How Pixar’s ‘Inside Out’ illustrates Platonic philosophy

by Dr Matthew Duncombe

15 Nov 2018

Pixar’s Inside Out (2015) is a modern classic. The film tells the story of 11-year old ice hockey fanatic, Riley. A cross-country move and incipient adolescence disrupt Riley’s childhood emotional register. This emotional turbulence plays out in Riley’s own mind, where the anthropomorphic emotions – Joy, the leader, uncooperative Sadness, skittish Fear, mean-girl Disgust and volcanic Anger – steer Riley’s ideas and actions. Due to a mishap, Joy and Sadness are lost in the labyrinth of Riley’s long-term memory. Fear, Disgust and Anger, now in charge, wreak havoc on Riley’s feelings, friendships and family, until Joy and Sadness learn to work together for their own sake and Riley’s.

From Plato to Pixar: Plato’s argument that the soul has parts

Inside Out elegantly explains human motivations, conflicting emotions and psychological well-being by presenting multiple parts to one psyche, or soul. In Republic IV, Plato’s Socrates uses exactly the same idea for exactly the same purposes, arguing that the soul has parts.

Boiled down, Plato’s argument is simple. No single thing bears opposite relations to another thing. Desire is opposite to disgust, yet a human soul can both desire and be disgusted by the same thing. Therefore, a human soul is not a single thing. If the human soul isn’t a single thing, it must have several parts, in this case including Desire and Disgust – to aggressively summarise Republic IV 436b-439c). 

The most abstract idea is the first premise: “no single thing bears opposite relations to another thing”. On reflection, this does seem right. Imagine a single mountain. The mountain can be larger than a tree on it, but smaller than the sea from which it protrudes. In that case, the single mountain bears opposite relations, but to different things. On the other hand, a mountain can be both above the waterline and below the water line, so it bears opposite relations to the same thing. In that case, the mountain is not single: it has two parts, one above the waterline and one below.

Plato’s argument: “no single thing bears opposite relations to another thing.”
Plato’s argument: “no single thing bears opposite relations to another thing.”

Second, I think we all agree that desire and disgust are opposite relations. We can all think of examples where a soul desires and is disgusted by the same thing, say, a lifelong vegetarian who craves bacon. This vegetarian desires and is disgusted by bacon, so has two parts in the soul: Desire and Disgust.

Questioning Plato’s argument

There are lots of questions you might have about Plato’s argument. One view is that the reasoning may not generate enough parts in the soul. It’s not clear how you’d get Joy and Sadness out of this argument. I might feel joy without feeling joy about anything specific; more likely, I might feel sad without anything to feel sad about. Plato’s argument only generates parts that correspond to relational emotions, which are a sort of intentional mental state.

However, philosophers have also argued that Plato’s reasoning generates too many parts. The lifelong vegetarian in this example desires and is disgusted by the bacon because they desire meat and are disgusted by it, but what if meat-desire desires lean meat only, and is disgusted by fatty-meat? Meat-desire will then have its own multiple parts, lean-meat-desire and fatty-meat-disgust. This can be reiterated indefinitely so there is an indefinite number of parts in Desire and so in the soul.

The importance of exclusive objects

As part of my British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship work on relativity in ancient philosophy, I’d been researching Plato’s partition argument and figuring out what ancient philosophers thought about relations. I’d concluded that ancient philosophers generally, Plato in particular, held that a relation has a special object to which it always relates: an exclusive object, if you like. Since intentional mental states – like desire and disgust – are relations, they must have an exclusive object.

Desire desires only the desirable. Disgust is disgusted by only the disgusting. This blocks the regress: now Desire cannot desire bacon because it is meaty but be disgusted because it is salty; it only desires bacon insofar as bacon is desirable. That was how I saved Plato’s argument from infinite regress and how Plato solves Pixar from philosophical naivety. After all, where would we be if a kids’ film lacked a secure philosophical foundation, laid by Plato?

Matthew Duncombe is an Assistant Professor in Philosophy at the University of Nottingham. As part of his British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship, he researched ancient perspectives on the logic and metaphysics of relations. He is currently working on the project ‘Contradiction and Infinite Regresses in Plato and Aristotle’ which is funded by a Newton Mobility Grant. @mbduncombe

Sign up to our email newsletters