Philosophy Images
John Kulvicki
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0412


Natural languages, numerals, formal languages, maps, diagrams, graphs, and pictures are all representations. Traditionally, philosophical discussion has divided these representations into two groups: imagistic and linguistic. Just as there are many natural and formal languages that fit on the linguistic side of this divide, there are many kinds of images. In what follows, then, “image” is meant to refer to the broad class of nonlinguistic representations that all seem to have much in common. There might be representations that are neither imagistic nor linguistic, and many representations are hybrids that partake of more than one kind. Focusing on images is not the same thing as focusing on pictures. (See the separate Oxford Bibliographies in Philosophy entry on “Depiction.”) Pictures are images, but so are maps, graphs, radar images, and the like. So an account of pictures can be consistent with many accounts of images, just as an account of images can be consistent with more than one theory of pictures. There are very few accounts of images in this general sense, so the following does not include a section devoted to that topic. Instead, this entry traces the evolving interest in images and looks at the most prominent topics that have occupied philosophers over the last half century or so. One topic not covered here is the use of images in science. For that topic, see the separate Oxford Bibliographies in Philosophy entry on “Scientific Representation.”

Anthologies and Overviews

The following collections reflect the evolving philosophical interest in images. Block 1981 focuses on mental images, with an eye to their formats. That is, are perceptual states and some others structured in a manner analogous to images, or are they structured like languages? Crane 1992 is an important collection that reflects a shift away from format and onto what the contents of different mental states are like. Gunther 2003 shows how those debates about content developed into what was called the nonconceptual content debates, as opposed to the imagery debates that were popular in the 1970s and 1980s. Abell and Bantinaki 2010 is one of the few collections focused on artifacts, not mental states, and shows how discussions of artifacts draw from both the philosophy of perception and, in a more limited sense, the philosophy of language. Grzankowski and Montague 2018 shows how recent work combines an interest in format and content, and how philosophers of language are increasingly interested in these topics, alongside philosophers of perception. Kulvicki 2014 is organized around suggesting that the broader class of images, rather than pictures, is a productive focus for philosophical theorizing. See also the separate Oxford Bibliographies in Philosophy entries on “Depiction” and “Scientific Representation.”

  • Abell, Catherine, and Katerina Bantinaki, eds. Philosophical Perspectives on Depiction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    One of the few collections focused on issues relating specifically to depiction.

  • Block, Ned, ed. Imagery. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981.

    A classic collection of papers that formed the core of the imagery debates.

  • Crane, Tim, ed. The Contents of Experience. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

    This collection marked a turn toward thinking about the contents of nonlinguistic representational states, instead of their formats, as was more common in the imagery debates.

  • Grzankowski, Alex, and Michelle Montague, eds. Non-propositional Intentionality. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.

    A recent collection that connects issues with images to the philosophy of perception and the philosophy of language.

  • Gunther, York H., ed. Essays on Nonconceptual Content. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003.

    Helpful overview of the nonconceptual content debates and how they relate to the general problem of nonlinguistic representation.

  • Kulvicki, John. Images. London: Routledge, 2014.

    Overview of the topic, which frames discussion of pictures within the more general category of images. Relates theories of depiction to scientific images, photography, and mental imagery.

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