Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Steve Pyke: Philosophers

Philosophers consists of a hundred black-and-white portraits of contemporary philosophers photographed by Steve Pyke, a photographer whose work is a regular feature of The New Yorker and Vanity Fair.

From Jason Stanley's interview with the photographer I learn that Pyke had asked each philosopher to provide him with 50 words capturing their particular philosophy. Not all of them complied, the ones who did delivered however quite some food for thought. Here's an example:
"Philosophy is the strangest of subjects: it aims at rigour and yet is unable to establish any results; it attempts to deal with the most profound questions and constantly finds itself preoccupied with the trivialities of language; and it claims to be of great relevance to rational enquiry and the conduct of our life, and yet it is completely ignored. But perhaps what is strangest of all is the passion and intensity with which it is pursued by those who have fallen in its grip."

The above text is by Kit Fine who teaches, I read in Wikipedia, at New York University. Unfortunately, there is no information given in this book about the philosophers portrayed, neither is the reader told what criteria were employed in order to come up with the selection presented. 

The publisher states: "These fascinating portraits feature virtually every major philosopher working in the West". Well, not really, for there is no German (Habermas, for instance) or Latin American portrayed. And, as much as I appreciate the work of Daniel Kahneman, I fail to see why this eminent psychologist is labelled a philosopher. On the other hand, why not?

Most names are unfamiliar to me which of course says more about me and my ignorance than about the philosophers. However, to look at their portraits and to read what they felt like saying is actually inspiring enough, I do not really have to know anything about their place on the social ladder in order to appreciate what they have to say. Here's an example I'm fond of:

"Philosophy's distinguishing value? For me, it resides not so much in the big questions' multifarious answers themselves, not, alas, in wisdom attained through the exacting process of anwering them, but rather in how it invariably reminds us how little we really do know. Philosophy is, or should be, humbling – and is, for this, ennobling." Robin Jeshion.

In the introduction, Arthur C. Danto characterises Steve Pyke as "master photographer of the soul and character of individuals of diverse classes and callings ... 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."

Do portraits of philosophers radiate something different form portraits of, say, artists or politicians? No idea, really. What however distinguishes this book from other portrait books are the texts that stand next to the photographs. "Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?" asks John Gray, who is pictured focussing on something in the distance; the question accentuates his gaze. What also makes his portrait more intense than the picture alone could is that we know that the accompanying question originated in the mind of the person pictured.

Here's how Pyke sees his work:
"The contents of a photograph are not facts, nor reality, nor truth. They are a means that we have created to extend our way of seeing in our search for truth. On a most fundamental level one may question a likeness "How is that me? does not look like me ... but it is there in front of me ... it is a photograph of me.' Creating a moment of puzzlement is at the very least a beautiful byproduct of photography."

Steve Pyke
Oxford University Press
Oxford, New York, 2011

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