The great advantage of philosophy as a discipline is that a philosopher can take an everyday subject matter such as portraiture and subject it to scrutiny as a human activity in a way that an art historian could not or would not dare to, because it involves no scholarly knowledge, only an ability to think carefully and scrupulously about the subject’s implications. This is what Cynthia Freeland has done in her book about portraits. She is aware that portraits have a special status as works of art: they are records of people’s appearance, as well as ways of remembering and characterising them, and it is a special characteristic of human beings that they want to perpetuate themselves as images. What do portraits tell us about attitudes to human consciousness?
It is a good question and, in reading Freeland’s book, I could not help but reflect on my own experience of commissioning portraits when I was Director of the National Portrait Gallery, when it was quite obvious that there was something particularly intimate, and not necessarily at all