If you truly want to learn about philosophy, let’s face it, you’ll have to read some books. That said, there’s nothing wrong with indulging in some screen time to find out more about your favorite philosophers and their ideas, insights and explorations into the human condition.
So here’s our pick of the best philosophy documentaries you can watch online on Youtube, Netflix and other streaming services. Admittedly, some of the videos listed here stretch the definition of the word ‘documentary’ as we’ve also included interviews, and other, slightly experimental films that we thought should be included in the list.
Best documentary series about philosophy
Human, All Too Human (1999) 3 episodes
Arguably one of the best series of documentaries ever made about philosophy is this 1999 3-part series Human, All Too Human made by the BBC and RM Arts. With excellent production values, interviews, research and archive footage, each episode focuses on a unique, influential European philosopher, and revolves heavily around the school of thought known as existentialism, despite the term not having been coined yet in Nietzsche’s time.
Each philosopher chosen – Nietzsche, Heidegger and Sartre – had fascinating and turbulent lives, and the series, as well as helping to outline the main philosophical ideas of each thinker, delves into their complex, colorful personal histories which include themes of insanity, Nazi-ism and free love.
Episode 1, “Beyond Good and Evil” features the life and work of Friedrich Nietzsche, known for his critique of traditional morals and morality. Nietzsche’s radical, and original perspectives are carefully analyzed whilst charting his slow, gradual shift from conventional outlook on ethics, towards nihilism, and then finally to insanity.
Link to episode 1: https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x8dsozd
Episode 2, “Thinking the Unthinkable” is devoted to Martin Heidegger, who took ideas from Nietzsche and used them to formulate new theories about individual human freedom. Widely acknowledged as one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century, Heidegger also remains one of the most controversial thinkers of the era too. As a member of the Nazi Party from the 1930’s until the end of the second World War, his work has been dismissed by many as Nazi propaganda.
Link to episode 2: https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x8dsoze
Episode 3, “The Road to Freedom” delves into the life of Jean-Paul Sartre, one of the founders of movement termed ‘existentialism’. This episode tracks Sartre’s conclusion that it is up to each individual to give their own life purpose and meaning.
Link to episode 3: https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x8dsozf
Philosophy: Guide to Happiness (2000) 6 episodes
Written by Swiss born author and philosopher Alain de Botton and produced by Channel 4, a Philosophy: Guide to Happiness is an entertaining, accessible and practical exploration into self help, guided by the teachings of some of the history’s leading thinkers. The style of the documentary is light, playful, and whilst dealing with life’s biggest questions, avoids getting bogged down in theory or jargon, instead focussing on practical self-help tips and life hacks.
Episode 1: Seneca on Anger explores the thoughts of Roman philosopher Lucious Annaeus Seneca (4BCE-65CE) and his advice on cultivating self-control and reason to overcome anger, the ultimate aim of which is a calmer, more virtuous life.
Episode 2: Schopenhauer on Love recounts 19th Century German thinker Arthur Schopenhauer’s (1788-1860) belief that love is the most important thing in life and how his philosophy unlocks some of the mysteries of why we fall in love and who we fall in love with
Episode 3: Epicurus on Happiness looks at ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus teachings and the 3 simple things in life we need in order to find happiness and fulfilment
Episode 4: Montaigne on Self-Esteem asks why in the modern era so many people suffer from low self-esteem, and what we can learn from 16th-century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne.
Episode 5: Socrates on Self-Confidence takes ancient Athenian philosopher Socrates view emphasising the self-knowledge as the foundation of self-confidence. Socates believed that admitting one’s ignorance and using reason to continually question yourself is the path to genuine wisdom and in turn, a more grounded sense of self confidence.
Episode 6: Nietzsche on Hardship examines the German intellectual’s view that any worthwhile achievements in life are borne from the experience of overcoming hardship, and that rather than being something that detracts from the human experience, hardship is an essential ingredient for personal growth, achievement and strength
Watch the whole documentary series “Philosophy: Guide to Happiness” here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_gVyEOefhIQ&list=PLa_3jLb0w_JNcM6xxmY_sLJMg82x71eAV
Genius of the Modern World (2016) 3 episodes
Another 3 parter from the BBC, Genius of the modern world traces back into the lives of three great minds who changed how we think in the era of modernity. Made for a mainstream TV audience, these hour long episodes are well produced and provide an excellent summary of the lives respectively of Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud.
Presented by veteran TV historian Bettany Hughes, the BBC series is a follow up to the previous ‘Genius of the Ancient World’ and explores how modern revolutions in industry, technology and politics were similarly matched by big, bold ideas in philosophy, psychoanalysis and political science.
The series is an excellent primer for anyone seeking an outline of the main ideas of these 3 thinkers.
Episode 1 : Marx Watch here > https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x8dr2s5
Episode 2: Nietzsche Watch here > https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x8drt0u
Episode 3: Freud Watch here > https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x8drt0v
Sea of Faith (1984) 6 episodes
At nearly 40 years old, this documentary may be showing its age in terms of production values, but at the time it caused a storm, by charting the history of Christianity in the modern world, focussing on the religion’s responses to the various challenges science, political and philosophical atheism and an increasingly secular world.
Presenter Don Cupitt, philosopher and ‘radical theologian’ puts together a deep and detailed account of the various shockwaves that Christianity encountered as it entered the age of reason, and the myriad of ideas that conflicted with the supreme authority once held by the church and clergy.
This series, charting the clash of the world’s greatest minds and the dominant religious beliefs of the time is not for everyone, it’s dense, old school and of it’s time. But in terms of educational value, Sea of Faith is top class. A unique, fascinating and slightly odd kind of series you just see on TV anymore.
Episode 1: The Mechanical Universe Copernican revolution. Blaise Pascal and René Descartes respond differently, faith and knowledge are set divided.
Episode 2, The Human Animal The revolutionary ideas of Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung
Episode 3, Going by the Book The views of Martin Luther, David Strauss, and Albert Schweitzer
Episode 4, Prometheus Unbound Karl Marx,Søren Kierkegaard, society and the individual
Episode 5, Religion Shock – Encounters with the world religions. Arthur Schopenhauer and Eastern religions. Vivekananda, Annie Besant
Episode 6, The New World – Nietzsche and the death of God. Ludwig Wittgenstein’s austerity and his suspicion of religious theories
Watch the whole series of Sea of Faith here on Youtube > https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLVUIaMDAYwqjMlxhXDehb4k8Oqa5n5KAP
Animated movies and documentaries about philosophy
Waking Life (2001)
In 2001, acclaimed movie director ( Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Boyhood, School of Rock to name a few) decided to make an experimental animated movie using rotoscoping technology. Delving into various profound philosophical topics, the narrative revolves around a youthful wanderer who navigates dream-like worlds and engages in thought-provoking philosophical exchanges with a diverse cast of characters on topics including free will, consciousness and existentialism.
Waking Life isn’t a documentary as such, nor is it a traditional movie. It’s a surreal, other-worldly exploration on the nature of reality and unreality which along the way touches on many philosophical questions and challenges of the human condition.
Waking Life trailer > https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=edrGozs6W_I
Watch Waking Life on Amazon Video – https://www.amazon.com/Waking-Life-Wiggins/dp/B008GM1FPI
Is the Man Who is Tall Happy? (2013)
Billed as an ‘animated conversation’ ‘Is the Man Who is Tall Happy’ is exactly that, a series of interviews between French movie director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep, The Green Hornet and more) and one of the world’s leading public intellectuals, Noam Chomsky.
The use of Gondry’s eccentric hand-drawn animation style, lends a surprising droll, but engaging tone to the subject matter – the life and work of Chomsky -the man dubbed ‘the father of modern linguistics’, but also one of the founders of the field of cognitive science, a leading voice in analytic philosophy, a political activist and social critic.
Sometimes easy going, sometimes meandering, Gondry plays student to Chomsky’s professor, patiently answering the director’s enquiries which he approaches with openness and a lack of ego.
‘Is the Man Who is Tall Happy?’ is a refreshingly original film presenting Chomsky’s broad and expansive world view to a new audience.
Is the Man Who is Tall Happy? trailer > https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zex7yxN4GW0
Watch Is the Man Who is Tall Happy? on Apple TV > https://tv.apple.com/us/movie/is-the-man-who-is-tall-happy/umc.cmc.1cl998wc4o6uuyj8e7sqs19qb
Other philosophy documentaries
Examined Life (2008)
Directed in 2008 by Canadian documentary film maker Astra Taylor, Examined Life features eight influential modern-day philosophers and their thoughts about the practical applications of their ideas in modern culture. Taking philosophy ‘to the streets’, Taylor films her subjects ‘on the go’ in various locations such as a taxi cab, an airport, walking through a park. The chosen eight are philosopher and political activist Cornel West, academic Avital Ronell, moral philosopher Peter Singer, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Martha Nussbaum, Michael Hardt, Slavoj Žižek and queer theorist Judith Butler.
Understandably, with so many different speakers, the documentary is only able to skim the surface of all the ideas presented by the speakers, but nevertheless it’s an entertaining, visually imaginative exploration of philosophical ideas by some of the leading minds of our generation.
Watch Examined Life here > https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2vzXyHETFwo
Why Beauty Matters (2009)
In this 2009 documentary by British philosopher Roger Scruton, the argument is made for the importance of recognizing beauty as an important value, and even a virtue. Scruton’s take is from a more conservative point of view and is a pushback against modern art and architecture and a defense of classical aesthetics.
Understandably Scruton’s take is not for all, but the documentary provides a learned and fascinating argument for the importance of beauty and aesthetics in our lives, and exploring what truly is and is not beautiful, regardless of its beholder.
Watch Why Beauty Matters here > https://vimeo.com/580185089
I hope you enjoyed our roundup of the best philosophy documentaries you can find online. If you have any more you think should make the list, hit us up in the comments below!