Of metaphor and machine

Some nuts and bolts behind Modern times as philosophy

  • Martin Rossouw Lecturer, Programme in Film and Visual Media, University of the Free State.
Keywords: Film as philosophy, Thomas Wartenberg, conceptual metaphor, Chaplin,, Modern times, mechanisation, Karl Marx


In this article, I examine numerous figurative manifestations of “the machine” in Modern times (1936), directed by Charles Chaplin. I focus in particular on the film’s varied expressions of the HUMAN IS A MACHINE conceptual metaphor, tracing its presence from the first quarter of the film, which I label “Life in the factory”, to what follows thereafter in “Life beyond the factory”. The role of this conceptual metaphor in Modern times is identified in r esponse t o Thomas Wartenberg’s (2007) influential analysis, in which he argues that the film provides a valuable illustration of Karl Marx’s theory of worker mechanisation. While not denying the philosophical value that he attributes to Modern times, I question Wartenberg’s assumption that the film illustrates a theory in itself. Instead, I propose that the film mobilises a more general and fundamental concept – the conceptual metaphor that the film and Marx’s philosophy happen to share – and that it is only by means of this underlying concept that Wartenberg can identify Modern times as a cinematic illustration of the philosophical theory. I conclude with a few implications that my analysis and assessment of Wartenberg hold for the broader film as philosophy debate.