The Chronicle Review

Faces of Philosophy

A photographer's gallery of minds

Steve Pike

Stephen Yablo
May 29, 2011

Steve Pyke, master photographer of the soul and character of individuals of diverse classes and callings, encountered his first philosopher in 1988, when he received an editorial commission to portray Sir Alfred Jules Ayer, author of Language, Truth and Logic, a popular classic of analytical thought. Though warned that he had but 10 minutes to capture Ayer's likeness, the session stretched into several hours of talk of a kind and order of openness that nothing in Pyke's experience had prepared him for.

Freddie, as Ayer was affectionately called, professed a philosophy—logical positivism, or logical empiricism—that is often considered tight, dry, closed, cold, narrow, barren, and juiceless. It consigns to the bin of mere nonsense the sublime visions that have inspired multitudes. But based on my own experience, whatever Ayer's official limits on the topic of metaphysics, there must have been so much thought, wit, practical wisdom, wide knowledge, and stunning clarity in his everyday conversation that Pyke, who had seen life, knew the world, and was already an artist of considerable achievement, had never before met its like. He had not read much if any philosophy.

But such, I surmise, was the range, depth, and charm of Ayer's discourse that it sufficed to open Pyke up to philosophers as a species, and to embark on a project of photographing not just philosophers, but philosophers' philosophers—the men and women whose philosophical achievement was respected by other philosophers. The result is the book Philosophers, a unique study of what roughly 100 practitioners, mainly of the analytical school of professional philosophers, actually look like to the Pyke-eye, to use the artist's e-mail designation. It is a thrilling examination of the physiognomy of thought.

Most of what analytical philosophers talked about among themselves was language, but the particular social group to which Ayer belonged was also characterized by a sparkling urbanity that was unique, in my experience at least, and what Pyke was exposed to in his meeting with Ayer was a kind of salon discourse that may have had a counterpart in Paris, but nowhere in America, so far as I know.

Ayer belonged to a subset of British philosophers that was distinguished by a broad cosmopolitanism, and an inbred sophistication that enabled them to move at ease in and out of political, financial, and artistic as well as academic circles. His peers were, among others, Isaiah Berlin, Richard Wollheim, Stuart Hampshire, Bernard Williams, Iris Murdoch, David Pears, and Philippa Foot. Theirs was not a world of just language, truth, and logic, but also of theater, art exhibitions, and gossip. Their world was one readers of Evelyn Waugh or Anthony Powell would be familiar with. Their talk would not be typical of the way philosophers talk elsewhere, and for all I know, the social world of Bloomsbury, Chelsea, and South Kensington has now vanished.

But there is a philosophical form of life defined by a certain kind of talk, writing, and thought in which all philosophers must be fluent but in which some philosophers excel. It requires a facility in argument and an ability to invent examples and particularly to produce and know how to neutralize counterexamples. In truth, one can experience philosophy in practice by reading the dialogues of Plato, in which Socrates, who is not known to have written anything, explores with sundry Athenians—soldiers, businessmen, poets, teachers, and others—language, truth, and logic, to be sure, but also beauty, knowledge, virtue, justice, courage, love, appearance, reality, and how to live a meaningful life. Those are still central philosophical topics, and what the Greeks said to one another remains a living presence in philosophy seminars in Frankfurt, Paris, Oxford, both Cambridge, England, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, and wherever else philosophy has a life.

The philosophy of all those pictured here, whether they are living or dead, remains part of what philosophy is, was, and will be. Perusers of these photographs will not hear their voices, but will be able to see, to the degree that it is possible, the way they talked, thought, and wrote, which etched the disposition of their features. For the most part, Pyke shows us only their heads, in characteristic moments of thought, which some of them look as if they are about to express.

Everybody looks fiercely smart, though we have testimony regarding the great thinkers of the past that they didn't always look as clever as they actually were. Most readers of the Scottish seer David Hume would give him the highest marks in acuity and inferential daring, but his looks were another matter altogether. A young lordling, under Hume's charge on the Grand Tour, wrote that "Nature, I believe, never yet formed any man more unlike his real character than David Hume. ... His face was broad and fat, his mouth wide, and without any other expression than that of imbecility, his eyes, vacant and spiritless, and the corpulence of his whole body was far better fitted to communicate the ideal of a turtle-eating Alderman, than of a refined Philosopher."

We may confirm this by consulting the 1766 portrait of Hume by Allan Ramsay, though the art historian Edgar Wind writes that "the heavy mass of fat is articulated and touched with meaning; ... the mouth, beautifully arched, expresses a mixture of sensuality, melancholy, and wit; the forehead is broad and the eyes calm and clear." This may help explain Hume's attractiveness to women that somewhat baffled his contemporaries. And it is a useful example of how to read a portrait, especially in looking at photographs like Pyke's. Still, Ramsey's 1766 painting of Hume was an official portrait, for which Hume wore the formal dress of an embassy secretary. He would have looked very different sitting in his library, chattering in his famous brogue.

My own sense is that the human face and the camera, as it has evolved, were made for each other. The face is in constant movement, and in the course of its ceaseless modulation transmits, almost cinematically, a series of disclosures of its owner's inner being. The shutter is made to capture this, by admitting light—"nature's pencil," as William Henry Fox Talbot, co-inventor of photography, called it—which instantly draws the emitted soul on a light-sensitive surface.

Because of its constant motion, the face is typically between looks, which is why photographers often ask the subject to smile, as a way of freezing the features in an acceptable look, or something like an acceptable look. Most such smiles are unnatural, and the face becomes a mask. The great photographer is not interested in masks, because they tell us almost nothing about the subject's soul. He or she stalks the soul and is gifted with the reflexes that open the lens just when the face opens, and the soul makes a flashing appearance. The hands of the painter are never fast enough to do this. Hume, alas, was portrayed in the dark age of pre-photography. Photographers who ask for smiles are modeling themselves on painters.

What makes Steve Pyke the great artist that he is are his reflexes, which his collaborative camera—a Rolleiflex 2.8 Planar—seamlessly transmits. He is not the kind of photographer we see in movies, clicking madly and saying, "Hold it! That's it! One more! Smile!" He is as patient as a tiger, no pounce without prey. His setup, he says, is pretty low tech. Natural daylight, with the subject next to the window, with the camera usually set at f8 and 1/8 of a second, here using Tri-X black-and-white film. A few inches only separate face and camera. The rest is skin, muscle, and bone, which life sculpts into the sort of face philosophers wear. There are smiles—now and then—but not the kind we see in glossy official portraits of chairmen of the board. Some philosophers have wonderful natural smiles, which express a complex of thought and feeling, rather than forming masks.

Pyke's earlier portraits have white backgrounds; the later ones black. Personally, I prefer the black. The faces and figures are shown against the white but emerge from the black. The entire effect is dramatic, as in a painting by Caravaggio, who invented this device. It heightens the sense that the philosophers make an appearance from another space, and luminously hover in the viewer's space. And they bring into this space the dense concentration of the philosopher that has come to be a mark of having participated in tutorials or seminars, as listener or speaker. It is a concentration acquired in framing thoughts for others to respond to if the philosopher is weaving an argument by writing or speaking, or thinking it out silently for an audience of concentrating auditors composing a response.

Since the faces are those of philosophers' philosophers, most philosophers will know who many of them are. For the most part, I would think, few of them have household names like Jacques Derrida and Noam Chomsky or Jürgen Habermas. Even so, the faces are amazing. Everything in the book combines to heighten the intensity of the viewer's experience—the black-and-white contrasts, the fact that the faces are nearly the size of actual faces, and each has a page of his or her own. On Steve Pyke's Web page, one can see many of the faces in a kind of matrix of rows and columns, like a class picture. It is an entirely different experience to see them in a book, with face giving way to face of a similar degree of theatricality.

Everyone knows that the etymology of "philosophy" is "love of wisdom," an expression coined in fact by Socrates, who rejected the title of wise man. In candor, I am not sure any of the philosophers I know are all that wise. But they do have surgical kinds of minds. Socrates compared his skill to that of a midwife, able to help bring the ideas of others into the light of day by sharp critique. Pyke, with the same degree of fascination he has for the faces of philosophers, has made portraits of tools—postpartum for delivering babies, and post-mortem, for probing into what went wrong. The portraits of the philosophers have something in common with those instruments, with their strength, their polish, and their sharp points and edges. There is something scary about both sets of images, of the philosophers and the forceps.

To turn the pages of this remarkable album is to experience the look of deep cogitation as a mode of being. In actual life, sitting across the table from any of these figures, young or old, male or female, is to expose one's innermost convictions to the cutting edges of minds sharpened in the dialogues that make up philosophical education. Finding the truth may be undergoing cruel stabs and slashes, and reaching surprising conclusions. The men and women looking out of their frames, wearing thin smiles, are unrelenting. How we are to live, how we are to think, how we are to act are in the balance. Not to mention the meaning of life, the possibility of knowledge, the attainability of truth, and where beauty lies.

Arthur C. Danto is an art critic and professor emeritus of philosophy at Columbia University. This essay is the foreword of the book Philosophers, by Steve Pyke, to be published by Oxford University Press next month.