By: Henrique Cassol Leal
Philosopher in Meditation (Rembrandt van Rijn, 1632)[i]
The image above provides us great insight into a common conception of the intellectual life. In Rembrandt’s painting, we see an elderly person with his eyes closed and a book and quill by his side. If we connect these facts to the traditional title of the painting, Philosopher in Meditation, such a common conception of the intellectual life is invoked.[i] That is, we interpret the painting with what many take to be a paradigmatic example of the intellectual life: a solitary elder, with several decades of studies and experiences, meditating about deep subjects.
However, notice that there are no other clear indications that this man is doing philosophy, or any other scholarship, in the painting—except for the already mentioned book, quill and traditional title. We can even see the presence of another figure in the image doing domestic tasks that also do not seem to fit with the traditional title of the painting. Even the title of Rembrandt’s painting was not given by Rembrandt himself. Rather, this painting likely received its traditional title due to being collected and sold with another painting thought to be created by Rembrandt[ii]. This other painting, called Philosopher with an Open Book, does give more elements to think of the elder as a scholar. Nevertheless, this second painting was later shown, in the 20th century, to be a painting of one of Rembrandt’s imitators: Salomon Koninck. Thus, even the justification for the traditional title of Rembrandt’s painting was amiss. So, this traditional reading of the painting is untenable. But further, I will argue, the conception of the intellectual life the painting is thought to represent is similarly untenable as de facto representative of the intellectual life.
I want to invite the reader to not adopt this common conception of the academic life (also common in the academic pursuit), but rather to see the importance of conceiving it as robustly social. The academic life must not be that of a lone wolf—and there is good reason to think that it should not be. So, there are two main points I will defend. First, the cultural symbol of the solitary scholar is not representative of the academic life. Second, I want to argue that it should not be: academic communities, or at least the social interaction of academics, are largely responsible for both the quality and the maintenance of academic studies.
First, let us focus on the representativeness of the painting. It is clearly not representative of the academic life since the conception it initially invokes clashes with the communitarian or social experience of most past and current academics[iii]. To use philosophy as an example, at least since Socrates, it was common to philosophize through dialogue and conversation. Socrates used to have spontaneous dialogues in the streets of Athens as he met or was engaged by other citizens, and he attempted to help his conversation-partners to “give birth” to their ideas—or at least question their presuppositions. Plato, Socrates’s student, founded the first academic institution (the Academy), simultaneously taking philosophy off the streets and into a secretive retreat in which his own students could together contemplate eternal truths. Stoics also pursued their academic studies in a social manner, by meeting under the Stoa Poikile (hence their name) in the Athenian marketplace, teaching their philosophy to anyone willing to listen. In the Middle Ages, besides lectures, disputatio (a formalized method of debate, a clearly unsolitary way of learning) was a key academic exercise in the scholastic system of education. From the XV to at least the XVIII century, there was a long-distance intellectual community throughout Europe, The Republic of Letters [iv]. It was then common practice for intellectuals, such as Descartes and Newton, to receive feedback and criticism of their writings through letters. Today, besides the classroom, it is not difficult to find communities pursuing philosophy (and other academic studies) in online forums and other social messaging social platforms. All of these examples bring light to the varying ways in which academic studies have been pursued throughout history while belonging to communities (or at least while having a robust social aspect).
I believe it was and is much more common for one pursuing an intellectual life to, in one way or another, belong to such communities and be influenced by them (or at the very least by other academic peers). When I say this, I am not denying, in one sense, that the lonesome figure of the intellectual life is possible, like the traditional reading of the Philosopher in Meditation. That is, I am not denying the possibility of a partially lonesome wolf, a person that still depends on the work of others but that virtually always engage with academic studies alone. Such people did and may still exist, pursuing academic lives while recognizing they are learning based on the works of the past, even if not in a robustly social or communitarian way. After all, one can always avoid contact with others (be it in person, at distance, or online) and refrain from studying or learning from others. But I believe it is much more likely for those pursuing academic studies to have been at least sparsely exchanging ideas with others throughout their lives. After all, it is much more likely that a genuine interest in studying can be sparked and maintained with some kind of academic community or socialization—especially in earlier times, when access to reading materials was not as common. Thus, given the historical examples and the greater unlikelihood of a fully solitary academic life, I believe that a pursuit of academic studies with some ties to academic communities (or socialization) is much closer to the paradigmatic case of academic life.
This fact is also evidenced by a better interpretation of Rembrandt’s Philosopher in Meditation: there is an imperceptible figure in the current painting, but that was there in its conception. If we take a look at the engraving of Rembrandt’s Philosopher in Meditation below, this third figure becomes visible[v]. We can see a figure of a woman standing in the stairs facing the viewer. She was virtually invisible in the painting because of the dark hue created by the aging of the varnish. In a similar vein, we may not perceive that the groundwork for the academic work of today has been established before by the earlier communities. This is ultimately why the purely lonesome wolf conception of the intellectual life is untenable: the academic work we engage with today is that of others.
Philosopher in Meditation, engraved after Rembrandt by Devilliers l’aîné in 1814.
I will now argue why a lonesome conception—and even a partially lonesome conception—of academic pursuit should be rejected if we have academic aims. I will provide three main reasons as to have and promote an academic life that is robustly social: its social aspects facilitate higher-quality work, they ensure the very maintenance of academic studies, and it would be a failure of gratitude to accept the conception of the purely solitary scholar.
First, academic studies would largely suffer if not for its community aspects. Their quality would decrease. If we are thinking of current universities, we tend to imagine these aspects as restricted to the classroom or to the orientation of a supervisor. And these obligatory social-intellectual relations are already quite relevant. A regular meeting with someone knowledgeable about a discipline is extremely beneficial to the student’s progression (and the fact professors do this for a living tend to strengthen this). However, much can be learned outside the classroom and outside obligatory social-intellectual relations. For example, in informal gatherings focused on academic pursuits, such as the one in the image below. Such meetings often help students and researchers understand complex ideas more easily, for they are not being formally evaluated. These meetings may also facilitate new ideas to be proposed, since we often don’t come up with new ideas only by ourselves, but by conversing with one another. Academic departments regularly schedule gatherings and colloquia for precisely this and other similar reasons. Additionally, such informal meetings give more room to ventilate issues that prevent the academic pursuit—be it financial, social, or otherwise. Finally, as a last example, it is not a coincidence that peer-reviewing has become a staple of modern scientific inquiry: it certainly helps ensure the quality of academic studies.[vi] So, to summarize, much academic production would be lost, or would decrease its quality, without contact with other academics.
A meeting of the Philosophers' Forum, a student-lead organization at the University of Missouri St. Louis (2022), and an example of an informal gathering that helps in academic pursuits.
A second argument for why we should have a more social or communitarian conception of the intellectual life is that a lonesome intellectual life (even a partial one!) can be practically self-defeating. Academic clubs, forums, and organizations, be they related to universities or not, are not only beneficial, and at times essential, for facilitating high-quality quality academic work. Rather, they may also ensure any academic production and learning at all. Sometimes, it is exactly by their existence that someone’s interest is piqued, who then ends up becoming one of the leading researchers of the future. It may seem absurd, but if such individual cases of sparking interest were not to happen, or if their frequency starkly diminished, academic studies could start to become stale. We tend to not perceive that many of the academic studies we have nowadays may simply cease to exist if not properly maintained through a community. This idea is made especially evident when we notice the following. Atomizing our studies makes it much more likely that there will be no incentive for other people to engage with academic studies (including our own work), thus reducing our own intellectual, social and financial incentives to continue pursuing them in the first place. If other academic peers do not read our work, nor does anyone in society recognize its value (either now or in the future), we may question why we have spent so much time researching in the first place. And if no one else recognize its value, we may have a hard time financially sustaining ourselves. The diminishing of such incentives may signify the abandonment of academic pursuits for many students and scholars. That is why, ultimately, a lonesome intellectual life can be self-defeating[vii].
Finally, when we give credence to the idea of the solitary scholar, we tacitly neglect all the work done by others upon which our own work is built. If Arabic translators had not maintained several important Greek texts, Late Christian philosophy in the Middle Ages would have been entirely different. And without the distinctive character of philosophy in the high Middle Ages, it is possible that modern science would never have begun, or, if it did eventually begin on its own, scientific progress might have been drastically delayed. For example, were it not for the works of obscure alchemists in the 17th century, as depicted in the painting below, it is doubtful that an alternate Alexander Fleming would have invented the first antibiotics. So, we should acknowledge that we are standing on the shoulders of others to produce our own academic work of today. A failure in recognizing this leads us to at the least a failure in moral and epistemic gratitude.
The Alchemists’ studio, Gérard Thomas, 1663-1720
We should thus acknowledge the importance of the social and communitarian aspects of academic life, and academic studies, for three reasons: to ensure their maintenance, facilitate their high quality, and for us not to be simply ingrateful. Such recognition does not consist merely in acknowledging that we are standing on the shoulders of giants or dwarves. Rather, it consists in acknowledging that, directly or indirectly, we stand on the shoulders of them all—as communities. And that the highest altitudes can be achieved only if we maintain and actively promote such communities and a more socially robust academic life, instead of trying to reach the skies ourselves.
[i] The sources about Rembrandt used to write this column were the following: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rembrandt joyofmuseums.com/museums/europe/france-museums/paris-museums/the-louvre/philosopher-in-meditation-by-rembrandt/ [ii] These two paintings were exhibited together and also titled interchangeably, or merely referred as the Philosophers. [iii] Some of the historical events of the text were taken from Connected Communities: Philosophical Communities, Jules evans. Link: Static1.squarespace.com/static/5c8bd3835239589598cac07e/5caeecaf0cf24e366c39d10a/5caef0370cf24e366c3a730d/1554968631888/Grassroots-Philosophy.pdf?format=original [iv] According to van Miert, the Republic of Letters consisted of scholars and scientists who worked as professors, secretaries, courtiers, physicians, lawyers or whoever was rich enough to support themselves. By frequently corresponding with each other, they formed a flexible, self-regulating and international conglomerate of networks spanning the whole of Europe. People became part of this community by the very act of writing letters: those scholars who failed or refused to establish sustained lines of communication, could not be reckoned as citizens of this Republic. It was like social media today: if you are not connected, you are not part of it, however ‘social’ you might be as a person outside the medium of communication. Learned men (and almost exclusively behind the scenes some women, as far as we know) shared information about work-in-progress and published books, they gossiped about colleagues and recommended students, they reflected on the politics of universities, princes, and the church, and they reported on family matters and their health. Letters were meant to be answered: reciprocity was a vital principle, and the letter writers honored the cult of communication. (Dirk van Miert, “What was the Republic of Letters?”, 2014, p. 270). [v] joyofmuseums.com/museums/europe/france-museums/paris-museums/the-louvre/philosopher-in-meditation-by-rembrandt/ [vi] If I had more space to write, I would also mention in some detail how Rembrandt’s Philosopher is also not representative of the many that contributed and contribute to academic studies as mere hobbies, or even engaged in it for full time only during certain periods of their lives. Additionally, I would also mention in some detail the other current possibilities of building a philosophical community, such as having a blog, or discussing in online forums. Yet, the body of the text is already long… [vii] Of course, many scholars may still believe that academic research has value in itself, or that it may help themselves. But this does not change the fact that several others will not find this sufficient.