My Philosophy, My Vertigo

George Reisch, Noël Carroll and Dan Flory

Are the workings of the human mind and heart forever beyond the reach of science to understand? Two philosophers find the question - and opposed answers - in Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

One problem with philosophy is that everyone seems to have one. The corporate spokesperson who articulates “this company’s philosophy…” or the famous director who’s asked, “What’s your philosophy of cinema?” make it seem like just about everyone’s reading Wittgenstein and thinking very, very hard. But these two are simply speaking about corporate values and goals, and cinematic style and technique.

Philosophy is not something you have. It’s something you do. True, having a lot of knowledge helps. If you want to understand something, it pays to spend some time learning about history’s smartest minds and how they tried to understand things. That’s why “the philosophy of Descartes", for example, is something most philosophers know all about. And that’s just about the only reason why. Knowing a lot about Descarte’s or Kant’s or Carnap’s ideas makes you a good philosopher no more than owning a vintage ’58 Les Paul makes you Jimmy Page.

All of which is to explain two things. First, since it's something you do, philosophy is never finished. Whoever tells you “I’m done, I’ve figured it all out, and you should just believe what I say” has gone to the dark dogmatic side. He or she may be a prophet or guru (so watch your wallet), but not a philosopher, the best of whom dedicate themselves to figuring out what they don’t know. They also change their minds about things -- not because they’re lesser philosophers, just the opposite: they’re learning.

And it helps explain why philosophers incessantly disagree with each other -- less, perhaps, about the details of Descartes and other classics. Those are part of the canon and have been analyzed to death. But when it comes to the ideas and concepts lurking in icons like Pink Floyd, Monty Python, or The Simpsons, philosophers are on their own and, as it should be, their minds move in so many different directions it can make you dizzy.

Take these two essays from Hitchcock and Philosophy: Dial M for Metaphysics. One takes Vertigo to be a kind of scientific study in psychology about what can and cannot happen when two complementary character types are thrust into each other’s world. “The combination of an enabler like Madeline/ Judy and a projective fantasist like Scottie is as toxic is like an Antigone and a Creon -- catastrophe seems unavoidable when personality types like these come into contact.” As Noël Carroll hints, some people’s hours in therapy would be better spent carefully watching this movie -- especially those who tend to get dizzy about romance, love, and trust.

To which Dan Flory adds an emphatic “not!” The human mind and its emotions, Flory insists, are too complex and unpredictable for science to understand. Scottie’s failed efforts to overcome his vertigo by applying his reason and tentatively stepping up ladders symbolizes a failed philosophy that mistakenly looks to science to learn something about the world and ourselves. Far from a study of human nature, Vertigo is best understood as a study in philosophers, Flory argues, who themselves “fear epistemological vertigo” and unfashionably cling to the hope that general principles and logic can tell us anything important about “the workings of the human mind.”

You will have to figure out for yourself which interpretation is more reasonable and defensible and which philosopher may have climbed too high in his own tower of interpretation. No philosophy will tell you.

Below is extracted from Noël Carroll’s “Vertigo and the Pathologies of Romantic Love”, pp. 101–113 in Hitchcock and Philosophy: Dial M for Metaphysics. Edited by David Baggett and William A. Drumin, Open Court Publishing Company, 2007.

When Henry Higgins transforms Liza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, he is bringing out the best in her. But Scottie is imposing something on Judy that she is not. He is more of a tyrant than a lover, and the cruelty of what he is doing is underscored by her recurring pleas that he lover her as she is. Unfortunately, Judy -- though she understands well that there is something flawed in her relationship with Scottie -- can’t resist him. She becomes an enabler, facilitating the fantasy Scottie projects on her. She participates in her own spiritual death as an individual with a claim to be loved for herself -- a plight symbolized perhaps by her fall from the tower. Whereas “Madelein Elster” was reputedly possessed by Carlotta in the first part of the film, Judy Barton is possessed by Scottie in the second.

Of course, the revelation of the murder plot impels us to reconsider the meaning of the first love story. In retrospect, the fantasy is even more evident, since Scottie is literally caught in an illusion fabricated by Gavin Elster and enacted by Judy. Ironically, Judy becomes her own rival by seducing Scottie so magnificently in the guise of Madeleine; her performace as Madeline abets Scottie’s distorted idealization that will ultimately foreclose the possibility of any lasting amorous relationship between them. The combination of an enabler like Madeline/Judy and a projective fantasist like Scottie is as toxic is like an Antigone and a Creon -- catastrophe seems unavoidable when personality types like these come into contact.

Scottie’s vertigo, symbolically, may be a literalization of the notion that he is afraid of falling in love. And his anxiety, in turn, makes him prone to the kind of pathological projection he inflicts upon Judy. His fear of engaging with another individual prompts him to confect a surrogate fantasy in her stead. But if Scottie’s behavior grows from resistance to love, Judy’s self-destructive complicity with his fantasy arises from her need to be loved. But this is no way for her to realize her own hopes and desires, for it will not bring Scottie to love her. In part, she is as delusional as he is.

Vertigo presents us with two recognizable character types. Call them the projector (the projective fantasist) and the enabler. The film clearly sketches the predictable scenario that unfolds when these two types come together and fuel each other’s worst tendencies. Drama has the power to reveal the probable patterns of human affairs that eventuate when certain character-types interact. It is a kind of chemistry of the human heart. Some of these patterns may take the form of what the psychiatrist R.D. Laing called “knots” -- situations where motives become so tangled that acting on them brings exactly the opposite of the result hoped for. That is the kind of trap the enable Judy has fallen into by loving the projective fantasist Scottie. A large part of the achievement of Vertigo is to show us how this kind of knot and its inevitably self-defeating logic can be tied so neatly. And how fantasy, a natural part of romantic love, can become pathologically distorted to the point that love is destroyed.

Below is extracted from Dan Flory’s “Vertigo: Scientific Method, Obsession, and Human Minds”, pp. 115–127 in Hitchcock and Philosophy: Dial M for Metaphysics. Edited by David Baggett and William A. Drumin, Open Court Publishing Company, 2007.

Scottie’s inability to fully appreciate the motivations behind human events shows the tragic results of treating how we know human minds too closely according to a naïve, scientific paradigm. Methods like Scottie’s attempt to ground human action and motivation strictly according to comprehensive, universalistic principles. Scottie’s theories about why people act in one way or another depend on a simplistic understanding of their reasons for action as absolute rules that compel them to act mechanically in narrowly determined ways. Their reasons for acting in specific instances, then, may be easily inferred from those rules. Consequently, Scottie attributes his acrophobia to not being accustomed to high places and works to eliminate it through gradual, step-by-step acclimation. He also attributes Madeleine’s mental disturbances to a combination of forgotten past experience and needless worries, so he works diligently to bring them to light. He even believes his own romantic obsession and guilt may be resolved through a proper account of the facts, after which he will be free of them.

But his investigations fail to explain the workings of the human mind because they lack an appreciation of the imperviousness of some human actions to being explained strictly according to universal principles or rules that admit no exceptions. As Aristotle observed, sometimes reasons for action may not be so strictly formulated. While we may legitimately seek general characterizations of many human behaviors, such formulations will be at best approximate.

Vertigo’s focus on Scottie’s method and its ineffectivness, then, implies a critical analysis of such reasoning that narrowly employs this naïvely scientific approach to understanding human minds. Such a perspective devalues emotions in favor of reasons. It leaves no room for the general efficacy of emotions, their ability to guide us frequently to the proper conclusion without at the same time being infallible. These kinds of human mental functions are typically far more complicated than that sort of outlook can properly capture.

Like Scottie, some philosophers fear epistemological vertigo. They fear the loss of theoretical buttresses that allow them to believe that their knowledge is secure, so they embrace outmoded, universalistic formulations of knowledge because such conceptions give them the illusion that certainty may be achieved. But in the last half-century many philosophers have moved away from reliance on these epistemological props and found that a more accurate way of understanding human minds is based in Aristotle’s observation that universalistic formulations may not always accurately capture the phenomena.

Hitchcock’s film serves as a parable about knowledge of human minds that some philosophers would do well to observe. Scottie’s character suggests by negative example that we should let go of our epistemological fears and realize that what we do and think may not be accurately captured by means of straightforward, universal principles. More modest and supple formulations, especially concerning our emotions, might well better account for common human behavior. This is also the lesson that Midge’s character holds out. If we can achieve an awareness that attains the level of Midge’s attitude toward other human beings, we might see in addition that, freed of the epistemological training wheels that some have argued must guide us, the vertigo we initially feel when they are gone will eventually go away.

Noël Carroll is the Andrew Mellon Professor of the Humanities at Temple University.

Dan Flory is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Montana State University, Bozeman.

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