The Philosophical Anthropology of Pixar’s Inside Out

Inside OutEveryone seems rather excited about the new Pixar movie Inside Out, and rightly so. Unlike some of Pixar’s recent efforts since being acquired by Disney, Inside Out is a film that charts new ground; it is not a sequel. Moreover, it is one of those films that both children and adults can legitimately enjoy watching together. In fact, the movie may tilt the scales slightly in favor of adult viewers–not by including any objectionable content–but merely by being so clever. At any rate, the film seemed a bit above the head of my 4-year-old, who nevertheless enjoyed the popcorn and soda. Especially the soda, which he never gets to drink otherwise.

The premise of Inside Out is simple: what would the emotional crisis of a child look like, if the emotions were personified? Most of the kid-friendly stuff comes through the 5 personified emotions and their oftentimes slapstick interactions: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust. As my son said, his favorite part of the movie was “Fire Guy” (i.e. Anger). Most of the adult-friendly content comes through seeing the movie’s “lesson” slowly play out: both positive and negative emotions have a place in human life. There are situations that are objectively sad, and they ought to be acknowledged as such. For the 11-year-old protagonist of the movie, “Riley,” growing up entails moving out of “pure” emotional experiences in which she is completely happy or sad to emotional experiences that are more “mixed,” such as that blend of joy and sorrow often referred to as “bittersweet.”

Another large part of what gives power to the movie for adults is how surprisingly “accurate” the imagined structure of Riley’s mind turns out to be. That is to say, the movie isn’t too bad as an exercise in philosophical anthropology. There is a “Train of Thought” (yes, literally a train) corresponding to discursive reasoning; it does not operate while Riley is asleep. There is “Imagination Land,” “Long-Term Memory,” and “The Subconscious” (complete with a giant, scary clown). Intuitive thought shows up in the form of “Ideas” (little light bulbs) that can be plugged into the control panel that runs Riley’s life at “Head-quarters.” Habituation even makes an appearance in the form of abiding “Centers of Personality” (little theme parks) such as Family Land, Honesty, Hockeyland, etc. These personality centers–or as Aristotle might call them, states of character–provide Riley with stable and reliable ways of acting. Like all virtues, they provide a wholesome sort of “autopilot” for the human person.

And, of course, there are the emotions. In Inside Out, the emotions are the movers of the person. The five emotions share a “control board,” and thus dictate how the young girl, Riley, will respond in any particular situation. Each person has a predominant emotion–Riley’s is Joy, her mother’s is Sorrow, and her father’s is Anger (perhaps this is a little nod to some of the classical temperaments such as sanguine, melancholic, and choleric). Nevertheless, the emotions cooperate well. They generally react immediately, without deliberation, and typically in ways that are reliable and correct. Each emotion senses when it is appropriate to leap to the console and take control–that is, until a move from Minnesota to San Francisco precipitates an emotional crisis in Riley, leaving her only with Anger, Disgust, and Fear to run her life. The results, as you can imagine, are not good.

As I said, much of the movie’s view of the human person is extremely clever and surprisingly philosophically sound. Some of the details are even thought-provoking. For example, Riley’s emotions are a mix of male and female characters, yet the emotions of her parents are all male or all female, as far as I can recall. Is it part of a successful maturation process that one’s emotions would tend to become more characteristically masculine or feminine? Does masculine fear differ from feminine fear? Masculine anger from feminine anger? It doesn’t sound wildly implausible. If even the structure of the eye differs in men and women, why not the calibration of the emotions as well?

However, there are also problems with the fanciful picture of the human person offered in Inside Out. To start with the most glaring, obvious problem, where is the free will? Riley certainly has what St. Thomas called the “sensitive appetite”–the emotions–yet she seems to be utterly lacking what St. Thomas called the “rational appetite,” the power of free choice that responds to goods proposed by the mind. In other words, in addition to the five little cute emotions, there should also have been an unruly giant (I picture him like a very large and fat Socrates) with a control console of his own, one which could usually override all the commands of the emotions. In the absence of free will, what Inside Out offers instead is a kind of emotional determinism. When I feel angry, I have to have an outburst. When I feel disgust, I have to express my revulsion. Perhaps that would be appropriate if we were considering a toddler. But the protagonist in the movie is 11 years old. Even more disturbingly, the film depicts the adults as having the same emotion-controlled cognitive structure. That is not quite the right view. It is true that many adults today allow their emotions run their lives–but they don’t have to. To be rational is to have a faculty of rational choice as well.

And more generally, the central lesson of the movie only makes sense when we supplement it with a fuller consideration of the irreplaceable role of the mind in human life. It is true that “growing up” often means our emotions grow more complex–but why is that? What causes the change? To put that question in terms of the movie, we might ask why the emotion Sadness suddenly has an uncontrollable urge to begin coloring with sorrow all the formerly happy memories. The answer has to do with the growth of rationality. Sadness wants to color all the former memories because of the new rational recognition that Riley is no longer living in Minnesota, the place where all those happy memories were formed. In a similar way, the movie only comes to its successful resolution when one of the emotions, Joy, arrives at a greater rational maturity. Joy realizes that the expression of one emotion, even if a “negative” emotion, often leads to a different, more “positive” emotional experience; this allows Joy to stop trying to prevent Sadness from ever having a turn at the controls.

To put the matter more philosophically, as rationality grows in the human person, so should the emotions. While the emotions have a bodily component–for example, one’s pulse rises when one is angry–the emotions also have a great deal to do with the rational soul. Fundamentally, the emotions are all responses to some sort of “awareness,” either sensory or mental. As we grow smarter and gain more experiences, we become aware of much more, and as a result, we typically become emotionally broader. We develop the ability to perceive things that delight us, disgust us, or anger us . . .  all in the same situation.

The great irony is that despite its declared purpose to reveal what is hidden, to turn the human person “inside-out,” this rational core of the emotional growth process remains more or less hidden in the film.

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One Response to The Philosophical Anthropology of Pixar’s Inside Out

  1. Pingback: Inside Out and the Philosophy of the Person | Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

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