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Philosophy, Literature and Film (PH365)

Have you ever seen a film based on a novel? Trainspotting, Life of Pi, The Talented Mr Ripley, Lolita, Les Misérables, Emma, the many adventures of Harry Potter – there is a well-trodden path from the page to the screen. This module asks questions based on experiencing such literary-cinematic pairs: how do films and literary works tell their stories? What do they ask of their audiences? Are they powerful and engrossing for the same reasons?

With examples of such pairs in mind, we will think about different ways we can be immersed in a fictional world. This will allow us to study some philosophical accounts of ‘truth in fiction’ and fictional characters. How are facts about the real world relevant to what is true within a fictional world? If there are such things as fictional characters, what are they? We seem to talk about them as if they are people – is that what fictional characters are for us? What happens to literary characters, or our responses to them, when real actors portray them in films?

We will also think about ethical meaning and impact. How are works of literary and cinematic fiction able to have ethical significance? Should they aim to show us ethical truth, and do they help us make ethical progress? These are some of the oldest philosophical questions raised about art, and we will consider some contemporary answers.

These art forms bring broader philosophical questions into play as well. Reading a novel and watching a film both seem to involve imagination, but the experiences, in response to verbal or visual and auditory stimuli, are quite different. What counts as imagining? In representing people, these art forms can help us reflect on ethical questions, and they can also raise questions about the basics of knowing people. What perspectives on human life are important? Does emotional response matter? Finally, thinking about works of fiction – their ways of going beyond the actual – is a route into thinking about the distinction between fiction and reality.

Philosophy of Literature and Film

Module Director

Eileen John


This module is worth 15 CATS.