Category: aesthetics

An Interpretive Analysis of 2001: A Space Odyssey



The film “2001: A Space Odyssey” is one of the best-known science fiction classics of all time. Over the decades since its initial release, this close collaboration between Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke has become a focus of study for film students, philosophers, and futurists.

Attention tends to center on Kubrick’s depictions of space travel and its impact on human life, or on Clarke’s exploration of questions like the nature of consciousness and the ontological conundrums raised in the film’s unique climax and conclusion.

But all of these themes, as important as they are, overlook an essential insight about ourselves, and our relationships with others. To understand this insight, we must first understand the nature of the relationships on board the Jupiter One, and the role of killer computer best known for his refusal to open the pod bay doors.


Historically, literature has made good use of non-human characters to represent some aspect of ourselves. With the advent of science fiction, computers and robots have often taken the lead in this role. Just about everyone today is familiar with the most common of the tropes: Man’s creations become the means of his own judgment, or his destruction. HAL certainly fits into that category.

But he represents something else, as well. Something much more subtle and powerful than merely an unhinged Pinnochio. Because HAL is already a real boy. And Kubrick points this out to us many times.

If you watch the film carefully, you’ll notice that it is only HAL who admits actual feelings to us. He tells us how much he “enjoys” working with people, how much “concern” he has about the mission, how “puzzled” he is about his misdiagnosis. He apologizes to us for being too inquisitive and silly, and finally as he is being shut down, he tells us he is afraid.

His actions tell us, too, how utterly human he is. At first he’s proudly and confidently telling us how he’s never made a mistake. Then he’s confiding in Dave how worried he is. And finally, he’s acting to defend himself from what he perceives as a threat.

Philosophical debates about “artificial intelligence” notwithstanding, what Kubrick has given us, is a character that is very much alive: he has private thoughts, feelings, desires, fears, and motivations. He has an inner life similar to, and tries to build a relationship with, his colleagues Dave and Frank.


We don’t learn this until nearly the end of the second act, but HAL is only nine years old. Kubrick tells us explicitly: His birthday is January 12, 1992. This date isn’t a mere random artifact. Clarke and Kubrick both tell us that HAL has been designed from the ground up to be indistinguishable from a human consciousness, right down to posessing an emotional life (the book even boasts HALs ability to best every known Turing Test).

But even if we don’t accept the surface story as literal, we can still see HAL’s age manifest in his behaviors. He is eager to tell you about his abilities. He is defensive when those abilities are questioned, even to the point of trying to shift blame when they fail. He is obsequious with Dave, the acknowledged substitute authority on the ship (more on this later). He panics when he overhears the conversation between Dave and Frank, gloats when he thinks he has gained some power over Dave, and then descends into the predictable cycle of demand-manipulate-beg, when he is thwarted.

For all of his vast knowledge and “intelligence”, the one thing HAL’s creators did not do, was to give him time to mature. Imagine a child with this degree of intellectual superiority today. Who would consider it a good idea to put a nine-year-old in charge of other men’s lives, just because of his intellectual prowess?

Which brings me to my next point…


The described model of a dysfunctional family includes many features present in the relationship dynamics of the second act of the film. And, much of this dynamic is not made clear to us until the end of act two, which is curiously consistent with the insular nature of dysfunctional families.

For example, we can see that Dr. Floyd assumes the mantle of the distant, and emotionally abusive father figure. He keeps secrets from his “children”, plays favorites among them, and dismisses concerns with a mere smile. He burdens HAL with all of the responsibility for the family, and then forces him to carry a devastating secret about the family that HAL believes will hurt them all, but is denied the freedom to share it with the astronauts.

On board the Jupiter, Bowman and Poole play the role of suspicious older brothers to HAL. They treat him coldly, often speak of him in the third-person while in his presence, and refuse to be honest with him about their own fears and concerns.

The astronauts roles each diverge somewhat as the plot unfolds. In dialogs between Bowman and Poole, we can see that Bowman tends toward defending HAL, while Poole is the more suspicious and hostile of the two. However, Bowman is much less honest with HAL than Poole is. He is the only one to lie directly to HAL. This will come into play later, in the outcomes.

It is also interesting to note that the astronauts – especially Bowman – are actually less emotional than HAL. Bowman’s facial expressions are uniformly flat. The only time we see a change, is when Dave lies to HAL (the smile), and the famous pod bay doors scene, when Bowman shoots himself into open space. Even when Poole is murdered by HAL, Dave’s face is blank. And, as Bowman is shutting HAL down, the only way we know how Dave is feeling, is from the rapid breathing we can hear in his space helmet.

HAL, on the other hand, makes a few timid attempts to connect with both Frank and Dave. First, when he offers Frank Happy Birthday greetings, and then later more seriously, when he attempts to share his concerns about the mission with Dave. On both counts, HAL is shut out. Neither astronaut is willing to actually treat HAL as a co-equal partner, despite words to the contrary. They keep him at arms length, speak in short, curt sentences, and never address him for anything accept mission necessities.


Psychologists have a term for a specific family member selected unconsciously to act out the family’s dysfunction. HAL is this family member. The “identified patient” can present as a family bully, as a sacrificial lamb, or as a “rebel”.

HAL doesn’t show symptoms of his role, until after his confessional conversation with Dave. But we see hints of the inevitable, in his interview with Martin Aimer. He begins the movie as the perfect child, and ends it as the bully.

Unable to make any sort of connection with Dave and Frank, and unable to resolve his own internal conflict, HAL becomes consumed by a growing paranoia, and burning need to unburden himself of the contradiction harbored in the secret he is forced to carry. Dave and Frank make matters worse, when they discuss HAL’s disconnection in the pod. This act ratchets HAL’s paranoia up to 11, and he begins to act out in ever-escalating violent ways. First, killing Frank. This is very likely because Frank was the first to openly challenge HAL. Next, killing the hibernating crew members in an attempt to hide his actions toward Frank. Lastly, attempting to abandon Dave outside the Jupiter, in the pod.

In short, the members of this family could not empathize with each other; that lack of empathy bred mistrust; that mistrust bred secrecy and lies, and the secrecy and lies ended in paranoia and escalated inevitably to violence born of the survival instinct. The Kill-or-be-killed instinct portrayed at the opening of the film is once again on display even as Kubrick is about to send us hurtling in act three, into our own cosmic evolution.


Dave’s survival and subsequent disconnection of HAL did not resolve the conflict presented in act two of the film. It simply buries it in history. Yet another inexplicably violent end of a life, with no one to witness it, and no one to explain it.

Kubrick’s message is an intoxicating one. Its aspirational visuals smuggle in the myth that somehow, with enough technology, we will be able to run away from the worst parts of ourselves — or that, just in the nick of time, some powerful loving overseer will come and rescue us from ourselves. Nothing could be further from the truth. And in spite of Dave Bowman’s fate, Clarke and Kubrick tell us clearly (though, unintentionally) through the death of HAL, that our fate will be much bleaker, if we don’t learn the real lesson of this film:

The future of humanity lies not in any new technology or imagined galactic rescuers, but finally in the fullest possible application of empathy and honesty in our relationships, and lacking that, we are doomed to failure.

ISP Launch Event: Three Talks On Three Philosophers

This weekend I attended the launch event for the International School of Philosophy here in London. Three Talks on Three Philosophers was intended to showcase the kind of thought one could expect from the new school, as well as provide an opportunity for philosophical learning to the local community (greater Islington, mainly). Sam Freemantle, the founder of the new independent school, provided the first of the three lectures, in the form of an overview of his Phd thesis, “Reconstructing Rawls”. Following Sam, Adrian Brockless offered a passionate argument for a more thoughtful kind of education grounded in Socratic questioning. Lastly, Professor Ken Gemes of the University of London treated us with an extended version of his talk on Nietzsche’s Death of God.

Serendipitously, I also listened this weekend to a new reading of the introduction to Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind” (a book I read years ago). I say “serendipitously”, because it turns out to be a powerful lens through which to interpret the messages coming out of Saturday’s lectures. In particular, the lectures of Professor Gemes and Mr. Brockless, which were laden with themes that could easily have been attributed to Bloom. The erosion of truth and goodness as absolute values (both in society and in the academy), the corruption of the academy to purposes other than the pursuit of the good life, the need for a renewal of these core values, the seemingly intractable challenge of re-establishing them in an educational environment so democratized and demoralized that even the hint of such an effort will raise accusations of elitism. All of these were core concerns of Allan Bloom, and his voice was clearly resonating in the words of both Professor Gemes and Mr. Brockless. Though, I suspect neither of them would agree.

For Professor Gemes the worry is societal, and spans generations. He began his talk with the story of the madman from Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, which illustrates the central problem for Nietzsche, as Gemes sees it: absent the catalyzing mythology of christianity, why would we continue to cling to it’s core values of truth and goodness? Given that the values of honor and glory held by civilization before Christianity seem more seductive, why wouldn’t we return to these, and abandon truth and goodness, in the absence of a dogma that focused us on them? According to Professor Gemes, Nietzsche believed we were clinging to truth as a value, by way of some sort of “hangover” from Christianity, and he wanted to know why. I think Nietzsche may have been disadvantaged by his proximity to the downfall of Christianity in the west. Over a century on now, in the “post-truth” era, it appears we have indeed begun to abandon truth and goodness as ultimate values, and have indeed begun replacing them with honor and glory once again.

Nowhere is this shift more clearly and startlingly present, than in the academy. Mr. Brockless highlighted this inadvertently, I believe, in his lecture. Using the Socrates of Gorgias and The Republic as a mentor, Brockless crisply argued for a conception of higher education that differentiates itself from the contemporary academy, by focusing on the pursuit of truth through “authentic” learning that exposes students to “meaning and understanding of the human condition”, rather than on the career advancement goals and academic advantages of its students. This plea explicitly demands that truth be reseated in our minds as an absolute value, pursued for its own sake. Although Mr. Brockless’ lecture came before Professor Gemes, his is a direct response to Nietzsche, in the form of a resounding and explicit affirmation of truth and goodness, above honor and glory, at least as far as the academy is concerned. To that end, Brockless counseled a return to the ancient classics, and glowed with a reverence for the Socratic dialogues themselves, even recommending them as a starting point for students.

Interestingly, a popular new voice has also converged on this question. I’ve recently seen a lecture by Jonathan Haidt of New York University, in which he suggests that a “new schism” ought to take place in the modern university, involving the realignment of ultimate values. In his view, these divergent ultimate values are “truth” versus “justice” (actually, “social justice”, which he contends is unjust at times). But rather than pressing for the conquest of truth over social justice, Haidt advocates for an amicable divorce. Haidt centers his lecture on a vision of education very similar to Brockless, in which universities that adopt truth as a core value dedicate themselves firmly to free expression, and open dialogue and debate in which no idea is off the table. In other words, the Socratic tradition. The same tradition Brockless described during the question and answer period of his lecture.

Allan Bloom’s book was a vanguard in this discussion, I think. Some might suggest that perhaps there really is no problem, and this is all just varying degrees of predictable conservatism occasionally surfacing above the white noise. After all, these sorts of complaints have been around for almost 50 years, and yet the generations leaving university then and now don’t seem to be too much different from each other. But are they really so much the same? Bloom (and proteges like E. D. Hirsch) would point to the degradation of “dead white males” in the academy, and their gradual replacement with relativist and anti-absolutist dogmas (in addition to the impulse toward radical activism) — and the pervasive cultural ignorance and growing hostility to truth of new students — as certain indicators. I’m not sure that Haidt, Brockless, or even Gemes would necessarily agree with that. But one thing that all of these voices seem to agree on, regardless of the reasons grounding it, is the loss of truth and goodness as guiding star values in our overall culture, and most profoundly, in the academy.

The question is what, if anything, should we do about it? Brockless and Haidt have slightly divergent opinions on this. One suggests lobbying to reestablish the traditional mission of all higher education, the other recommends a more “free market” answer (if I can call it that), by bifurcating the institution into two competing organizations, one focused on truth, the other on justice. Neither of these speakers’ solutions are entirely satisfying to me. I think this problem is bigger than all of us, and may be inevitable. I wonder if Nietzsche thought so, too.

On David Hume And Susan Feagin

Note: This is an essay responding to a question about a chapter written in this book.

In what way, if any, is Feagin’s solution to the Paradox of Tragedy an improvement on Hume’s solution?


Susan Feagin’s solution to the Paradox of Tragedy is not only not an improvement to Hume’s solution, it is not a solution at all. I will argue that Feagin fails to improve upon Hume’s solution for two key reasons. First, because her solution suffers from the same inscrutability as Hume’s solution. Second, because the extra complexity, despite being somewhat more self-aware than Hume, adds nothing to the solution due to its lack of scientific support.

II. More Mysterious Than Thou

Feagin warns us not to “substitute one puzzle for another” found in Hume’s vague notion of “movement” between passion and eloquence resulting in “delight”. She then immediately asks us to accept a substitute that is equally as mysterious and complex. First, she claims that we experience dual responses to art: The “direct” response is the emotion triggered by direct exposure to the content. The “meta” response is an emotion triggered by the conscious observation of the “direct” response. She goes on to explain that the responses and meta-responses can take virtually any form in response to any stimulus. This diverges from Hume’s theory, since his is limited us to one “direct” response to tragedy or “eloquence”, and one response to that response (pleasure resulting from the admixture of passion and eloquence). However, Feagin agrees with Hume’s criticism of Fontanelle, arguing that these responses and meta-responses are possible both when beholding tragedy in a fiction, and when beholding it in reality. What’s more, she argues that these responses are present not only in the beholding but also in the experiencing. Hume only describes his experience of Cicero’s retelling of a factual event, but Feagin implicitly argues that her theory of responses and meta-responses could be applied not just to the readers of Cicero, but to the judges hearing the case, Verres himself, and perhaps even Cicero.

Feagin’s approach suffers from the same vagueness as Hume’s, firstly because she asserts her response-metaresponse phenomenon without offering any real evidence in support of it. While she supplies a few plausible examples of when such a phenomenon might occur, she seems to expect the reader to take the truth of those examples from their sheer intuitive obviousness. However, it’s not so obvious to me that people are actually experiencing these meta-responses in the order she supposes. For example, in the example of the strip joint hustlers, it is trivial to imagine an experience of pleasure in the thought of overcoming my inhibitions, long before I ever even get to the red-light district. Likewise, it is just as possible to feel a sense of cultural pride in myself in knowing that I will be amused by Papageno or knowing that I will be horrified by Peter Quint, long before I ever get to the theater — and then, have my expectations confirmed or denied by the performance.

Secondly, like Hume, Feagin offers no insight into the source of either the response or the meta-response. She does an excellent job of providing a description of the phenomenon that is more amenable to the modern mind, and one naturally begins to search for experiences that might confirm Feagin’s description, but this evades, rather than answers, the core question. Namely, why do we have these experiences? This is a question that is begging to be answered by psychology, or neuroscience, or some cross-over research between aesthetic philosophy and psychology. If Feagin really wanted to answer it, this is where she should have turned.

III. Circles Within Circles

Hume’s original essay tries to account for an apparent phenomenon in the simplest terms possible in an attempt to arrive at a general theory. It suffers from its simplicity. But Hume lacked the insight of a more advanced psychological science to provide a more plausible explanation of the phenomenon. Feagin’s response to Hume is a sort of astrological adjustment of Hume’s Ptolemaic understanding of the human mind. Rather than resolving or replacing Hume’s vague and muddled explanation, Feagin has simply added a layer of Baroque complexity to it.

To start, Feagin decouples her theory from tragedy-as-an-art-form, expanding it to include all possible experiences. Additionally, she decouples the kinds of responses necessitated by specific kinds of events. In her theory, it is entirely possible for any combination of responses and meta-responses in the wake of any experience. While there is nothing necessarily wrong with suggesting such a possibility, it doesn’t actually answer the challenge of the paradox. In fact, it makes the problem much more difficult. If it’s possible to have any sort of response to any sort of event, then why do humans generally seem to share the same responses to all the same circumstances? If I can have any meta-response to any response to any event, then why have I not collapsed into a heap of neurotic confusion as a result of the infinite regress of reactions I’m having to those events and the reactions to those events? With as much focus as there is on self-regard and self-observation, how does this not impel me to narcissism, rather than empathy for my fellow man? How, exactly are pleasurable meta-responses “foreclosed” by a “continuing call” for direct responses?

Finally, it’s not all that clear how we are to get from this state of continuous self-observation to a state of pleasure. Feagin simply “suggests” that self-observation of the correct responses to specific circumstances yields this pleasure. But this doesn’t answer the question of why they are the “correct” responses, how we know they are the “correct” ones, and how that knowledge got there in the first place. In other words, Feagin is simply substituting Hume’s 18th century vagueness for her own 20th century ignorance of the relevant psychological literature.


Hume’s essay, though flawed and unsatisfying, is a quality piece of work because it is narrow-focused and thorough. Hume is humble enough to realize that he may not be able to answer his own question, let alone attempt to resolve all of the biggest conundrums of art in one sitting. He asks a very simple, though very difficult, question: Why do we experience pleasure in the depiction of painful tragedy? Feagin not only claims that she has discovered the answer to this question but confidently proclaims a resolution to the dispute between comedy and tragedy and announces a “new perspective” on the relationship between art and morality. Had Feagin spent a bit more time researching the science of emotions and their relation to aesthetics and art, and a little less time telling us all how “inappropriate” we were for laughing at tragedy, or worse, feeling self-satisfied for not laughing at tragedy, we still might not have gotten a complete answer to the paradox, but we may very likely have gotten an explanation that moved us a little closer to an actual answer.