Two Populisms?

Nowadays when I read the word “we” I ask, “who is this ‘we’?” Rarely is “we” truly universal. Determining who “we” refers to often reveals who the author is concerned about.

In What is Populism? Jan-Werner Müller stresses this point: often, “we” excludes as it seemingly includes. He writes,

Populism, I suggest, is a particular moralistic imagination of politics, a way of perceiving the political world that sets a morally pure and fully unified–but, I shall argue, ultimately fictional–people against elites who are deemed corrupt or in some other way morally inferior. (pp. 19-20)

It’s a useful definition even if potentially controversial–according to him, the American Populist Party was not actually populist. What makes it useful to me is that is does capture a type of politics, one dangerous to democracy. Nevertheless, I have some worries about his account.

Perhaps the least of them is his claim that Sanders is not populist, something he simply asserts on page 93. This, of course, is a serious worry politically–one reason I strongly oppose Sanders is because he is profoundly undemocratic in exactly the way Müller argues populists are. It’s less of a worry theoretically, however, since claiming Sanders is a populist does not challenge Müller’s central claims. He simply categorized him wrongly.

Still, as Barney Frank observed back in 1991,

To him, anybody who disagrees with him is a crook; there are no honest disagreements with people. Bernie’s view of the world is that the great majority of the people agree with him on all the issues and the only reason he does not win is that the Congress is crooked.

Sanders has not changed over time. During the primary he made a series of dishonest attacks on institutions that opposed him, be it the DNC for briefly cutting off his campaign’s access to a voter database because his campaign took advantage of a firewall being accidentally dropped or Planned Parenthood for supporting Clinton. Like the populists Müller describes, Sanders too blames the media for people’s disagreements with him (while ignoring the question about the importance of diverse representations). Moreover, Sanders’ focus on changing primaries so that non-Democrats can vote on them while ignoring caucuses shows the populists’ selective use of democracy. Finally, Sanders’ inability to realize there is honest disagreement came to a head in Nevada, where he excused his supporters’ violence and spread conspiracy theories, all while trying to undo the popular vote. In short, Sanders is a populist and consequently a threat to democracy. Fortunately, he lost the primary. Unfortunately, he is still admired by many.

Sanders also validates Müller’s claim that it is important to address some of the issues populists raise. One should not simply ignore them. Clinton and the Democratic Party did pay attention to them (sometimes for the worse, e.g. the focus on campaign finance reform instead of voting rights) but it did bring on board most of his supporters. It did not, however, bring on many of the diehards who formed the anti-democratic, often harassing, wing of his base.

Trump, of course, ended up winning the election and he’s a populist of a different stripe, one who reveals a more serious problem with some of Müller’s analysis. Trump ran on bigotry. His we is white people. He ran against elites because they supposedly favored non-whites or in fact because they were the new elites. So one potential flaw with Müller’s definition is that the elites populists run against are often as fictional as the people. Perhaps they are even more so. Moreover, it is not elites as such that Trumpian populism opposes: it’s elites supposedly allied with the oppressed.

Another serious problem is that he does not get into how certain groups are seen as the people. As the case of America shows, it is often because of already existing systems of oppression. I suspect Europe is much the same: the rise of right-wing populism is probably tied to the collapse of imperialism and an influx from former colonies. This is something Müller seems almost doggedly determined to avoid saying. Perhaps he believes it can go without saying. However, at times he goes too far in excusing populists. For instance,

One is reminded of what gave [George] Wallace’s counterpunches against liberals such force in his day: he could claim with some plausibility that “the biggest bigots in the world are…the ones who call others bigots.” (pp. 83-84)

This, quite frankly, is absurd. Opposition to bigotry is not bigotry. Wallace’s voters no more than Trump’s were “economically anxious.” White supremacy was their issue and they (rightly) felt it was under attack.

Once one realizes that bigotry often helps forms “a morally pure and fully unified” people and maintaining their supremacy is their main issue, three important points follow. First, Müller’s emphasis on not ignoring populists and their issues seems misguided. One should not give bigots what they want because what they want is more bigotry. Second, one suspects there are at least two important types of populism. One whose group identity is formed by bigotry and another that isn’t. Though to a large extent the issues Sanders addresses are those that center the needs of white men, white supremacy never united his followers they same way it unites Trump’s (or maybe it is better to say it was a different type of white supremacy). While both Trump and Sanders are undemocratic, the bigotry at the center of Trump’s movement makes him much more harmful than Sanders. Any account of populism that fails to distinguish between the two is seriously incomplete. Third, and this is in part a corollary of my second point, some populists attack actual elites. Others do not. Right-wing populists like Trump attack elites mainly insofar as they protect and help groups that are oppressed. Sanders concentrates his attacks on a wealthy, powerful elite, albeit rather indiscriminately and any organization that disagrees with him quickly gets labelled elite.

But even with those caveats Müller is correct to worry about populism, and he gives a good, if partial, analysis as to why it worrisome.


One of the claims of Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore is that the Southern literature before the Civil War was constrained because it could not write openly and honestly about slavery. Something similar may affect conservative authors. Haunting Goldwater’s1 The Conscience of a Conservative is race.

The ostensible theme of the book is that the federal government has overstepped its bounds and we are on the path to tyranny. There are a lot of government programs Goldwater believes must end. For instance, he is against what he calls Welfarism. Welfarism, for Goldwater, is any spending for the care of citizens. Private charity should care for the poor, the sick, the orphaned, the elderly. To do otherwise is grossly immoral for “I am unaware of any moral virtue that is attached to my decision to confiscate the earnings of X and give them to Y.” (p. 67)

Perhaps understandably Goldwater does not go into too much detail about how private charity will replace the federal government. He does however make one concession to his seeming heartlessness. “Finally, if we deem public intervention necessary, let the job be done by local and state authorities that are incapable of accumulating the vast political power that is so inimical to our liberties. (p. 69)

That concession contradicts not only the previous quote–“confiscation” does not magically become virtuous when local governments do it instead of the federal government–and his opening complaint about Democrats and Republicans. Both, he claims, wrongly believe “The government can do whatever needs to be done.” (p. 7) That the state government can do what the federal government must absolutely not do suggests there is something other than a principled (if misguided) stand at work. This becomes clearer when one realizes what federal program Goldwater most targets: education.

The fourth chapter of the book is titled “And Civil Rights.” Here Goldwater attacks the federal government from interfering with segregated schools. He claims he favors integration, but “I am not prepared, however, to impose that judgment of mine on the people of Mississippi or South Carolina.” (p. 31) Apart from two sentences in the same chapter off-handedly mention blacks can vote thanks to the 15th Amendment blacks can vote, education is the only race issue Goldwater mentions. Still, just like ante-bellum Southern literature, Goldwater’s evasion of racial issues dominates and undercuts everything he writes.

Much as Goldwater worries about America descending into tyranny, he refuses to acknowledge that for many, America already was tyrannical. Lynchings were public occasions, Jim Crow laws were instituted by the states. Racism was a central, defining feature of American life. It was the federal government that most effectively opposed it. In fearing a future, hypothetical tyranny, Goldwater was supporting actual, concrete tyranny. The central theme of the book, his opposition to the federal government’s interference, is rotten to the core.

Goldwater’s concerns in some abstract sense might be correct. Humans, however, don’t live in the abstract. Had Goldwater faced racism, argued against it, and shown how his conservative conscience and philosophy would help end this central tyranny of American life we would have a substantially different book.

He didn’t. Instead, he wrote an apologia to Jim Crow.


The final third of the book is a chapter on “The Soviet Menance.” Goldwater advocates for the use of tactical nuclear weapons and an aggressive offense against Communism. “Daisy” is not the unfair attack I was told it was.


1. The book was ghostwritten by L. Brent Brozzel, Jr., William F. Buckley’s brother-in-law. Nevertheless I will write as if Goldwater himself wrote it.

Works Cited:

Barry Goldwater, The Conscience of a Conservative. (Princeton University Press, 2007). The original book was published in 1960.

Often I feel our understanding of intellectual history is Whiggish. We read the arguments and positions that succeeded. So for all their brilliance, defenders of slavery such as George Fitzhugh are largely forgotten and unread. This is a problem. First, it gives us an inaccurate understanding of the times and how change occurs. Second, as Albert O. Hirschman argues in The Rhetoric of Reaction, bad arguments have a habit of popping up anew. If we don’t understand the bad arguments of the past then when they reappear they might seem new and plausible. Third, we often have a sort of cultural amnesia about what people said in the past. For instance, growing up I had no idea that William F. Buckley supported Jim Crow and apartheid. Thanks to Youtube, one can now watch Buckley debate Baldwin.

It’s in that spirit, the spirit of examining bad ideas that I read Buckley’s God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of ‘Academic Bias.’ I was not unrewarded.

God and Man at Yale is indeed a bad book. Buckley advocates what he calls “Christian individualism.” What exactly that is is unclear, defined more by what it opposes than what is believes in. But even what he opposes in unclear and shapeless. One of the characteristics of the book is Buckley’s mendacity. Whether or not he believed his lies is besides the point since the falsehood is easy to refute. That Buckley does not know better shows he does not want to know better.

For instance, at one point Buckley writes, “a man whose curiosity and knowledge are well above the Corporation mean, told me in February, 1951, that Professor Blanshard, chairman of the Yale Department of Philosophy, was a ‘good Quaker.’ I am sure he found it hard to believe me when I told him Mr. Blanshard was an atheist, though the professor has never made any secret of this, even from the Corporation members.” [p. 122]

Buckley should have listened. Blanshard was undeniably a Quaker, who contributed to the Friends Journal. One could argue that he was a bad Quaker–as a Time magazine article titled “Fighting Quakers” from 1942 shows Blanshard argued in Friends Intelligencer (a predecessor of the Journal) that Quakers needn’t be pacifists. But even bad Quakers are Quakers; Buckley’s accusation was false.

This was no harmless error as Buckley’s thesis is that only professors who profess “Christian individualism” should be professors. In wrongfully accusing Blanshard of atheism, Buckley was also demanding he be fired.

It’s unclear why Buckley claimed Blanshard was an atheist. The most innocent is he confused Brand with his brother Paul, who was an atheist and author of American Freedom and Catholic Power (1949). This, however, goes to Buckley’s lack of intellectual curiosity. In his foreword, he writes “I therefore looked eagerly to Yale University for allies against secularism and collectivism.” [p. xiii] Throughout the book it is clear Buckley did not go to Yale to learn. He merely wanted ammunition to support his pre-established views. Thus the book is scattered with howlers such as, “I am not forgetting that no honest or fruitful course in philosophy can be taught without readings from some of the famous and brilliant skeptical philosophers of the post-Enlightenment. The student must be introduced to Hume, Kant, Russell et al.” [p. 21] As most beginning students of philosophy should know, Hume and Kant are the philosophers of the Enlightenment. Further, to call Kant a skeptic and lump him with Hume and Russell is a gross injustice. Kant wrote to refute Hume’s skepticism.

This incuriosity is central to much conservative thought. As Page duBois argues in Trojan Horses: Saving the Classics from Conservatives, conservatives regularly read their own positions back into the classics in an attempt to pretend their own views are timeless wisdom. No doubt people from all political persuasions at times do so, but it is more central to the conservatives since as Goldwater (or his ghostwriter, Buckley’s brother-in-law) wrote in The Conscience of a Conservative, “The Conservative approach is nothing more or less than an attempt to apply the wisdom and experience and the revealed truths of the past to the problems of today.” (p. xxiv) That ignores the fact times change, our current preoccupations are not the preoccupations of the past. One cannot simply apply past truths to today. Yet for many conservatives including Buckley, the current battle is forever and the past is to be plundered for allies. Such an attitude cannot withstand thoughtful engagement with the past, so thinkers become mere shibboleths. “Smith” is what Christian individualists shout (e.g. page 181), “Hume” is supposedly what godless collectivists cry. That Adam Smith and David Hume were dear friends goes unmentioned and perhaps unknown.

To sum up, Buckley believed he already knew the sides of the fight, which one was right, which was wrong, and so all that was needed was to assign people–be they current professors or long-dead philosophers–to one side or the other. Once they were assigned, one knew what was important about them and there was little reason to investigate further. As a result, if he confused Brand with his brother Paul, Buckley would have been unlikely to discover his error for what Blanshard actually said was never of much importance.

This explanation of Buckley’s error about Blanshard also reveals an important weakness of his book: college is not supposed to show how diverse ideas, people, and ways of life are. It is supposed to promote narrow, supposedly timeless, values. Lines of opposition are drawn, the fight entered, but with little thought about who one’s allies or enemies actually are.

Another explanation for Buckley’s error is he knew something of Blanshard’s views, disagreed with them, and decided he was an atheist. Certainly Blanshard was no traditional Christian. He identified God with the Absolute and not “as a Person distinct from the world.” Buckley, as we have already seen, is not a careful thinker. Not having a traditional Christian view of God would be tantamount to atheism for him. Buckley, however, would be wrong.

Moreover, such mendacity is essential to his argument. Given the diversity of views that exist, a dichotomy between Christian individualists and godless collectivists could not exist if views were treated fairly. Throughout the book it becomes clear that he is arguing perhaps even more so with fellow Christians. Here Blanshard may not count since he was not clearly Christian.1

He is, however, a useful reminder at how crude Buckley’s dichotomy (and thought) is: one needn’t be a Christian to believe in a god. Fan of the Enlightenment Buckley hints that he is, he appears never to have heard of deism. Moreover, many of his opponents are clearly Christian. Buckley acts as if they are acting in an ineffectual, duped, or short-sighted manner. Yet more likely they simply disagree with him.

McGeorge Bundy in his review points out that Buckley is Catholic. At first, this seems like mere prejudice. It isn’t. What goes unacknowledged throughout the book is how varied Christianity and belief in God is. There are many Christians who believe inheritances and incomes should be taxed, welfare should be provided to the very young and very old, the gold standard is not needed, segregation is evil, and many other positions contrary to Buckley’s individualism. Similarly there are many Christians who strenuously disagree with his Christianity, starting with the fact that it is Catholicism. Buckley never argues that Christianity and capitalism are inseparable, he simply treats them as if they are.

At first I wondered if this might not be a rhetorical trick–to bait the hook by identifying as Christian, then reel in his audience into thinking only capitalism is Christian. This would give a nice explanation as to why Buckley claims Blanshard is an atheist. Blanshard was a public intellectual, one who said of Dewey–a figure Buckley reviled–“I not only admire his public spirit but agree for the most part with his social attitudes.”2 Buckley’s disagreement with him may have been based on Blanshard’s politics but he decided he had to frame it as if it was Blanshard’s lack of religion he disagreed with. 

That’s perhaps giving Buckley too much credit. His confidence gives his writing some style, but it’s unearned confidence. His prose is sure-footed; his points are constantly tripping over themselves. Buckley shows a tremendous lack of intellectual sophistication so it’s unlikely he knew much about Blanshard’s–or any other person mentioned in the book–actual positions. Nonetheless, his treatment of Blanshard, like his treatment of others, reminds one he had to lie about people’s positions in order to get his two sides. It’s a mendacity not as a result of willful ignorance but of (perhaps unintentional) rhetoric.

There is much more that is bad about Buckley’s book, as seen in McGeorge Bundy‘s and Peter Viereck‘s excellent reviews. There is even a certain contemporaneous to it as many of his claims are still live issues. College Republicans still try to get professors fired because they aren’t right-wing ideologues. Democrats are still said not to be Christian (which is especially amazing since Clinton and Obama’s faiths clearly inspired their politics while Republicans selected Trump).

I read the book I expecting to read much that was odious–after all Buckley supported segregation and apartheid; I did not expect the book to be so intellectually shoddy. Originally I had intended to focus on other aspects of the book apart from the brief mention of Blanshard. However, the amount of effort to refute bullshit greatly exceeds the amount of effort needed to create it and Buckley’s knowledge is slight and superficial. The book is largely misconstrued gossip about his professors, his treatment of Blanshard sadly typical.


1. Unfortunately I’ve only read a limited about of Blanshard. He does position his God as different from the stereotypical Christian God. Whether this means he is a Quaker but not a Christian (which is entirely possible) I’m unsure.

2. Blanshard, Brand. “Can the Philosopher Influence Social Change?” p. 749

Works Cited:

Blanshard, Brand. Reason and Belief

———–. “Can the Philosopher Influence Social Change?” The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 51, No. 24, American Philosophical Association Eastern Division: Papers to be presented at the Fifty-First Annual Meeting, Goucher College, December 28-30, 1954 (Nov. 25, 1954), pp. 741-753.

Buckley, William F. God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of ‘Academic Bias.’ (Henry Regnery Company, 1951)

duBois, Page. Trojan Horses: Saving the Classics from Conservatives (New York University Press, 2001)

Goldwater, Barry. The Conscience of a Conservative (Princeton University Press, 2007)

With Trump’s election, an increasingly common argument you will hear is “I voted for Trump, but not his racism.”1 I will not examine the accuracy of this claim. Instead, I will argue this can be understood as an appeal to the doctrine of double effect.

The doctrine of double effect is often used to justify actions which are foreseen to harm innocents, e.g. bombing military targets or abortion, but are intended to produce some good. In this case, it is used to justify voting for someone who has promised to enact policies that will harm Muslims, blacks, homosexuals, and countless others.

To justify an action by the doctrine of double effect four conditions must be met:

1. The action itself cannot be bad.
2. The actor intends the good, not the bad, effect.
3. The bad effect is not a means to achieve the good effect.
4. There must be a good reason one permits the bad effect.

One quickly sees that the first three conditions are met by our imaginary Trump voter. The action, voting, is not a bad act in itself. Ex hypothesi the voter was intending the good, not the bad, effects, e.g. “draining the swamp.”2 The bad effect is not a means to the good effect–it is the result of the same action (voting for Trump) which produces the good effect. What is debatable is the fourth condition: that the good achieved is significant enough to permit the bad.

At first, one might think that no good effect is good enough to permit the racism. But that seems unlikely. As Ira Katznelson shows in When Affirmative Action was White, racism was inextricably tied up with policies like Social Security and the GI Bill that are often celebrated. In fact, many blacks supported those policies even while knowing they were racist. Thus the predicament of voting for someone despite obvious racism is hardly unique to our hypothetical Trump voter: for most of US history, presidential candidates have catered to racism in one way or another.

I will not attempt to argue that a plausible case can be made that there is good reason to vote for Trump despite his racism. All that is argued is that the doctrine of double can be used to make a moral case for voting for Trump.

But that isn’t quite all that I want to argue. Because frankly there is little good about Trump and certainly whatever good there is does not justify voting for him. More interestingly, to me at least, is that more difficult cases existed in the past, cases that the doctrine of double effect more plausibly justifies. I do not know if anyone in the past used the doctrine of double effect to justify voting, say, for LBJ but one could have.

Finally, given how any person one votes will have obvious flaws–supposed or otherwise–the doctrine of double effect is an argument that can still be used to help voters justify their vote. The main difficulty, of course, being ensuring there is a good reason to permit the bad effects.


1. At least I hope it will become increasingly more common. Presently folk mostly seem to argue obvious racism is not racism.

2. For the purpose of this argument, what matters is that the voter believes Trump’s victory will produce some good effect(s). Put in different terms: I want to show if the argument is valid, not if it is sound.

Brief Note on True Love

When speaking of true love, two ideas generally spring to mind: first, that the love is genuine, that when the lovers say “I love you” it corresponds with how they feel and second, that they are soulmates and have found who they truly belong with.

There is, however, another way of understanding true love. That is to take it is as love based on trust. This trust is of two types.

First, one must trust one’s beloved. This means one needn’t know everything they do, one needn’t be involved in every aspect of their life. As Proust shows in Remembrance of Things Past, the attempt to know everything about one’s beloved leads to jealousy and futility. Though a lover is often said to love the entire person, no one can know another person entirely. Instead, one can only know a limited part and trust them.

Second, one must trust that one’s own self will not drive off one’s beloved. We all have aspects of ourselves we are ashamed of, that we do not love. Were our beloved to see those aspects, we worry they would no longer love us. Perhaps so. Yet we must trust they will continue to love us for otherwise our relationship will be contaminated by obfuscation. This does not mean that we must show our beloved the worst aspects of ourselves or tell them all the awful things we have done, but that we must not deny or hide them.

Without either type of trust, it is hard for me to see how a loving relationship will last.

Over the next few months and years I expect I’ll be reading a lot about Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement. Two books I’ve read recently are Ira Katznelson’s When Affirmative Action was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth Century America and Ira Berlin’s The Long Emancipation: The Demise of Slavery in the United States.
One of the themes of the first book is how so much of progressive policies I love–Social Security, strong unions–were only possible by catering to white (male) supremacy. I had hoped that we had reached a place and time where that was no longer necessary. Instead, one could create policies that would be central to one’s campaign that directly addressed the needs of other groups.
I thought Clinton’s campaign largely did that, though no doubt imperfectly. She started her campaign with a speech against police brutality, she wanted to repeal the Hyde Amendment, and so much more. Even small things, like her letter to the Toast, indicated a shift. It was wonderful seeing so many female friends happy about being catered to.
She nearly won. But “nearly” means she didn’t and now we’re faced with years of a Republican controlled government. My fear is that Democrats will turn away from that and instead, ironically, turn to her husband’s successful campaign (or for that matter Sanders’ unsuccessful one). Perhaps they should. Perhaps America isn’t ready for white (male) concerns to no longer be the center of politics and must hear as little about the needs of other groups as possible. After all, Trump may not have won the popular vote but he won promising to Make America Great Again, which means make whites supreme again (as if they no longer are).
But that’s not the America I want to live in, not the sort of campaign I can get enthusiastically behind.
The second book is more hopeful. It stresses that emancipation did not happen simply due to the Civil War or the actions Lincoln. It was a long process. One spanning a hundred or more years, involving countless people, but especially black slaves. At times, things got worse, but the movement was never stopped.

The hope I derive from the book, however, is not the hope that things will get better. They may not and even if they do they won’t undo the pain and suffering Trump’s victory has already caused. The hope springs from a sense that one’s efforts, small as they might be, barren as they might seem, are nonetheless necessary, especially if we are to see any change.

And that’s something I must believe in right now.

Philosophical Films

As someone who has a rather broad conception of philosophy, this could easily become a list of films I like. However, it is written in response to a list of Essential Movies for a Student of Philosophy a friend of mine linked to. Part of what will limit me is I will try to address the flaws I find in that list. Certainly there are good, intriguing films there, but the list displeased me. First, creating a list of essential films is rather foolish. An accurate list would be quite short: there are no films that are essential for a student of philosophy. The same would be true of a list of philosophical books. There is nothing one needs to see or read to be a philosopher. Hence I will stick to films that I think are philosophically interesting. Second, his list has too many films about philosophers. Certainly there can be philosophical films about philosophers–he was right to include Derek Jarman’s Wittgenstein. But that is no guarantee of philosophical quality. Hannah Arendt, for instance, is undistinguished as a film and as philosophy. Third, the value of such lists is less to come up with something definitive–an impossible task–but to stimulate thought about and interest in the items on the list. Therefore I will limit myself to one film per director. That way the range of films will be broader. Lastly, his list is not terribly diverse and there is an over-representation of recent American movies. Including, say, A.I. and Little Miss Sunshine on a list of essential films instead of Man with a Movie Camera reveals more about you and what you have seen than what films are essential. Obviously I have my blindspots too (no Indian, African, or South American films), but they are different from his and, I suspect, smaller. As to how I selected these films as philosophically important? This list will display my bias to ethics, aesthetics, and political philosophy. Some will be tied directly to philosophies and well-established philosophical problems. But most will not. Philosophy is, to use quote William James, “an unusually stubborn attempt to think clearly.” It is not limited to the topics that currently are in vogue philosophically. All of these films count as unusually stubborn and largely successful attempts to think clearly on matters of great import to us as humans. So without further ado, here is a list of 45 philosophically interesting films.

1) Man with a Movie Camera by Dziga Vertov. Man with a Movie Camera is an astonishingly modern film, one that is still fresh. It is a joyous celebration of modernity and the possibilities of the movie camera–which if you read any of Vertov’s theoretical work he thinks is more accurate than the human eye. This film is one of the best reflections on technology.

2) The Exterminating Angel by Luis Bunuel. Any of his films could be here, but The Exterminating Angel is perhaps his most polished and perfect film, a potent Marxist allegory of how people, especially capitalists and the bourgeoisie are trapped inside capitalism, unable to escape even as it eventually causes their own destruction.

3) Bob le Flambeur is an existential action film by Jean-Pierre Melville. Le Samourai, which stars Alain Deloin as a hitman, is his most well-known, but this film starring Roger Duchesne as a gambler who is planning to rob a casino is perhaps even better.

4) Existential action films are a favorite of mine. There are quite a few, e.g. Runaway Train. But I’ll add only one more, Wages of Fear which is about hauling nitroglycerine somewhere in South America, not because there aren’t a ton of others, but because if I listed them all this list would soon be exhausted. I suspect film, which focuses on the external, is an ideal medium for existentialism.

5) Peeping Tom by Powell and Pressburger. An under-rated duo who probably produced the best British films of all time, this movie focuses on a serial killer who is also a photographer. A controversial flop at the time, it is a far more terrifying and profound film than Psycho, which came out the same year.* The themes it focuses on are voyeurism and self-awareness.
*As evidence that this is a somewhat idiosyncratic list, there will be no Hitchcock. He is, in my opinion, an over-rated hack. See for instance how he turned Conrad’s disconcerting The Secret Agent into a conventional, profoundly schlocky thriller.

6) Andrei Rublev by Andrei Tarkovsky. One of the most beautiful films ever made, this account of the Russian icon painter examines the relationship of life, suffering, and art.

7) The Great Dictator by Charlie Chaplin. One of the best examinations, and a nice deflating of, dictators. And the perhaps the overly serious in general.

8) General Idi Amin Dada by Barbet Schroder. A documentary of Idi Amin, this is a nice companion to Chaplin’s film as it conveys the terrific, dangerous madness of dictators. If one is interested in political philosophy or epistemology–especially possible relations between morality and epistemology–this movie is incredibly valuable.

9) The Grand Illusion by Jean Renoir. In another mood, I would choose The Rules of the Game but this deeply humanistic film, which Renoir hoped would prevent another world war, is amazing and profound.

10) The Up Series mostly by Michael Apted. I don’t watch as many documentaries as perhaps I should, but this on-going British series that follows the lives of 14 British children who were born in 1957, checking in on them every 7 years, is one of the most revealing and thoughtful films ever made.

11) Sullivan’s Travels by Preston Sturges. A perfect weaving of humor, philosophy of art (particularly on comedies), and social commentary.

12) 8 1/2 by Fellini. Just as I have a weakness for existential action films, I like films about films. But Fellini’s semi-autobiographical film 8 1/2 is more than that, it is foremost a film about giving up control in one’s life.

13) Rashamon by Akira Kurosawa. This is the obvious choice. I’m not going to dispute it.

14) The Fallen Idol by Carol Reed. This is not the obvious choice (The Third Man would be). And it is rather similar to Kurosawa’s film since it is an examination of truth and falsehood.* Yet its thrust is different from Kurosawa’s and it is as good as, if not better, than The Third Man. It is an under-seen masterpiece and so goes on this list.
*Quick summary: A young child idolizes the house butler, who is married to the housekeeper. Theirs is an unhappy marriage, and the butler has an affair, and the night she discovers the affair, she dies. When the police become suspicious of the butler, the boy’s testimony becomes vital.

15) Night Moves by Arthur Penn. Is the truth worth it? That is one of the themes of this film about detective Harry Moseby (played by Gene Hackman) who investigates a young woman’s disappearance as his marriage falls apart. In many ways similar to The Conversation or even Blow Up.

16) Sukiyaki Western Django by Takashi Miike. This is probably the most idiosyncratic selection. But this samurai western that draws upon The Tale of the Heike and Shakespeare is a wonderful exploration of the influence of traditions and multiculturalism. I know of none better.

17) The Man who Shot Liberty Valance by John Ford. A list could probably be made entirely of philosophically interesting westerners. Unfortunately I have not seen nearly as many as I should. A western Oresteia starring Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne.

18) Wild Strawberries by Ingmar Bergman. His entire oeuvre could be included, but this is one of my favorite films, a profound reflection on memory, aging, love, and religious belief as an old doctor travels across Sweden to receive an honorary degree.

19) Triumph of the Will by Leni Riefenstahl. Riefenstahl’s infamous pro-Nazi documentary of the Nuremberg rallies is outstanding. However, if I had seen it, I suspect Olympia would be on this list.

20) Tokyo Olympiad by Kon Ichikawa is an important reason why I would be tempted to put Olympia here. Responding to both Riefenstahl’s film and Japan’s imperialistic past, Kon Ichikawa tells a story of the failures and individuals in the Olympics, producing a film of rare sensitivity and one that gives a much needed re-evaluation of values.

21) Wittgenstein by Derek Jarman is one of the few films about a philosopher–or a thinker–that is very concerned with their thought. All of Jarman’s films are amazing, but given this is a list of philosophical films, this is unavoidable and a film rightly on the Essential Films list.

22) Woman in the Dunes by Hiroshi Teshigahara that follows an entomologist as he is trapped by a community that lives in the dunes to replace a woman’s husband and has to join her in digging to keep the dunes at bay. It explores how our life gains significance through associating with others.

23) Touch of Zen by King Hu. Perhaps not as philosophically interesting as others, but I loved Stephen Teo’s discussion of this film, and its Buddhist theme of illusion vs. reality, and how many Hong Kong kung fu (or rather wuxia) films could be on such a list? And it is one of the best kung fu films–probably only Come Drink with Me and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon compare.

24) Pickpocket by Robert Bresson. Bresson’s re-telling of Crime and Punishment is a stunning film. One reason to put this here is that it sells the ending in a way that Dostoevsky doesn’t quite. It is not a mere up-dating of the novel.

25) Danton by Andrzej Wajda. Wajda is my favorite Polish director, though not as celebrated as Kieślowski or Polanski. Danton is one of his best films, and how can any movie about the French Revolution not be philosophically relevant? Actually, it is probably pretty easy but this one is not, especially since it is informed by Wajda’s own experiences in Poland.

26) Unforgiven by Clint Eastwood. This examination of violence borders on the unwatchable. But deliberately so and to a good end. Profoundly disturbing, but about something that should disturb you.

27) Crimes and Misdemeanors by Woody Allen. He has better films, but this story about wrong-doing and people’s consciences is one of his most philosophical (also a good choice on the Essential list).

28) Summer by Eric Rohmer. Over the summer, a young man gets involved with three different women. Rohmer’s film explores masculinity and the self-deception sometimes needed to preserve our dignity.

29) Dog Star Man by Stan Brakhage. I don’t know enough about avant-garde films, else Maya Deren among others would be here. But Brakhage’s exploration of birth, death, and our relation to the natural world deserves several viewings.

30) Forbidden Planet by Fred Wilcox. The Tempest in space, with a lot of Freud thrown in. Still one of the most interesting science fiction films.

31) 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick because how could I not include it?

32) The Discarnates by Nobuhiko Ôbayashi. Another idiosyncratic choice, but the story of a man who runs into his long-dead parents–who are now his own age–greatly appeals to me. That the dead do not age, do not change, while the living do and our relationship to our dead are themes that greatly appeal to me and that I think are philosophically significant.

33) Do the Right Thing by Spike Lee. Philosophy of race is something I am becoming more interested in. This film, about the racial tensions and relations in a Brooklyn neighborhood, is still incredible.

34) Ordet by Carl Dreyer. Perhaps more a great religious film than a great philosophical film, this is the first Dreyer I watched. It involves a man who thinks he is Jesus and a Romeo and Juliet-like romance. I have never seen a film of his that was less than perfect and chose this only because it was the first film by him I watched.

35) Avalon by Mamoru Oshii. Most of these sort of lists have The Matrix so in its place I have this similar Japanese movie from the director of Ghost in the Shell. It is thematically similar, but its slower pace and greyer, East European scenery appeals to me more. It deserves to be better known.

36) Two Men and a Wardrobe by Roman Polanski. A short film is sort of an odd man out here, but this film of two men emerging from the sea carrying a wardrobe is one of the most profound films I’ve seen, particularly on man’s inhumanity to man. I understand why people would not want to watch a Polanski film, but his films–like Woody Allen’s–are often wonderful.

37) Zardoz by John Boorman. An overambitious and messy work of science fiction, if philosophy is about thinking clearly, then this probably does not belong here. But this is unjustly mocked and is well-worth thinking about, particularly with regard to the value of mortality.

38) Werckmeister Harmonies by Bela Tarr. A beautiful, haunting, surreal film about what happens to a down when a show starring a dead whale comes to town. This is a movie about order and disorder.

39) Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Either version works, though I prefer the older one. A scathing attack on conformity, it can of course relate to all sort of zombie-related questions. And zombies are an important philosophical topic!

40) Buckets of Blood by Roger Corman. Roger Corman may be the most important man in American movies. He made great films and trained many wonderful directors and actors, such as Francis Ford Coppola. This film is his account of a want-to-be artist who starts making astonishingly life-like statues while people start to go missing. Perhaps more fun than philosophical, it is still very much worth a look.

41) Beauty and the Beast by Jean Cocteau. Cocteau did other, more explicitly philosophical films, but I don’t think any touch this one. It is a perfect fairy-tale, one that also has a great deal to say about relations between the sexes.

42) Blow Up by Michelangelo Antonioni. This film of a photographer who may have taken a picture of a murder is rightfully a classic. A pointed study in the unreliableness of evidence and how we seek patterns, sense, and order.

43) Only Yesterday by Isao Takahata. Sort of a token animated film, this is also my favorite anime. It is the story of an office lady from the city who goes to the countryside and falls in love. This movie says much about happiness, but also about our relationship to the natural world.

44) Time Regained by Raul Ruiz. Proust is one of my favorite philosophical novelist; this is a wonderful adaptation of his work. If you haven’t read the novels, this may be cryptic. If you have, however, it is wonderful.

45) Videodrome is David Croenberg’s exploration of how we are becoming tied to technology. A deeply unsettling film, but given that we started with a film that portrayed the glories of technology, it is fitting to end on one that portrays its horror.

Final thoughts: Done again, this list could have 45 different films. No doubt anyone who reads this could point to obvious films I missed. Such is the nature of lists. Surprising me are the directors I’ve left off, e.g Robert Altman and Sergei Eisenstein. They are some of my favorite directors, but for one reason or another I could not think of a film of theirs that is as philosophical interesting. The paltry number of silent films is also surprising. Metropolis, for instance, is a great film, but ultimately not, I think, great philosophy. What should not surprise me, but does, is how important self-deception and the value of falsehood is in the movies I recommend. There were several films I thought of adding on this theme but didn’t since I felt it was over-represented. Lastly, I’m also disappointed by my lack of female directors.