The Philosophy of “Arrival” 


No spoilers ahead, I promise.  

Logic, metaphysics, epistemology, morality and existentialism. This carefully selected list of subjects makeup the requirements of what the University of Connecticut presents undergraduates as a major in philosophy. Serving as an argument in and of itself, the university believes students ought to be exposed to these topics to establish themselves as true philosophical thinkers, worthy of a degree in the field itself.  

Want to know if philosophy is right for you? No, you don’t need to subject yourself to the trials of Kant’s critiques, nor must you desecrate Descartes’ turgid “Meditations.” Rather, treat yourself to that free Hulu trial you’ve always wanted and, if you have two hours to spare, indulge your neighborhood columnist for a bit.  

An esteemed masterpiece by the rottenest of tomatoes, Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” offers the UConn student an accurate, breathtaking insight into the world of philosophy. The film asks the viewer to ponder each movement of the academic concerto that is the philosophy major, and through a guided tour de thought, exposes one to each of the significant subjects philosophy majors are urged to explore throughout their undergraduate experience.  

The film follows two academics – what’s the joke about the linguist and the physicist walking into a bar? –  and their pursuit of knowledge following contact from an extraterrestrial species. Summoned by U.S. intelligence, the two are tasked with communicating with the creatures in the hopes of garnering some understanding between them and humanity.  

The film’s premise immediately establishes itself as a metaphysical and epistemological enigma, posing a limitless number of questions to keep you up at night. Do aliens exist? Must their species abide by the same principles of physics as our own? Is language universal? Inquiries as fascinating as they are unanswerable, these are just some of the ponderings philosophy majors find themselves contemplating on a weekly basis, with a curriculum including courses such as Philosophy of Science, Metaphysics and Philosophy of Language basing themselves on the components of “Arrival’s” captivating diegesis.  

Logic and morality are oftentimes spoken about as distant cousins; related yet separated. Imposing logical formulas onto questions of morality may cause trouble, as it is difficult to quantify the outcomes of ethical situations. The yang of this situation is arguably more problematic, as one would be shunned for inserting moral principles into logical matters (to quote a most despicable propagandist, “facts don’t care about your feelings.”) In any event, “Arrival” poses scenarios of logical and moral significance, tethering the two concepts into a cohesive and amalgamated dilemma.  

Language is, above all, a code, devoid of any inherent ethics. The constituents that make up language are later applied to social theories of morality and ethics, however they exist independently of such theories in their initial form. The film’s primary logical problem – that of decoding an unknown language – requires the characters to reflect upon a moral dilemma greater than any formerly posed to an individual. If learning a new language had an extreme effect on one’s understanding of the world, and with it, their interactions with others, would you still attempt to decode it? If so, are you morally obligated to share your insights with those around you? Is it unethical to not share them?  

Well UConn has you covered. Symbolic Logic and Ethics are among the many courses offered to assist students in combating these very hypotheticals. Who knows, maybe one day we’ll have our own encounter with the third kind.  

Oh, existence. The dread incurred by humanity’s constant struggle to understand life already plagues the individual’s minds on a day-to-day basis; Why not throw aliens into the mix? “Arrival’s” introduction of a new form of life catapults all previous theories of existence out of the philosophical window, casting the beliefs of a few French strangers aside (no pun intended). Although not a primary requirement of the major itself, philosophy students are required to traverse other schools of thought via elective requirements, with courses like Global Existentialism, Philosophy of Mind and Know Thyself all contributing to that uneasy feeling of doubt through readings on self-reflection and the meaning of life – or lack thereof.  

Before I receive an angry email, I will acknowledge that I’ve left out a vital part of the philosophy major requirements: History. This, however, was intentional, as I believe studying the history of philosophy and its infinite movements provides students a foundational understanding necessary to explore the topics that follow. Read up on your ancient Greek symposiums and a few enlightenment thinkers and you’ll be on your merry way.  

So, if you or someone dear to you is interested in pursuing a degree in philosophy at UConn, watch “Arrival” first and experience its vast exploration of everything philosophy. Who knows, maybe you’ll come out a changed person. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll make your way through the program and be awarded with the most prestigious honor in all of academia: a degree home to the most enlightened, pretentious and brilliantly annoying students this planet has to offer.  

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