‘Heretics!’ Illustrates the Contentiousness Surrounding Philosophy – PopMatters

Posted: August 1, 2017 at 5:59 pm

(Princeton University Press) US: Jun 2017

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 (Leibnizs monads, Spinozas pantheism, Cartesian knowledge and mind-body dualism) although some of the most significant developments in ethics and political philosophy (including Hobbess theory of government, Spinozas views on democracy, and Lockes 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 Nadlers 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 1700s. However, Nadlers art softens their stern features and makes them more approachable and fun. By adding in plenty of humorous moments to their livesfrom 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 Simpsonsthe 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. Im 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, Leibnizs metaphysical monadology, always a head-scratcher for intro students (95-99). In the care of Nadler and Nadler, the puzzle of corporal substances and Leibnizs 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. Spinozas 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 Spinozas view to Hamlets pondering of fate and free will. Its 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. Its 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 Spinozas 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 Voltaires Candide. Voltaires brilliant satire took the intellectual gymnastics of modern philosophy, particularly that of Gottfried Leibnizs 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 frayhis 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. Its a lesson sorely lacking in our current intellectual culture, and this lovely introduction helps to present it in a historically relevant way.

Rating:

Eric Rovie teaches high school AP English in suburban Atlanta. He has also contributed to The A.V. Club and to several Chunklet publications. In his previous iteration, he was an academic philosopher and he might have edited a book and published a few articles. Originally from the Twin Cities, he worships at the altars of The Replacements, Hsker D, and The Hold Steady, as any good son of the Cities should. He re-reads The Catcher in the Rye at least once a year, but he has never tried to assassinate anyone.

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'Heretics!' Illustrates the Contentiousness Surrounding Philosophy - PopMatters

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