We all don't look like him.
"What Does a Philosopher Look Like?"
January 6th, 2012
The Philosopher’s Magazine
January 6th, 2012
The Philosopher’s Magazine
What does a philosopher look like? The label calls to mind a classical bust of a man with noble brow, beard, and blank inward-seeing eyes. His high forehead conveys deep wisdom, like those super-smart aliens on the original Star Trek with their big-brained bald heads. In art history, philosopher portraits range from the impish-looking Descartes (possibly) painted by Frans Hals to Holbein’s Erasmus, sensitive hands carefully crafting a letter. Or there is the moustachioed Nietzsche painted posthumously by Edward Munch, gazing across a blustery Expressionist landscape. In the twentieth century we acquired iconic images of philosophers through photographs – Bertrand Russell (angular head, white hair, pipe), Jean-Paul Sartre (wall-eyed, thick lips gripping a cigarette), and Ludwig Wittgenstein (handsome and aristocratic). Women philosophers too entered our consciousness, from Simone de Beauvoir with her elegant chignon to the Afro-crowned activist Angela Davis.
What do philosophers actually look like? Rather odd, I’m afraid, or if truth be told, unappetizing – at least if we are to go on this collection of portraits by Steve Pyke. The book includes an interview with Pyke by Jason Stanley, and there the artist explains that, given his own origins among the working classes, he initially approached intellectual heavyweights like A J Ayer feeling intimidated. But now he sees them as more human. The pictures suggest that Pyke also finds philosophers strange. Here we find philosophers, warts and all: wild eyebrows, unkempt beards, lank hair, lantern jaws, crossed eyes, weak chins, bad teeth, weird noses. Smiling philosophers are rare. Among the few who do smile, one appears gleeful (Robin Jeshion) and another maniacal (Hartry Field). Pyke seems to have wandered into the territory of Théodore Géricault who depicted people suffering from “monomanias” in the asylum at Ivry in the 1820s.
I have argued in my book Portraits and Persons (Oxford, 2011) that we are drawn to portraits in part because in human evolution it was important to recognise individual faces and track the facial expression of others’ emotions. We encounter other human beings through their bodies and prepare responses to actions forecast by their faces. But the reasons to look at images of philosophers are more specific. The label is often employed as an honorific, designating someone with wisdom and depth. Not everyone who is a philosophy professor can claim to be a “philosopher” in this sense. To pose as a philosopher, an individual must rise to the occasion.
What should a philosopher look like? In a fascinating but frustrating introduction to the volume (“The Face of Philosophy: Steve Pyke’s Gallery of Minds”), Arthur Danto (who is himself included) says that all of the people shown here look “fiercely smart”. I beg to differ. A few (you will understand my not naming names) look a bit vacant. Judith Thomson looks mischievous, Peter Singer tired, Timothy Williamson meek, and Sydney Morgenbesser sad. Some of them (Ernie LePore, Harry Frankfurt) just look like nice guys to have a beer with at the local pub. Why the “fiercely smart” label, anyway? Philosophers should be smart, sure; but why “fiercely” so? There are other qualities we might wish for from our philosophers, such as that they be judicious, insightful, sceptical, kind, witty, or compassionate. (The face of the Dalai Lama comes to mind.)
The representation of individuals as members of a type is of course not new with Pyke. There are many previous examples both in painting (Rembrandt’s “Night Watchmen”, Gerhard Richter’s “48 Portraits”) and photography (Edward Curtis’s Native Americans, August Sander’s Germans, Diane Arbus’s outcasts and socialites, Richard Avedon’s denizens of the still-wild West). The artist in effect compiles a sociological study with possibly diverse aims, from Curtis’s glorification of “noble savages” to Arbus’s penchant for the freakish.
Pyke too is undoubtedly moulding the subjects he photographs in some way. The problem is that there is not really anything to be seen about philosophers per se. The group in question displays no characteristic uniform or accessory attesting to its activities. One might as well guess instead “chemists” or “magicians”. Their outward appearance can seem unkempt. Pyke is interested in the fact that these philosophers form a community, but this suggests that a group shot might have been more intriguing (if harder to arrange). I love the thought of a photograph constructed à la The Night Watchmen, in which philosophers from a given field – say, ethics – are shown as an investigative team bursting out from interior spaces of moral darkness, led into the light of certainty by some stalwart individual.
Related to the problem of trying to show a community by depicting its members in isolation is another problem: the philosophers seen here are mostly heads (remember those aliens from Star Trek). Rarely do they have bodies. Nor do they employ any tools of their trade – apart from Michael Friedman, who is shown in front of a blackboard covered in glyphs (and incidentally, wearing a zippy tie). We don’t see Brian Leiter, prominent blogger, before a keyboard, nor Aristotle scholar Alan Code puzzling over the Greek text of Metaphysics Zeta. We don’t see any other people here working in the settings where philosophers do work: at a desk, in a classroom, at a convention, or even, in these days of cognitive science, examining an fMRI. There are no Peripatetics here, no Cynics walking around with lanterns seeking an honest man.
Traditionally, philosopher portraits did depict tools of the trade: Helleman showed Descartes with his foot on the works of Aristotle, and Ramsay placed Tacitus’s history under Hume’s plump arm. Often philosopher portraits showed more of the thinkers’ bodies in action, conversing, as in the famous juxtaposition of Plato and Aristotle, hands gesturing impatiently upwards or down, in Raphael’s The Academy of Athens. Or think of David’s Socrates, with sturdy leg and strong chest, firmly pointing to the soul’s higher destiny even as he reaches for the fatal cup of hemlock while those around him wail and weep. (Now there’s a picture of a community!) Removing the body from a portrait erases a lot of information about size, posture, and setting, all of which are used by artists to convey character, including status and duties. Ramsay famously depicted Hume in an elegant (the King thought too elegant) scarlet uniform while Rousseau, in the companion portrait, wore rustic furs and a bed-coat.
Clothing is often a clue enabling us to read people’s identity in pictures. Scholars hypothesise that when Rembrandt’s Aristotle contemplated the bust of Homer, he did so wearing costly robes and a jewelled belt (the putative gift from his former student Alexander) to illustrate the choice between the unadorned life and a more magnificent one. In photographs too, clothing is crucial, as with the impressive head-dresses in Curtis’s Native American portraits. Dress is also revelatory in Sander’s oeuvre, from the ill-fitting Sunday suits on his workers going to town to the slinky black silk of his androgynous secretary. Arbus’s famous little girl twins are made more creepy by their matched dresses with Peter Pan collars and white hair bands. And Avedon’s waitresses, drifters, and carneys wear shabby and even filthy clothes that speak of their bitter lives. But Pyke’s philosophers have no clothes. It’s not that they are naked, of course, but their clothes are irrelevant, since after all they are simply heads, homes for minds. Scorn for fashion has long been a hallmark of the profession, ever since its beginning in barefoot Socrates. The rare exception here is Frances Kamm, whose beautifully patterned shawl must have compelled the camera’s respect.
Let us infer some things, if we can, from the heads of philosophers shown here. Pyke shoots with a twin-lens Rolliflex using Tri-X film and available light. In some cases the result he gets is quite beautiful, as in his portrait of Robert Stalnaker, shown in three-quarter view with lovely side lighting. His portrait of Malcolm Budd is powerful: Budd confronts us directly, and the bristles of his incipient beard add interesting visual texture. In a surprising number of cases, though, the results are blurry enough to have been rejected by a regular studio artist (Ludlow, Strawson,Papineau, Longuenesse, and Langton). I cannot tell that this blurriness has any specific emotional or aesthetic effect. Pyke’s New York exhibit of the series included original proof sheets, and it would have been very interesting to peruse these to examine his choices, including the reasons for occasional profile views.
Pyke’s lens choices (I suspect he uses Rolleinar close-up attachments) can distort facial features in unflattering ways, making nice-looking people appear to be missing chins or to have huge noses. In more than a few cases the philosophers look either cross-eyed or wall-eyed (an impolite name for the condition Sartre suffered from, strabismus). There are several cases in which the prints show the face of a sitter as bright white against a dark background, making it seem to float above the picture plane (Mothersill, Sperber, and Williams). Such faces are frozen like painted masks in Noh drama, inducing a kind of alienation effect. These instances contrast with some more full-bodied portraits, as in the wonderfully sculptural image of a reflective Arthur Danto. A few of the portraits in Pyke’s series seem to have wandered in from another photographer’s studio, such as the chiaroscuro silhouettes of Ruth Millikan and Ruth Barcan Marcus, which would fit well in the nineteenth-century Romantic pictorial oeuvre of Julia Margaret Cameron. Perhaps his respect for wise, older women prompted Pyke to associate them with icons of the Victorian period.
It has been argued that photography affords a superior form of realism: Kendall Walton alleges that we literally see Abraham Lincoln, for example, in photographs of him. In the interview, Pyke tries to deflect claims about truth, saying, “The contents of a photograph are not facts, nor reality, nor truth. They are a means we have created to extend our way of seeing on a search for truth”. However the book’s presentation screams “Truth”, with its black and white format and spare layout – just one photograph printed full-frame on each two-page spread. And furthermore the specimens are exhibited in alphabetical order, “Philosophers from A-Z, Albert to Žižek”.
As sociology, Philosophers reveals various things about the profession. The ratio of women to men is about twenty per cent, fairly representative of women’s lamentably low inclusion in the field. More disgraceful is the paucity of non-Caucasians (Anthony Appiah and Jaegwon Kim are the only two). Among the women more are smiling here than men. Is this because women simply did smile more at Pyke, since women in general seek to please in social interactions? The non-smiling women are austere. This renders any small adornments, like a trace of lipstick or the flash of an earring, startling in contrast with their overall sober mien. The two images of philosopher relationships, at the back of the volume, are interesting. (There could have been more, but in the book two well-known philosophy couples, the Kitchers and the Churchlands, are shown individually, not pairwise.) In their joint photo, Sally Haslanger gazes off to the side while husband Stephen Yablo looks at the camera. Haslanger looks as if she would rather not be there. Their poses reverse the common trope of marriage portraits in 19th century photographs, showing a wife who looks toward her husband while he gazes straight ahead. (I have just such a wedding photograph of my great-grandparents.) In the photograph showing daughter-father couple Elizabeth and Gilbert Harman, she looks toward her father as he talks, but this could connote filial respect rather than gender hierarchy.
I have written so far as if the book includes only photographs, but this is not correct. Pyke asked each person to provide a digest definition of philosophy. It is intriguing to see how the diverse figures here met the capsule challenge, probably more so for those of us in the business than for others. But the blurbs bear little relationship to the image on the facing page. The only exception might be the image of Louise Antony. She speaks about her lifelong desire to “figure it all out”, a sentiment that fits perfectly the image showing her as rather toothily voracious.
The most interesting of the comments for my purposes was also the only one that connected philosophy to the portrait process itself, by Richard Moran. Moran says he doesn’t recall the moment of each picture or what he was expressing, and this means it is just up to the viewer to see. “This abandonment of control over meaning can seem to compromise one’s autonomy; it can also seem a condition of embodiment and expressivity at all.” Pyke echoes Moran’s sentiments when he describes the person in a photographic portrait as experiencing a sense of puzzlement about the picture, “How is that me?” This is indeed the ultimate challenge of the portrait encounter: the artist is in control of the depiction, but must also render the subjectivity – the personhood – of the sitter. Portraiture often places the artist and subject in a competitive relationship, a struggle for dominance about who controls the final image. Many famous portrait artists detested their work because of the requirement to please sitters. Those who work today without such restrictions, like Lucian Freud, can afford to treat subjects (even the Queen!) with hostility.
In an Youtube clip called “Mind the Gap”, Pyke says that using the Rolliflex meant he had a more passive relationship with his subjects, looking down at the camera to focus rather than through it and at them, getting “in their face”. He says he appreciates philosophers’ passion for creative activity because it is something he shares. He does not pretend that we can understand philosophy, as he puts in it in the book, “by looking at the faces of its practitioners”. Rather, he is showing people as part of a community or almost a family. He explains, “The Philosophy Tribe is made of thinkers, which is an honourable profession that deserves a wider audience. My series ‘outs’ these thinkers”. The problem I have with this may come back to the ambiguity of the label “philosopher”, between the honorific sense and its usage as the title for someone who works as a university teacher of philosophy. “Outing” philosophers in Pyke’s oeuvre appears to involve showing them as people who are fixated on sometimes odd problems and pursuits. They have a form of life that is alien to many and that does not require meeting conventional standards of attire or grooming. Publicity from his New York Gallery, Flowers, puts the point this way: “Through the stark detail of his portraits Pyke is able to erase the lofty reputation that is often placed on philosophers who ponder life’s seemingly unanswerable questions” (my emphasis). The aims of “outing” and “erasing lofty reputations” may account for the somewhat odd look of so many of the people in these portraits. But it also means, unfortunately, that if we seek the mystique of the philosopher as sage here, we will not find it.
[Cynthia Freeland is professor of philosophy at the University of Houston. She is the author of Portraits and Persons and But is it Art?, both published by Oxford University Press.]
Thanks to POSP stringer Tim for the article.