Philosophers On “Irrational Man”

Philosophers On “Irrational Man”


Irrational Man is a current movie about a despondent philosophy professor who moves to a small-town college, his relationships with a student and a fellow professor, and his commission of what the film’s press materials describe as “an existential act” which allows him to “find the will to live.” It is one of the few depictions in recent mainstream films of a philosophy professor as a main character.

Metacritic shows the movie, directed by Woody Allen, getting mixed reviews, but the real question is: what do philosophy professors think about a movie that puts one of them on the big screen? In what follows, Marcus Hedahl (US Naval Academy), Kristina Meshelski (CSU Northridge), James South (Marquette), and Daniel Weinstock (McGill) share some brief thoughts about the movie. Feel free to chime in. And watch out, too, as there are a couple of spoilers. In case you haven’t seen it, I’ve posted the trailer below the reviews.


Marcus Hedahl:

If one is more intimately familiar with a particular element of a film than the average bear, at some point the willing suspension of disbelief is likely to come crashing down, demonstrating the limits of even this most benign form of doxastic voluntarism. I went to Irrational Man with this limitation in mind, reminding myself that at some point we, as teachers of philosophy, would have to face absurd simplifications of our reality. So I did not expect anything more insightful or complicated than Philosophy for Dummies but I was, perhaps unfairly, expecting something more insightful and complicated than the chapter titles of Philosophy for Dummies.

Sadly, Allen — who once joked that he only read Kierkegaard and Freud so he could get girls — now seems content to use their McNuggets of Wisdom™ in order to defend the girls he has pursued and the ways in which he has pursued them. Rumor and its connection to truth are a central theme of Irrational Man, and they serve as about as subtle an allusion to Allen’s personal troubles as the allusions to Socrates’s trial in The Phaedo. While the story is by no means centered around it, there is lying beneath the surface, a troubling defense of the relationship between its main characters: Abe Lucas, an older, dour philosopher, and Jill Pollard, his much younger, bright-eyed undergraduate student.

In part because it’s meant to serve as an intellectual justification for relationships like it, Abe and Jill’s relationship fails miserably as act of storytelling: It is — and in fact has to be — almost completely passionless and devoid of excitement. If it weren’t, it couldn’t demonstrate that this relationship is really much more about academic stimulation and intellectual challenge than physical beauty, sexual attraction, and potential exploitation. In the film, in fact, Abe and Jill’s romance is only allowed to begin after Abe notes that Jill would be equally enticing if her beauty were reflected through a Funhouse mirror – a trick the script deftly accomplishes by placing the characters …  in front of a Funhouse mirror … in an actual Funhouse, a move that at least has the virtue of supporting that film’s apparent operating assumption that academics continue live in the 1950’s.

Yet Abe and Jill’s relationship also fails as a defense of such relationships because Allen is unwilling to face the messy reality that such a defense would actually require. Instead, we are left with fortune cookie versions of the wisdom of Soren Kierkegaard, Jean-Paul Satre, and Simone de Beauvoir. This last moment was particularly telling: Without a hint of irony, we see Abe explaining to Jill the inherent limitations of defining women solely through their relationships with men, leaving us with a female protagonist who is part Glaucon part Alcebiades, a woman with nothing more to say than, “It cannot be but so, O wise man,” and “Your genius is a total turn-on, we should date.”


Kristina Meshelski:

Woody Allen is good at what he does. But I don’t see what the point is anymore. He produces films at a rate that would only be appropriate in some kind of past era, an era in which we only had films to entertain ourselves and no television or internet. (Relatedly, one of the stars of the film, Emma Stone, recently told Conan O’Brien that she had to explain to him what Twitter was.  This shows in the movie, as Allen’s college students do not bring laptops to class or try to do the reading on their phones; they all have regular old textbooks.) Still there are enjoyable aspects to this movie, and I did enjoy those aspects. Yet, it is impossible for a philosopher to watch the film and not think of recent real-world sexual assault and harassment accusations in the philosophy profession (not to mention accusations Woody Allen has faced).

If you are not familiar with the philosophy cases see here and here, for example.

The impressive thing about the film is how realistic it is about some aspects of academia, and thus how successful it manages to be as a comedic send-up of the white bourgeoisie. Because of this it is possible to watch the film and laugh at Jill’s (Emma Stone) infatuation with her obviously ridiculous professor (Joaquin Phoenix), and simply pity them equally when they inevitably end up in bed together.  In the film, their relationship isn’t creepy at all.  It is dumb, but there is no hint that Phoenix’s Professor Abe Lucas has done something wrong by succumbing to Jill’s very persistent efforts to get him in bed.  It is the movie version of all those thought experiments people assert in the comments section of philosophy blogs, “Well a grown woman can decide to have a sexual relationship with a professor. How is that wrong? Are you saying that she isn’t capable of making her own choices?”  No, I’m not saying that.  I was never saying that.

But that’s the thing; I don’t actually know anyone like Jill (or the science professor, Rita, played by Parker Posey, for that matter). In the film, Jill is never more drunk than Abe Lucas (never drunk at all it seems).  She never tells her boyfriend she is afraid of Lucas.  She never worries about how her career will go if they sleep together, or if they don’t sleep together, or if people think they slept together.

By the latter half of the film, as the murder plotline is in full swing, the whole thing starts to feel like some kind of sneaky misdirection, like how Gone with the Wind gave you a million things to worry about except the plight of the actual slaves.  There are ethical puzzles, ethical discussions, ethical philosophies in this film, but they are never about the ethical problem that is right in front of your face, namely the professor/student relationship.  If you are interested in the ethical issues Allen meant to foreground in Irrational Man, you would be better off watching Crimes and Misdemeanors.


James South:

I went into Irrational Man expecting a rather superficial take on academic philosophy and a certain cringe factor, especially in the relationship between the student, Jill, and the apparently famous older philosopher, Abe Lucas. Instead, what I saw was a very knowing film, one in which Woody Allen portrays the older philosopher as morally and intellectually bankrupt (as well as an alcoholic and physical wreck) and shows his relationship to Jill as immature. Those facts were a bit surprising. While I’ll let others speak to the gender politics and, more notably, the racial politics of the film (was there a person of color even in the film?), I want to focus on what struck me as most significant about the film. In short, the movie shows an utter contempt for philosophy and its ability to make an impact on someone’s life.

A big contrast point for me is the way the philosopher in Crimes and Misdemeanors is portrayed. In that movie, the philosopher, Louis Levy, is treated by the Woody Allen-played documentarian as a font of wisdom and his every word is meant to be mesmerizing. Still, at the end of that movie, the philosopher, who has said so much about love and human connectedness, commits suicide. At least, as Camus would have it, that’s a philosophical response. By contrast, the fate that awaits Abe Lucas at the end of Irrational Man is comical; it is not as the direct result of his choice, but a chance event that (spoiler alert!) leads to his death. This suggests that Allen has grown to see the utter comicalness and uselessness of philosophy. Another point of comparison also occurs between the two movies. Irrational Man and Crimes and Misdemeanors, both crime thrillers, repeatedly make the point that there is no intrinsic meaning to life. Yet, of course, when push comes to shove, few of Allen’s characters have the ability to face up to that fact.

At this point, I’m reminded of the famous scene in one of Allen’s more praised (and notorious) films, Manhattan–another knowing nod in Irrational Man to the autobiography voyeurs of Allen’s reputation with younger women–where a character gives his reasons to live:

Why is life worth living? That’s a very good question. Well, there are certain things I guess that make it worthwhile. Like what? Okay, for me, I would say, Groucho Marx, to name one thing and Willie Mays, and the second movement of the Jupiter Symphony, and Louie Armstrong’s recording of “Potato Head Blues,” Swedish movies, naturally, “Sentimental Education” by Flaubert, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, those incredible apples and pears by Cézanne, the crabs at Sam Wo’s, Tracy’s face …

With the exception of Tracy’s face, which is a product of nature, all the things listed are human creations. When Abe Lucas mentions the book he’s working on, it’s nothing like these creations—it’s a book on Heidegger and the Jews, and he even jokes that that’s just what the world needs, another book on that topic. Again, we see the utter futility of philosophy. What’s a book on Heidegger and the Jews going to tell us about the holocaust? How is thinking about the holocaust philosophically going to give us a reason to live? And when Abe Lucas acts to make the world a slightly better place, he finds himself in way over his philosophical head.

By way of conclusion, I can only contrast the unremitting bleakness of Irrational Man with the movie’s repeated use in the soundtrack of The Ramsey Lewis Trio’s 1965 version of “The ‘In’ Crowd.”  It’s joyous, infectious, and in striking contrast in tone to the message of the movie. At 80 years old, it seems, Allen’s given us one new reason to live—not to think about the world, not to try to make the world a better place–but to create (as Allen does in making movies), and to enjoy the creations of others. That makes us part of “The ‘In’ Crowd” in a way philosophy never will.


Daniel Weinstock:

In an early, seemingly throwaway scene of his latest movie, Irrational Man, the philosopher Abe Lucas lazily denounces the rigorism of Kant’s categorical imperative, which, notoriously, would require of moral agents that they never lie, even when lying is required to save the lives of innocents. In the only even remotely true-to-life representation of classroom interaction in the entire movie, a geeky student challenges Lucas, awkwardly trying out the argument according to which lies tend by their natures not to be isolated, but rather most often instantiate more general policies according to which it is ok to lie to achieve one’s ends. Lucas brushes the student aside with the observation that one cannot afford the moral angelism recommended by Kant in a world of murder and genocide.

But this scene is more central to Allen’s overall purpose than might initially meet the eye. For Lucas himself quickly finds himself in a situation in which a single dubiously justifiable violation of categorical moral prohibitions brings other more clearly ignominious violations in its train.

It is also a Kantian movie in a second sense. Whereas in earlier movies that it quite clearly echoes thematically, such as Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point, Allen depicts a universe largely indifferent to the moral quality of agents, Irrational Man has fate, in the form of a small flashlight that falls from the purse of a character at exactly the right moment and in exactly the right way, doing the work of rewarding virtue and punishing vice. (There is a clear echo and counterpoint here of the ring that serves to exonerate the murderer in Match Point).

Allen has in earlier movies been fascinated by a sophomoric existentialism that makes much of the fact that luck rather than morality determines how people’s lives go. Abe Lucas is an instantiation of that pseudo-philosophy, from which Allen now seems to want to distance himself. It is a shame that he has done so in the context of a film that is otherwise among the most lazily plotted and awkwardly scripted that he has ever committed to the screen.


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Aaron Garrett
Aaron Garrett
6 years ago

Not regarding Woody Allen but regarding philosophy professors in films, I suggest philosophers try to see the late Kathleen Collins’ weird and wonderful film Losing Ground. http://filmmakermagazine.com/92992-trailer-watch-kathleen-collins-1982-milestone-in-black-film-losing-ground/#.VcINf3j5pQ0 It was given a new release by Milestone. I haven’t seen Irrational Man but I’d wager my Pascal it’s a lot better and more thought provoking.Report

Jim Griffis
Jim Griffis
6 years ago

For another take on philosophy, one might watch God Is (Not) Dead, not because it bears any relationship to how philosophy is ever practiced or taught, but because it’s a film some of our students will have seen. Were they to think this is how philosophers behave, they would most likely never take a philosophy course unless forced to do so. The philosophy professor requires every student at the beginning of his course to sign a document attesting that God is dead. It’s currently streaming on Netflix.
On the plus side, Kevin Sorbo plays the philosophy professor.Report

Bharath Vallabha
Bharath Vallabha
6 years ago

I haven’t yet seen the film, but based on the trailer and having seen a lot of Woody Allen films, it is easy to sense what happens in the movie: Middle-aged, white man, bereft of meaningful relationships, social causes and in general lacking hope that his life matters tries to find meaning through a magical act of individual assertion only to still be left facing the vast emptiness.

In my teens and 20s Allen was one of my favorite directors: he was funny, and he seemed to struggle with the big topics. Now I am 37 and thinking of this 80 year old film maker I am struck by how often his lead role (the world-weary white male) never manages to be a functioning adult in healthy relationships or part of causes which extend beyond his needs and his life. It’s like Allen is stuck at the phase of asking “What does it all mean?” and unable to give a satisfactory answer from within the high end Manhattan socio-ecomomic-intellectual circles, concludes that there is no meaning, and then continues on with his life in the same circles with a knowing smirk. In this Allen seems similar to the American pop culture he otherwise looks down on: the skeptical gaze at the humdrum, ordinary aspects of adult life; the fetishism of youth, especially young women; identifying aging with becoming a cog in the machine; the ironic stance which leaves everything just as it is.

Cavell famously said that philosophy is education for grownups. As in one embraces adulthood without the protection of irony, sees that as an adult one is caught in the hum-drum life that billions of other adults are caught in, that one is not special in any way (no matter how much, or how little, education or money one has), and then facing that reality head on continues to work at growing as an individual. Philosophy in this sense can be found in lots of films: the recent Hannah Arendt movie by von Trotta comes to my mind, as well as movies by filmmakers Allen admires like Bergmann or Kurosawa, and many less artsy movies. But not really in Allen’s films, because the main characters in his films usually never managed to embrace adulthood, and in fact use the philosophy as a shield against it. This gives the philosophy in Allen’s movies a feel of a fantasy: there are no race or class issues, only “pure” philosophy about the meaning of life, often with a pretty young woman eager to have sex so as to share in the hero’s wisdom. It is a fantasy that is also, and not coincidentally, pretty prevalent in academic philosophy. Allen is like a young male academic who never outgrew the fantasy, and confuses the fantasy with philosophy.Report

Brian Johnson
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
6 years ago

I’ve read your comment several times now and think that it is excellent. Thank you.Report

Will
Will
6 years ago

Speaking of film criticism from certain “socio-economic-intellectual-circles”, the guy is in his 80’s and we’re saying he’s slipping? Gee, you think? And unable to give a satisfactory answer to the meaning of life? How definitively disappointing! When it comes to Allen, I always have a hard time finding commenters who don’t inevitably bring up some seemingly unseemly aspect of his personal life (which are largely allegations of an ex-wife) to go with the pop psychology People Magazine assessment of gossip and drama we know little truly about (Outside of him being in a happy and apparently healthy long-term marriage that some of these same critics have never experienced. No, this wasn’t with his daughter, legally or otherwise and his wife at the time had been long separated from him.). The Buddha left his wife and family and, yes, even Socrates loved someone besides his wife. But let’s focus on the body of work for a bit, shall we? I’ll grant that like Seinfeld he could try to artfully add in in some race or class issues but wait a minute, aren’t there others that can do Thurgood better? There are no perfect movies or perfect filmmakers that address every social, political and philosophical concern that we liberals have. At least I can’t remember Bergman bring up racial issues more than Allen does. While the rest of you are enjoying Fantastic Four in 3D, a Vacation remake, Pixels, or, I don’t know, perhaps Transformers 7, I’ll go watch another Allen movie that at least doesn’t run from the existential fact that we are swirling around a Sisyphean heat star at 30 kilometers per second while rotating 1600 km per hour without the wiff of knowing answers and prefab elitism about one’s race and class consciousness. I doubt in France or Sweden they’re worried that he’s stuck in high end Manhattan living the good life (or rather continuing to work into his 80s), but since we’re mentioning Bergman (or even Brando for that matter), would we rather Allen move to some remote island in his twilight years instead of staying put and writing what he knows? I hope he and other filmmakers continue to make films about existential questions and existential dread and continue to explore these same existential questions. His productivity even at his advanced age, I think, is evidence that perhaps he has glimpsed a satisfactory answer to the questions he poses. He’s certainly not doing this for the low profits made stateside. I admit though, I’m biased. After watching the first 10 minutes of Whatever Works (one of his lowest rated films) while in Paris with French subtitles, I became a fan of his work for life. Lock him up for criminal fraud and money laundering but I’ll probably still enjoy the work he’s leaving us.Report

Bharath Vallabha
Bharath Vallabha
6 years ago

The point isn’t about Allen’s personal life. It is how philosophy is depicted in Allen’s movies. I saw this new movie last night, and the movie was enjoyable in a popcorn kind of way and the 90 minutes fly by, but there is so much that is pernicious that Allen mindlessly reenforces. It is pop existentialism sprinkled over white yuppiedom. The college life he depicts is a fantasy: early in the movie one of the characters says that the college prohibits relationships between professors and students, and yet throughout the movie there is no hint of the middle-aged professor and his student even being concerned about this; in fact, bizarrely there is lots of, to my mind awkward and cringe-worthy, public displays of affection while they are surrounded by other students.

Beyond that Allen in this movie seems tone deaf to issues of feminism, multi-culturalism, etc. (much of which is explained, though not justified, by his age), there is plenty for traditional philosophy to find problematic. There is much in Allen’s depiction of philosophy to be critical of even from the perspective of a Sartre, Camus or Adorno, or a Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Dewey, Russell, or Carnap, etc. All these philosophers agree that we are on an insignificant planet hurtling through a universe that is indifferent to us. Ok, now what? How do we find meaning given that fact? Much of Enlightenment philosophy and post-modernism is about how we can lead meaningful lives even after God is dead. But Allen is like a Church authority in the 1600s who is not able to get over the fact that the new sciences might mean that life is meaningless, and there is no point to anything.

It’s nice that Allen is working into his 70s and 80s. And I don’t deny he is very good at movie-making. But what is strange is that even as he is getting to his 80s there doesn’t seem to be any growth in his philosophy. In many other Allen movies there are traces of wisdom. This movie is bizarrely lacking in that. It is possible Allen did this partly to underline his sense of the futility of academic philosophy. In that case, with friends like this, academic philosophy doesn’t need enemies. So I don’t know which to be more bothered by: that he unconsciously affirms so much that is bad about academic philosophy, or that his criticism of academic philosophy is so toothless.Report

Brian Johnson
6 years ago

A tangential note: Edward Norton’s “Leaves of Grass” (2009) also portrays a philosophy professor, specifically a specialist in ancient philosophy. Its ignorance about the life of a philosophy professor is quite funny, although I doubt it was intentional. If memory serves, the mother of the philosophy professor says something about seeing his picture on the cover of an academic philosophy journal. As if!Report

Grad Student (one of many)
Grad Student (one of many)
6 years ago

Let me say this (my) comment has the weakness of responding to several commenters in a probably-too-general way (I am perhaps unfairly linking several comments together into a strawperson). That apology given, I disagree with the idea Woody Allen’s films are in some way diminished by an elementary treatment of existential issues. For example in Match Point he is responding to SOME of the issues raised by Crime and Punishment. In a 2-hour movie he also has to develop character, plot, and explore a love/infidelity story…I think most people who have read C and P would agree he has fair and reasonable things to say about the FEW issues he chooses, and he makes accurate if not perfect references to SOME parts of the novel…given his context of making a two-hour movie for a wide audience who mostly are not literary scholars, his representation strikes me as not diminishing to the movie. There’s a reason someone would choose to make a popular movie, or in-depth documentary, or write a sober essay. All three have their advantages and disadvantages…we wouldn’t say that an Ethics paper is diminished in value because it was not comprehensible to most of the viewers of “Match Point”, for instance.

Second, because we are in the philosophy blogosphere of course a relationship with a student is an important ethical issue to us. Also it seems quite right to say professor-student relationships have had a big negative effect not only on the profession of philosophy but more importantly have really hurt some students emotionally, maybe forever. That said, I find it controversial whether Woody Allen has any responsibility ethically here, to do anything other than depict whatever relationship he wants and the reasons those characters believe they are in the relationship. In Godfather 1 we see the reasons one person enters a life of crime and then murders people instead of being content as a military hero who could become a senator or businessperson…that’s what movies ARE I don’t really think the director of that movie needed-in order for their movie to succeed-to make clear to us whether in real life a similar character ought to make the same decision. The movie is a success merely by portraying the reasons the character believed they were acting and letting us evaluate those reasons for ourselves.

Of course it could be argued that philosophy students and professors will take cues from this movie about their place in the world…if that is true it says to me, I think, more about how we view our own personal responsibility and less about what Woody Allen’s responsibility ought to be. Speaking only for myself it’s important to me I don’t view female students in the way portrayed by the movie. But if I change that perspective because of a MOVIE I think that is my fault, not Woody Allen’s (not even a tiny bit his fault).Report

Marcus
Marcus
6 years ago

I think its misguided to take the criticisms of Allen’s depiction of a relationship between the student and teacher as evidence of a direct ethical failure the way Grad Student (one of many) appears to — as if we were arguing that he had a duty not to make a movie with that as an element. That reading of the criticisms above seems particularly odd given the fact that the movie is much more about a murder than the relationship between the student and teacher. We would be saying, in effect, that its ok to make a movie about murder but not ok to make a movie about students and teachers dating.

Yet if anyone made a movie about murder and didn’t see any ethical problem with it, they would very likely make a very bad movie. Sure movies need to simplify the world a bit, just as an introduction discussion needs to simplify a theory, but if there connection between the simplification and the rich and lush world in which we live becomes so tenuous as to be effectively non-existent, both efforts are going to fail. Same goes for a relationship in a movie, any relationship. If, in a movie, the characters of teacher and student see a potential romantic relationship as no different than the relationship between two students or two teachers –not even prudentially different!!! — then the relationship will fail as art . This failure will be exacerbated if the film maker is using the relationship to make a point. Now, not only does the film ignore the reasons against the relationship that would be obvious to the characters given other facts about them, but it also eliminates many of the reasons that, for the characters, ought to speak in its favor. Allen’s failure to see the problems with relationships of this kind is a problem in this context first and foremost because it makes the movie bad – very very bad.

Now, this failure also likely demonstrates some virtue theoretic failing on his part, and it exemplifies nicely a problematic strain of “argumentation” in favor of allowing such relationships that comes up again and again and again in this, our dusty world of things. The latter connection is perhaps one of the few things worth talking about with respect to this film, but you should not thereby mistake a focus on it as a criticism that there’s something wrong in and of itself with making any movie about a relationship between a student and teacher.Report

Grad Student (one of many)
Grad Student (one of many)
6 years ago

Thanks for responding to my comment, Marcus. I think you make good points about whether something fails as art, but I disagree whether Allen met your criteria. For instance you say a movie would be a failure if it didn’t portray the characters as seeing their relationship differently than one between two students or two teachers…but I watched the movie (and maybe misinterpreted it!) as making that very portrayal over and over…the relationship between Phoenix’s character and the student is repeatedly contrasted against his relationship with the administrator and against the student’s relationship with her boyfriend…and I saw that contrast as being made explicit by Phoenix’s character and by the student and by those other characters. To my viewing, that contrast you mention was a major point of the movie. This is also how I feel about your claim the film ignores reasons against the relationship…from what I saw both characters repeatedly doubted the relationship was a good idea. I think what bothers some relevant people (I am speculating wildly…but it is an internet comment) is not whether the characters doubted the relationship (on my viewing, which could be wrong, they clearly did doubt it, even explicitly) but rather that they didn’t doubt it in a way that is important to philosophy bloggers. My point was that in the real world it is my responsibility to have those particular doubts about these relationships and not Woody Allen’s responsibility to portray them.

I guess I don’t even really agree the movie was “more about a murder”…for the scenes that discussed the murder there seemed to be plenty of scenes that were only about the relationship triangle (or whatever one would call it…relationship rectangle? and maybe I am wrong to think counting scenes is a good measure). But anyway I disagree there, as well, and maybe we will have to agree that we just interpreted the movie differently. I thought it was a good movie.Report