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What do Wes Craven, Wes Anderson, Ethan Coen, Terrence Malick, Matt Groening, Deepa Mehta, Errol Morris, and Mark Boal all have in common? They all have studied and have degrees in philosophy.

“Wait, what? Philosophy? Isn’t that the degree you get when you want to work at Starbucks?”

Haha, yeah, I know. It’s a cute joke. But as someone who’s grinded it out through one of the top 10 philosophy departments in the world, philosophy is actually a serious deal, and it’s a discipline that very few people really know much about.

So I’m here to be your guide: to show you how philosophy can actually help you in ways that any filmmaker would drool over.

1) Tell Better Stories

Robert McKee, former USC professor and author of the screenwriting classic Story, says that “[d]esigning story tests the maturity and insight of the writer [or any other creative], his knowledge of society, nature, and the human heart… [Story] faithfully mirrors [its] maker, exposing his humanity… or lack of it.”

How does philosophy help?

Philosophy investigates the most fundamental and universal questions—and at depths far, far beyond the dabbling investigation we may do when we’re drunk on a Saturday night. What is happiness? What is identity? How should a society be structured? How do humans fit into the universe?

If you take the time to genuinely investigate these questions, as Socrates, the father of philosophy, might say, your enlightened mind will shine through whatever you do—including your storytelling.

2) Produce Innovative Ideas

Steven Johnson, NY Times best-selling author of Where Good Ideas Come From, argues that new ideas never just pop out of nowhere. They are built out of a network of a lot of other ideas. Therefore, if we want new ideas, we need to put ideas into our heads first.

I like to think of his point as analogous to cooking. If you just have one dinky carrot, no matter how great of a cook you might be, you just won’t make a good dish. You’ve got to have a pantry of ingredients to make a great dish: wine, poultry, spices, oils, vegetables, fruits. (Trying to make you hungry here.)

How does philosophy help?

Philosophy offers a rich 2500-year-old library of some of the biggest and most important ideas in all of human history: the ideas that led to the Dark Ages, that led to World Wars, but that also cultivated scientific and industrial innovation, that even served as the foundation of entire societies’ constitutions—almost any idea that has led to world-shaking tectonic shifts in humanity.

It’s no surprise then that if you want to have anything in your network of ideas, you want philosophy there—because it just might lead to your next big idea.

3) Become a Better Leader

If you want to be a director, producer, or other leader in the film industry, one of your responsibilities will be to provide guidance to your team, making sure they travel down the correct path to their stated goals. You’re expected to be a guiding light for them.

But implicit in this, you’re going to need to be your own guide: someone able to both stand on their own two feet and carry others up with them at the same time. Do you think you’re the kind of person who can handle that kind of responsibility?

How does philosophy help?

The best-kept secret about philosophy is that it’s less about learning lots of interesting ideas and much more about learning how to think. That's because philosophy teaches logic—the tool we use to evaluate and analyze the world.

Think of logic as similar to math. You know how mathematicians talk about how math is awesome because there’s always a pretty clear answer at the end? Well, imagine being able to perform math-like thinking on concerns in your daily life: to be able to generate pretty clear answers to questions like, “How should I approach this guy on set who’s being difficult?” or “How can I convince these prospective investors to invest in my film?” Philosophy teaches you that!

By learning to produce answers to these daily human problems, you'll then become a better leader in film because you'll have the skill base to tackle almost any difficulties you run into during your film production—thereby making you both a competent self-guide and guide for others.

FUN FACT: Your average philosophy major actually has a 129 IQ, standing right at the top alongside physics, math, and engineering¹! Who knew there was so much going on inside the head of that pothead philosopher friend of yours back in university?!

4) Become a Better Team Player

So many people say, “Filmmaking is all about teamwork” that the expression has almost become trite. But nevertheless it’s still obviously true! You just have to look at all those endless film credits to see that.

But what does it mean to be a team player? Well, one thing you need is empathy and understanding. If you can’t understand and collaborate well with other people, you will eventually run into difficulties as a filmmaker.

How does philosophy help?

Philosophy teaches you literally thousands of perspectives far and wide: functionalism, absurdism, communitarianism, contractarianism, teleology, physicalism, idealism, existentialism—every “ism” imaginable. Even if you don’t agree with all these viewpoints, you’re taught to respect and make your best effort to understand and be generous to every one of them. In fact, there’s a rule in philosophy that philosophers even coined to ensure this—the Principle of Charity—which states that whenever you evaluate what someone says, you must always assume the best possible interpretation of their words. You can’t dismiss them just because they might sound dumb or ridiculous. You’ve got to respect what they say. After all, they could be right, and you could be wrong.

BONUS: An extra perk of learning and taking the time to understand all these new perspectives could be a wider creative range! By being able to see the world in thousands of different lenses, you could very well be able to do more kinds of work, which could mean more project opportunities, which could then mean more money!

5) Have More Fun and Less Stress!

Speaking of money, it’s so easy to get caught up in the rat race of life: paying bills, pursuing promotions, bargaining deals, buying property. Even if we might not have gone into film for the money, because a beginning indie filmmaker has to worry about each and every project they make and how they’ll get their next paycheque, it’s easy to lose sight of ourselves and why we went into film in the first place: to make films.

How does philosophy help?

According to a series of studies in her book "The Skills of Argument," research psychologist Deanna Kuhn from Columbia University found that philosophers were the group best able to unroot themselves from the rusted chains of habit, the daily grind, and unquestioned assumptions to see the world in fresh new ways. That’s what philosophers are trained to do: dig deep into themselves, find the foundations of their hearts and minds, and try to pry and poke at things with the hopes of improving what’s inside. That means they’re growing and changing constantly.

So if you ever find yourself in an emotional rut where you feel stuck and need to get back on track with your life, consider picking up some philosophy. The act of philosophizing could be your ticket out of that rut. (My personal recommendations are Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, specifically the Hays translation, and Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life.)

*  *  *

There you have it. Those are 5 of countless more ways a philosophy degree can help you become a better filmmaker. Even if this article doesn’t convince you to shell out money to get a degree in philosophy (you might not even need that to learn philosophy), I hope it convinces you to pick up a few books and join the long legacy that’s been forever part of humanity. Your film career will definitely improve. And your life will too.

¹: http://www.statisticbrain.com/iq-estimates-by-intended-college-major/

If you have further inquiries or questions, feel free to email me at: dan.arthur.fitz@gmail.com. I’d love to help in any way I can.

Dan Fitz
Day-to-day life contains short but bright flashes of beauty and meaning—a hilarious joke, the touch of a loved one, a stunning landscape—that inevitably returns to mundanity. Film compresses those flashes into 90 minutes, producing a floodlight of life experience that viewers can come back to again and again for mental and emotional guidance.

I chase films that shine the brightest with these flashes of life, both as a viewer and creator. I call these kinds of films LIFEFUL films.

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