A grue by any other name is just as likely to eat you in the dark

Over at the APA blog, Noël Carroll whinges about the fact that the blog categorizes his post as Philosophy of Film. He acknowledges that the label is used for a particular philosophical subdiscipline, but he doesn’t like it. On the one hand, the subdiscipline addresses not just movies but also television and video games. On the other hand, “film” in an original sense is strictly photographic. Today even most movies aren’t on film.

He suggests that the subdiscipline should instead be called Philosophy and the Moving Image. He offers two reasons for thinking it matters. First, “to avoid error”; otherwise, someone might mistakenly think that philosophy of photography falls under philosophy of film. Second, “to map the current terrain so as to be prepared to determine whether or not to consider incorporating unforeseen future media into our categorical bailiwick.” That is, it settles in advance whether some edge cases count as part of the subdiscipline or not.

However, suppose someone is working on philosophical questions that arise from considering video games. They begin with games that generate moving images, like Donkey Kong or Minecraft. But they also want to discuss Zork, a text-only computer adventure game.1 Would that be leaving the subdiscipline or not? Is it outside their “categorical bailiwick”?

Those vexing questions arise already, for current media. If they arise for current cases, why demand that our concepts should serve as a map of unforeseen future terrain?

Someone teaching a course on Philosophy of X can decide for themselves what counts as X. A particular journal or conference on Philosophy of X will require agreement among organizers. They may say a bit about how they conceive X in their call for papers, but they do not need a discipline-wide meaning of the term.

In any case, future unforeseen cases will require choice. Regardless of how iron-clad we think our concepts are in advance, we cannot guarantee that they will remain useful and apt in the face of the unexpected.

  1. Note that Zork is the game that introduced the unseen creature, the grue, which I reference in the title of the post. I am tempted to joke that it is green under normal light but blue in the dark, but a grue is never seen.

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