Spectator psychology and cinema’s epistemological function in early film theory


Pasi Nyyssönen

The idea about the film as a source of knowledge, which I call cinema’s epistemological function, has been a since the birth of the moving images. The article focuses on the film theories and psychological ideas of two key representatives of the formative tendency of the classical film theory, Hugo Münsterberg and Rudolf Arnheim. Both were professional psychologists and their interest on spectator psychology can be seen as precursor of the modern cognitive film theory.

Münsterberg and Arnheim are contextualised as representatives experimental and gestalt psychology who stress the importance central processes i.e. activity of the mind in perception and understanding. The contextualisation gives background to their views of the psychological activity of film spectator and to their ideas on cinema’s epistemological function.

Basically both agree on the cognitive activity of the spectator but their views on cinema’s epistemological function differ in certain respects. In Münsterberg’s idealistic thinking cinema is an art form which gives us information about ourselves and helps us to get an insight the universal values and things themselves. In Arnheim’s gestaltist approach cinema is a visual media which can, if properly made, make reality more visible for us. The key to understanding the world is to grasp the general structures it is made of and cinema can help us by cuing our mind towards them.

Finally Münsterberg’s and Arnheim’s ideas on film, form and mind are summarised briefly situated at the general framework of contemporary cognitive film theory.