Updated date:

Inception and the Philosophy of Pragmatism

Author:

Seth Tomko is a writer, college-level educator, and adventurer.

Inception movie poster

Inception movie poster

When the Dream is Real

For all the interesting science-fiction elements and the exploration of the psycho-physical nature of dreaming Inception is ultimately grounded in basic principles of philosophical pragmatism.

Advanced Warning

If you haven’t seen Inception you may not want to continue reading this article as there will be some spoilers. Go see it, and then come back here.

Pragmatism in a Nutshell

At the core of the philosophy of Pragmatism is essentially an axiom that states that if an idea works, it is true (Sahakian 151). Basically if there are consequences to what we believe then what we believe is real, and the thrust of Inception’s plot hinges on this concept. The main external conflict in the movie is the attempt to make Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy) believe what the inception team wants him to believe, namely that he should break apart his energy business empire.

What's the most resilient parasite? An Idea

From the outset many characters believe this process of convincing someone to believe in a planted idea is either impossible or too difficult to bother attempting. Even Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) explains that even if the inception works they’ll have no power to predict or control the range of effects that will arise from planting the idea. He warns inception may fundamentally alter Fischer and his behavior as Cobb previously witness with Mal.

In order to affect the desired change Cobb enters Fischer’s dreams and attacks his emotionally turbulent paternal relationship, culminating in a tender moment of deathbed reconciliation and catharsis. That this event and the reveal of the beloved and sentimental artifact in the safe is most likely not factual or real in an objective sense is inconsequential. The fact that Fischer believes in this cathartic moment is what is required to reshape his character and convince him to dissolve his multi-national energy empire. His belief in the transformative event is more important than whether or not it really occurred.

The cast of Inception at a premiere in July 2010. From left to right is Cillian Murphy, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Ken Watanabe, Michael Caine, and Leonardo DiCaprio.  Posted by Craig Grobler at http://www.theestablishingshot

The cast of Inception at a premiere in July 2010. From left to right is Cillian Murphy, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Ken Watanabe, Michael Caine, and Leonardo DiCaprio. Posted by Craig Grobler at http://www.theestablishingshot

A Dream Seems Real as Long as You’re in It

Because it is the belief in the reconciliation that creates consequences and yields practical results Inception inherently presents a world anchored by the philosophy of Pragmatism. The film teaches its characters not to trust in their senses since they can be deceived, and because the audience members—just like the characters—likely have trouble knowing when the movie is in a dream and when it is in the waking world the whole concept of an objective reality is up for questioning. All that is left to trust then are ideas and even if those ideas are not true in an abstract sense, they become true and real so long as those ideas are believed.

Sources

Sahakian, William, Sahakian, Mabel. Ideas of the Great Philosophers. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1969.

  • Should I Watch..? Inception
    Christopher Nolan's stop-gap between Batman movies might have lacked the Dark Knight but brought an amazing vision to audiences instead. Benjamin Cox can only dream of such feats...
  • Inception (2010)
    Directed by Christopher Nolan. With Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page. In a world where technology exists to enter the human mind through dream invasion, a highly skilled thief is given a final chance at redemption which involves ex
  • Chris Nolan's Inception: A Dream Within a Dream (Within a Dream)
    Some say that Chris Nolan's Inception (2010) is over-complicated. It merits more attention and thought than the average blockbuster, to be sure--but in the end, Inception is just a very busy movie. It's a...
  • What is Pragmatism?
    Pragmatism is the philosophical attitude that the validity of an idea lies in its practical consequences. Pragmatism is the first American philosophy developed independently of European schools of thought....

© 2010 Seth Tomko

Comments

Seth Tomko (author) from Macon, GA on November 06, 2020:

Thank you, Joe. I'm glad the article was interesting and helpful to you.

Joe Reynolds from Birmingham, England on September 29, 2020:

Great article! You go quite deep into the movie and it's given me a refreshed out look on it. Well done!

Loveofnigjht Anderson from Baltimore, Maryland on February 12, 2012:

I found this movie fascinating, the whole idea of imbedding ideas into someone's mind. So many movies such as this one stem from reality.I am in agreement with msorensson in that this idea is nothing new. But it is a must see movie for sci-fi buffs. Thx 4 share

azimimpossible from Jaipur on January 30, 2011:

NOW THIS IS ONE OF THE MOST FANTASTIC MOVIE I HAD EVER SEEN.STILL COULDN'T GET IT.THANKS,NICE HUB.

petersimon from UK on January 11, 2011:

Thanks. Nice hub, great movie.

Seth Tomko (author) from Macon, GA on October 05, 2010:

Thanks for your comments, jayb23. I hope you enjoy the film.

jayb23 from India on September 21, 2010:

This is an amazing hub satmko. It made my mind to think. I have downloaded the movie..im off to watch it.

Seth Tomko (author) from Macon, GA on September 13, 2010:

Thank you, ashleyyoung and Naresh. The movie isn't available yet, but I strongly encourage you to watch it as soon as you can.

Naresh Kokal on September 11, 2010:

Wow! what an insight, incited to watch (-;

ashleyyoung from United States on September 10, 2010:

Very intriguing. I missed this movie (perhaps the only Leo Dicaprio movie that I missed) due to warrants of work, but your take on the philosophy on which the movie is based on is very interesting. It sure aroused the Sci Fi fanatic within me! :)

I'll definitely watch it on DVD. Which reminds me, is it available on DVD yet?

Seth Tomko (author) from Macon, GA on September 08, 2010:

Thank you, Rudra. I appreciate your readership.

Rudra on September 08, 2010:

Very interesting on the philosophy of pragmatism.

Seth Tomko (author) from Macon, GA on August 25, 2010:

Thank you, SteveoMc. I'm glad I didn't ruin the movie for you, and I hope to hear what you think about it after seeing it.

SteveoMc from Pacific NorthWest on August 25, 2010:

I haven't seen it yet either, but I could not stop reading. It just makes me want to see it more. Nothing spoiled. Thanks.

Seth Tomko (author) from Macon, GA on August 20, 2010:

Thank you, Stevennix, and I enjoyed your review, too.

Steven Daniels on August 19, 2010:

wow, you were right. it does sound like we had almost the exact same opinion on this film. plus, i loved how you went into detail over the psychological aspects of the movie. Great review Satomko.

Seth Tomko (author) from Macon, GA on August 15, 2010:

Thanks for stopping by, James. Clearly I recommend the movie, and I hope to hear your thoughts on it after you get around to seeing it.

James A Watkins from Chicago on August 14, 2010:

Thank you for this cogent review. I have not yet seen the film, but I surely will soon. My daughter's fiancé told me the other day that it was "the best movie I ever saw." That is quite an endorsement.

Seth Tomko (author) from Macon, GA on August 03, 2010:

I recommend seeing it more than once, elayne001. You'll discover something new on different viewings.

Seth Tomko (author) from Macon, GA on August 03, 2010:

You're welcome, Kaie. I hope you enjoy the film.

Elayne from Rocky Mountains on August 02, 2010:

I did really enjoy the movie, even with all the layers. Thanks for explaining it better for me. I think I need to watch it again now that I have a better insight.

Kaie Arwen on August 02, 2010:

Okay............ I didn't finish reading.......... thanks for the heads up on surprises, but I'll be back after I've seen the film. Count on it! Kaie

Seth Tomko (author) from Macon, GA on August 01, 2010:

No problem, billyaustindillon. Thank you for stopping by, and I hope you keep writing your own good hubs, too.

billyaustindillon on July 31, 2010:

Enjoyed your overview - gives the movie some deeper interest, thanks for that.

Seth Tomko (author) from Macon, GA on July 31, 2010:

Thanks, tracykarl99, but I'd have to say the movie is much better than any analysis I cold write.

Seth Tomko (author) from Macon, GA on July 31, 2010:

Indeed, John Yeoman, and I believe the nature of the movie is more inspire questions and debates like these rather than provide definitive answers to inquiries on the nature of reality.

Tracy from San Francisco on July 30, 2010:

A very philosophical analysis! I'm hooked ~ now I must see the movie, but I have a feeling that it won't be as interesting as your review!

John Yeoman from Story writing land in the centre of England on July 30, 2010:

True. Truth is what works. What 'works' is anything that reinforces our belief system. Such a system exists to reinforce our belief that we exist. That belief appears to be important. And it must be continually fortified. As Descartes didn't say: Cogitum ergo sum. 'I am because I am thought about.'

In a lucid dream, reality is more real than reality. I know. I've been there. So what is reality? Whatever fortifies our belief system. This communication is not 'real'. I am talking to myself. In a self-reflexive simulacrum.

But do, please, respond. It will fortify my belief system. I will know that I, at least, exist. But how can I ever 'really' know that, outside of my own simulacrum, you exist? :)

Indeed, what is reality?

Seth Tomko (author) from Macon, GA on July 30, 2010:

Thanks for stopping by, poetvix. Let me know what you think of the movie.

poetvix from Gone from Texas but still in the south. Surrounded by God's country. on July 30, 2010:

Really interesting premise behind the movie. Thanks for the overview... now I'm gonna watch it.

Seth Tomko (author) from Macon, GA on July 29, 2010:

Thank you for your comments, msorensson, and I hope you enjoy the movie when you get a chance to see it.

msorensson on July 29, 2010:

My son has already seen it and told me all about it but I will still see it when it comes to DVD.

The idea is not new..this is how remote viewing works. The presentation and having Di Caprio there is what made the movie such a hit.

Thanks, I enjoyed the hub.