Most philosophical texts are dense and … well, textual. There are very few philosophical images, beyond the truth tables in your logic textbook, and those aren’t exactly a feat of design. Few works of philosophy contain more creative illustrations. But Corey Mohler, the man behind Existential Comics, has taken a novel approach to philosophy, creating whimsical drawings that illustrate key philosophical concepts. I asked Mohler about his popular webcomic and what he thinks the visual aspect of his work brings to the philosophical table.
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Becca Rothfeld: Who are you/what do you do? (Are you a student of philosophy or just an interested party?)
Corey Mohler: I actually work in software and have never studied philosophy in school. So I’m really just an enthusiastic amateur, like many of my readers.
BR: Do you think that the comics will increase or improve public engagement with philosophical questions, or are they directed largely at philosophers and other academics? Who’s your target audience?
CM: I think comics as a medium are very good at getting people to engage in things that they normally wouldn’t. Comics, due to their history of lightheartedness and visual nature, are usually considered to be very low engagement and easy reading. Someone who isn’t familiar with philosophy, or even necessarily interested in it, might very well check out a philosophy-themed comic, whereas an article on philosophy will probably sound boring to them. In that way, I think my comic has hopefully gotten people interested in ideas and thinkers whom they never would have encountered otherwise. My comic is also a bit unique, as I explain my jokes and give short introductions to the philosophers below each comic. So that gives people an easy way to understand the sometimes quite obscure references that I make. My comic has had over five million unique visitors since it started, so while I never exactly set out to popularize philosophy, I think in some ways I have done just that.
BR: Do you think that philosophy is “fun” — not just in the sense that it’s rigorous and important, but in some more light-hearted, whimsical way? What do you think is the most fun part of philosophy?
CM: Well, there is obviously a certain kind of enjoyment to be had when you understand something new. Is it fun? I don’t know, reading philosophy is rarely what I would call “fun.” Sometimes it is fun to think about some of the more wild ideas, I guess. And of course it is fun to do what I do: tell jokes about it.
BR: Why do you value philosophy?
CM: There are a lot of reasons. The most obvious is simple intellectual curiosity. I think intellectual curiosity is dismissed too quickly for justifying philosophy, and even for science. The vast majority of science that we conduct isn’t for some kind of benefit towards our lives, and I think people who try to justify it that way are often setting themselves down a pretty bad path, where everything then must be measured solely by its effect (often its monetary effect). Why did we build the Large Hadron Collider? It wasn’t for tangible benefits. It was for intellectual curiosity, and that’s fine. Sure, it’s possible that down the road the science will lead to something, but I think there is no question that the money could have been better spent elsewhere if that was all we were looking for. It is the same for philosophy: most of it is conducted simply because people are interested. Like science, I think there is some practical application, such as to politics and how you decide to live your life in general; these are tremendously important aspects of philosophy, but I think not directly why people pursue it most of the time.
BR: What, if anything, do you think the visual element of your work adds to philosophical discussion, since almost all of it is textual?
CM: Well, I think visual elements can help a lot in the teaching of philosophy, using visual aids to illustrate an idea or whatever it may be. For me, as someone who deals mostly in philosophy humor, the visual medium is essential to the jokes and stories that I tell. My jokes and stories are all conceived as comics, so often don’t work very well without the images, even if they are driven mostly by the text. Comics and graphic novels are a unique medium — while they use both text and visual elements, like a movie in some ways, they allow the reader to reflect on both the text and art at their own speed. If there is a particularly interesting passage of text or visual element, the reader can pause or even go back to it to consider it further. In movies, you have to move forward at the speed of the movie, so fine details are really lost. I think this is the real strength of the medium, which in some ways make it the ideal storytelling form. And of course it’s great for jokes as well.
BR: Who’s your favorite philosopher? What’s your favorite philosophical text?
CM: I guess Jean-Paul Sartre is still my favorite. He certainly appears in the most comics. I can’t say I really have a favorite text — maybe The Brothers Karamazov, if something like that can count.