Using popular stars to teach philosophy

Professor to discuss links between movies, ancient teachings

Posted: Monday, July 24, 2006

At Florida International University, Chris Grau has found that actors such as Will Smith, Jim Carrey and Keanu Reeves are a fine way of introducing students to philosophers like Aristotle, Immanuel Kant and Rene Descartes.

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Grau, an assistant professor of philosophy, teaches a popular course at FIU called "Philosophy of Film." The class explores whether films can provide moral illumination. The curriculum includes "The Matrix," "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and "I, Robot."

"As you'd expect, the students like things to be accessible and these films are a great way of introducing them to some pretty tough ideas," Grau said. "Philosophy is not the easiest subject to dive into. (Film) seduces them into doing some hard work."

Grau is currently in town with his girlfriend, Juneau-born painter Susan Watson, for a month-long house-sitting stint. He will speak about the ways in which philosophy can connect with film during an hour-long lecture at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the downtown Juneau Public Library.

Grau has been an assistant professor of philosophy for the last three years at Florida International University, where his research includes theories on personal identity. He will be a visiting assistant professor during the 2006-2007 academic year in the department of philosophy at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

He earned his undergraduate degree at New York University, and his master's and Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University.

Chris Grau

Connecting Keanu and Kant

Who: Chris Grau, assistant professor of philosophy, Florida International University

What: "Can Films Provide Moral Illumination? Philosophy Through Film," a free lecture

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 25

Where: Downtown Juneau Public Library

He's taught at Dartmouth College, Johns Hopkins, Brooklyn College and the University of Maryland.

Grau's interest in philosophy through film was piqued at Johns Hopkins. One of his professors, George Wilson, was interested in philosophical questions that pertain to creating films.

"A lot of younger philosophers have realized that films raise a lot of philosophical issue and are really useful pedagogically to help teach philosophy," Grau said. "It's a good way to look at these deeper issues. There are ways in which films are better than novels at presenting imaginary situations that can provoke philosophy. It's just a more visceral experience."

Grau's career received an unexpected boost with the first release of the first "Matrix" movie. An old New York University friend, Spencer Lamm, built the film's Web site for the movie's creators, Andy and Larry Wachowski.

Lamm asked Grau for help in developing a section on the film's philosophical questions. The section was expanded into a full-blown philosophical critique with essays by well-known contemporary philosophers. Grau eventually turned it into a book, "Philosophers Explore The Matrix."

Since then, he's worked on a similar Web site for "O'Brother, Where Art Thou?" He's published "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and the Morality of Memory," an essay about the Jim Carrey/Kate Winslet film, and another essay about the Will Smith movie "I, Robot."

"(Eternal Sunshine) is a great movie for reasons that my essay doesn't even begin to touch on," Grau said. "It raises pretty deep questions about the nature of the self, the commitment we have to other people and particularly about the importance of memory."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at

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