The End of the World: Confusion in The Leftovers



Confusion, Understanding, Knowledge, Ignorance, Wittgenstein, Kuhn


The Leftovers begins nearly three years after 2% of the world’s population disappears, around 140 million people, in an event now commonly known as the Sudden Departure. The characters are still suffering from the emotional trauma caused by that event. The severity of that trauma decreases the further a person is emotionally from one of the Departed. It may be absent in some, for example, some residents of Jarden, Texas, the only city that did not lose anyone in the Sudden Departure, though sympathy or compassion have likely caused some degree of trauma in most people. The Sudden Departure has also caused epistemic injuriesand these have afflicted everyone; these are injuries that harm to ability to know and understand. There is first of all the ignoranceabout the Sudden Departure. No one knows what caused the Sudden Departure. Some may think they know by believing any of various competing theories. It seems most others accept their ignorance, although they are not all necessarily content with it. The show’s narrative favors no explanation; in fact, the show is more an examination of the effects of this mysterious event on its characters than an investigation of the mystery itself. But the effects of the mystery surrounding the Sudden Departure have caused more than ignorance in the characters. It is not consistent with many things they (and we) believe. People are not supposed to disappear like that. That is something that has never happened, and it does not fit with what we know about the world. This has left the characters confused. Confusion is the cognitive condition of holding disorganized, including incompatible, beliefs. The effects of it are more severe than ignorance. To cure ignorance requires only being taught or learning something new. To remedy confusion, we must reorganize our beliefs or, if that fails, change what we believe and maybe even the way we believe.

In this article, I explore the effects of confusion on the characters of The Leftovers, including their different strategies for remedying it. I draw on Thomas Kuhn’s examination of anomalies in science to explain some of these effects. Not much else has been written by philosophers on confusion, but there has been a lot written recently on what I identify as its cure, understanding. I draw on recent research on understanding by philosophers such as Linda Zagzebski, Catherine Elgin, Jonathan Kvanvig, and Duncan Pritchard to explain how we can cure our confusions. If we fail in that endeavor, as many of the characters do, we may despair of ever understanding and turn into skeptics, even nihilists. The Guilty Remnant are an example of this reaction to confusion. Confusion can also lead one to become overly credulous, as depicted by many characters throughout the series. It may even prompt one to adopt entirely new ways of believing. I elaborate on this last strategy by drawing on the writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein. It is powerfully portrayed in the final season.

I endeavor to show how these reactions to confusion, along with attempted remedies, occur for the confusions we face in our world. While none perhaps reach the magnitude of the confusion caused by the Sudden Departure, our confusions can range over facts that are of great importance to our lives, such as political or scientific facts. They can also be about small events, such as a missing phone or set of keys and the other small incongruities we often experience. All these confusions can cause anxiety, even despair, and they can have deleterious cognitive and/or epistemic effects. A study of the The Leftovers may improve our understanding of confusions, including strategies for dealing with these effects.

Author Biography

Keith Dromm, Louisiana Scholars’ College at Northwestern State University

Dr. Keith Dromm is a Professor of Philosophy in the Louisiana Scholars' College at Northwestern State University. He earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a B.A. from The Evergreen State College. 

He was awarded the Excellence in Teaching Award for the Louisiana Scholars' College in 2019. He was awarded the Mildred Hart Bailey Research Award from Northwestern State University in 2008. 

He teaches a variety of courses, including Introduction to PhilosophyModern PhilosophyContemporary Analytic PhilosophyPhilosophy of Film, and courses in the Scholars' core curriculum. He has also created some unique courses for NSU, including Post-World War II American Avant-garde and Proust, Autobiography, and the Philosophy of Self

He has written the books Wittgenstein on Rules and Nature (2008) and Sexual Harassment: An Introduction to the Conceptual and Ethical Issues (2012). He co-edited, with his wife Heather Salterthe anthology The Catcher in the Rye and Philosophy (2012). He has contributed chapters to several anthologies, such as The Philosophy of Documentary Film (2017), Jane Austen and Philosophy (2016) (co-written with Heather Salter), and Inception and Philosophy (2011). He has also written articles for various academic journals and presented his research at conferences throughout the United States and Europe.




How to Cite

Dromm, K. (2021). The End of the World: Confusion in The Leftovers. Cinema: Journal of Philosophy and the Moving Image, (13), 93–105. Retrieved from