DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M017-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 23, 2024, from

4. Our experience of pictures

One such course which has very often been proposed in some form or other is an appeal to the idea that depictions are experienced in a special way. Suppose yourself confronted by a picture, but one you do not yet understand at all. You can see quite clearly what colour lies where on its surface. Perhaps you can even see that it is a picture of something or other; certainly your experience may give you good grounds to suspect this. But you cannot see what is depicted by the picture. Then, in a moment, you ‘get the point’. You can see that the picture is of a horse, that the strange shaped lump that had puzzled you depicts its head, those straggly lines of colour depict its legs, and so forth. It does not seem to you that anything in your environment has altered. You still see the same patches of colour in the same locations. And yet in some sense things now look very different. You see the surface organized in a way you could not see before.

There are two experiences of the picture here, one accompanying the successful interpretation, the other preceding it. The second experience has a distinctive phenomenology, or subjective character, for anyone who enjoys it. It is a way of seeing the coloured surface, but a way somehow involving the thought of what is absent – in this case, a horse. And it is, in some sense, an integrated whole; unlike, for instance, the experience of seeing a castle while visualizing a horse.

Some, most notably Richard Wollheim (1987), have argued that every picture can in principle be experienced in two ways, parallel to those above. Moreover, they have claimed that experiences like the second hold the key to depiction. The idea is that in those experiences one’s awareness of the picture’s surface involves the thought of something else, and that thing is just what the picture depicts. In the standard terminology, one sees in the picture what is depicted. For such philosophers, the key task is to characterize this experience more fully. After all, what has been said thus far fails to distinguish ‘seeing-in’ from many other experiences, those forming one sort of aspect perception (see Wittgenstein, L.).

Wollheim’s own account of the experience of seeing one thing in another is as follows. It is a visual experience of a differentiated surface, and has two ‘folds’, or aspects. One aspect is in some way analogous to the experience of seeing the surface without seeing anything in it. The other is in some way analogous to the experience of seeing (face-to-face) whatever is seen in the surface. It is not possible to say anything illuminating about the nature of the analogies here involved; indeed to ask for such clarification would be a sign of confusion.

Of those sympathetic to this broad approach, many have thought that more than this can be said. This response is vindicated by the need to offer an account of depiction that accommodates the features mentioned in §3. For unless Wollheim can say more about seeing-in, he cannot hope to offer explanations of those features. Consider, for example, the fact that depiction is always from a point of view. It is natural for the defender of seeing-in to try to account for this by tying what is depicted to what is seen in a surface, and then by establishing that seeing something in a surface itself necessarily involves a point of view on that absent item. But what reason can there be to assert this last claim? The answer must come from the fact that one fold of seeing-in is analogous to an experience, that of seeing the absent item face-to-face, which itself necessarily involves a point of view. However, this is only the sketch for an explanation until that analogy is clarified – what features of the analogy guarantee the presence of perspective in the fold, given its presence in the analogous experience?

There have been other attempts to characterize seeing-in, but the obstacles to success are considerable. Kendall Walton, for instance, makes skilful use of an appealing idea: that seeing-in involves the visual imagination (1990). In essence, his claim is that when I see a horse in a picture, I imagine of my seeing the picture’s surface, that it is my seeing a horse. The fundamental difficulty with any such view is that it is ambiguous, and that on either reading it is equally problematic. The ambiguity turns on whether or not the imagining in question involves visualizing. Visualizing has its own distinctive phenomenology. For this reason, it is plausible to claim that any experience with which it is involved will have a distinctive character informed by that phenomenology, but hard to see how that experience can form an integrated whole. On the other hand, imagining that is not visualizing lacks any distinctive phenomenology. It is therefore easy to integrate into a unified experience, but ill-suited to contributing to a distinctive character. Since seeing-in is both phenomenologically distinctive and an integrated whole, the prospects for characterizing it using the imagination are not good (see Imagination).

Citing this article:
Hopkins, Robert. Our experience of pictures. Depiction, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M017-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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