A prominent photographer offers a portrait gallery of contemporary philosophers. Scott McLemee takes a look.
In the early 1970s, a French publisher issued a sort of photo album devoted to Jean-Paul Sartre, who was the most famous philosopher in the world. He had been for some while, so the photojournalistic dossier on him was quite full. The book is full of pictures of him alongside equally famous figures from the world stage -- Camus and Castro, for example, and Simone de Beauvoir, of course. You also see him in the midst of dramatic events, as when he addressed an assembly of revolutionary students during May ’68. There are a few images of the philosopher in a less public capacity. As I recall, there is a baby portrait or two. Plus there were pictures of the Sartrean babes, who seemed to get younger as he got older.
The man was a philosophical action figure, to be sure. But my favorite pages in the book show him at his desk, with manuscripts piled up precariously nearby, or at a café table, scribbling away. Sartre once said that he felt like a machine while working on The Critique of Dialectical Reason, grinding out each day’s quota of concepts. And that’s what’s happening in those photographs of him with pen in hand and tobacco pipe in jaw -- tuning out everything else but the hard work of philosophizing. But who knows? A photograph cannot document thought. It’s entirely possible that Sartre was updating his schedule to accommodate a new girlfriend, rather than analyzing Stalinism.
The same brain did both -- a fact that lends itself to philosophical inquiry. Just where do you draw the line between task-oriented thinking and whatever it is philosophers do while they are “doing philosophy”? It is a conundrum.
In his new book Philosophers, from Oxford University Press, the New Yorker photographer Steve Pyke assembles a portrait gallery of contemporary thinkers. It embodies a conundrum or two of its own -- beginning with the title. In 1995, the British press Zelda Cheatle issued a collection of Pyke’s photographs that was also called Philosophers, which now fetches a high price from secondhand dealers. These are, it bears stressing, completely distinct books. All but one of the pictures in the new collection were taken over the past decade. Only two images from the earlier volume appear in the new one -- in the introductory pages, separate from the hundred portraits making up the main body of the book.
So we have, in other words, two volumes of the same kind, on the same subject, by the same author. They bear the same title. And yet they are not identical. A teachable moment in metaphysics? Yes, but one with practical implications for the used-book trade: a certain percentage of people trying to buy the older volume online will end up getting really, really irritated.
The book from Oxford is quite handsome. And its status as an aesthetic object is not a minor consideration. (For that matter, its aesthetics as a status object are also pretty demanding. It feels like you should get a nicer coffee table, just to have someplace to put it.) Without going so far as to say that Pyke represents philosophers as a subcategory of the beautiful people, he certainly renders them in beautiful black and white.
Ethnography forms no part of what he has in mind: his photographs do not show subjects going about their daily routines or occupying their usual niches. It’s difficult to think of Sartre without picturing him in certain settings – bars, cafés, lecture halls, etc. Furthermore, these places aren’t just elements of his biography; they figure into his work (the waiter in Being and Nothingness is an obvious example). Pyke’s philosophers, by contrast, hang in the void. Usually they are set against a solid black backdrop. The one conspicuous exception is the portrait of Michael Friedman, with an unreadable chalkboard diagram behind him. Their heads loom like planets in the depths of space. The camera registers the texture of skin and hair, the expression on the lips and in the eyes. Scarcely anything else enters the frame -- an earring, perhaps, or the neck of a sweater. Most of the subjects look right into the camera, or just to the side.
With Pyke, the thinker becomes, simply, a face. The effect is intimate, but also strangely abstract. The place and date of the photo session is indicated, but the book provides no biographical information about the subjects. I recognized about a quarter of them off the top of my head, such as Robert Brandom, David Chalmers, Patricia Churchland, Arthur Danto, Sydney Morgenbesser, Richard Rorty. A couple are even on TV from time to time. Both Harry Frankfurt and Bernard-Henri Levy have been on "The Daily Show." That two or three pages could not be found to list a couple of books by each figure is puzzling, although most of the portraits are accompanied by very brief remarks by the subjects on the nature or motivation of their work.
“Philosophy is the way we have of reinventing ourselves,” says Sydney Morgenbesser. Ruth Millikan quotes Wilfrid Sellars from Science, Perception, and Reality: “The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.” Fortunately not everyone is so gnomic. The comments by Jerry Fodor seem the funniest: “To the best of my recollection, I became a philosopher because my parents wanted me to become a lawyer. It seems to me, in retrospect, that there was much to be said for their suggestion. On the other hand, many philosophers are quite good company; the arguments they use are generally better than the ones that lawyers use; and we do get to go to as many faculty meetings as we like at no extra charge.”
The ambivalence in Sally Haslanger’s statement felt more than vaguely familiar: “Given the amount of suffering and injustice in the world, I flip-flop between thinking that doing philosophy is a complete luxury and that it is an absolute necessity. The idea that it is something in between strikes me as a dodge. So I do it in the hope that it is a contribution, and with the fear that I’m just being self-indulgent. I suppose these are the moral risks life is made of.” That sounds quite a bit like Sartre, actually.
In the interview prefacing the collection, Pyke says that his intention is to make philosophers “seem more human, less of a mystery.” And that is where the true conundrum lies. Some philosophers look dyspeptic, while others have goofy smiles, but that isn’t what makes them human -- let alone philosophers. Making something “more human” precludes rendering it “less of a mystery,” since the human capacity for thought is itself an ever-deepening mystery.
Pyke thinks visually. A more interesting commentary on the figures in his portrait gallery might come indirectly, from the late Gilbert Ryle. An Oxford don and the author of The Concept of Mind, he gave a lecture that tried to sort out the relationship between deep cogitation and various other sorts of mental activity. To that end, he focused on the question of what that naked guy in Rodin's sculpture was doing -- and how it presumably differed from, say, a professor preparing to teach a class.
“The teacher has already mastered what he wants his students to master,” said Ryle. “He can guide them because he is on his own ground. But le Penseur is on ground unexplored by himself, and perhaps unexplored by anyone. He cannot guide himself through this jungle. He has to find his way without guidance from anyone who already knows it, if anyone does know it…. The teacher is a sighted leader of the blind, where le Penseur is a blind leader of the blind -- if indeed the very idea of his being or having a leader fits at all.”
That seems like a good description of what the subjects of Pyke's photographs spend their time doing. Not, of course, while the camera is turned on them. To judge by the expressions of some, their thoughts may have been something closer to, "Wow, I'm being photographed by someone from The New Yorker. How did that happen?"
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