What Does a Philosopher Look Like? | Talking Philosophy

What Does a Philosopher Look Like?

From issue 55 of The Philosopher’s Magazine, this is Cynthia Freeland’s essay on Steve Pyke’s collection of photographs, Philosophers.  The table of contents for issue 55 is here. Issue 56 is now available at good bookstores everywhere–table of contents here. 

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.

But they say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.