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Comics of Interest (Part I) January 20, 2010

Posted by Ian Duckles in Uncategorized.

This being San Diego, the land of Comic-Con, I thought it might be interesting to look at some recent philosophically-minded comic books. I intend this initially as a three-part series, but we shall see how far I actually get.

Logicomix CoverI want to begin by looking at a fairly obvious choice for this: Apostolos Doxiadis’s and Christos H. Papadimitriou’s (with Alecos Papadatis and Annie di Donna on art) Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth. This 300-page graphic novel with an extensive appendix tells the story of Bertrand Russell and his quest for a firm foundation for mathematics and logic. In the process, the story covers every major logician and mathematician and their ideas of the first half of the 20th Century (including, but not limited to: George Boole, Georg Cantor, Gottlob Frege, Kurt Gödel, David Hilbert, Giuseppe Piano, Henri Poincare, Alan Turing, John Von Neumann, Alfred North Whitehead, and Ludwig Wittgenstein). In addition, the story also cuts to the creators themselves (and Doxiadis’s dog Manga, whom, we are informed in a footnote, is not named after the Japanese comic form) as they wander through Athens and discuss the creation of the graphic novel. This latter storyline is not a post-modern conceit but is, instead, as the authors themselves reveal, an exploration of the notion of self-reference without which any discussion of 20th Century logic is incomplete.

Being somewhat familiar with the story covered in this work thanks to an excellent year-long class I took from Penelope Maddy my first year in graduate school, the authors do a good job covering the ideas and issues Russell and others struggled with in their quest to find a secure and uncontroversial foundation for mathematical (and by extension) logical truths. However, as we learn from the authors themselves, these philosophical ideas are secondary to the story of the individuals and personalities (primarily Russell) who engaged in these investigations.

It is this aspect of the story in which the book really excels as the creators are able to give one a real sense of the concerns and motivations and obsessions that propel the protagonists on their quest, in many cases to the exclusion of everything else, as well as the profound disappointments (and in at least one case ecstatic joy) when it is proven that the goals of said quest are unobtainable. The authors, perhaps, try to psychologize this quest a bit too much by explaining the various philosophical ideas as an extension of biographical details of the philosophers, but it is certainly the case that a surprisingly large number of the major thinkers who explored these issue were ultimately driven insane (or perhaps it was a certain predisposition to insanity that led and enabled these individuals to take up these issues in the first place. That, at least, seems to be the conclusion of the authors).

My one major complaint about this otherwise excellent and fascinating work is that the authors do not exploit the medium of the graphic novel as effectively as they could in explaining some of the more significant logical and mathematical ideas. One thing I really remember from the aforementioned class with Professor Maddy was her ability to graphically explain many of the more difficult and abstract logico-mathematical concepts. As just one example, I still vividly remember how she was able to graphically explain the idea that some infinitely large sets can be larger or smaller than other infinitely large sets. In many respects I think it was a missed opportunity on the part of the creators to not exploit the graphic medium to explain things like infinities or Turing machines. In the creators defense, this work is not intended as a logic for dummies text, or even a history of ideas, but instead an examination of characters and personalities. In this respect Logicomix succeeds admirably, and I highly recommend this fascinating work.



1. Paul J. Moloney - January 22, 2010

It would seem, that if one is to explain, graphically or otherwise, a concept, one would first have to understand that concept. If this is true, it would explain why I would never be able to explain most of what Hegel and Derrida wrote.

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