‘The Cartoon Introduction to Philosophy’ Is Something of a Duck-Rabbit Itself

I was in graduate school struggling to make sense of a particularly dense philosopher, a philosopher who would come to play a pivotal role in my intellectual development and in my understanding of human life, philosophy and God. But in the days before he began to shape my thinking, he just seemed maddening, confusing, bizarre.

Its been a long time since I’ve had as much fun reading a comicbook, or a philosophy book, as I had while reading Patton’s and Cannon’s chapter on God.

I was reading Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations and I was lost, all turned around, a fly trapped in a bottle. Practically every word in the book was underlined with blue ink, blue ink that looked green through the neon yellow of the highlighting pen. Notes were scribbled in the margins of nearly every page in pale pencil lead. Dog-ears marked the spots of my deepest confusion, my darkest hours.

Then, from out of nowhere, the duck-rabbit.

I’m not going to claim that it all suddenly made sense, that Wittgenstein’s crudely drawn image triggered in me an experience similar to the one that Wittgenstein’s drawing was meant to illustrate. There was no immediate “dawning of an aspect”, no sudden shift like the shift from seeing a duck to seeing a rabbit to seeing a duck-rabbit. There was no sudden experience of seeing Wittgenstein’s philosophical point in one way, then in another, then in both ways at once. I was still confused and would be for a long time to come. Perhaps I still am.

But the duck-rabbit somehow put me at ease. And, more importantly, it allowed me to think philosophically not just in words but also in pictures. When it came to understanding Wittgenstein, I think that might have made all the difference in the world.

Of course, Wittgenstein was not the first philosopher to use an illustration to help clarify his philosophical point. (For that matter, the duck-rabbit was hardly original with him.) And I suppose that even those philosophers who don’t literally illustrate their writings with stick figure cartoons often illustrate them in other ways, with stories and metaphors, examples and thought experiments. Indeed, Wittgenstein had something important to say about this as well: “A main cause of philosophical disease,” he observed earlier in Philosophical Investigations, is “a one-sided diet: one nourishes one’s thinking with only one kind of example.”

He was right. The best philosophy is full of varied and valuable illustrations, whether written or drawn, that help us to think about things in new and different ways: ducks, rabbits, shadows on the walls of caves, flowing rivers, brains in vats, runaway trolleys.

This philosophical reliance on examples, illustrations and images is perhaps why cartoons and comic strips are often themselves purveyors of philosophical points. Charles Schulz’s comic strip Peanuts was a frequent source of philosophical, and theological, ideas, usually of the Christian humanist sort. Gary Larson’s The Far Side tended to ponder the more existentialist and absurdist themes of the discipline.

Philosophers’ use of images and metaphors also explains, I suppose, why science fiction has often tackled some of philosophy’s more important issues. Philosophers talk of utopian societies and strange forms of life. They plumb the origins of the universe and the existence of God. They ponder zombies and automatons in an attempt to unlock the mysteries of human nature. They play out ethical dilemmas against strange backdrops so that we are made to see them anew.

These themes are, of course, standard tools in the tool boxes of fantasy and science fiction writers and of comicbook artists and filmmakers. In fiction we need only think of George Orwell’s 1984; in film, the Wachowski siblings’ The Matrix or, for that matter, any number of episodes of Star Trek.

Though receiving less attention than fiction or film, comicbooks have also long worked with philosophical themes, sometimes to bad effect, as when Steve Ditko’s the Question was a champion of Randian Objectivism, and sometimes to good and glorious effect, as when Alan Moore’s Saga of the Swamp Thing pondered questions of personal identity.

What is intriguing about the new book by philosopher Michael F. Patton and artist Kevin Cannon is that philosophy is the main point of the story. The Cartoon Introduction to Philosophy is just that, a comicbook that introduces readers to the important themes, issues and figures of philosophy. It’s not a comicbook with philosophical themes, but rather a comicbook that is precisely about philosophy. Plato used metaphors to make a philosophical point, painting pictures with words. Wittgenstein used the cartoon duck-rabbit to illustrate his philosophical point. But here, words and pictures go hand in hand. It’s philosophy by comicbook.

Of course, this is not entirely new. There have been other comicbooks about philosophy. Fred Van Lente’s and Ryan Dunlavey’s Action Philosophers is a fine example of something of just this sort. In their case, Van Lente and Dunlavey used illustrations, humor and some of the conventions of superhero comics to showcase the lives and main ideas of philosophers throughout history. In their version of the history of philosophy Plato wears a wrestler’s mask and Nietzsche has “God is Dead” tattooed on his knuckles.

The Cartoon Introduction to Philosophy takes a different approach. Here, the purpose is neither to trace the history of philosophy for its own sake nor to retell the biographies of the great philosophers in cartoon form, though there is certainly plenty of history and personal biography to be found here. Instead, Patton and Cannon take on some of the major themes, issues and questions in philosophy, namely logic, perception, minds, free will, God, and ethics. This approach means that Patton and Cannon cover less material than Van Lente and Dunlavey and that a lot of important thinkers get no mention at all, but it also means that they are able to engage with philosophical issues and arguments in a deeper and more systematic manner. And while it might have been nice to have heard more from figures in the Continental tradition, it seems like a fair trade-off to achieve the kind of depth of focus that is the result.

I suppose one way to get at the difference between these two comicbook approaches to philosophy is to say that while Action Philosophers reads like a history book, The Cartoon Introduction to Philosophy reads like philosophy.

The book is structured as a river journey led by Pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus. The river, of course, is a classic philosophical metaphor, and Patton and Cannon put it to good use here. Along the way downriver, the creators find plenty of other images and metaphors to make their points. Heraclitus joins Aristotle to climb the mountain of deductive logic and then goes in a balloon ride with John Stuart Mill to learn about inductive reasoning. He joins Rene Descartes in a face-to-face encounter with a deceptive demon to learn the meaning of the philosopher’s famous “Cogito, ergo sum“, then goes on a woodland hike with George Berkeley to learn what that philosopher meant by “Esse est percipi.

Throughout, the sight gags and jokes come pretty regularly and do more than keep the reader interested. They further the philosophical argument and help to make Patton’s philosophical points. It all works spectacularly well when The Cartoon Introduction to Philosophy covers classic philosophical debates that have imagery and metaphor at their heart. Though it probably reveals something about my own philosophical background, I can safely say that its been a long time since I’ve had as much fun reading a comicbook, or a philosophy book, as I had while reading Patton’s and Cannon’s chapter on God. The interactions and arguments between William Paley and David Hume over the implications of pocket watches and human eyes are fabulously done, both as art and as philosophy.

The Cartoon Introduction to Philosophy does more than introduce the reader to the great ideas and debates of philosophy. It also illustrates the importance of imagery and illustration for the philosophical project. Before reading this book, I don’t think I truly realized what an exciting visual experience philosophy can be. I’ve always known that philosophy was more than stale words in old books, but this book makes it abundantly clear that duck-rabbits and their like can be found all over the place in philosophy.

I suppose that Patton and Cannon each share a good bit of the credit for all of this. Cannon’s illustrations are always vibrant and fun. Rather conservative page layouts help to structure the arguments as well as maintain order in the midst of the chaos of activities and personalities that parade across every page. His philosophers are caricatures, that is for sure, but caricatures that manage to capture the spirit of the ideas and arguments that these philosophers represent. I never would have imagined wanting to go on a canoe ride with Thomas Hobbes, but Cannon makes me wish that I could do just that.

While it’s hard to know just how much of the story or how many of the jokes can be credited to which of the creators, it seems clear to me that philosopher Patton’s hand can be identified throughout. Indeed, I suspect that Patton is the reason that The Cartoon Introduction to Philosophy is as good a philosophy book as it is a comicbook. Indeed, the force of the arguments, the give-and-take between the opposing voices, and the clear presentation of what is important in each of these classic debates makes this book a better introduction to philosophy than many of the wordy, overly-cautious, and high-priced textbooks that are doing their part to kill the discipline at fine universities around the globe.

I don’t suppose that Patton’s adeptness with both the philosophical material and the use of imagery and metaphors comes as a surprise to anyone who is familiar with his philosophical work. He is probably most well-known for his classic article “Can Bad Men Make Good Brains Do Bad Things?” In this article, Patton employs the well-worn examples of a twin Earth, a runaway trolley and a brain in a vat to skewer the ridiculous and artificial nature of many tired and overused philosophical illustrations and examples. Wittgenstein, I suspect, would have loved it.

With The Cartoon Introduction to Philosophy, Patton and Cannon have produced an interesting and engaging read. It strikes me as being something of a duck-rabbit, itself. Look once, and it is a fine and funny comicbook with snappy art and a compelling narrative. Look again, and it’s a philosophy book, not just a book about philosophy but a book in which the activity of philosophy is on display, ideas engaging ideas in a quest for understanding. Look yet again, and it’s a bit of both: philosophical illustrations become illustrated philosophy.

The Cartoon Introduction to Philosophy does more than introduce major themes and arguments in philosophy. It helps to raise some interesting questions about the visual nature of philosophy itself and it reminds us of the power of comicbooks to tell our stories, express our ideas and help us think.

Splash image courtesy of © Kevin Cannon. Article images from The Cartoon Introduction to Philosophy (Hill & Wang, 2015).