Existential Comics is a philosophy webcomic that was launched in 2013 by Portland-based software engineer Corey Mohler. He has published 161 comics with 121 different philosophers as characters. Existential Comics receives well over a million views per month, and is one of the most popular philosophy-themed websites on the internet. I spoke with Mohler about popularizing philosophy, the meaning of life, and why David Hume is such an easy target.
What do you see as your role in philosophy?
I didn’t do a ton of introspection about what I wanted to achieve with the comic before I started it, but today I definitely see myself as a philosophy popularizer. Philosophy is in a bad position right now, there is a lot of anti-intellectualism that attacks philosophy, science, literature and art; but there are also a lot of educated science people who attack it as practically “useless”, and look down on it. The modern atheist movements attack it too, which is pretty weird. Comics are a great medium for getting people to approach things that they might not normally approach. If you think philosophy is useless, you probably aren’t going to read an article on philosophy, but people will often give a comic a chance, because they are short and typically humorous. So hopefully people will read the comic and understand a bit more about philosophy. A lot of people who are against philosophy as a discipline have very little knowledge about what it really is, or what philosophers do. Like a lot of things, once people actually start to learn about it, they will better understand its value.
What’s the meaning of life?
Well, not a very good question I think, mostly. It’s weird because it’s such a fundamental question, and you would think people would have a million different answers, based on the fact that people live widely different lifestyles. But almost everyone today seems to give the same banal answer, which goes something like this: “the meaning of life is whatever you make of it.” Everyone always nods eagerly in agreement, as though something profound were said, although obviously really nothing was said at all. The real question is actually much more fundamental still, and it is simply this: “what should we do?” When you are living your life, this is the only real question that you have to answer. In any given situation, you don’t have to choose what anything means, but you always have to choose what to do.
It almost seems like the same question in a way, after all, whatever the meaning of life is, that’s obviously what we should do. But when you ask people what we should do, you get a huge array of answers. Firstly, a lot of people seem to now think it’s a moral question. But again, if the answer to “what should we do?” is: “to be as moral as possible”, then surely being as moral as possible is also the meaning of life, but hardly anyone says that. Secondly, if they don’t interpret it as a moral question, they will typically give actual answers. You might hear such things as “live life to the fullest”, or “create great art”, or “follow your passion”. I mean, it’s still mostly platitudes, but at least it’s a a start. So whenever you hear the question “what is the meaning of life?”, I think you should translate the question into “what should we do?”, and you’ll be able to get a much better conversion going.
What’s your background in philosophy?
I have no academic background in philosophy. It’s sort of amazing I don’t mess more stuff up, to be honest, although telling jokes is easier than people think in a lot of ways, so I probably don’t know as much as people might think about a lot of the philosophers I joke about. I remember Ryan North, who makes dinosaur comics (which covers a wide variety of topics), said he consistently gets emails from people who are sure he has an advanced degree in law, microbiology, computational theory, chemistry, mathematics, or whatever it was that he joked about that week. The reality is that once you do this for long enough, it becomes easy to absorb things that you aren’t an expert on into a short joke, and when actual experts see such an obscure joke, they assume you have a similar amount of knowledge to themselves, but that’s not remotely the case. So I’ve been reading widely on different philosophers for almost 10 years now outside of school, but I have a pretty shallow knowledge on most subjects, which works well enough for joke writing.
What do you read?
I read a lot of Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, but as far as books go, I read almost exclusive primary texts. Secondary texts can be very useful, and are often easier to understand, but I just find it more boring. I typically want to see what they say themselves. Despite the contents of the comics, I mostly read more modern philosophers, for ancient philosophers, unless I’m particularly interested, I usually just watch lectures and read articles and figure “eh, good enough.”
How do you come up with jokes every single day and comics every week?
Practice, mostly. Like everything else, telling jokes mostly boils down to practice. When I first joined Twitter, to promote the comic, I made around one joke every three days, and they were pretty bad. Today I make three jokes a day, and they are almost all received well. I had already developed this skill by making (mostly stupid) jokes on reddit for a few years. Before then, I never really considered myself a “funny” person at all, and neither did anyone else, so far as I know. Social media is actually an incredible tool for comedians, because you can immediately and directly see the results of what works and what doesn’t. I think most people vastly underestimate how technical of a skill joke telling is, almost no comedians are good right away, everyone has to develop and learn their skill in order to produce good comedy writing. If you hear any successful stand-up comic talk about the first few years, they will always say the same thing: they got literally no laughs. The only way to be successful is to practice, and practice a lot.
You cover a broad spectrum of philosophers – how do you work out how to have them talk to one another?
That’s actually the easy part, not just for me, but I think for a lot of people. Once you have the base of knowledge about a wide variety of people, you can plug their ideas into a given situation. You’ll see this on twitter often, where there is a hash tag and everyone comes up with a million ideas to fit the tag, or a reddit thread where there is a certain setup and people all jump in with the punchline. What a lot of people don’t realize in comedy is that the premises of the jokes are actually harder to come up with than the jokes themselves, in a lot of ways.
You use a drawing of Simone de Beauvoir as your avatar – is she your favorite philosopher?
Having a favorite philosopher is a bit silly, but probably. I think she was the only French existentialist who was bold enough to offer more positive viewpoints (as in, saying what we should actually do). She was also the only philosopher who didn’t seem like she was trying to dress everything up to make it seem more profound. With Sartre and Camus, sometimes you can read a hundred pages, and when you get down to it, what they are saying is fairly basic and even almost trivial. I also like Dostoyevsky, if that counts, who likewise wasn’t afraid of saying what one should do in an ideal life. For someone who doesn’t talk about life philosophy or politics, just purely academic problems, probably Wittgenstein.
Your avatar used to be Jean-Paul Sartre – why did you change?
Well, firstly, I do think Simone de Beauvoir was the best of the bunch among the existentialists. But also a large motivation was that my comic has become one of the most popular philosophy themed sites in the world, and I am probably introducing philosophy to a lot of people through comedy. There are very few women in the canon of philosophy, seeing as most of the figures are from the 19th century and earlier, and women were largely excluded from academic life in those eras. Because of this, the characters in the comic are almost all men, so you just don’t get to see a lot of women as examples of “great thinkers”, both in my comic and elsewhere. Even today, there is a huge gender disparity in philosophy departments, and a lot of criticism of academic philosophy as being male dominated and even hostile to women. So I thought it would be nice to have a female philosopher be the face of the comic, to help show that philosophy isn’t just done by old white guys with beards.
Which philosopher is the easiest to make fun of?
The ideal philosopher to make fun of has one or two very clear ideas that can be understood and communicated in a sentence. Ideally, the ideas will be silly if taken seriously. Ideas in philosophy often are. Using this as a criteria, David Hume is probably the greatest. His ideas fit very well into catch phrases like “is/ought gap” and “necessary connexions”. In addition, if you just go about living your life actually believing that, for example, causation doesn’t exist…well, it’s already funny. You don’t even have to write a joke. Getting into moral situations and using the “is/ought” gap to get out of them is also a pretty easy writing task. Philosophers in general are pretty funny because they tend to take their ideas to the absolute logical extreme. Whether it is doubting that the external world exists, or believing that every possible world exists in fact, you often begin with a common sense set of assumptions in philosophy and end up somewhere bizarre and absurd. Honestly, for that reason, philosophy is probably the most fruitful academic area for comedy, despite being poorly represented.
Which of your comics is your favorite? Are there any that you feel are under appreciated?
Terminator: The Simone de Beauvoir Chronicles might be my favorite, and it wasn’t really popular at all, although I wasn’t surprised. Long, weird, not very funny comics are obviously not going to be as popular. Recently I was really excited about Sexy Vampires and Existential Philosophy, and thought everyone would love it, but apparently not. Aside from that, I almost always like my Wittgenstein comics and they never perform well, such as Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein’s Monster, and Robbery at the Wittgenstein Bank.
Maybe they rely too much on having to have read Wittgenstein, or maybe they just aren’t as funny as I think, but they are always bottom tier on social media. I’m going to keep making them though, so people are just going to have to read them. Watch out for “The Most Dangerous Language Game”, because it’s probably coming some day.
German Monopoly and the World Cup were your most popular ones a while ago – are they still the most popular? What are the top three currently?
Those are still the top two, so I guess I unfortunately haven’t been able to surpass them. I actually list the comics by popularity on the archive page. It’s 95% made up though, so it shouldn’t be taken too seriously. I enter the ranking before I publish the comic, and very seldom go back and update to adjust for what actually happens, so most of the newer ones are more like how popular I thought they would be, whereas the older ones (the ones that were around before I added that feature) are ranked from my memory of how well they did. The top few are pretty accurate though.
Do people ever request comics on specific themes?
Sometimes people email me ideas. Like most webcomics, I do not take other people’s ideas for jokes and use them. I try not to even read them. I will happily read emails about philosophers who people want to appear, however, which I also get. I have a Patreon tier ($10 a month) where people can officially suggest philosophers, and I do one of those per month. I’ll still listen to requests from people who don’t donate though, I’m always looking for new people to do.
Have you experienced any trolling or bullying on Twitter? How do you deal with it?
To be honest, I hardly get any of that. People are mostly pretty positive. It’s very hard to forget nasty criticisms though. I’m generally not a very sensitive person in my personal life, to say the least, so I was quite surprised by how hard I took some people saying my comic was horrible, especially early on. It’s different when it’s something creative that you are putting out there, because you’ve put a lot into it. How to deal with? I don’t know. If you ever make anything popular, people will dismiss and criticize it very harshly, so you just have to be ready for that to happen. It won’t help a ton though. Also, don’t ever engage, that won’t help anything. Another thing that I always do, and this is a bit of a guilty pleasure I guess, but when someone says something nasty about me on twitter or reddit I go to their profile and look at what else they are saying. Literally 95% of the time their entire profile will be nasty things. That makes you realize that their comment isn’t really about you or your work at all, that’s just what they do.
How do you judge success of your work? By Twitter likes and retweets, or are you more Nietzschean: “I’ve thrown my hook out to ‘the few’ instead, and even with them I’m prepared to be patient”?
Honestly, the majority of comics I just want to be as popular as possible. However, the more obscure a comic is, the more I mostly just want the people who know about that topic to like it. So if I make a comic about Stoicism, what I mostly want to see is that the people who are really into Stoicism like it, even it isn’t more widely popular. Sometimes if you make fun of a certain thinker too much, it feels like you are attacking them, and I usually want the comics to be good-natured. For the serious comics, what I mostly want is for a few people to understand what I was trying to express. That’s always pretty much happened, which is super cool. We can often feel quite alone in our thoughts, but we should remember that that really isn’t the case.
How long does it take you to create a comic?
It’s hard to say exactly, but probably around eight hours per page, and I usually make two-page comics each week. Xkcd probably had the right idea with the stick figures.
Where do you do your work?
I work at home on the computer. The comics are done entirely digitally, using Gimp on Linux, with some plugins. All the software used in the production of the comics is Free Software, including the software that runs the site, which is on Github under the GPL license. As software controls more of our lives, we should be conscious of who controls that software. Most software today is owned and controlled by corporations, and the users have no ability to understand or change what it does. Probably not an ideal situation as our lives become more digital.
Do you have anything else in the pipeline?
A collection book is coming at some point, but I always drag my feet to put it together, so I can’t give a timeline.
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