[...] Only Dirck, or Theodore Rembrantsz, an astronomer and surveyor in North Holland, made his acquaintance in that time, when the most remote and obscure villages were hardly less fertile in the growth of philosophy, than the flourishing cities of commerce….
Dirck Rembrantsz was a Dutch peasant, native the village of Nierop, at the end of North Holland, facing Friesland. The exercise he made in the trade of shoemaker in the place of his birth, provided him barely with the means necessary to maintain his subsistence. But he had found ways to overcome his fortune by an exquisite knowledge of mathematics, that he could not help but to grow beyond the detriment of the work of his hands. Mr. Descartes' famous name, linked with the minor satisfaction he had received from the mathematical books he had read in the vernacular, resulted into the leave of his village for consulting [the philosopher].
His [Descartes'] fame had portrayed him as a man of the world, who was easy to access, and the idea of a secluded philosopher did not withheld him, even when the entrance of his solitude was guarded by some Switzers. But he was put off by the valets of Descartes as a bold farmer, and they only informed the master of the house, after Rembrantsz returned two or three months later, in the same outfit as the first time, and demanded to speak to Mr. Descartes, with the resolution of a man who seemed to confer with him on important business.
His appearance did not contribute to a better reception than before, and when the news was brought to Mr. Descartes, he was depicted as an importunate beggar, who in the eyes of the servants used his wish to the talk about philosophy and astrology, as an excuse to ask for charity. And to avoid going into that, Descartes sent him some money and wished him [Rembrantsz] to say that he would dispense the trouble to speak to him [any further]. Rembrantsz, whose poverty not had affected his heart, refused the generosity of our philosopher, and decided that his hour had not yet come, and he returned home this time, in the hope that a third trip would become more succesful. This reply was reported to Mr. Descartes, who regretted not have seen the peasant and who ordered his people to give him notice, when he returned.
Rembrantsz returned a few months later and this peasant, who had such a passion to meet Mr. Descartes that he already had made two trips in vain, was recognized, and he was finally satisfied in what he had sought so hard and with such perseverance.
Descartes recognized his skills and merits in this field and would pay back his [Rembrantsz'] troubles with interest. He [Descartes] was not satisfied with the teaching of all his problems, but provided him with the methodology to correct his arguments. He welcomed him yet among a number of his friends, without paying attention to the lowness of his position, but considered him among those of the first rank, and he assured him that his house and his heart was open to him at all times.
From that time on, Rembrantsz, who lived only five or six miles apart from Egmond, frequently visited Descartes, and with his school he became one of the leading astronomers of his time. He had mastered so well the knowledge of his [Descartes'] principles, that in the rest of his life he only build on these foundations.-- Adrien Baillet (1691) La vie de Monsieur Descartes, part 2, pp. 553-556, translated by Huib Zuidervaart in THE CORRESPONDENCE OF DIRCK REMBRANTSZ VAN NIEROP (1610-1682), edited by M. Rijks.
There are, I am guessing, about forty-thousand professional philosophers world-wide. I am an experienced enough historian of philosophy to assert confidently that even if our civilization continues and digital storage is perfected most of us will -- just a handful excepted -- be forgotten within a generation or two, three, even if we would deny that the Golden Age of analytical philosophy is past. As it is, only a few of us are actually read outside a small, narrow group of specialists at any given moment; a charismatic PhD supervisor may stretch this audience a bit wider. Even most of those that today have a disciplinary or wider public audience are almost certainly incapable of competing in an enduring fashion for scarce, future curricular time, or the more intimate choices of discerning future readers. It's easy to imagine that Berkeley will disappear from the curriculum once the empiricism/rationalism divide is set aside as parochial or, to hit closer to home, that Davidson will be a mere footnote to Quine and Whitehead, while Mandeville, De Grouchy, and Swift will be rediscovered time and again by readers trying to make sense of living in a (let's stipulate, Chinese-speaking) corrupt, commercial civilization (recall this review).
If we reflect on our situation, I suspect most of us console ourselves with the idea that through our teaching we touch the minds of the young and, in so doing, help give their lives, which will radiate in all kinds of unexpected directions, some shape. I know that some of my peers are convinced that they are part of a progressive (even scientific) enterprise within the intellectual division labor in which their contributions allow future generations to progress even closer to the truth; even if they remain anonymous to future generations they will have participated in a great trans-historical project. Such delusions are harmless. Some of us contribute more concretely by offering philosophical reflections that might help our communities navigate what may seem urgent and confused matters. I am not denying, of course, that even the most distinguished (reflexive and privileged, etc.) of our philosophical peers is undoubtedly mostly just enjoying her intellectual activity immersed in the problems and puzzles that animate her thought drawing a generous salary that secures her from the more common anxieties consequent hunger and lack of shelter.
Even so, sometimes the unremarkable play a walk-on role in history, and this is not dispiriting. Let me explain.
They couldn't spare to name a street after Rembrandtsz Van Nierop in his hometown, Nieuwe Niedorp, West Friesland, despite being the author of the relatively successful De Nieropper Almanacs (recall my posts, here and here, on the significance of the genre in the Dutch painter Collier). Yet, Rembrandtsz Van Nierop's life-work played a non-trivial role in a world-historical episode in the history of science and philosophy. For, as George Smith and I have recounted, Christiaan Huygens relied, in the decisive step in his empirical argument, on a map (see also here) drawn by Van Nierop (see p. 20 in Rijks) in order to deny the universal reach of Isaac Newton's inverse-square law (which Huygens limited to planetary motions) and, thereby, vindicating the sober, rational mechanical philosophy against the muddled, hocus pocus emanating from the mystical magus of England.
So, in conclusion, I characterize the walk-on philosophers: they can be heroes without dazzlement (recall). Unlike our modern Chauncey Gardiners, Zelig or Forrest Gump, who just happen to be present for great occassions, the walk-on philosopher lives up to her everyday responsibility that come with her overlapping, social and professional roles (as instructor and mentor to the public, etc.). A walk-on philosopher does not seek the limelight, but develops his skills, so that he can merit acknowledgment of his discerning peers. Of course, by joyfully excelling at her craft she may well walk -- accompanied with fortune -- memorably into the annals of history.
We now know that Huygens was misled by limited data.
*Baillet goes out of his way to tell his reader that after completing a near-final draft of his book, he is including the story of D. Rembrandtz Van Nierop on the urging of some of his Dutch informants. By the end of the 17th century, the Netherlands were sliding back into olicharchy, but the egalitarian ethos (so visible in Mandeville) was not extinguished yet.
**It's an open question, of course, if the Copernicanism of the Dutch Astronomy is an update of Descartes or merely the explicit acknowledgment of the obvious.