The period of European modern philosophy covered in this clever and informative new book was unusually fertile. From roughly 1600 to 1700, significant philosophical positions were articulated by the likes of Rene Descartes, Bento (Baruch) Spinoza, Gottfried Liebniz, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Galileo Galilei, Sir Isaac Newton, and many others. Barring the ‘birth’ of philosophy in ancient Greece, this might be the most intellectually fruitful era in all of philosophy.
In this telling of the story of modern philosophy, esteemed historian of philosophy Steven Nadler, who has previously authored or edited academic books on Spinoza, Leibniz, Descartes, Nicolas Malebranche, Antoine Arnauld, and Jewish modern philosophy, teams with his son, illustrator Ben Nadler, to turn these complex theories into a visual journey through the history of ideas. The focus here tends to be on the scientific (Bacon, Newton, Galileo) and the epistemological/ metaphysical (Leibniz’s monads, Spinoza’s pantheism, Cartesian knowledge and mind-body dualism) although some of the most significant developments in ethics and political philosophy (including Hobbes’s theory of government, Spinoza’s views on democracy, and Locke’s influential views on property) get some coverage as well.
This story of modern ideas unfolds in the style of a comic book, with chapters (usually centered around a thinker and his critics) divided into panels on each page. The panels are generally limited to six or fewer per page, with each panel featuring expository passages and/or dialogue between these ‘characters’ from the period.
Ben Nadler’s art is colorful and expressive, and he has taken some pains to make these figures look like their ‘classic’ depictions from historical art. Leibniz, for example, is drawn with impressively poodle-like hair and a prominent nose, much like the Christoph Bernhard Francke portrait from the early 1700’s. However, Nadler’s art softens their stern features and makes them more approachable and ‘fun’. By adding in plenty of humorous moments to their lives — from Descartes , a ‘thinking thing’ by definition, with a giant brain (26) to a Cartesian mind-body picnic (39) echoing the “Bart Sells His Soul” episode of The Simpsons — the reader gets to laugh at some of these clever intuition pumps and thought experiments.
The anachronistic “Disco Malebranche” (109), for example, offers an explanation for the notoriously counter-intuitive theory of occasionalism, the view that God is the only cause and that all other apparently self-directed things (like a leisure-suit bedecked Malebranche in a disco) are moved only by the occasional decision of God to move them. I’m not sure how many professors have ever used disco dancing to explain occasionalism, but it is a clever and resourceful way to present an idea that students usually respond to with blank stares and open mouths.
The combination of comic art and complex ideas is particularly helpful with some of the more arcane and confusing theories presented here. Take, for example, Leibniz’s metaphysical monadology, always a head-scratcher for intro students (95-99). In the care of Nadler and Nadler, the puzzle of corporal substances and Leibniz’s solution, windowless monads, is presented in a clear, visual manner that includes a cat, a volcano, a shark, and Leibniz himself. It sounds puzzling, but it makes sense, with brief and deft explanations paired with eye-catching illustrations. Spinoza’s solution to the mind-body problem, and the pantheism (or panentheism) that is entailed by it on pages 58-63 is another case where the illustrations serve to illuminate an often puzzling theoretical view, tying Spinoza’s view to Hamlet’s pondering of fate and free will. It’s skillfully explained and depicted, and in five short pages, the view that led Spinoza to be branded a heretic is laid bare.
One of the more interesting questions this book leaves open is a meta-textual one: who or what is the intended audience? It crosses the borderlines between popular philosophy, general introduction, and academic text. It might, for example, serve as a useful introductory text (supplemented by some of the source works) for a course in modern philosophy, particularly for students with no background in philosophy at all. It’s an excellent text for a non-academic audience, although the ideas and concepts discussed probably require at least a little knowledge of religious and political history. It might, with some scaffolding, be useful for younger readers who are trying to wrap their minds around the development of philosophical views in general.
The narrative arc of this story of modern philosophy is bound up in Spinoza’s “abominable heresies and monstrous deeds” (as the Herem against him claimed) and the so-called heresies of many of these modern philosophers, who shared both intellectual endeavors and a willingness to challenge the status quo. Conflicts and challenges between these figures, including bad blood between philosophers, schisms between iterations of faith, and political upheavals, dot the terrain of modern philosophy. Almost all of these figures had at least one view that was considered a heresy in the eyes of some other key figure or institution, and this willingness to put forth challenges to the prevailing views is part of the identity of philosophy in the ‘modern’ era.
Given the heretical arc, it is very fitting that the book ends with an epilogue focused on Voltaire’s Candide. Voltaire’s brilliant satire took the intellectual gymnastics of modern philosophy, particularly that of Gottfried Leibniz’s famous “Best of All Possible Worlds” theodicy, to the woodshed and gave them a beat-down. This is not to say that Nadler is trying to jump into the fray — his portrayal of these philosophical views is tempered and charitable, but also critical and questioning. Voltaire took philosophers to task, but Nadler gives them their due.
They might be heretics, but we owe them (and ourselves) the intellectual honesty to take their ideas seriously before moving on to those ideas that are less threatening and more comfortable. It’s a lesson sorely lacking in our current intellectual culture, and this lovely introduction helps to present it in a historically relevant way.