Bourne and Philosophy

The bourne movies are really good, and I had (“had”) to watch them for a philosophy paper I’m writing. What in earth is philosophical about these movies? Well as a matter of fact, like all good movies, even those that seem to be about well constructed action scenes, the Bourne Identity and the Bourne Supremacy (1 and 2 that is, I haven’t gotten to 3 again yet, I remember it pretty well from last time I watched), say a lot behind the scenes. In fact, one of my contentions on this site has been that we are doing philosophy all the time but its usually packaged in appealing way that lets us soak up lessons without even trying.

First, the Bourne Identity is a fascinating thought experiment about RICH PERCEPTION. I talk about this a lot on this blog, but no one leaves comments saying “this is insane” and so I wonder how many people are really appreciating how interesting this phenomenon is and how it’s present in the Bourne Identity.

Rich perception is the idea that the properties given in perception are not just low level. This is jargon-code for “the thing we see are shapes, color, lines, angles, and maybe depth. Everything else is just composed of these things.” Rich perception claims, as a general thesis, that there are HIGH level properties in perception such as “sadness, causality, meaning, etc.” The devil is in the details. Anyway, Bourne gets pulled from the water and he tells the captain that he doesn’t remember anything about himself yet can do all sorts of cool stuff like tie difficult nautical knots and plot their course and basically all the stuff he learned from his Treadstone assassin training.

What’s so interesting is that he does not know that he has these skills yet. He doesn’t know who he is and so he does not know about all his abilities, nonetheless he breaks into French (I don’t think its French actually, I’m not sure) when speaking with the guards that hustle him in the park and he just FINDS himself executing outrageous personal defense moves against all comers. The reason is that we can PERCEIVE opportunities for action. We quite literally see options we can take in certain situations. The chair present itself to us as “something to sit on” and for Bourne other peoples faces, thoraxes, and abdomens present themselves as things “to be taken apart in spectacular Hollywood fashion.”

The other main philosophical lesson in the trilogy comes in two, and it is a fascinating point about moral responsibility. Bourne, after losing his memory and then remembering what he did, decides to go back and apologize to the daughter of one of the men he killed while working as an assassin. Why would he care? On one view of personal identity, all that matters for personal identity is psychological continuity. If a scientist wipes a brain and puts new traits back into that same brain, why won’t the resulting consciousness feel itself to be a new person completely and thus not responsible for anything the past set of personality traits did. Matt Damon’s character is different after his amnesia at sea, so why does he feel the need to apologize to the Russian girl at the end of Supremacy? One reason could be he’s just a nice person and wants to comfort her, but he’s not just sorry for her loss, HE OWNS UP TO IT HIMSELF. He says “I apolozie” to the girl even though arguably, the consciousness expressing those words did not do anything to her. So, the notion of moral responsibility is trickier than we think.

Overall, the movies really are fantastic. Why? I think it has something to do with how Bourne is himself almost never has any moments of real physical danger (end of 2 is an exception). Rather, his bodily integrity is taken for granted throughout the movie as he evades, punches, cuts, shoots, strangles, drives, and dashes. His PHYSICAL body is never really in jeopardy. Rather, his body is an indestructible vessel for someone whose main difficulty in life is a mental one. I submit then, that the Bourne Identity and to an extent, the Bourne supremacy aren’t action movies at all, they are psychological thrillers. They are platonic allegories that are pushed up to speed for the modern age.

In the U.S., we live lives of unprecedented ease and comfort. In a sense, our bodies are well taken care of, more so than ever before at least (lots of people are still sick and poor, and need help, etc.), but what about our mental world, our mental lives? Is that where the future of human conflict lies. The Bourne Identity seems to think so.


2 Responses to “Bourne and Philosophy”

  1. December 1, 2012 at 11:42 pm

    thanks for the sensitivity and sharing considerations.
    it seems as though many new films lift some key elements of the Bourne series but most/all seem to miss the deeper philosophical/psychological basis in Bourne? question-what film/s provided background for bourne series?
    following is a little riff on some thoughts/observations-
    the series seems to be a search for who we are in both physical and emotional forms, what really gives rise to our body’s experience which things are we aware of and which are we dull to?(especially in an age of sedentary life watching images/sound sequences on flat boxes-smell is not used, nor really is our organ of touch/skin). However it seems as though Bourne attempts to bring us to these other senses in his being. however there is a running current of disembodiment common to most films, we see bourne eat and drink a few times but how does he slake his bodily needs-an army runs on its stomach..b2 tries to allow physical vulnerability when he is shot and when cars slam into him-this seems rare in most films?
    one global political element is that this action all occurs in foreign lands but instead of using stereotypes of foreign thugs, the thugs are us, metaphorically really ourselves, what are we not seeing in ourselves?
    as in all films there are missing links-us embassy with gun toting soldiers-but no one walks around the bldg to see if he gets out that way??

    one can go on and on. however in my limited film background it would be great to see where this film is placed in terms of structure and heredity.

    • 2 questionbeggar
      December 2, 2012 at 1:40 am

      Thanks for the comment. YOur points about the humanization of Bourne are very nice. I also like your claim that “we” are the bad guy in the film. I don’t completely agree because Bourne is still the protagonist and we identify with him as an American stil. Also, many films have placed the U.S. as a bad guy, so I don’t consider that as a revolutionary part of the film, but it’s still a nice observation.

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