DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M017-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 18, 2019, from

5. Interpreting depiction

The task of characterizing seeing-in is one of the most challenging in this area. Given this, and scepticism about some of the central notions which any such characterization must deploy, there have been attempts to clarify in other ways the thought that depiction is peculiarly visual. For example, some have attempted to analyse depiction using the epistemic resources required to interpret it. The idea is that what is special about pictures, as opposed to words, is what one needs to know in order to interpret them. For language, one must know the conventions governing the words’ use, conventions specific to individual words. Understanding pictures, in contrast, requires a rather different sort of knowledge. Flint Schier, for example, claims that one must know what the depicted item looks like (1986). Moreover, this is in essence all one needs to know to interpret pictures, provided that one has a general competence with depiction, that is, the ability to interpret any pictures at all. Since this is so, Schier speculates that a depiction of something engages our ability to recognize that thing, and that it is definitive of depiction to do so.

Schier’s view has many advantages. In particular, it finally allows for accommodating and explaining the features of depiction noted in §3. Pictures engage our abilities to recognize what they depict, but those abilities are relative to points of view. I may be able to recognize you seen from the front, while being unable to do so from directly above you. So what individual pictures must engage is the ability to recognize what they depict from a particular point of view – hence the perspectival nature of depiction. Further, visual recognitional abilities are engaged in clusters, rather than singly – I recognize you because I recognize a person with such and such features standing before me. So if a picture is to engage a visual recognitional ability of mine, it will engage others at the same time. Thus there is no depicting something without depicting it as having a certain appearance, and there is no depiction which is not fairly complex in content.

Despite this, there is one form of attack to which Schier’s position is vulnerable. For, as he himself admits, it is tempting to think that there is a deeper explanation for why depiction engages our recognitional capacities – that pictures do after all resemble what they depict. If this line can be made good, explanations can not only be provided for the features of §3, but for Schier’s view too, along with his observations on the epistemic resources depiction requires. However, the problems facing the resemblance view were severe. Can solutions be found for them?

Citing this article:
Hopkins, Robert. Interpreting depiction. Depiction, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M017-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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