Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein: I Think, Therefore I Draw: Understanding Philosophy Through Cartoons (Penguin, 2018)

Like the best jokes, the best cartoons address philosophy’s Big Questions. They explain and illustrate these perennial conundrums and there are various answers in ways that hard sometimes ingenious, sometimes profound, and sometimes even a bit useful. Yep, these cartoons are incisive snapshots of the Biggies.
Here, then, is a collection of our favorite philosophical cartoons and our annotations about what they teach us about the Big Questions in philosophy. Questions like, “Is there really any difference between girls and boys?” and “Is there a cosmic scheme?” and “What went wrong with right and wrong?” Eighteen of the most frequently asked questions in the history of philosophy.

I avoid visiting my local bookstore in person (unless I’m picking up a specific book they’ve ordered or held for me) because I can’t resist interesting covers and intriguing titles. Sometimes just walking past the display window is enough, as when I saw this volume a few weeks ago. I mean, it’s cute and tiny, about the size of a mass market paperback, and you had me at philosophy, hello, can I take it home mom, please?

Inside it is also cute and tiny and philosophical. The organization is, as advertised, around eighteen philosophical questions, introduced by eighteen cartoons. The connection between cartoon and philosophical point may be a bit tenuous, but that’s what the text is for. For example, Dave Carpenter’s cartoon featuring a man telling his psychiatrist, “I never realized how empty my life was until I started tweeting about it”, is part of the first section about the meaning of life, titled “What’s it all about, Alfie?” and brings in Heidigger’s Everydayess (and, for me, evoking DFW’s “This is Water” in the process) and Frankl’s logotherapy. All in about a page.

And therein lies the reason I avoid buying on impulse. If I’d thought about it, looked it over carefully, I would have realized there wasn’t enough bang for my buck here. Fast food. I don’t object to brevity – flash fiction is one of my favorite genres – but to fit Everydayness into a couple of sentences (not even complex sentences, for pete’s sake) kind of offends me. Then again, it’s not billed as a deep text on Heidegger, or anyone else, but more of an appetizer. And if it leads someone to investigate some nugget of philosophy in more depth, well, that’s nothing to sneeze at. For me, it was Sophie’s World, but whatever works.

In any case, it was an enjoyable book, and those who want a nutshell-version of philosophy, an offering of canapés from which one might choose an entrée – or maybe just a smile – would no doubt find it quite suitable. And, of course, for those who, much as I need Bad Drawings to approach math, can only overcome their fear of philosophy via cartoons, this would be ideal.

It’s one in a whole series put together by two former Harvard philosophy majors who spent most of their lives in other careers before producing humorous philosophy books. They’re all books I might like to check out of the library, or spend an hour browsing through in the atrium for that matter. I just wish I hadn’t impulsively spent part of my precious book budget on candy.

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