Philosophy Depiction
Ben Blumson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 07 September 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0349


How do pictures represent? A traditional answer is that whereas a word is connected to what it represents via an arbitrary convention, a picture is connected to what it represents via resemblance. This is the motivating idea behind resemblance theories of pictorial representation. The contemporary debate about pictures in analytic philosophy began with Nelson Goodman’s attack on the resemblance theory in his classic Languages of Art. Goodman proposed abandoning the naive resemblance theory for structural theories, according to which the differences between linguistic and pictorial representation are structural features of the syntax and semantics of language and pictures—Goodman argued that whereas, for example, language is digital, pictures are analogue. Goodman’s immediate successors were swayed by his critique of resemblance theories, but not by his defense of the structural theory, which emphasized the idea that the connection between a picture and what it represents is merely arbitrary. This led to the development of more sophisticated perceptual theories of pictorial representation—in particular, seeing-in theories, according to which we see-in a picture what it represents, and recognition theories, according to which a picture represents via our ability to recognize things. Another way to develop a perceptual theory of pictorial representation is taken by projective theories, which analyze pictorial representation in terms of geometrical projections of scenes onto flat surfaces—so a picture of a scene, according to projective theories, is closely akin to the result of tracing the outline of that scene upon a window. The major contemporary works on projective theories are found in the psychology of picture perception, but they are obviously equally relevant to the philosophical issues raised in the aesthetics literature. In light of these historical developments, it’s natural to see the various theories of pictorial representation as competitors. But in fact the various theories are not obviously inconsistent with each other, and most sophisticated theories borrow elements from their competitors—perceptual theories, for example, can accommodate resemblance in a subsidiary role, and even Goodman suggests that habituation to our system of pictorial representation explains the resemblance of pictures to what they represent. A recent development involves the construction of self-consciously hybrid theories, which attempt to combine the advantages of competing accounts.

General Overviews

Kulvicki 2013 provides an introductory overview of the various theories.

  • Kulvicki, John. Images. London, UK: Routledge, 2013.

    Images is an introductory overview of the philosophy of pictures. It includes a chapter each on seeing-in theories and other experiential theories, resemblance theories, recognition theories, and structural theories, as well as the pretense theory. It also includes chapters on special topics such as pictorial realism, images in science, mental images, and photography. This is the natural starting point for anyone interested in the philosophical literature on pictorial representation.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.