A Syncretistic Theory of Depiction

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If the relata of a relation must be existing particulars, then it appears that pictures of these kinds cannot denote what they depict. So how do they depict them? But Goodman disagrees.

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He claims that what a painting or drawing denotes pictorially depends solely on the arrangement of colours on its surface, and the semantic and syntactic conventions that define the symbol system to which it belongs But it seems to follow that few portraits, if any, portray a single individual, as opposed to every member of a class of similar individuals. For if pictures are effectively predicate-like symbols in a pictorial system, then unless X is the sole individual satisfying a portrait, i.

Furthermore, it is hard to see how one can paint an inaccurate portrait of someone, just as it is hard to see how one can use an inaccurate description to refer to someone e. We can distinguish between a picture of a centaur and a picture of a unicorn, even though they denote exactly the same objects i. Finally, according to Goodman, a pictorial symbol system consists of rules correlating symbols with denotata, but he does not propose a single example of such a rule.

It is uncontroversial that various kinds of customs, rules and conventions are involved in making pictures, including technical procedures, iconographic conventions, rules of composition, and so on. But none of these have the function of correlating symbols with denotata, and it is doubtful whether pictorial rules of this specific kind exist Hyman — In particular, Kulvicki agrees with Goodman that a picture is a symbol in a denotative system, and that a denotative system is pictorial in virtue of its structure, rather than any resemblance between its symbols and the objects they denote Kulvicki Kulvicki argues that a pictorial symbol system has four characteristics: a repleteness , i.

Bach — ; c richness , i. He does not attempt to define the colour- and shape-properties it consists in, but like Hyman, he suggests that the resemblance he postulates between a picture and the scene it represents partially explains how the normal experience of perceiving what a picture represents occurs. Seeing a fleshed out content results from deploying concepts as a result of seeing the picture surface—and thus registering its bare bones content—that do not apply to the picture surface. Which concepts we deploy depends on what recognitionally keyed concepts we have, which determines the perceptual salience of a given fleshed out content.

The question is ignored in Kulvicki , as it is in Goodman But it is debatable whether the four conditions he stipulates are in fact necessary and sufficient for depiction. Some alleged counter-examples are discussed in Blumson , Newall , and Kulvicki Experiential theories seek to explain depiction in terms of the kind of experience a picture causes in a spectator, rather than the kind of representational system to which a picture allegedly belongs, or the spectator-independent resemblance or isomorphism between a picture and the objects it depicts, or the subpersonal cognitive mechanisms a picture may be thought to engage.

It remains an open question whether theories of this kind can avoid the charge of circularity, in other words, whether it is possible to define the experience of seeing what a picture represents without employing the concept of depiction. But even among philosophers who believe that this is possible, the exact nature of the experience has been a matter of debate. The simplest experiential theory is that a picture depicts an object of a certain kind by causing a spectator to have the visual experience she would normally have if she saw the kind of object it depicts.

The problem is to know simply how [pictures] can enable the soul to have sensory perceptions of all the various qualities of the objects to which they correspond—not to know how they can resemble these objects. The experiential theories philosophers advocate today tend to define the experience caused by pictures differently, for this reason. Newall distinguishes between his own theory and the theory that pictorial experience is a kind of illusion in Newall 23— Indeed, as Wollheim points out,.

We can see the picture as either a rabbit or a duck. It is easy to discover both readings. It is less easy to describe what happens when we switch from one interpretation to the other. The shape on the paper resembles neither animal very closely. And yet there is no doubt that the shape transforms itself in some subtle way. Gombrich 5. Gombrich Gombrich explores a variety of fertile ideas in Art and Illusion , about the history of style, about realism in the visual arts, and about the relationship between the content of a representation and its use in imaginative play, some of which we shall return to below.

Bantinaki But according to Wollheim himself, simultaneous awareness of surface and content is precisely what is distinctive about the experience of seeing a picture. The two aspects of this experience—its configurational aspect and its recognitional aspect—are held to be psychologically real and to be integrated in a way that also affects the phenomenal character of the experience as a whole.

Seeing-in is a distinct kind of perception, and it is triggered by the presence within the field of vision of a differentiated surface. Wollheim In a community where seeing-in is firmly established, some member of the community—let us call him prematurely an artist—sets about marking a surface with the intention of getting others around him to see some definite thing in it: say, a bison.

Now the marked surface represents a bison.


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This is not meant to be piece of speculative history. The purpose of the story is to show that depiction occurs when the marks on a surface are successfully designed to make the seeing-in experience occur. It is not enough that this experience should occur.

1. Resemblance Theories of Depiction

The principal objections to it are the following. Second, the suggestion that the figure-ground relationship is a universal feature of depiction has been challenged Hyman But this appears to oversimplify the relationship between the representational content of a picture and the content intended by the artist. Experienced resemblance: As noted above, experiential theories explain depiction in terms of the kind of experience a picture causes in a spectator.

The two most influential theories that have sought to define this experience more precisely than Wollheim does are due to Christopher Peacocke and Robert Hopkins, and the principal concept both employ is that of experienced resemblance. No doubt there is a resemblance—in bone-structure, pigmentation, etc. But we can describe the experience as an experience of a resemblance, independently of whether the resemblance actually exists, in what respects, or why. According to theories that employ the concept of experienced resemblance, this is comparable to though not exactly like the experience a spectator has when she sees what a picture represents.

Hence, the assumption made by or attributed to Wollheim inter alia that the object or scene represented by a picture is itself somehow perceived by the spectator, or present in her experience, is rejected by those who explain depiction in terms of experienced resemblance.

A Syncretistic Theory of Depiction

He agrees with Peacocke that seeing-in can be defined in terms of experienced resemblance, but he argues that seeing-in is an experience of resemblance in outline shape between the marks on the surface of a picture and the object or arrangement of objects they represent, rather than shape in the two-dimensional visual field Hopkins a. And since seeing-in can be defined in terms of outline shape, so can depiction:. Seeing-in […] is essentially the experience of likeness in respect of outline shape.

Depiction may then be understood as that representation which works through the deliberate generation of this experience. In particular, it avoids the implication that the figure-ground relationship is a universal feature of depiction; it explains precisely how the experience of seeing a certain kind of object in a surface is related to the experience of seeing the same kind of object face to face, and how the experience of seeing one kind of object in a surface differs from the experience of seeing another kind of object in a surface; and it explains the fact that objects are necessarily depicted from an implicit point of view.

But Hopkins does not claim that there is invariably an exact match between the content of a picture and what can be seen in it Hopkins a: ; see also Brown ; Dilworth , However, several difficulties remain. Finally, every experiential theory of depiction faces a difficulty in explaining how the shapes or outline shapes of the marks on the surface of a picture constrain the shapes or outline shapes of the objects they represent. On the one hand, if the only constraint is that they must be such as to generate an experience of the kind the theory postulates, then it is difficult to explain how this experience differs from a hallucination caused by an optical stimulus, such as the mysterious blank canvas described by Flint Schier, which causes the illusory experience of seeing a portrait of Marilyn Monroe, but presumably does not depict anything at all Schier On the other hand, if there must be a direct optical or geometrical correspondence between the shapes or outline shapes of the marks and the shapes or outline shapes of the objects they represent, so that we can perceive the latter by perceiving the former, then the theory is no longer purely experiential, and depends ultimately on the kind of relationship between surface and content postulated for different reasons by Hyman, Kulvicki, and Voltolini.

See Hyman , Kulvicki , Voltolini Make-believe: An alternative characterisation of the experience generated by pictures, which refers to the imagination, is proposed by Kendall Walton , a,b, in the context of a wider theory of artistic representation. White , Walton claims that pictures are props in visual games of make-believe, which prescribe visual imaginings with a particular content.

When one engages in the right way with a picture of a certain kind of object or scene, one imagines that one is seeing an object or scene of that kind:.

Alberto Voltolini (Università degli Studi di Torino) - PhilPeople

Participation in visual games of make-believe using pictures as props is a complex perceptual and imaginative activity. Walton — But his theory of depiction faces the same difficulty as other experiential theories in explaining how the shapes or outline shapes of the marks on the surface of a picture constrain the shapes or outline shapes of the objects they represent, or the imaginative games they invite spectators to engage in. For objections to Walton, see Wollheim , b; Budd a; Nanay For an alternative analysis of seeing in in terms of imagining, see Stock This is especially true with respect to cases where the marks on the surface of a picture are not merely a means by which the spectator perceives its content, but are designed by the artist to contribute to the content of the picture in virtue of their character as marks.

In this kind of case, as Michael Podro explains,. Podro 2. Lopes a makes the interesting claim that inflection solves the puzzle of mimesis : in other words, it explains why we value or enjoy seeing pictures of kinds of objects that we do not value or enjoy seeing face-to-face The seminal treatment of this problem is in Aristotle's Poetics Book IV.

Noteworthy discussions of inflection include Hopkins , Nanay , and Voltolini Broader discussions of the kinds of pictorial experience that pictures in different styles can elicit include Lopes a, Cavedon-Taylor , Newall , and Bradley Others either claim or assume, on the contrary, that recognition is a kind of experience, at least the kind of recognition that is stimulated by a picture Squires ; Schier The basic thought that underlies recognition-based theories of depiction is that a picture must be recognisable:.

It must be the kind of thing that can be connected up with what the artist had in mind, if looked at in the right way by people with aptitude and experience. Squires The same thought is developed by Schier. Once you have succeeded in an initial pictorial interpretation […] you should then be able to interpret novel icons without being privy to additional stipulations given only that you can recognise the object or state of affairs depicted. Schier Accordingly, Schier argues that depiction can be defined in terms of natural generativity and recognition: a picture is the kind of representation that causes naturally generated interpretations in competent spectators by activating their recognitional skills.

For example, a picture that depicts a man sporting a beard makes a commitment regarding the property of being hirsute, but by the same token is non-commital regarding the property of having a dimpled chin. For criticism see Herwitz , Savile , Kulvicki Fourth, pictorial styles, or systems of pictorial representation, differ from each other in the kinds of aspects they typically present. Pictorial competence is relative to specific styles or systems: to be able to interpret a picture, one needs to have the recognitional skills corresponding to the system to which it belongs Lopes —3.

Works by Ben Blumson

These ideas face various difficulties, some of which we have already considered in connection with other experiential theories. Second, the transparency claim has been criticised even in the case of photographs, where the problem of fictional subjects and genre pictures does not normally arise Currie Recognition-based theories are open to a similar objection. Various theories of depiction are compatible with the claim that pictures activate the same recognitional skills as the kinds of objects they depict.

The question on which they differ is why they do so. Or is it for some other reason? Without an answer to this question, the problem of explaining how pictures represent is elaborated by introducing ideas about recognition, natural generativity and transparency, but it is not solved Newman ; cf. Neander , Sartwell As we have seen, any plausible theory of depiction will need to accommodate the wide variety of styles of picture-making. Art history contains more sophisticated and fertile treatments of the concept of style than philosophy does, notably by Heinrich Wolfflin , Alois Riegl [] , Erwin Panofsky , Ernst Gombrich , and Meyer Schapiro However, one topic in the theory of style on which there is a substantial philosophical literature is realism.

The most influential exponent of this view is Goodman, who argues that realism cannot be a matter of fidelity to nature, and cannot be measured by resemblance to reality, because our judgements about fidelity to nature depend on our visual habits, which are shaped in turn by the visual culture we inhabit, and the images we are used to seeing and interpreting.


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Realism is relative, determined by the system of representation standard for a given culture or person at a given time. Newer or older or alien systems are accounted artificial or unskilled. First, the realistic system of representation cannot simply be the standard or customary one, because as an artistic style evolves, spectators are inevitably less accustomed to innovative subjects and techniques than they are to the ones these modify or replace.

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