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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M017-3
Version: v3,  Published online: 2021
Retrieved July 15, 2024, from

Article Summary

Article summary

How do pictures work? How are they able to represent what they do? A picture of a horse, for example, is a flat surface covered with marks, depicting a horse, perhaps chewing straw and standing on a hillock. The puzzle of depiction is to understand how the flat marks can do this.

Language poses a similar problem. A written description of a horse will also be a collection of marks on a flat surface, which nonetheless represent that animal. In the case of language the solution clearly has something to do with the arbitrary way we use those marks. The word ‘leg’, for example, is applied to legs, but any other mark would do as well, providing we all use it in the same way. In the case of pictures, however, something different seems to be going on. There is not the same freedom in producing a picture of a horse on a hillock chewing straw – the surface must be marked in the right way, a way we are not free to choose. So what is the right way?

A helpful thought is that the surface must be marked so as to let us experience it in a special way. With the description, we merely need to know what the words it contains are used to stand for. With the picture, we must instead be able to see a horse in it. However, although this does seem right, it is difficult to make clear. After all, we do not see a horse in the same way that we see a horse in a view from a window. For one thing, there is no horse there to be seen. For another, it is not even true that looking at the picture is like looking at a horse. It is partly because of the differences that, as we look at the picture, we are always aware that it is merely a collection of marks on a flat surface. So what is this special experience, seeing a horse in the picture? Answering this question is not the only way to offer a philosophical account of depiction, but it is perhaps the most promising.

Citing this article:
Hopkins, Robert. Depiction, 2021, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M017-3. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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