What I’m Reading: Action Philosophers

Okay, I have one more horror movie to review for the season, but first let’s get to a book I recently finished, Action Philosophers, a non-fiction graphic novel providing biographies of forty philosophers, from Ancient Greece to the contemporary world. This book is awfully charming, with cartoony but detailed art from Ryan Dunlavey that adapts itself to each era and location–appearing Chinese for Confucius and Lao Tzu, for instance, or medieval Jewish for Spinoza. The art and dialogue (by writer Fred Van Lente) are clever and fast-paced to the point of hyperactivity, providing a wealth of information but also nearly non-stop humorous references to pop culture, history, other jokes from earlier in the book, even the authors themselves.

I think my favorite philosopher in the book is John Stuart Mill, presented in the style of Peanuts. J.S. Mill is Charlie Brown, with adorable little 19th century sideburns on his bald head, espousing his Utilitarianism to the other skeptical characters. His attempt to teach virtue to Snoopy, who keeps trying to steal the blanket of Jeremy Bentham (in the guise of Linus), is a particular highlight.

And yet, despite the pervading jokiness, the core of the book is serious. This is a real history of philosophy told through a biographic framework, clearly showing how each new era of philosophers have expanded, synthesized, or rejected the work of their predecessors. It starts with the pre-Socratics and ends with Jacques Derrida, and is fairly brilliant at cogently demonstrating in words and pictures even such difficult concepts as the analytic philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein.

In fact, I’m giving this book one of my coveted Shortcuts to Smartness awards! A Shortcut to Smartness book is one that “so expands your knowledge and understanding in so many areas that it is like a college course in and of itself,” and I think that works here. It’s graphic novel form would make this readable even for high school students, as it breaks down lots of highly complex ideas to a level that practically anyone could understand. And they would have a lot of fun in learning those ideas, too!

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