The dogma of the solitary philosopher

Full title: Saint Jerome in his Study
Artist: Antonello da Messina
Date made: about 1475
Copyright © The National Gallery, London

1. The dogma of the solitary philosopher

St. Jerome in His Study is a painting by Antonello da Messina, probably completed in the period 1460–1475 and now in the National Gallery in London. In the centre of the painting is the Father of the Church, translator of the Bible, absorbed in reading and surrounded by numerous objects of high symbolic value.

Traditionally, this painting is indicated for its ability to synthesize from an iconographic point of view the specificity of the work of the intellectual. This work requires, in fact, concentration, silence, isolation from the noise and the surrounding world, as indispensable conditions for reading, studying, writing. Working on concepts, therefore, implies an operation of subtraction. Specifically, it is the task of removing oneself from the influences and contaminations of the world, according to a model dating back to the fall of Thales into the well, narrated by Plato in the Teetetus (174 a – 174 c), a symbol of the necessary distance from everyday life on the part of those who practice philosophizing.

Talking about philosophical research in terms of isolation and concentration certainly captures an important aspect of making philosophy. However, alongside it, there are other aspects to be counted without which the risk of a deficient perception that the entire phenomenon of philosophizing would become real.

For a number of reasons which cannot be analyzed in detail here, we must note that in the collective imagination we have come to make an overlap between the ideal of philosophizing and the isolation of the philosopher. It is, of course, a forced combination, widespread in use, which has given rise to what I would like to call the dogma of the solitary philosopher. Consequently, subtly fed by this false myth, the very notion of philosophy would coincide more and more with the exclusive study of eidetics, that is, the clarification of the invisible reality, to the detriment of the facts, the concretion of human events. According to this perspective, therefore, the facticity would thus be mainly subordinate to eidetics, both in the order of knowledge (reality is known from ideas) and in the order of action (praxis as the execution of the theory).


2. The surplus that inhabits the ordinary

In reality, just as experience teaches us that there is no philosophy without the necessary discernment of invisible realities, so we know that one of the indispensable elements for a complete philosophical investigation is the relational dimension. Without the reciprocal relations between philosophers, without discussions and controversies, philosophy itself would be reduced to mere disembodied lucubration; and it would be impossible, just to give an example, to explain the birth of scientific journals or the correspondence between philosophers. The dialogical and relational component is, therefore, not only important, but constitutes an indispensable dimension of every act of philosophizing.

In Antonello da Messina’s painting, which has become a model for the figure of the solitary intellectual, St. Jerome reads. But, let’s ask ourselves, what is the very operation of reading if not a dialogue between author and reader? Don’t the very emblems (the partridge, the peacock, the geranium, to name but a few) that the artist places around the figure of the Saint indicate a real break-in of the philosopher’s solitude? And what do those symbols represent if not a vivifying inclusion in the ordinary intellectual work of excessive meanings (the Truth of Christ, the Church, divine omniscience)?

In what way, then, should we think of this surplus that comes to inhabit the ordinary activity of intellectual work?


3. Contents and shape of philosophizing

Contrary to what the vulgate intended, therefore, the painting of St. Jerome in his Study refers to the inextricability of the relationship between meditation and reality. Relationships, therefore, interest philosophy both because they constitute its implicit method and because of their cognitive value, since through the contribution of the other with whom I relate, I can know that portion of the world that escapes my gaze.

It is exactly through the relationships that the access to the contents of philosophizing is delineated, which do not exist except within a specific form, chosen from time to time as the most appropriate to express them.


[This article is taken from the Foreword of the volume: Controversies in the Contemporary World. Edited by A. Fabris and G. Scarafile]. 


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