Understanding Pictures

Understanding Pictures

Understanding Pictures

Understanding Pictures


There is not one but many ways to picture the world--Australian "x-ray" pictures, cubish collages, Amerindian split-style figures, and pictures in two-point perspective each draw attention to different features of what they represent. Understanding Pictures argues that this diversity is the central fact with which a theory of figurative pictures must reckon. Lopes advances the theory that identifying pictures' subjects is akin to recognizing objects whose appearances have changed over time. He develops a schema for categorizing the different ways pictures represent--the different kinds of meaning they have--and argues that that depiction's epistemic value lies in its representational diversity. He also offers a novel account of the phenomenology of pictorial experience, comparing pictures to visual prostheses like mirrors and binoculars.


I began by enquiring how we can explain the difference between Canaletto's pictorial representation of a Venetian piazza and Barzini's linguistic one. Part One surveyed three versions of the obvious answer to this question: namely, that, unlike words, we see what pictures represent. I have nowhere denied that pictures might visually resemble their subjects, or cause experiences of a kind their subjects could cause, or enable us to see their subjects in them. But I have given reasons to doubt that resemblance, illusion, or seeing-in explain depiction, for they fail to accommodate the diversity and twofoldness of depiction. Since perceptual theories have reached an impasse, it is not unreasonable to take seriously the proposal that a theory of depiction should take as its starting-point not the differences between pictures and language but their similarities.

Since this proposal is likely to meet with some incredulity on the part of committed perceptualists, I begin by considering the implications of the language model for perceptual theories of depiction. Only then do I turn to what is justifiably the most prominent symbol theory of depiction, Nelson Goodman's in his book Languages of Art.

3.1 Pictures and Symbols

It is natural to be apprehensive about using language as a model for depiction. Comparisons between pictures and language flagrantly contradict our intuitions about their differences. But nobody claims that pictures are just the same as linguistic utterances. Whether our apprehensions are warranted depends on precisely what features of language and depiction are taken to be analogous. That pictures are like language in certain crucial respects need not trample our sense of their differences.

Let me briefly illustrate how making links between pictures and language can be either obfuscatory or enlightening. One important property of language is captured in Frege's dictum that the fundamental unit of linguistic meaning is the proposition, something that is true or false.

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.