Finding The True Philosophical Discussion In 'Irrational Man' : 13.7: Cosmos And Culture Woody Allen's new film engages in philosophical conversation, in arguments and justifications for actions, though not much reasoning is seen in individual characters, says philosopher Alva Noë.
NPR logo Finding The True Philosophical Discussion In 'Irrational Man'

Finding The True Philosophical Discussion In 'Irrational Man'

Director Woody Allen attends a special screening of Irrational Man at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City on July 15. Evan Agostini/Invision/AP hide caption

toggle caption
Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

Director Woody Allen attends a special screening of Irrational Man at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City on July 15.

Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

Woody Allen's lovely new movie, Irrational Man, tells the story of an alcoholic philosophy professor, played by Joaquin Phoenix, who arrives one summer to take up a teaching gig at an idyllic, elite liberal arts college.

I'm not sure what is more far-fetched, the proposition that the entire campus is aflutter with erotic anticipation at the "brilliant" man's arrival, or the idea that Joaquin Phoenix is supposed to be a brilliant philosophy professor.

In any case, appearance and reality are at odds in this story from the very start. Professor Abe Lucas is brilliant! This is repeated by different characters like a mantra throughout the movie. But he isn't really. He also is the object of sexual fantasy and gossip across the campus; and, yet, as we learn soon enough, euphemistically speaking, he's "lost the zest for life."

Although he may stand for philosophy in this philosophical movie, it gradually becomes clear that he is not philosophy's voice.

What sets appearance and reality against each other, here, is fantasy. Jill (Emma Stone), a philosophy student, is (somewhat preposterously perhaps) fascinated by Abe Lucas, or by the idea she has of him and his adventurous, brilliant past; she has a fantasy about what a life in philosophy can be. That's fine and good — she is a student, after all.

Rita (Parker Posey), his colleague in the chemistry department, is a horse of a different color. She had literally framed a desire to leave her job and husband and run away to Spain with Lucas even before she has laid eyes on him, before she came to know him in either a platonic or a biblical sense. Neither his subsequent inability to perform sexually, at the beginning at least, nor the dawning possibility that he might be a murderer, do anything to diminish her desire.

But it is Lucas, the philosopher, who reveals himself to be most in the thrall of a false picture, not only of the world around him — but also of himself.

The movie's key scene is when he and student Jill eavesdrop on a conversation at the next table in a restaurant. They learn about a corrupt judge who is abusing his seat and hurting innocent people. In a flash, he forms the intention to murder this judge.

Lucas articulates his reasons: "The judge is a bad man. ... The world would be a better place without him." But these reasons are ridiculous and impotent — at best, rationalizations. He knows nothing about the judge, or the people he overhears. The basic truth, here, is that Lucas wants to kill. And he lies to himself about why. But the resolution to do so immediately delivers him rewards. It turns his life around. He stops drinking, recovers an appetite for food and also for women. He likes the idea of himself as a philosophical avenger, a "dark knight" of morality.

Earlier, he had explained to his class that Kant was wrong, the ends do justify the means; and, anyway, he insisted, finally, in the real world, people just act. Reasons, justification, philosophy, these are just talk.

Neither Lucas, nor the film, do anything to establish these propositions. But there's no doubt that talk is the best that Lucas has to offer. He is no lover of knowledge, no philosopher, not any more than Rita is a true lover of him.

It is only Jill, the student, in the end, who genuinely opts for knowledge over fantasy. When she realizes that her professor is a killer, when she grasps the utter irrationality of his actions and the poverty of his self-image, she finds him repellent. She really sees him and she admits what she sees. And what she sees disgusts her.

When she confronts him, she is angry, in shock, horrified. She knows what he has done is wrong. It is obvious. The idea that there is any justification for what he has done is absurd. But, she can't justify herself. She's no match for him intellectually, she says. He's too brilliant!

This is where the philosophy happens in this movie. We encounter here not just an opposition between him and her, but between reason-based argument and gut feeling. But, even more interestingly, this opposition is immediately shown to be, in a way, a false one. For one thing, as we have seen, he is moved by gut feelings no less than she. Nobody really does anything for a reason in this movie.

But, at the same time, whatever she may say to the contrary, she does give reason and argument and, moreover, she, like Lucas and all of us, recognize that we can't ever evade the question of reason. We can always ask: "Why?" And we can legitimately demand justification, of ourselves and of others.

Thought and feeling are not opposed to each other; they work in tandem in our lives.

Now that is a philosophical lesson, or upshot. It's not Jill's, or Rita's, or Lucas's. It's not something that any of them say. I said that Lucas is not philosophy's voice in this film. It is the film itself, the work of art itself, that engages with these questions.

One of the charms of Allen's movies is the way he puts people on display in what they say. His movies are driven by conversation. In his enacted conversations, we get to see not only what people think, about themselves as well as about each other, but also how they put themselves on display in their social worlds. Irrational Man is no different. But much of the conversation in this movie is philosophical; it is quasi-Socratic dialogue and what is enacted are arguments and justifications for our actions. Do ends justify means? Are we free to do what we want? Are we free to act according to our own, perhaps entirely individual, conception of what is right?

Much of what gets illuminated in Allen's cinematic conversations — as in the conversations of a genuine philosophical dialog — is never said aloud and perhaps cannot be made explicit.


Alva Noë is a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, where he writes and teaches about perception, consciousness and art. You can keep up with more of what Alva is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe