What Is He Up To?

Seeing as God Sees: Malick's 'The Tree of Life'

Philosophers who have written about the films of Terrence Malick typically note three biographical facts. First: Malick studied under the philosopher Stanley Cavell at Harvard, from which he graduated summa cum laude in 1965. Harvard’s philosophy department then was intensely “analytic” in orientation—to simplify, it was focused on logic and language—but Cavell’s interests included, as his faculty website states, “the intersection of the analytical tradition (especially the work of [J. L.] Austin and Wittgenstein) with moments of the Continental tradition (for example, Heidegger and Nietzsche),” for whom philosophy was also about the meaning of being and the death of God.

Second: After Harvard, Malick went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, where his adviser was the philosopher Gilbert Ryle, famous in academic circles for his 1949 book The Concept of Mind. Malick wanted to write a thesis on Heidegger and Wittgenstein (and perhaps on Kierkegaard and Nietzsche as well). Ryle purportedly resisted Malick’s request on the grounds that the topic wasn’t “philosophical enough,” which is another way of saying “that’s not what we do here.” (For reflections on academic philosophy in that period, see Daniel Callahan’s essay “Out of Step: God and Me at Harvard and Yale,” October 29, 2012.) Malick returned to the United States after only one year at Oxford.

The third fact: Although he came back to this country without a terminal...

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About the Author

Bernard G. Prusak is associate professor of philosophy and director of the McGowan Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility at King's College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.