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

2. Resemblance and its problems

Philosophers have offered many different accounts of the nature of depiction; indeed the variety can be bewildering. But there is one answer which, in the light of its venerable age and undeniable appeal, deserves early consideration. This is the thought that pictures represent by looking like what they depict. This appears to capture neatly the difference between the ways that words and pictures represent – Guernica looks like a scene of mayhem and destruction, whereas a description of such a scene does not. Moreover, the suggestion implies that depiction is a peculiarly visual form of representation – and that idea too has considerable initial appeal.

Unfortunately this view faces many difficulties, some very serious. It is natural to take the claim to be stating that one thing depicts another only if the two resemble each other in respect of some visible property. So understood, its two most important drawbacks are as follows.

First, resemblance makes demands on the world which depiction does not. For resemblance to hold, two things must exist – the thing resembling and the thing resembled. By contrast, depiction does not require there to be two things; one depicting, the other depicted. The picture alone suffices, since it may depict what does not exist. For example, it may depict a horse, but no horse in particular. (Horses exist, but none of those that do is depicted by the picture.) Alternatively, the picture may depict something of a type of which there are no instances, say a 53-sided regular polyhedron. In view of these facts, the resemblance account must do two things. It must find a way to accommodate depiction where there is no thing depicted; and it must explain how that depiction is related to the depiction of things that do exist. This last condition is necessary, since it is now clearly possible that the account will offer two distinct analyses of depiction.

Second, the intuition that pictures look like what they depict is undermined by the difficulty of saying in what respect the two resemble. A picture need not resemble what it depicts in shape – Guernica is flat, the scene depicted is not. Nor need the two resemble in colour – a simple line drawing is black and white, but need not depict a black-and-white scene. Nor need picture and depicted match in the materials of which they are made. In fact, for any respect which might provide the resemblance, difference is as common as similarity. It seems, then, that the resemblance view may have to surrender the intuition on which it drew. Unless it can locate the putative resemblance, the thought that there must be one, and that depiction turns upon its presence, cannot be maintained.

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

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