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Pictorial experience: not so special after all


The central thesis (CT) that this paper upholds is that a picture depicts an object by generating in those who view the picture a visual experience of that object. I begin by presenting a brief sketch of intentionalism, the theory of perception in terms of which I propose to account for pictorial experience. I then discuss Richard Wollheim’s twofoldness thesis and explain why it should be rejected. Next, I show that the socalled unique phenomenology of pictorial experience is simply an instance of perceptual indeterminacy. Lastly, I discuss a phenomenon associated with pictures that could be considered a problem for CT, and account for it by invoking the thesis that visual experience is cognitively penetrable.

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  1. See, e.g., Abell (2009), Goodman (1976), Gombrich (1984), Hopkins (1998, 2003), Hyman (2006), Kulvicki (2006), Lopes (1996, 2003, 2005, Chap. 1), Nanay (2010), Newall (2009, 2011), Peacocke (1987), Walton (1984, 1990), Wollheim (1973, 1980, 1987, 1998) and Zemach (1999).

  2. This is true even if the proposed accounts of depiction are compatible with CT, e.g., Gombrich (1984), Newall (2009, 2011), Walton (1984), Wollheim (1973, 1980, 1987, 1998), Zemach (1999). Newall, whose motivation is, like my own, deflationary, argues, adducing research in cognitive science and psychology, that “pictures occasion non-veridical seeing of their subject matter” (2011, p. 42). The differences between my approach and Newall’s will be clarified in Sect. 3.

  3. See, e.g., Crane (2011, §3.4) and Fish (2010, Chap. 6).

  4. The phenomenal properties of experience include “what it is like” to have the experience, or its “immediate subjective feel” (Tye 2002, p. 137). For characterizations of intentionalism, see Fish (2010, Chaps. 1, 5), Crane (2011, §3.3), Siegel (2006, 2011b) and Tye (2002).

  5. See, e.g., Goodman (1976, pp. 34–35), Wollheim (1973, p. 23, 1980, 212ff.) and Lopes (1996, §2.1). The claim that pictures depict by causing the proper illusion is commonly ascribed to Gombrich (1984), although it is unclear whether Gombrich really refers to an illusion; see Bantinaki (2007).

  6. See Fish (2010, 56ff.) and Crane (2011, §3.3.1).

  7. See Crane (2011), Siegel (2011b) and Fish (2010, Chaps. 4–5).

  8. This is the gist of Goodman’s critique of imitation theories (Goodman 1976, Chap. 1), and a motivation for ‘experienced-resemblance’ theories of depiction; see Hopkins (2003, p. 657, 2010) and Abell (2009, p. 218). This also led Wollheim to argue that in experiencing a depicted object, we simultaneously experience the picture’s marked surface; see, e.g., Wollheim (1973, 22ff., 1987, p. 62). See also Walton (2002, 28ff.), Lopes (2005, 30ff.), Nanay (2010), Kulvicki (2009), Bantinaki (2010), Newall (2011, Chap. 2).

  9. The view I will defend, i.e., that the experiences of the depictum and of the marked surface are mutually exclusive, is often ascribed to Gombrich (1984), but it is unclear whether Gombrich had in mind the reasons I mention here for the rejection of twofoldness; see Bantinaki (2007); cf. Newall (2011, p. 23).

  10. As Walton (2002, p. 33) and Kulvicki (2009, p. 395) note, the difference between Wollheim’s early view and later view is unclear. His various accounts of twofoldness, however, have no bearing on my argument.

  11. Wollheim (1987, p. 62); cf. Lopes (1996, §2.4, 2005, Chap. 1).

  12. See, e.g., Walton (2002), Lopes (2005, Chap. 1), Hopkins (2010, 2012), Nanay (2010), Bantinaki (2010), see also other contributions in Abell and Bantinaki (2010). The thesis is also mentioned in a discussion of “proximal qualities” (Hellie 2006). Hellie argues that in experiencing a tilted penny, we experience a circular shape (a distal quality) “in,” as Hellie puts it, an elliptical shape (a proximal quality). That is, we don’t have twofold experiences only when looking at pictures, but every visual experience is twofold. However, Hellie’s argument is clearly independent of Wollheim’s thesis, as he uses Wollheim’s idea merely to illustrate seeing-in. Note that if Hellie is right, then in looking at a picture, we have, on Wollheim’s view, a fourfold (or at least threefold) experience: we experience the stain’s shape in its proximal quality, and we experience the depicted saucer’s shape in its proximal quality. This view is problematic for the reasons I mentioned, regardless of whether Hellie’s general thesis is upheld.

  13. Kulvicki’s understanding of this paragraph might be influenced by later characterizations of inflection. Unlike these later characterizations, the phenomenon of inflection described in the quoted paragraph does not encompass the relation between experiencing the surface and experiencing the depictum, but only the relation between looking at the surface and experiencing the depictum. The later characterizations of inflection assume, as Kulvicki does here, that the experiences themselves are inflected. See, e.g., Lopes (2005, p. 192), Hopkins (2010) and Nanay (2010).

  14. Cf. The case of ‘veridical hallucination,’ i.e., hallucination that represents the world correctly, though it may be caused by, say, an evil scientist.

  15. Walton (1984) might be an exception: he holds that we can indirectly see objects by looking at photographs of them.

  16. See Kulvicki (2009, p. 394).

  17. Note that the objects he speaks of here are not necessarily opaque.

  18. The indeterminacy at issue in the present paper differs from other kinds of visual indeterminacy. Indeed, in a wider sense, every experience is indeterminate: e.g., we can scarcely experience determinate actual hues (e.g., red27), since we cannot visually distinguish them from similar tones. The kind of indeterminacy relevant to my discussion, however, is indeterminacy generated by phenomenal change that does not entail change in representational content. Acknowledging that visual experience can have such a structure seems necessary to the argument, unless the general solutions suggested by Tye or Dretske (see text below near footnote 23) are adequate, in which case these solutions apply to pictorial experience too.

  19. The next three paragraphs summarize my argument in Chasid (2007).

  20. The meaning of “design” as Beardsley uses the term seems wider than that of Lopes’s “design properties”: Lopes refers to depictive configurational features only, whereas Beardsley refers to any configurational feature; see Lopes (2005, Chap. 1).

  21. Note that there are many sorts of indeterminate experiences, each generated by particular conditions, and therefore possibly possessing its own unique phenomenology. Looking at something through fog, under poor lighting conditions, etc., may generate different kinds of indeterminacy. The indeterminacy typical of pictorial experience is not necessarily the same as that of other indeterminate experiences. Looking at a supremely realistic photograph that was taken in the fog may generate an indeterminate experience of the photographed object, but would not be indeterminate in the way pictures typically are; experiencing people by looking at black-and-white pictures of them usually generates an indeterminate experience that is not typical of other, non-pictorial, indeterminate experiences.

  22. See Tye (2002) and Smith (2008).

  23. See Boghossian and Velleman (1989), Pace (2007), Schroer (2002) and Smith (2008).

  24. Dretske’s claim has been roundly criticized; see Tye (2002) and the articles mentioned in footnote 23.

  25. The fact that the depictum is not “deformated” while we are moving was adduced by Wollheim (1980, pp. 215–216) to support his twofoldness thesis. His argument, however, is weak: the depictum does stay the same while we change our vantage point, but the correct conclusion is that at that time, we are not experiencing the depictum at all. And clearly, it might be the case that after we change our vantage point, the depictum can again be visually experienced. (Recall that CT does not imply that we experience the depictum veridically, or that we believe that the experience is veridical). Hopkins (2012, 656ff.) similarly adduces this phenomenon to argue against “transparency accounts” such as Newall (2011) and Kulvicki (2009). Yet in my view Hopkins misses the point behind any account that upholds visual experience of the depictum: the question is not whether the depictum is experienced during the shift in perspective, but whether it can be experienced again after the shift.

  26. See Siegel (2011a), Lyons (2011) and Deroy (2013).

  27. For a comprehensive treatment of the sources of cognitive impenetrability, with emphasis on the views of Fodor and Pylyshyn, see Robbins (2009), see also Deroy (2013).


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Correspondence to Alon Chasid.

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Chasid, A. Pictorial experience: not so special after all. Philos Stud 171, 471–491 (2014).

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  • Pictorial experience
  • Perceptual experience
  • Intentionalism
  • Indeterminacy
  • Cognitive penetrability