Philosophy: A Discovery in Comics

De Heer, Margreet.  Philosophy: A Discovery in Comics.  New York: NBM Publishing, 2012.  120 pages.  ISBN: 978-1561636983

deheer cover

Reviewed by Mellissa Henry

Philosophy: a Discovery in Comics by Margreet de Heer explores philosophy by examining some of the general questions that are prevalent in the discipline. De Heer also takes an autobiographical stance towards the discipline, allowing the reader to gain some insight into her personal understanding of philosophy and the questions that she brings to light. De Heer uses a cartoon format in order to explore questions like: What is thinking; who are we; what is reality; and the concept of personal philosophies.

De Heer gives a brief history and discussion of ideas about several philosophers in chronological order. The philosophers she covers are: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Erasmus, Descartes, and Spinoza. De Heer also briefly discusses George Carlin, Nietzsche, and Steiner when discussing the personal philosophies of family and friends. The sections on specific philosophers are juxtaposed with discussions about different theories that surround the philosophical tradition. De Heer also gives several definitions of concepts, such as self-awareness, language, free will, and humanism to name a few.  De Heer is a layman, not an expert in the field, and thus many of the ideas discussed within the text are her own views on the philosophical questions. For example, the discussion of language is a cartoon dialogue between De Heer and her husband about what separates humans from animals. De Heer’s cartoon counterpart notes that humans have refined vocal communication as well as being the only species to definitively utilized symbols to make communication more effective (20).

De Heer has some great examples within the book, such as the example of Aristotle’s concept of being (46). De Heer notes that there are ten aspects of being and then illustrates them in regards to her own person. This type of notation, along with other simple explanations, could allow students to grasp concepts that may be difficult to understand within the original texts. The book could be useful when paired with relevant readings or thought-experiments along the same vein. However, there are areas where the cartoons lack some of the completeness that would make the book useful for a philosophy class. Aristotle is a great example of this as well; De Heer discusses becoming (47), but only explains Telos—final cause—and does not discuss the accompanying causes that bring an object to its final cause. Therefore, students reading this book may miss some important pieces of the overall philosophy.

The cartoon layout of the book could be considered both a strength and a weakness. A book of short and to-the-point comics will certainly garner interest from students were the book used in a classroom. The idea of reading in any non-traditional format will always have a certain appeal. Yet, the cartoon format can be confusing. There are ideas and concepts that are not fully explained and the design is also quite jumbled with ideas presented all over the page instead of in a linear fashion. This could potentially leave students or readers with little knowledge about certain philosophers or theories and could lead them to have more questions than they have answers.

De Heer’s ancient philosophy focuses on Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, which are philosophers that are almost guaranteed to be covered within an introductory class. This makes the book seem to be a great addendum to these types of classes. However, once De Heer moves past ancient times, her modern focus is on philosophers that hailed from her native Holland (74). While Descartes is a staple of introductory courses; Erasmus and Spinoza are not always covered. Hence, this books usefulness in an introductory class is limited unless the professor specifically would like to cover the philosophers she has written about within the comic book.

The main source of information for this book is De Heer’s own knowledge of philosophy. While it is very clear that De Heer has a good handle on both philosophers and their thoughts, readers will be unable to look back at primary texts without an intervention from a professor to direct them because none of the primary sources are cited. The notes that De Heer has in the back of the book are mainly sources of the pictures and paintings that were used to supplement De Heer’s own drawings, most of which were found through Google and Wikipedia (118-119). The book would be stronger if primary sources—even if it were just the names of the works—were used so that students or future readers could supplement the cartoons with the primary texts.

One area of the book that makes it stand out is the section on personal philosophies. De Heer notes that philosophy is relevant to everyone in some way and to life as a whole. In this section, De Heer inquires about the personal philosophies of her family and friends; from there, she illustrates their ideas and the ideas of the philosophers they admire (100-111). This section has a comedian, a philosopher, and a writer who all have inspired the personal philosophy of a person in De Heer’s life. This section may be useful to readers or pre-college students who are not yet philosophy students, but who may be interested in pursuing the philosophy tract. This section is likely to create some interest for the discipline, and could make the book a useful tool for those who are trying to instill an interest in philosophy to future learners. Lastly, De Heer ends the book with the question “What do you think…?” (116). This question is another that is important to maintaining interest in the field of philosophy. This question alludes to the reader that their ideas will matter and could open up discussion about philosophy and the theories within the field.

Magreet De Heer’s comic book is fascinating and different, and has the potential to be quite useful in conveying interest in philosophy to a new generation of readers.  This book would be more useful to the independent reader who has some knowledge of philosophy, or as a pre-college text that is used to incite interest in the discipline than as a supplementary text to an introductory philosophy class. De Heer’s use of a mixture of philosophers, concepts, and an autobiography of thought will definitely make readers think about the world and their intellectual place within it.

Suggested citation:  Henry, Mellissa.  “Review of Philosophy: A Discovery in Comics.”  Questions: Philosophy for Young People, 13, no. 2 (online content).  Posted 30 Aug 2013.

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