Monthly Archives: June 2015

‘Inside Out’: The Philosophy of an Elementary Twist

This week Pixar Disney’s new movie ‘Inside Out’ will be released in America. In general appearance, the upcoming movie promises to be both new and different, in the perfectly usual way.

In one respect however, there seems to be something unusual going on. The basic idea behind Inside Out, namely that we can look inside people’s heads, introduces a fundamental philosophic dimension. By taking the inside out, the thinking itself takes center stage. This crucial move raises a very essential question namely: ‘what really is thinking?’

It is in the light of this question, that some quite fundamental shifts surface. The ‘inside out theme’ both relies on, and influences our ideas about how we think we are thinking. And that means it touches upon the central question of how we can understand ourselves as human beings. Time to evaluate some possible conceptual implications of this philosophical dimension. What this will show, is that thinking about thinking, always goes deeper than we think.

Trailer on Youtube:

Inside Out Trailer 2 UK – Official Disney Pixar | 10 December 2014

A Trailer’s Story

When we look at a trailer, we see a couple with an adolescent daughter at a kitchen table. There’s only three things that really happen: there’s a short conversation, the daughter gets angry, and her father subsequently sends her away: that’s it. We however get to see more than that, because after two sentences a voice-over asks:

“Do you ever look at someone and wonder: what is going on inside their head?”

Then we are shown the inside of a head, where five colored figures seem to be in charge. In another teaser we are told that these five figures are ‘the emotions’. Red, for example, is ‘anger’ and blue is ‘sadness’. The thoughts and thinking of the main characters is thus depicted as little figures in the head.

Image of a 'homunculus' or 'little man' in a sperm cell.

Image of a ‘homunculus’ or ‘little man’ in a sperm cell.

This idea is not new, even though the fact that the in-head figures are revealed to be ‘emotions’ rather than ‘reason’ or ‘thoughts’ is somewhat surprising. In philosophy this image is often used in line with Descartes’ difference between ‘body’ and ‘mind’, and is known as a ‘homunculus‘, which is Latin for ‘little man.’ In eighteenth century discussions on the mind, and heredity literal references to homunculi were not uncommon. Here the mind was conceived of in much the same way as in this movie: a little man watching a screen.

In more recent philosophy, literal conceptions of homunculi are generally refuted. An influential critique on the possibility of this idea, can for example be found in Gilbert Ryle‘s 1949 ‘The Concept of Mind.’ Ryle demonstrates that it is categorically impossible to consider the ‘spirit’, or the ‘thinking’ as fundamentally different from the body. Therefore rejects this idea as:

“The myth of the ghost in the machine.

And since brain scientists have not found any homunculi neither, it is quite clear that ‘figures in the head’ have nothing to with how we really think.

However, this movie is of course fiction, so after a puzzling remark of the daughter, we are directly taken to the inside of the head of the mother. Here we see five feminine figures, cozily drinking tea, behind a pink desk with some large colored buttons. Behind the ladies there’s curtains that are giving the room a warm homely atmosphere. Sadness, sitting at the center, asks the other ladies meaningfully:

“Did you guys pick up on that?”

The other ladies murmur in approval, and Sadness concludes:

“We need support, signal the husband.”

She signs lazily to someone off-screen, and apparently this triggers something, for the woman at the breakfast table gives a suggestive cough in the man’s direction.

And also this apparently triggers something, because we are suddenly shown the inside of the man’s head. And the atmosphere here is quite different, by golly! Here’s no tea, no curtains, and no conversational gossip: on the contrary! The five gentlemen in this head sit in a serious technical area, behind a desk full advanced equipment. And that’s where they are passionately watching, a soccer match. The woman’s cough directly ends this blissful state, and they instantly switch to an ordered, hierarchical, and effectual protocol. Observations are being made, structured and analyzed, and on the basis of this, judgment is given, and appropriate action is taken: the man at the table asks something to his daughter. All this happens under the bold leadership of the red figure ‘Anger’. Who consequently and determinedly reacts to the reported outcome, by taking more action.

The outcome of the actions has a completely different effect on the ladies in the head on the opposite side of the table. They just groan in disapproval and sink over their desk. And even though that’s all they do, the woman at the table somehow asks an active question. But by then we’re already back inside the man’s head, which is looking like a military command center by now. There are lights flickering, machines running, buttons being pushed and, after the rise of the emergency level, heavy measures are rationally unlocked by coordinated key-use, and so converted into carefully controlled measures. And even though the escalation and punishment that follow, can hardly be called a ‘happy ending’, the gentlemen cheer self-satisfied. When Anger sinks back in his chair, he says:

“Good job gentlemen, that could have been a disaster.”

Being in control and maintaining authority, that’s apparently what it is all about.

The Thorny Undertone

On basis of this reading, it could be noted that there seem to surface some slight stereotypes of masculinity and femininity in the trailer. And this might lead to the sort of feminist criticism that has often been formulated in reaction to especially Disney’s movies. The core of this criticism, is the idea that the stereotyped characters somehow become role-models, and in this way materialize in real differences between men and women. So typical female attributes, as for example in this short fragment, being passive, emotional, sensitive and homely, subtly affect people’s conceptions of what women are really like, and subsequently what they should be like. And the same applies to typical male attributes, such as in the trailer’s example: being active, rational, determined and professional.

The classical image of this sort of criticism, is the little girl that really loves Snow-white, and somehow starts to suppose that whenever she wants something in life, all she has to do is dress up pretty and wait. And because of this, eventually she really becomes passive and homely. Where her brother on the other hand, taking the prince as an example, starts supposing that whenever he wants something, he needs to act, and go for it. This in turn eventually contributes to the development of an active and successful life. The fictional stereotypes, this way get a self-fulfilling efficacy in the real world. In the light of such criticism, the masculinity and femininity of the figures in the head, that the trailer so comically exploit, acquire a grave nature behind their innocent diverting appearance.

All this however is by no means undisputedly obvious or self-evident. This sort of criticism is inevitably subject to all sorts of practical complexities, principal difficulties and extremely polarizing discussions. The question what precisely influences what, in this undesirable relation, is practically unanswerable, because all is very abstract, interwoven and deceitfully fluid. Additionally, the image of people as helpless victims of evil cartoons, is quite problematic. And even without these complications, the consequential question to what extend artists should be obliged to answer for the moral implications of a creation, is quite tricky.

So even though the blunt stereotyping in this trailer may strike as a bit moronic, I would rather avoid that moral maze for now. What suffices for my exploration, is a minimal notion that movies as these, can be more real in some respects, then we might initially think. Fictional movies, can have factual effects. How exactly, to what extent, to what results, and to what moral conclusions this should lead, can be left out of picture for now. This opens the way for an examination of the possible conceptual implications that the ‘figures in the head theme’ could have for the story in general, the viewer’s relation to the story, and the moral dimension of the story in general.



Insight Out

There is one respect in which this philosophical dimension might bear profound implications for such moral complexities in general. The introduction of the figures in the head of the main characters, implies an elemental shift in the implications of their personality and acts. Normally a character’s properties and choices, can always be considered as principally incidental fixations of possibilities. That means that in principle something always could have been different. When a female character in a movie is passive and homely, it is possible to consider that accidental properties of an individual character. That means that, even when all movies are the same in this respect, there is within the movie logic, no reason why she could not have acted differently. This leaves it fundamentally possible to disregard all fixed stereotypes, values and expectations. A viewer can for example always resent a character’s lack of action, and consider it a reprehensible stupidity, from within the movie logic.

We could say that a minimal premise of subjective freedom of characters is always principally possible. It is precisely this premise, that can make stories so extreme lifelike in the first place. Bad things can become insufferably appalling, when they are an effect of people, that could have done things differently. This is why, for example, reading about a journalist’s execution can cause feelings of revulsion and bewilderment, while the story about the same journalist dying in a car accident is much less distressing. The premise of a character’s or person’s subjective freedom within a given situation, enables the possibility of condemnation. This ‘subjective freedom’ however is difficult to grasp. It always relates to a given situation, and even then remains invisible. It is in this respect that story characters can become so much like real people. The viewer’s possible meaningful relation, based on the premise of subjective freedom of a character within a specific context, is the same within a fictional world, as in the factual world.

This implies an important insight. It guaranties an open moment, a sort of innate easy opt out option for moral issues. All that the characters are, and do, can be understood as the product of their own free choices, within the story logic. This makes it possible to consider all characters within a movie responsible for their deeds, ideas and properties, from within the movie itself. So even when everything the characters do, is in a broader context the evident product of ill societal bigotry, the obvious side effects of the makers normative delusions, or maybe even the foul pawns in the workings of an overall power knowledge structure; a feasible preliminary conclusion can be practically based with just the movie. Without radical implications viewers can principally reject anything in the story, without rejecting the whole movie, or movie industry, and without further direct radical commitment.

Because such a rejection is quite practical and modest, it conveniently allows for possible conclusions. This means a viewer always has a reasonable opportunity for a legitimized rejection, that can also bring him alternative perspectives for action. This can be illustrate by means of the poor Snow-White victim girl. She can anytime come to the conclusion that passivity is stupid after all. And because Snow-White in principle could have made more active choices, she is quite culpable, in this respect. So she can conclude that she resents this in Snow-White’s character, and directly embrace the practical intention of doing things differently herself, without having to completely renounce her precious princess, and her favorite youth movie, as a depraving abominations. The premise of subjective freedom thus contains an option for legitimate practical (change of) judgment.

It is on this fundamental level that something seems to change in the ‘figures in head’ theme. Now we do not just see the characters properties, choices and ideas, we also see how these come to be. All the main characters do, is shown to be the effect of the figures in their heads. And because we are shown what is going on inside them, we can no longer assume that they are subjectively free. We literally see them being determined from within. And this changes the in-story relation to possible culpable traits. Within the story, possible defects of the characters can no longer be seen as the effect of their wrong judgment. This way a possible defect becomes fixed, irrefutable and legitimized within the story logic. And this bears consequences for the way the viewer can practically relate to such in-story elements. Stereotypes can no longer be rejected from within the story logic, where they are fixed. Therefore, an explicit rejection of something a character does, at least requires the rejection of the whole movie logic. The reasonable opt-out opportunity as described above, here seems seriously restricted.

If we take the stereotyping of women as ‘passive’ as an example again. The woman in the trailer could be called quite passive. All she does is coughing to her husband in case of need, and then awaiting his actions. When he sends her daughter away, she disagrees, but she doesn’t intervene. This can however not possibly be considered as a lamentable delusion of her judgment. Her passiveness is logically necessary and unavoidable, because that’s what the ladies in her head are like. It is hard to imagine how these five ladies could come to a completely different attitude. This passiveness is thus deeply interwoven with her whole personality, and she can’t possibly be expected to recognize or realize this. Since we see the characters determined by the figures in their heads, they are not capable of gaining insight in the changeable nature of their personality, and therefore relate differently to possible insights of the viewers. In this respect we could say this trailer doesn’t only bring the characters ‘Inside Out’, it also turns all characters potential ‘insight, out’.

Inside Up

But if this is the case, then what? All this doesn’t exactly seem to have any direct implications. It is only a movie after all. And whatever we say about ‘reasonable opportunity for legitimized rejection’, everybody is still free to send up the river whatever he wants. So it remains limited to an abstract observation, and that’s interesting enough for my exploration here. Besides, the conceptual implications, can be questioned more fundamentally, and for this exploration more relevantly, by putting them in the light of a general inconsistency that underlies the idea of ‘figures in the head.’

The movie’s main characters are determined by the figures we can see inside their heads. And because of this, they can no longer be affected by the premise of subjective freedom. And this changes the way we can understand, and relate to their traits and choices. But what about the figures in their heads? They can still be understood as principally free? In principle each lady in the woman’s head, could come to the conclusion that passiveness is something to be condemned. Therefore, within the story logic, Sadness could have chosen to actively push a button, instead of waving lazily. And consequently, she could also have decided to push the button for ‘affirmative action’, instead of the button for ‘suggestive coughs.’ So the possible subjective freedom that directly disappears for the main characters, seems to come back at a higher level. So in fact, this central feature of human thinking, has not disappeared in bringing the inside out, it has just shifted one level up! So we could also say that this aspect of the inside, does after all not come out, but instead goes one level up. So a better movie title might be: ‘Inside Up’.

But if this is the case, the five ladies actions do not really show what the voice-over promises, namely: “what is really going on inside their heads.” If we would want to show that, we would have to see what’s going on inside the five ladies heads. That’s where the real decisions are being made. So what’s it like inside their heads? Five more, and even smaller ladies, sitting in a differently decorated homely rooms, behind a slightly different pink desks? That would mean twenty-five even smaller ladies in the main characters head in total. And then inside the heads of these even smaller ladies? Even more, even smaller ladies? And after that? As soon as we realize that bringing the inside out, actually means bringing the inside up, we end up in infinite regression. We can repeat this ‘inside out move’ endlessly, but this actually results in moving the inside up endlessly, within the inside. So the inside never comes out, but ends up eternally deeper in the insides, inside.

Outside In

But if we cannot see the inside, what can we see going on inside the main characters heads in the trailer? Looking at the way the ladies and the gentlemen inside the heads are situated and behaving, some options come to mind. To me for example, the way the ladies talk, reminds me greatly of the way people talk in talk-shows and reality-soaps. And the way the gentlemen talk and act, reminds me of the way people talk in action movies. Furthermore, what all these in-head figures seem to like and to want, reminds me of the way people are portrayed in commercials and magazines. And so are all aspects of the shown inside, very similar to common media representations. And besides the possible moral implications of this observation, this also contains an interesting element for this exploration. Namely, that maybe it is not so much the inside that’s brought out, but the outside that’s brought in. So first the inside is moved up, and then the outside is placed in the now vacant inside. When we look at it this way, we could say that a more technically correct movie title would have been: “Inside Up, and Outside In”.

Thinking about Thinking

So in fact, the thinking doesn’t take center-stage at all, but moves to a land far, far away. But this would of course not be a very comic conclusion for an animation movie like this one. The idea, that it is within this movie, indeed the thinking that we are looking at, is posited very explicit and crude. If we want to follow the story, that is the rules we have to accept. But the trailers that have been released so far seem to stretch it a bit further than that. In this trailer a direct question is asked to the viewer:

“Do you ever look at someone and wonder: what is going on inside their head?”

This question not just designates the fictional story characters, but our actual selves! In another teaser the voice-over also directly addresses us:

“Ever wonder where all those emotions really live?”

To tell us a little later:

“Meet the little voices inside your head.”

Here a fundamental shift is made. The voice-over is no part of the in-story logic, and he is asking us, the viewer, a direct and very fundamental question. Now what is the difference between a real person asking this question, and the voice over doing so? If you take the question seriously, it really changes something, because the moment you start thinking about your own thinking, your thinking changes. Or, dear reader, have you never wondered what is going on inside your head?

And are you now?

If you just started thinking, about your own thinking, one thing is for sure: it just changed. Thinking about thinking always opens up a deep rabbit hole of paradoxes. This paradoxical situation is a bit similar to the paradoxes in time-travel movies, but with the difference that we can’t actually time travel, but that we can actually think about our own thinking. And the moment the question is asked in the trailer, it is almost impossible not to picture our own thinking. So the trailer really makes it necessary picture our own thinking, which is a very profound and complex personal challenge. While at the same time it presents a very easy, but evidently fictitious and morally problematic image of bigoted homunculi. So even though the movie’s representation of thinking is obvious nonsense, it might get a very real dimension, because there is no proper alternative, when it is immediately required.

So when we take the fundamental personal dimension of thinking about our own thinking into account, the movie’s elementary twist does change something. In the light of the potential moral issues, that are connected with Disney’s movies, this could have far reaching consequences. We could apply this to the example of the classic Snow-White victim girl once more. Imagine that in the Snow-White movie we would have been able to look at her thinking. Like in the head of the woman at the table, in Snow-White’s head would have been five extremely feminine stereotypes at the buttons. And, just as in the former example, the Disney victim girl initially starts unconsciously adopting those virtues, and starts being as passive as Snow-White. But again, a little later, she starts to reconsider. Now in the first place she cannot come to the conclusion that Snow-White in the movie could have done differently, since she was obviously determined from within.

But in the second place, when she is accidentally thinking of her own thinking in the way of the movie, it would be quite hard to image that she could want it differently herself! If she pictures five Disney like bigoted ladies into her own, passiveness seems quite unavoidable, and thus it could become a necessarily fixed element within her self-image. And as the thinking about thinking theme, has a very real and forcing dimension, this is not unthinkable. The way the Snow-White victim girl thinks about her own thinking, can change the way she can relate, not only to the movie, but also to herself. The way we think of our own thinking, has fundamental influence on who we can be, on who we can want to be, and on who we can become. And here Inside Out touches at the heart of our individuality, and our human existence.

Think In, Think Out…

Luckily the trailer also offers some leads for alternatives. Let’s look at it a little closer. The voice-over, as an out of story element, asks us to think what it is like in our heads. But, as he seems to be aware of them, he could also have asked the movie characters if they have ever wondered what is going on inside their heads. What would happen then? What would happen if the five ladies inside the woman’s head were put to that question? Obviously they would know very precisely what is going on inside the woman’s head? They would just look around, and know the answer. But if they all five know the answer, how come the woman doesn’t know? Why wouldn’t a characters know, what its thinking knows?

And that also applies to us. Why wouldn’t we know, what our thinking knows? So if we do, then why doesn’t our thinking know for sure what it really is?

And to add one last question: has the voice-over ever wondered what is going on inside his own head? Obviously he knows about the gentlemen in his own head, as he introduced us to to the gentlemen in the heads of the characters, and our heads. But if he does know for sure that his thinking is nothing more then these five gentlemen, then who does he think he is? And who do his gentlemen think he is? And what would be the difference?

This shows that how we think that we think, is of great importance for who we think that we are. And who we think that we are, is of great importance for who we are. This philosophical dimension of thinking about thinking, is therefore crucial for this subject. If in the actual movie, this dimension would be addressed, and form a central part in the story, Inside Out might be able to escape the perils described here. Similar approaches were taken for example in The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Being Johny Malkovich, where precisely questions to subjective freedom and identity, take a central position.

When Inside Out would turn out to be not a simple fixation of the thinking, but addresses these very complex and profound dimensions of the subjective freedom, the movie might turn out to escape the fundamental criticism mentioned here. The head of the little girl on the breakfast table seems to offer the best chances for doing so, as the figures in her head, are very much out of control and busy on working who they don’t want to be. If this would lead to a movie plot that develops around the following questions about herself, the movie might turn out to the better:

“Who am I?”, “Who can I want to be?”, and “Who should I be?”  

I hope that is the direction the actual movie will take.

The trailer’s ending is not very hopeful though. After the failed attempts of making the man do what the women want, the five ladies sink back in their chairs, and say:

“For this we gave up this Brazilian helicopter pilot?”

For the first, and only time in the trailer one of them pushes a button, and a screen sinks down that shows an beastly attractive masculine helicopter pilot. The five ladies sigh, and forget everything else: because in a Disney narrative: all women actually long for, is a masculine hero that can tame their raw sexual energy.

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