people live in the city.  The Flâneur, as Baudelaire describes him, is someone who has mastered the art of being “at the centre of the world, and yet… hidden from the world.” He is a connoisseur of the street, and is able to enjoy the many options that the city provides in an independent and passionate but still impartial way.

Rather than despairing at his insignificance and anonymity as merely an individual among many, the Flâneur fully comes to terms with this by enjoying the potential for spectatorship which comes with this anonymity. In a way, he becomes an individual by remaining separate from it as an observer. The Flâneur is able to stand immovable in his independence amidst the ebb and flow of movement in the city. He understands what the city offers well enough to understand what he does and doesn’t like. He is unconcerned by the city’s lack of concern for him, because he sees it as a thing to be enjoyed and utilized. “He is an ‘I’ with an insatiable appetite for the ‘non-I’.” (p. 9). Despite this fascination with all things external to himself, he does not give up his sense of self to the city, but rather, he maintains an autonomy of attention, a self-direction which allows him to feel at home in the city, despite all of its fugitive estrangement from him. He does not forfeit his person to the city, but maintains his selfhood by using his anonymity among the crowd to separate himself from it. With so much activity in the world, perhaps the only way to take part in all of it is to become this type of passionate observer.

Living in the city itself presents many ways life, and various attractions, shops, restaurants, and people compete for one’s attention. Urban life brings with it a multitude of stressors, and its urgency, competition, and desperation make one hypervigilant of being surrounded by people. It is difficult to turn one’s mind away from one’s nearly constant interaction with people in order to understand one’s own personal desires and private happiness. It is difficult to escape the feeling of society’s peering eyes in order to contemplate un-self-consciously. The Dandy, The Military Man, and The Woman were the types that were observed by the Flâneur, and in turn, the types more frequently seen in films. They were a few of the important “Myths of Film” which Baudelaire prototyped in his essay, according to Cavell. Each of them had their own way of dealing with or avoiding feelings of alienation and depicted ways of living a modern life. Along with the concern regarding aesthetics, there is a concern about how one behaves as a modern person, what roles one fulfills, and how one distinguishes oneself as an individual. All of these modes of making sense of modern life work in tandem, as one’s role provides a reason for action, and action provides the substance for aesthetics.

The Dandy responded to this feeling of being lost and isolated in a crowd by relentlessly pursuing originality. If he was getting lost in the crowd, he would find a way to stand out. If the rumbling of the crowd drowned him out, he would just become louder. In his essay, Baudelaire says that Dandyism is “the delight in causing astonishment, and the proud satisfaction in never oneself being astonished,” and that “Dandyism, an institution above laws, has laws to which all its representatives are subject.” The Dandy uses his uniqueness as both a way to gain acknowledgment and a way to gain privacy. Being different made the Dandy stand out, while exempting him from expectations that come from following norms. By following the code or laws of a subculture, he renders the laws of common society irrelevant. The Military Man provides one of the few models of modern life that is centered on action. The Military Man avoids alienation by immersing himself in a cause, and adopting a kind of purposeful modern action. He finds comradery among his fellow servicemen, and the shared purpose, and shared fears bond them together. As Cavell puts it, “It is true that the movies’ way of asserting community is typically through male comradeship.” He further notes that “women are anti-community (because they interfere with comradeship); and that neither the woman outside (i.e. sexuality) nor the movie wife (i.e. frigidity) are reproductive, except accidentally, which further interferes with community” (p. 48).

The Woman type seeks solace from alienation by using whatever means are at her disposal to elicit desire and interest. Not quite able to disappear into the anonymity of the crowd, whether by how she naturally attracts attention, or by a difficulty in becoming unaware of the minds surrounding her, she chooses or gives in to a type of act in which she is endlessly fascinating, but not completely recognized as human. The reason for adopting this archetype is put succinctly by Mae West: “It’s better to be looked over than overlooked.” The Woman, as a type characterized by Baudelaire and early films, was an object of fascination. Her exterior and descriptions of her were almost always centered on male subjectivity rather than her own. Baudelaire describes her as “a divinity, a star, which presides at all the conceptions of the brain of man; a glittering conglomeration of all the graces of Nature, condensed into a single being; the object of the keenest admiration and curiosity that the picture of life can offer its contemplator. She is a kind of idol, stupid perhaps, but dazzling and bewitching, who holds wills and destinies suspended on her glance” (p. 30). In Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the character Judy presents a perfect depiction of this type as she plays Madeleine, as well as a perfect depiction of, to put it metaphorically, the conflict between wanting to be looked at and wanting to be seen. Judy becomes intoxicated by the fascination she causes in Scotty and wants him to look at her the way that he did while she was acting the role of the Woman. However, understandably, she is distraught at the realization that Scotty loved the act she was putting on and not the person behind it, and she slowly and painfully gives in to Scotty’s obsession with re-creating Madeleine.

Furthermore, while most of the focus of these types was on the upper class, on men who were primarily men of leisure such as the Dandy and the Flâneur, the alienation of workers presented an even greater problem to aesthetics. Former trades involving artisan craftsmanship and a deeply tangible type of action were fading out of prominence. Even if there were still bakers, weavers, seamstresses, butchers, carpenters, cheesemakers, etc., mechanization of these jobs allows them to be performed with a lower level of skill. This made the occupations less intellectually involved in the satisfying manner in which thought corresponds to action. Craftsmen were replaced by machines and factory workers, and workers were alienated from the products of their labor. These products were in turn appropriated the bourgeoisie or upper class, demeaning the work and the workers. No longer did producing goods come with a rich tradition, knowledge base, skillset, diversity of action, and identity. Producing goods no longer involved following a single item through the story of its completion, alienating the worker from the thing that they created. Less and less would people get to see and know the person who made the things that they used. This alienation raised the question of who a modern person is and what actions a modern person performs. Through film, people could begin to cultivate a lore of modern life, stories which imparted meaning to their current lived existence.

Film is a medium which parallels concerns of modern life in several respects. In part, this could be because it was born out of need created by modern life, or a cognitive readiness creating the circumstances needed for film to come into existence. The ontological quality of film—presenting human beings to us while we are not present to them—epitomizes alienation in the sense that when we watch a film, we are watching human beings interact in a way that resembles observing human beings in reality, but yet, there is no way for them to acknowledge us, no way for them to reciprocate our attention, no way for us to join the individuals on screen. On the other hand, this impossibility of reciprocation may have the effect of releasing someone from the expectation that they themselves should be a part of the group. It is an exercise in alienation less threatening than conscious rejection or indifference from a human being who has the ability to acknowledge us, but chooses not to. This is the quality inherent in the medium which makes it suited to exploring modernity, but its capacity to carry the torch of other mediums is also a part of how it adapts to modernity There is beauty in modernity, and this beauty has a humanistic value because of the extent to which human contentment and flourishing depend on having some measure of aesthetic enjoyment in one’s life. Beauty that coheres with a person’s life allows some of the beauty to seep into real life, and people are enriched by enjoying films that are relevant to their lives.

The World According to Leibniz

In Leibniz’s anonymously published article “A New System of the Nature and the Communication of Substances, as well as the Union Between the Soul and the Body,” Leibniz describes his account of how mechanical descriptions of the world can be reconciled with metaphysics. He shares that he has had fascination with mechanical explanations of nature and a disdain for metaphysical accounts which involved only forms or faculties. However, despite Leibniz’s preference for mechanical descriptions of nature, he believed that the mechanical accounts provided up until that point in time, by Descartes and others, lacked sufficient explanatory power with regards to observable phenomena, particularly those which were the study of mechanical sciences. He explains that he came to consider necessary the use of concepts which had been previously thought of as purely metaphysical, particularly, the concept of force.

Leibniz also felt it necessary to revive the metaphysical concept of substantial forms. What is clearer is the reason why Leibniz believed an atom of matter to be an impossibility: matter was by definition extendible, and thus, divisible, by both metaphysical and mechanical accounts. Anything which is material must then be infinitely divisible. But Leibniz insists that in order for something to be real or a being, it must be indivisible, which is why he found it necessary to call upon a formal atom in order to explain being, which Leibniz explained by means of substantial forms. Anything which was divisible or did not have a soul was not a substance, but could be an aggregate of substances.

In Samuel Levey’s article “On Two Theories of Substance in Leibniz: Critical Notice of Daniel Garber, Leibniz: Body, Substance, Mona”, he attempts to answer the question of what Leibniz believed the world to actually be composed of, and in doing so, whether he was a phenomenalist (or idealist). He notes that Leibniz is trying to address the issue with mechanical descriptions of the world in that they do nothing to explain the philosophical distinction between motion and rest (p. 294). An account of force is needed to explain both the causes and effects of motion.

On one hand, Leibniz’s ontology is entirely defined by substantial forms which bear little resemblance to the physical world, and yet he subscribes to a mechanical view of nature which can be studied and explained. The active substantial forms which define realness and force do not themselves play a role in the mathematical descriptions of physical science, but explain the ontology, and the ability to assert that motion and force do indeed have a presence in physical reality. As noted previously, matter gained its realness from substantial forms, which were indivisible points of quasi-perceptual being, and often, Leibniz’s description of this strongly suggests that matter exists in its being perceived by these substantial forms, or “monads.” However, Leibniz’s works do not quite support a Berkeleyan idealism in which matter exists only in being perceived by minds. As Leibniz notes in his “New System of Nature” that the perceptive/appetitive qualities of substantial forms are only such by analogy with those of the mind, and are to be distinguished from those of the mind (p. 140).

In order to explain something’s realness, or its ability to exert force, it must be composed of an active substance. Since a substantial form’s nature consists in force, and action is driven by desire and response to sensation, Leibniz argues, the nature of substantial forms consists in “something analogous to sense and appetite.” This, Leibniz believes, means we may conceive of these substantial forms in a manner similar to how we conceive of the idea of a soul. However, Leibniz cautions, while the two are analogous with one another, they should not be considered synonymous, in part, because souls are of a higher order, being “made in the image of God.” This betrays Leibniz’s traditionally Christian view of a personal God whom he states “governs minds like a prince governs his subjects, and even like a father who cares for his children.” Rational souls “follow much higher laws,” and are incapable of forgoing their status as minds.

These distinctions between matter and substance and between substance and mind allow coherence between mechanical science as well as cherished beliefs such as the belief in the immortality of the soul, a personal God, free will, and others. However, Leibniz struggles to explain how the body could then impact the soul or vice versa, a concern which Leibniz expresses (p. 143). It also cuts to the heart of the problem of whether the world is composed of matter, or of substance.  In the article “Phenomenalism and the Reality of Body in Leibniz’s Later Philosophy,” Donald P. Rutherford examines the arguments for both the phenomenalist reading of Leibniz’s work and the materialist reading, in which the world is material, but matter is itself composed of monads. Rutherford critiques an argument given by Montgomery Furth in favor of the phenomenalist reading of Leibniz’s metaphysics. Furth argues that Leibniz discards the view of matter being “an accumulation of monads” on the grounds that it is difficult, if not impossible, to think of an extended thing as being an aggregate of dimensionless points. However, Rutherford questions whether highlighting this “difficult problem” means that Leibniz has adopted the view that matter is nothing but the perceptions of dimensionless substance. Leibniz relates it to an analogous concept in mathematics, in which the continuum represents an extended line of real numbers, upon which can be defined a dimensionless point for every conceivable value on the continuum, and he notes that Leibniz does not overtly push for the phenomenalist view when the topic arises.

Rutherford does, however, contribute to the argument for the phenomenalist reading by citing a couple of other passages of Leibniz’s writings. He quotes a passage from “On the Method of Distinguishing Real from Imaginary Phenomena” in which Leibniz states that he can demonstrate that “not merely light, heat, color, and similar qualities are apparent but also motion, shape, and extension. And that if anything is real, it is solely the force of acting and suffering, and hence that the substance of a body consists in this (as if in matter and form). Those bodies, however, which have no substantial form, are merely phenomena or at least only aggregates of the true ones.” Rutherford’s own position is that while Leibniz does at times seem to be a phenomenalist, when examined more deeply, Leibniz’s writings do not support him holding a phenomenalist conception of bodies. Rather, he argues, Leibniz believes that we should not “take the appearances of bodies at face value” (p. 16).

Leibniz does not believe that human knowledge is limited to observable phenomena, but he believes that observable phenomena are not straightforwardly what they appear to be. Rutherford makes note of analogy that Leibniz uses, in which he claims that bodies gain reality from monads the way that rainbows gain their reality from droplets of water (p. 16). A rainbow is a perceptual phenomenon which bears little resemblance to its cause, but it still allows for a causal explanation. This distinguishes Leibniz’s account of matter and substance from the phenomenalist’s in that matter is a perceptual phenomenon, but this is not considered a limitation on human knowledge.

The Analogies Between Mathematical Cognition and the Cinematographical Method of Thought

Henri Bergson’s book Creative Evolution describes a process of cognition opposed to the common deterministic idea among philosophers. Appearances of mechanism are an illusion rooted in the way that humans use the intellect to spatialize, abstract, and analyze duration, which I will go into further detail about later in this post. But to put it briefly, duration is the qualitative multiplicity of reality. In Creative Evolution, Bergson gives a long exposition of the way that humans systematize qualitative multiplicity, which stems from how people perceive the world in relation to action. Since many situations relevant to survival depend on being able to make an automatic response, the intellect has developed to simplify the environment in order to emphasize relevant information. What I find most interesting about this argument is its consistency with theories of mathematical cognition, and the way that it frames elements of cognition fundamental to mathematical thinking as natural and inherent in many types of thought.

Necessary to the automaticity of action is that one may be able to conceive of an action simply. As Bergson notes, actions are discrete and indivisible. Whenever I act, I act with a discrete goal or end in mind. When I try to bisect an action, I am merely performing a different action. If I try to bisect an action by beginning to performing an action, but stopping midway, inertia interferes with my being able to “bisect” the action cleanly. Whatever intricacies are involved in performing an action happen on the level of the unconscious. We don’t need to think of how each muscle will move, or think of every intermediate position we will occupy in the process of our action. We can only effectively think of the action in terms of discrete steps. Over time, people may develop the ability to perform more continuous movements, but this results from developing a coordination of smaller movements. This is why not everyone is a graceful dancer, and why children begin experimenting with drawing by scribbling back and forth. The first circles and ovals that children draw are jerky and uncoordinated. The repetition and experimentation with smaller actions allows these practiced actions to form a pseudo-continuous process in the mind, analogous to what occurs with a cinema apparatus.

Typically, the word “multiplicity” evokes ideas of number or quantity, but Bergson wishes to describe a type of multiplicity which is not quantifiable. Duration, as Bergson uses it, is heterogeneous and continuous, in that there is no one quality that can be pinned down and measured, since the heterogeneity of duration arises in every quality considered (Leonard & Leonard). Thus, there is no negation, since in order to negate something, one must define a universe with discrete objects. One may negate on interval on a continuum, for example, by saying something like it is a number on the real line which is greater than pi and less than 4, or saying something like “don’t cross the double white lines,” but these require some direction, or an otherwise uniform quantity, such as distance or number. Bergson claims that quantitative multiplicities are “uniform and spatial.” In order to quantify something, we decide on something that we will consider uniformly. An example that Bergson gives is a flock of sheep. As argued in the Henri Bergson entry of The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

Bergson even insists that the word ‘several’ is inappropriate to qualitative multiplicity because it suggests numbering. In Time and Free Will, Bergson provides examples of a quantitative multiplicity; the example of a flock of sheep is perhaps the easiest to grasp (Time and Free Will, pp. 76–77). When we look at a flock of sheep, what we notice is that they all look alike. We sense no qualitative change as we move from one to another. We also notice that we can enumerate the sheep. We are able to enumerate them because each sheep is spatially separated from or juxtaposed to the others; in other words, each occupies a discernable spatial location. Therefore, quantitative multiplicities, as Bergson says, are homogeneous and spatial. Moreover, because a quantitative multiplicity is homogeneous, we can represent it with a symbol, for instance, a sum: ‘25’ (Leonard &Leonard).

Duration, or qualitative multiplicity, on the other hand, is not uniform in any respect. The gradations that one perceives may also be richer than the ones conceived by the intellect. Bergson discusses the absurdity of forming movement from a sequence of states. He makes note of Zeno’s paradox of a flying arrow. At any one instant, it is at a single point, since it cannot be at two points at once, and it can’t be in two points unless it is allowed time to move between those two points. Thus, the arrow must be motionless, since at each successive moment the arrow is only in one place. This absurdity is resolved by placing ourselves at the center of duration, of continuity, and then considering discrete states to be “cross-cuts” of continuous movement. No matter how many instants are added together, the sum remains instantaneous. There is always “more” between any two instants. But if motion and continuity are considered to be the nature of reality and discretizing and taking “snapshots” of the world are considered activities of the human intellect, there is no difficulty in resolving the paradox of the flying arrow. Rather than taking standard ideas like a “child becoming a man” or others involving a mysterious becoming occurring between discrete states, like the movie camera, we start with real motion, and take discrete snapshots of action and coordinate them into a process (Totaro).






Works Cited:

Lawlor, Leonard, and Valentine Moulard Leonard. “Henri Bergson.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 21 Mar. 2016,

Totaro, Donato. “Time, Bergson, and the Cinematographical Mechanism.” Offscreen,


That’s when I knew: Freeze-Frame Shots in GoodFellas

Throughout the movie GoodFellas, Martin Scorsese utilizes freeze-frame shots to create numerous effects involving emphasis and contrast, and to provide context and integrate important scenes with the story. The events of the movie happen rapidly, reflecting the way of life that Scorsese is portraying, and the freeze-frame shots highlight the breakneck pace of events by providing a stillness which contrasts which the adjacent action. Scorsese delights in the endless variations of effect that can be achieved with a freeze-frame shot. The effect is often overtly and intentionally humorous, reflecting Henry Hill’s blasé attitude towards the violence that has transpired during his career as a gangster.

The first freeze-frame shot of GoodFellas happens during the first sequence of the movie, which starts with the yet-to-be completed murder of a man who’d had the poor judgement to “bust Tommy’s balls.” This shot, after the completion of the partial murder of the bloody almost-corpse in the trunk of the car, introduces the function of the freeze-frame shot technique in the movie. The movie freezes on a shot of Henry Hill’s face, clearly displaying exhaustion and discomfort, and he narrates wistfully that “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”

The movie soon cuts to more innocent times, when Henry had first started running errands for members of the mafia. Henry outlines some of the perks of working with the mafia that he began to experience. The job was everything he ever dreamed of, and became “more than a job” to him. The next freeze-frame shot is of Henry’s father viciously beating him after learning of his truancy, and we see how the stake is driven between Henry and his biological family, as opposed to his mafia family. This moment of his home life is emphasized as having a pivotal role in Henry’s development. He is desensitized to violence, disillusioned with the justice of family life, and if people on both sides were violent, he may as well choose the side with all the benefits, privileges, and notoriety of organized crime.

The next freeze-frame shot is of Henry running from the explosion he’s just caused. During the freeze, Henry says “One day, some of the kids from the neighborhood carried my mother’s groceries all the way home. You know why? It was outta respect.” This desire for and enjoyment of being respected is a common theme throughout the movie, and while the respect is arguably there at times—certainly there are kids who can respect another kid who parks Cadillacs and blows up cars—the disintegration of order that occurs during the movie shows how respect based on fear can be a double-edged sword. In the short-term, it means that no one messes with you or inconveniences you, but in the long-term means experiencing the consequences of dealing violence without justice.

Eventually, relations between the main gangsters in the movie fall apart as violence is used as the silver bullet for solving all instances of lack of respect, or “getting out of line.” The required justification for violence becomes slimmer and slimmer until it is a mere thread. The last several freeze-frame shots give emotional emphasis to Henry’s unfolding realization that the only way he was going to survive was to get out. In these instances, the freeze-frames mimic the experience of “freezing up” out of fear, and even evoke the feeling of one’s thought racing as the narration continues while the motion has stopped.

For a few brief moments of Henry Hill’s career, he lives in the romantic world of The Godfather, where gangsters are principled and glamorous. For a while, we see a bit of Henry Hill’s life, as well as some of the routine violence of the mafia. We see Henry get married, have children, have multiple affairs, and the Lufthansa heist unfold, and we see various unsettling instances of senseless violence. The rapid-fire sequence of events is meant to illustrate how little a chance there is for reflection in the gangster’s way of life, of course, excluding time spent in prison, and the freeze-frame shots help to interject some of the reflection into the movie while still representing events in a realistic manner. There’s a feeling that part of what drives this way of life is an inability to feel remorse due to one’s thoughts “going in eight different directions at once.” The events of the movie become progressively more chaotic and out of control, until Henry finally gives up his compatriots and enters the Witness Protection Program.

A Necessary Good

During the 17th century, when Baruch Spinoza was active as a philosopher, science was moving towards a more mechanistic understanding of cause and effect. Inductively, it would have seemed that the greater the necessity of explanation, the more “adequate” the idea. All knowledge which is sound must be necessary, judging by the progress being made in mathematics and mathematically based sciences at the time. There was great enthusiasm for the sturdiness of the insights generated by a paradigm which seeks to minimize uncertainty and superstition about how the world works.

As nicely suited to logic and mathematics as subjects such as mechanics are, a paradigm of determinism and necessity is much more difficult to conceive for topics such as ethics and human psychology. Our tendency is to frequently use heuristics to understand topics of this bent. Spinoza believed that developing a theory of ethics which was necessary (in the logical sense,) was the only way in which to attain a perfect understanding of ethics. Spinoza was a perfectionist, and he believed that it was only rational to want a society in which other people were perfectionists as well, and he felt he was up to the challenge of furthering a project of ethical perfection. This meant accepting strict causal determinism in order to bring ethics into the domain of rational study.

As mentioned in the previous paragraph, ethics and strict determinism or necessitarianism do not always appear to be a good fit for each other from some perspectives. If nothing could ever have happened differently than it did, one cannot make normative claims about what one should or shouldn’t do, or so the objection goes. At first blush, this objection seems to make sense given the terms in which morals are typically thought of. Someone might believe they must do good in order to secure some reward or avoid some punishment in the afterlife. They might believe that they should do good in order to prevent some earthly consequence from coming to pass. They might do good because they do not want to cause pain or suffering in other living creatures, or they might do good in order to see themselves as a “good” person, or to free themselves from blame. Determinism upends any motivation that involves changing the course of future history, or catapulting our world away from a particular neighborhood of the multiverse.

Furthermore, the objectors ask: if everything is necessary, doesn’t that mean that we don’t have control over anything, because we are merely the product of our circumstances? As humans, we are generally inclined to extend a greater amount of mercy in situations where wrongdoing was a result of something beyond the wrongdoer’s control. When we say that there was nothing that could have been done about a sequence of events, we typically mean this in the sense that this sequence of events was outside of our locus of control. Why would it make sense to punish someone for wrongdoing, given that they couldn’t have done any differently? However, this is only a concern if punishment is considered suffering deserved by reason of the wrongdoer’s moral contemptibility as a human being. Coinciding with this view would be form of decision-making that Spinoza would say is dictated by the “passions” and not by reason. He might say that punishment is only useful if it increases the wrongdoer’s power of acting by correcting behaviors which are counter to that which is useful.

Another concern wrapped up in objections to determinism, is the question of the role of free will. Spinoza does leave room for a form of self-determination, if not freedom. Spinoza particularly objects to the idea that submitting to one’s emotions is a freely made decision. What Spinoza emphasizes is our ability to act and to preserve ourselves. This is our nature, to strive to increase this power of acting. While humans are only a link in the causal chain necessitated by God, they are themselves causes of effects in the world. Spinoza gives the following definition of an act attributable to an individual:

I say that we act when anything takes place, either within us or externally to us, whereof we are the adequate cause; that is (by the foregoing definition) when through our nature something takes place within us or externally to us, which can through our nature alone be clearly and distinctly understood. On the other hand, I say that we are passive as regards something when that something takes place within us, or follows from our nature externally, we being only the partial cause. (III D2)

The objective is to become a greater part in what happens to ourselves, and as we learn and grow in skill, we improve in our ability to be active rather than passive. Like a computer can be trained by biased data, the conatus that is not trained by reason will not perform its function correctly. Learning allows us to in effect, program ourselves to optimize our ability to act and grow in power. As Steven Nadler highlights in “The Lives of Others: Spinoza on Benevolence as a Rational Virtue,” a central component of these explanations of why humans behave morally is the idea of the conatus, or the inclination to strive to persevere, also known as a person’s “power of acting.” For Spinoza, desiring to behave morally is a natural result of a conatus that is guided by reason. If someone does not wish to behave virtuously, it is because there is something not working right in the person’s machinery. Virtue, according to Spinoza, is to be guided by reason. Whether someone desires to be a moral person, says Spinoza, depends on whether their conatus is guided by reason or by passions (Nadler, p. 45).

Spinoza asserts that desiring good and shrinking from evil is inherently a part of human nature (IVp19). However, there are several things that can get in the way of these inclinations. As is the topic of Part IV of The Ethics, when people are ruled by their emotions, they are in effect in bondage to them. Virtue is to be guided by reason, and thus, in harmony with nature, since both reason and a person’s nature function in order to obtain what is useful to the person’s self-preservation. When a person’s emotions or “passions” control them and push them in different contradictory directions, they are less able to be in harmony with their nature (Nadler,45). Thus, according to Spinoza, we are to worry less about being controlled by fate, and to instead allow greater understanding to guide us to that which is useful. We may be causally necessary beings, but a result of this is that we ourselves are causes as well.



Works Cited:

Nadler, Steven. “The Lives of Others.” Essays on Spinozas Ethical Theory, 2014, pp. 41–56., doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199657537.003.0003.

“Ethics (Spinoza)/Part 4.” Ethics (Spinoza)/Part 4 – Wikisource, the Free Online Library,

Propaganda in a Free Society

Thing I wrote when Trump first got elected:

There might be a particular version of a song that prefer because it’s the version you’ve heard most often, or the version you heard first. Perhaps a food that you once despised became a favorite after you were obligated to eat it a few times. Is it the same with opinions? Evidence suggests that yes, information seems more true once it’s been repeated. Familiarity can be comforting, and it constitutes a disproportionate amount of the foundations of people’s beliefs. To some extent, this can be combated with rational thought, but being the social animals that we are, we respond better to peer pressure, exposure, and emotion. My own views are influenced by an admiration for intellectuals, fear of embarrassment, travel, growing up between differing socioeconomic classes, and the opinions I’ve been exposed to because of those things. I doubt that anyone will find a person who lives in a vacuum untinged by any of these sorts of influences. My question is regarding what the proper role of political exposure (i.e. propaganda in the loosest sense) is in a society which values ethics and freedom.
When you think of propaganda, you likely think of the North Korean, Soviet, or Nazi regimes, in which leaders are promoted as god-like, the empire as exceptionally great, and current events are depicted as rosier and more flattering than they actually are. These are some seemingly obvious and egregious instances of propaganda that have been surprisingly effective. It seems odd that such heavy-handed deception would work, but it is a matter of how much one has been exposed to the idea. I never found it ridiculous or diffult to believe in God as a child, because I grew up hearing his existence affirmed. My secularly-raised younger cousin, on the other hand, upon hearing that some people believe that God created the universe, said something like “That’s stupid. People think that some man in the sky caused the big bang?” We were both relatively smart kids, but were exposed to different ideas as normal.

As with most things, the dose makes the poison. Everyone is exposed to “information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view.” Everyone experiences radiation and the ingestion of scary-sounding chemicals on a daily basis, and we’re all slowly dying from the free radicals produced from metabolizing oxygen, among other things. But when does influencing opinions go from relatively benign to especially fatal? Might some propaganda even be necessary for a healthy society?

The misleadingness of the information sticks out to me as the crux of propaganda status. But the best liars are often ones who believe their lies, and none of us are quite sure if we’re telling the truth. This could be in part due to the cultures and media surrounding us, and while I want to believe that I have agency over the way that my environment affects me, I sometimes notice that my beliefs subtly change depending on my environment, and it happens without my realizing it for a while. I followed tumblrs that post about how “you look great today” and “you’re flawless”, and even though these people have never seen me and don’t know who I am, I somehow, inexplicably found myself feeling very attractive after a few months.

This role that mere exposure plays in shaping perceptions and opinions has been on my mind a lot as of late, because a candidate with no experience and no expertise, and the mental constitution of someone who’s been up all week on cocaine, has been somewhat democratically elected to one of the most powerful political offices in the world. Why would members of a species, distinguished from other fauna by their capacity for rational thought, collectively make such a decision? I don’t believe that chipping away at false beliefs with internet arguments and well-sourced articles alone would have stopped it. Nor do I believe formal education as it exists would do the trick, even if applied liberally. As with any great disaster, failures happened at many levels, but the culprit I find most salient in this collapse of cultural susceptibility is the sheer amount of airtime that this candidate received, the unwitting propaganda supplied by news stations looking to get more viewers. As is demonstrated by the way people become accustomed to opinions that are often repeated, it follows that giving a disproportionate amount of airtime to a particular candidate is misleading. For the most part, journalists were reporting the facts and giving a measure of critical input, but most of what people heard was the rantings of a man-baby bombarding them at every turn. The subtle arguments as to why he’s unfit to be president didn’t matter so much as him being easily recognizable and seemingly omnipresent. To some extent, giving someone a platform to voice their opinions has an effect similar to endorsement.
The press should be free to publish what they