Philosophers edited by Steve Pyke. Oxford University Press, USA. Hardcover, 224 pages. $35.

The cover of Philosophers

While Steve Pyke’s early photographs of philosophers featured white backgrounds, this latest collection favors a black backdrop, a decision that sets Arthur C. Danto, in an otherwise fine introduction, astir: “I prefer the black. The faces and figures are shown against the white but emerge from the black. . . . It heightens the sense that the philosophers here make an appearance from another space and luminously hover in the viewer’s space.” What fun would Richard Rorty have had with that gaseous bombast, which hails the philosopher as if from some supernatural realm. In Rorty’s absence, however, Pyke’s fine volume does the trick of bringing these thinkers down to earth itself. Next to each of the one hundred or so handsome, closely shot portraits—of Rorty (shown above), Kwame Anthony Appiah, Quentin Skinner; of Danto himself, looking positively Socratic—is that person’s fifty-word description of philosophy. Robert Brandom calls it a “peculiar genre of creative nonfiction theorizing,” while Timothy Williamson says that philosophy’s demands are like a poem’s: “a precise and radical imagination, an elegant and powerful form, exactly the right expressions in exactly the right order, subtle variations on a theme, the unfamiliar articulation of the familiar.” These descriptions, like the portraits, are affectingly humble, making philosophy look like a job, just another method for making your way through the world. Danto falls for the trap of saying that everyone looks “fiercely smart.” They don’t. Some look impish, some sickly, some despairing, some radiant. In an interview printed here, Pyke says this project takes its bearing from August Sander’s “People of the Twentieth Century,” and that seems right. The laboring trades were the center of that project, and now academic philosophy is in much the same place, each philosopher turning her spade within a small patch of earth. But why don’t they stop digging and tell us the meaning of life? This quiet volume ought to exorcize that spiritual unrest. Just let them dig, and learn, with Pyke, how to look.