Why Philosophy of Language is Unreliable for Understanding Unreliable Filmic Narration

Epistemology and Philosophy of Science 59 (2):43-50 (2022)
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A typical device in film is to have a character narrating what is going on, but this narration is not always a reliable guide to the events. According to Maier, distortions may be caused by the narrator’s intent, naivety, use of drugs, and/or cognitive disorder/illness. What is common to these various causes, he argues, is the presence of a point of view, which appears in a movie as shots. While this perspective-based account of unreliability covers most cases, I unpack its methodological consequences and gesture at a possibility that Maier’s analysis overlooks. A narration, I suggest, can be unreliable simply because it is ill-timed with the events shown on screen. In such a case, the distortion is not due to any character’s point of view; rather, it comes from the film medium’s ability to divorce what is seen and what is heard. As a consequence of this mismatch, it is possible to have a reliable narrator but an unreliable narration. Since voice and context of utterance usually match in ordinary speech, I conclude that philosophy of language may be ill-suited to properly understand this particular phenomenon.

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Marc Champagne
Kwantlen Polytechnic University


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