De Heer begins her book Philosophy: A Discovery in Comics by asking questions. Specifically, questions she asked herself throughout her childhood and early adult life, such as “What is thinking?” and “What is consciousness?”.
While this is done in part to show how De Heer first became interested in philosophy, it also creates a solid foothold for the first part of the book and basic concepts like organization of information and how the brain processes and interprets sensory details. She also take the time opportunity to dig in to the differences in the thoughts of humans compared to what a computer does and to what other animals do. The way humans use logic, symbols, abstract thinking and even humor all make us, at least so fear, unique in the world and it’s this uniqueness that presses all of us to ask the big existential questions at some point in life.
The second portion of the book deals with some of the historical touchstones of philosophy. De Heer opens with the Ancient Greek thinkers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Touting them as them founders of Western philosophy, she quickly shows how their developments of concepts like logic, reason, and questioning what they see laid the cornerstones for how we think today.
From the Ancient Greeks, de Heer then moves to the philosophy of Medieval Europe. After setting the stage with a super-fast rundown on Christianity, we come to Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. Separated by nearly 900 years, the two men stand as pillars of Western Philosophy and its precarious balance of the Reason and Logic of the Ancient Greeks with Christian theology and mysticism. De Heer uses them as examples to tackle challenging ideas like morality, free will, and even the existence of God.
The historical portion of the book closes out with three great thinkers from de Heer’s own country of Netherlands: Erasmus, Descartes, and Spinoza. Although each definitely has their own take, we see through each of them a continual increase in rationality while still holding a great desire to explain the great mysteries of the world.
The cartooning in the book is deceptively simple, using charming, almost characters to represent the great thinkers of History most readers — especially teens — will find cute. But de Heer also brings in a strong design sense, utilizing arrows, pathways, and more subtle directional cues that help keep the reading fast and fun. One of the shining visual moments of the book is her illustration of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” bringing a very abstract and difficult concept to life in a style that’s very readable and serves as a wonderful introduction to the complex ideas.
The historical section ends with a short quote from Spinoza — know yourself” — that works as a wonderful lead-in to the final section. Instead of exploring more contemporary philosophers de Heer dedicates the final section of the book towards exploring what philosophy means in the lives of her friends and family. From her husband Yiri’s love for the cultural criticism of comedian George Carlin to her brother Maarten pulling from writers as diverse as Aldous Huxley and J.K. Rowling for his own philosophical core, de Heer shows us how Philosophy can be an individual and very personal thing.
It’s this section, I think, that pushes this book into a slightly different direction from other primers like Van Lente and Dunlavey’s Action Philosophers. While Action Philosophers definitely provides greater depth and detail for the history of philosophy, de Heer manages to pull philosophy out of the locked towers of academia and places it directly into the hands of the reader. This doesn’t just make the material more accessible; it empowers the reader.
de Heer closes the book with a challenge to the reader asking, quite simply, “What is your Philosophy?,” almost daring the reader to figure out their own personal philosophy for themselves. And that simple challenge is more the core of philosophy than what any history-based text can ever be.