The Arts and the Definition of the Human: Toward a Philosophical Anthropology

By Joseph Margolis | Go to book overview

4
“Seeing-in,” “Make-Believe,”
“Transfiguration”
The Perception of Pictorial Representation

LIVING IN PHILADELPHIA, a city that has benefited in a mixed way from rehabilitating its charming eighteenth- and nineteenth-century houses during a period of busy “gentrification,” I must admit the melancholy truth that among the many failed attempts to fit new-fangled versions of the classic forms into architecturally significant neighborhoods, one comes rather easily upon innovations by obviously well-informed architects pleased to live in those same neighborhoods in their own creations. Their designs now clash with the lines of quiet grace of the colonial and Federal buildings that still stand among the living. They've made gymnastic reference to the original designs of the older buildings they deform—which can hardly be said to quote or copy them.

There's a lesson there that bears on the conceptual analysis of what we see, in seeing paintings. A not insignificant number of very well known recent Anglo-American philosophers of art have, for some inexplicable reason, abandoned the perfectly adequate truth that in viewing the paintings of the Western canon, we really do see pictorial images like the represented interiors of Vermeer's splendid canvases. These philosophers insist on substituting obviously contrived—utterly unsuccessful—perceptual analyses of what we spontaneously say we see in these cases, which do indeed remind us of what we used to say, which would now be regarded as a conceptual mistake according to the lights of these new theorists.

I protest. We don't “make-believe” we see (as one of these new voices has it), that is, make-believe we see Vermeer's pictorial representations of Dutch interiors, or make-believe we see real interiors when we see Vermeer's

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