Steven Nadler and Ben Nadler, Heretics!: The Wonderous (and Dangerous) Beginnings of Modern Philosophy (Princeton University Press), £18.95/$22.95
Review by Matt Brown
Heretics! is the collaborative production of a talented father and son team. Steven Nadler, who holds several distinguished professorships at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is well-known for his work on the history of modern philosophy, specifically on the so-called Rationalists: Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz. Ben Nadler, son of Steven, is a cartoonist and illustrator, a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, and an up-and-coming indie comics artist. Together they have produced a book that provides an accessible and engaging introduction to the history of modern philosophy, one that challenges the orthodox narrative of that period.
The standard historiography of early modern philosophy paints the concerns of the age as largely epistemological and as generally falling into two camps, the Empiricists and the Rationalists. The Empiricists held that all knowledge was built on experience, while the Rationalists held that some foundational knowledge was built on innate ideas or could be discovered by thinking alone. Kant brought this period of philosophy to a close by effectively synthesising what was good about Empiricism and Rationalism while avoiding the problems of both. In this narrative, philosophy is clearly demarcated from science, though the philosophers are generally impressed with, and interested to explain the success of, modern science – the Empiricists favour empirical and experimental science, while the Rationalists are more impressed with mathematics. As Alberto Vanzo has pointed out in several places, while this narrative is widespread in textbooks, it has many flaws: the overemphasis on epistemology, underestimating the engagement between (speculative) philosophy, science (natural philosophy), and politics, misclassifying important figures and leaving other important figures out entirely, and reading Kant’s philosophical problematic anachronistically back into philosophers who preceded him.
This book presents a fresh alternative take on the history of early modern philosophy that avoids the standard tropes. According to Heretics!, philosophy in this period was a creative explosion of new ways of understanding ourselves, our society, the Universe, and God. From the start, scientists and philosophers are rightly shown as part of the same conversation. Concerns about physics and astronomy interweave with theology, epistemology, and political philosophy, as they did for the philosophers in question. Galileo and Newton are as much a part of the story as Descartes and Locke. The tragic fate of Giordano Bruno – which we see depicted on the very first page in a full-page panel that is powerful and disturbing, though thankfully just cartoony enough not to be grotesque – sets the tone for the rest of the book. Many of the philosophers depicted struggle with religious authorities who either do or might brand their new ways of thinking as heretical. The book ends not with Kant’s rational synthesis but with Newton’s response to Descartes, and with an Epilogue featuring Voltaire’s dismay at the religious persecution of philosophy.
Ben Nadler’s art style is well within the tradition of what is called alternative or indie comics. Comparing his style to more established figures, I would triangulate him somewhere between Chris Ware, Ron Rege, Jr., and Moebius. Philosophers in talking-heads style are by far the most common images, which is unsurprising, given the subject-matter. These figures are rendered somewhere between Moebius’s simple but generally realistic style and the more iconic caricatures of Ware or of Rege Jr’s less psychedelic work. Nadler’s line is less obsessively geometric than Ware’s, and his layouts less fussy and complex than Ware’s and less grand than Moebius’s. Befitting the subject-matter, he brings the frame in tight on the people in this story, as we often see in autobiographical comics or in the works of Daniel Clowes. Nadler generally adopts flat colours akin to Ware’s, but more often using highly saturated secondary colours reminiscent of Moebius. The art style overall is interesting and works well with the subject-matter; it permits easy engagement with the material and scans quickly.
At its worst, the book can be a bit overwritten: image, dialogue, and narration box all convey the same message redundantly. But this is the exception rather than the rule. Although packed with ideas and so necessarily with text, often the book finds innovative ways to represent difficult philosophical ideas like monads, Spinozan monism, or occasionalism graphically. At its best, the book finds ways to blend narration, dialogue, and image into new meanings that could not be conveyed as well separately; this is the distinctive advantage of the comics medium.
Overall, this is an excellent way to learn the new history of early modern philosophy. It takes its subject-matter seriously, and also uses the comics medium well to communicate it. I hope we will see more serious works of philosophy and philosophical pedagogy in comics form in the future, and in particular, I would love to see a second volume by the Nadlers that picks up where this book leaves off, and brings us the story of Hume, Kant, and other figures that did not make it into this volume.