AskDefine | Define depiction

Dictionary Definition



1 a graphic or vivid verbal description; "too often the narrative was interrupted by long word pictures"; "the author gives a depressing picture of life in Poland"; "the pamphlet contained brief characterizations of famous Vermonters" [syn: word picture, word-painting, delineation, picture, characterization, characterisation]
2 a representation by picture or portraiture [syn: depicting, portraying, portrayal]
3 a drawing of the outlines of forms or objects [syn: delineation, limning, line drawing]
4 representation by drawing or painting etc [syn: delineation, portrayal]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. a lifelike image of something, either verbal or visual
  2. a drawing or painting


lifelike image

Related terms

Extensive Definition

Depiction is a distinctive kind of representation. Figurative pictures are the paradigm example. Other examples are contested but may include photography, sculpture, maps, some kinds of diagram, audio recordings and the like. Abstract paintings are usually not included as examples of depiction, since abstract paintings intuitively don't belong to the same kind of representation as figurative paintings do. This entry is an introduction and overview of contemporary debates in analytic philosophy over the nature of depiction.


According to common sense, depiction is mediated by resemblance. The Mona Lisa, for example, is supposed to depict Lisa because the Mona Lisa resembles Lisa. The current debate over the nature of depiction has its origins in Nelson Goodman's (1968) arguments against this naive position.
The main difficulty is that resemblance is insufficient for depiction: everything resembles itself, for example, but not everything is a depiction of itself. Similarly, resemblance is a symmetric relation, but depiction is not. The Duke of Wellington resembles his portrait, for example, in exactly the respects that his portrait resembles him, but although the portrait represents the duke, the duke does not represent the portrait (Goodman, 1968).

Symbol Systems

Alternative analyses hold that depiction is a kind of symbol system which is syntactically dense, semantically dense and relatively replete (Goodman 1968, Kulvicki 2006).


Another alternative holds that depiction should be defined in terms of a perceptual effect such as illusion, seeing-in (Wollheim, 1987), imaginary seeing (Walton, 1990) or experienced resemblance (Hopkins, 1998).

Recognition Theories

Another approach is to define depictive representation in terms of recognitional abilities (Schier, 1986; Lopes, 1996).
Schier’s analysis of depiction is based on the thought that depictive representation does not share the arbitrariness of verbal representation: depictive representation, according to Schier, is natural in a way that descriptive representation is not. Schier develops this thought by suggesting that understanding depictions does not require the same learning required by understanding language. Although, for example, I have to learn Chinese to interpret Chinese speech, I do not need to learn anything of the kind to understand Chinese images.
Schier motivates his analysis of depiction with a number of counterexamples to this claim. First, imagine a person who has never seen a picture, never heard an explanation of pictorial representation nor had any other opportunity to learn about or gain knowledge of pictures. Schier admits that is unlikely that this person would be able to interpret a depiction without assistance on encountering if for the first time. So Schier accepts that the capacity to interpret pictures is not innate, but requires learning.
Nevertheless, Schier suggests that once that person had understood his or her first depiction, they would then have the ability to interpret further pictures without further learning. A person who has understood only one sentence, in contrast, will not be able to understand further sentences without further learning. So Schier suggests that the important difference between depiction and language is that someone who has the ability to understand some depictions can understand all depictions, whereas someone who can understand some sentences cannot necessarily understand all sentences.
But this revision is still incorrect, because people who have successfully understood many pictures may still fail to understand pictures in new and unfamiliar styles. Audiences of the first impressionist paintings were confused by them, even though they were familiar with other styles of painting. Similarly, a person may be able to understand simple sketches without thereby having the ability to understanding complex architectural plans. Unfamiliar styles or systems of depiction seem to require learning in just the same way as unfamiliar languages and dialects.
To accommodate this, Schier suggests restricting his claim to depictions within the same symbol system. According to the revision, if a person has the ability to understand some of the depictions in a symbol system, then a person can understand all depictions in that symbol system without further learning. Once one has understood some impressionist paintings, according to Schier, one then has the ability to understand all impressionist paintings. Understanding a few sentences in Chinese, in contrast, is not sufficient for understanding every sentence in Chinese.
But this revision is still incorrect, because even people with the ability to understand most pictures in a symbol system won’t thereby have the ability to understand depictions in that symbol system which represent things that they are unable to recognise. Imagine a person who has never seen an armadillo or a picture of an armadillo and never heard or read a description of an armadillo. Upon seeing a depiction of an armadillo for the first time, even if they had successfully interpreted many other depictions in the same symbol system, that person would be unable to understand that the picture depicts an armadillo.
To accommodate this, Schier adds a proviso that the viewer must have the ability to recognise the object which the depiction represents, which results in the following analysis of depiction: A system of representation is depictive if and only if once someone has interpreted any arbitrary member of it, they can proceed to interpret any other member of the system, provided only they are able to recognise the object represented. So, for example, botanical drawings are supposed to be depictive because once you have understand some botanical drawings, you can understand any other botanical drawing provided it represents a plant you have the ability to recognise.

Other Issues

Other debates about the nature of depiction include the relationship between seeing something in a picture and seeing face to face, whether depictive representation is conventional, how understanding novel depictions is possible, the aesthetic and ethical value of depiction and the nature of realism in pictorial art.

Books on Depiction

Some important books on depiction are:
Goodman, Nelson (1968), Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols (Indianapolis and New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc.).
Hopkins, Robert (1998), Picture, Image, and Experience (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
Hyman, John (2006), The Objective Eye: Colour, Form and Reality in the Theory of Art (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press).
Kulvicki, John (2006), On Images: Their structure and content (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Lopes, Dominic (1996), Understanding Pictures (Oxford: Clarendon Press).
Lopes, Dominic (2005), Sight and Sensibility: Evaluating Pictures (Oxford: Clarendon Press).
Maynard, Patrick (1997), The Engine of Visualization: Thinking Through Photography (Ithaca: Cornell University Press).
Maynard, Patrick (2005), Drawing Distinctions: The Varieties of Graphic Expression (Ithaca: Cornell University Press).
Novitz, David (1977), Pictures and their Use in Communication (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff).
Schier, Flint (1986), Deeper Into Pictures (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
Walton, Kendall (1990), Mimesis as Make-believe (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press).
Wollheim, Richard (1987), Painting as an Art (London: Thames and Hudson).

Articles on Depiction

An incomplete list of articles on depiction:
Abell, Catharine (2005a), ‘Pictorial Implicature’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism , 63(1): 55-66.
Abell, Catharine (2005b), ‘Against Depictive Conventionalism’, The American Philosophical Quarterly, 42(3): 185-197.
Abell, Catharine (2005), ‘On Outlining the Shape of Depiction’, Ratio, 18(1): 27-38.
Abell, Catharine (2005), ‘McIntosh's Unrealistic Picture of Peacocke and Hopkins on Realistic Pictures’, British Journal of Aesthetics, 45(1): 64-68.
Bennett, John (1971), ‘Depiction and Convention?’, The Monist 58: 255-68.
Budd, Malcolm (1992), ‘On Looking at a Picture’, in Robert Hopkins and Anthony Savile (eds.), Psychoanalysis, Mind, and Art (Oxford: Blackwell).
Budd, Malcolm (1993), ‘How Pictures Look’ in Dudley Knowles and John Skorupski (eds.), Virtue and Taste (Oxford: Blackwell).
Bach, Kent (1970), ‘Part of What a Picture Is’, British Journal of Aesthetics, 10: 119-137.
Black, M. (1972), ‘How Do Pictures Represent’, in Black, Gombrich and Hochburg, Art, Perception, and Reality (Baltimore, Md.).
Carrier, David (1971), ‘A Reading of Goodman on Representation?’, The Monist 58: 269-84.
Carrol, Noel (1994), ‘Visual Metaphor’ in Jaakko Hintikka (ed.), Aspects of Metaphor (Kluwer Publishers), 189-218; reprinted in Noel Carrol (2001), Beyond Aesthetics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
Dilworth, John (2002), ‘Three Depictive Views Defended’, The British Journal of Aesthetics, 42(3): 259-278.
Dilworth, John (2002), ‘Varieties of Visual Representation’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 32(2): 183-205.
Dilworth, John (2003), ‘Medium, Subject Matter and Representation’, The Southern Journal of Philosophy, 41(1): 45-62.
Dilworth, John (2003), ‘Pictorial Orientation Matters’, The British Journal of Aesthetics 43(1): 39-56.
Dilworth, John (2005), ‘Resemblance, Restriction and Content-Bearing Features’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 63(1): 67-70.
Dilworth, John (2005), ‘The Perception of Representational Content’, British Journal of Aesthetics, 45(4): 388-411.
Hopkins, Robert (1994), 'Resemblance and Misrepresentation', Mind, 103(412): 421-238.
Hopkins, Robert (1995), ‘Explaining Depiction’, Philosophical Review, 104(3):
Hopkins, Robert (1997), ‘Pictures and Beauty’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, XCVII: 177-194.
Hopkins, Robert (1997), 'El Greco's Eyesight: Interpreting Pictures and the Psychology of Vision', Philosophical Quarterly, 47(189): 441-458.
Hopkins, Robert (2000), ‘Touching Pictures’ British Journal of Aesthetics 40: 149-67.
Hopkins, Robert (2003), 'What Makes Representational Painting Truly Visual? Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society Supplementary, LXXVII: 149-167.
Hopkins, Robert (2003), 'Pictures, Phenomenology and Cognitive Science', The Monist, 86.
Hopkins, Robert (2005), ‘What Is Pictorial Representation’, in Mathew Kieran (ed.), Contemporary Debates in the Philosophy of Art (Oxford: Blackwell).
Howell, R. (1974), ‘The Logical Structure of Pictorial Representation’, Theoria 2: 76-109.
Hyman, John (2000), ‘Pictorial Art and Visual Experience’, British Journal of Aesthetics 40:2 1-45.
Kjorup, Soren (1971), ‘George Inness and the Battle at Hastings or Doing Things With Pictures’, The Monist 58: 217-36.
Kulvicki, John (2003), ‘Image Structure’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 61(4): 323-39.
Lehrer, Keith (2004), ‘Representation in Painting and Consciousness’, Philosophical Studies, 117(1); 1-14.
Lopes, Dominic (1997), ‘Art Media and the Sense Modalities: Tactile Pictures’, Philosophical Quarterly, 47(189): 425-440.
Lopes, Dominic (2004), ‘Directive Pictures’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 62(2): 189-96.
Lopes, Dominic (2005), Sight and Sensibility: Evaluating Pictures (Oxford: Clarendon Press).
Malinas, Gary (1991), ‘A Semantics for Pictures’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 21(3): 275-298.
Manns, James W (1971), ‘Representation, Relativism and Resemblance’, British Journal of Aesthetics 11: 281-7).
Maynard, Patrick (1972), ‘Depiction, Vision and Convention’, American Philosophical Quarterly, 9: 243-50.
McIntosh, Gavin (2003), ‘Depiction Unexplained: Peacocke and Hopkins on Pictorial Representation’, The British Journal of Aesthetics, 43(3):279-288.
Nanay, Bence (2004), ‘Taking Twofoldness Seriously: Walton on Imagination and Depiction’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 62(3): 285-9.
Nanay, Bence (2005), ‘Is Twofoldness Necessary for Representational Seeing?’, British Journal of Aesthetics 45(3): 263-272.
Neander, Karen (1987), ‘Pictorial Representation: A Matter of Resemblance’, British Journal of Aesthetics, 27(3): 213-26.
Newall, Michael (2003), ‘A Restriction for Pictures and Some Consequences for a Theory of Depiction’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 61: 381-94.
Novitz, David (1975), ‘Picturing’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 34: 144-55.
Pateman, Trevor (1980), ‘How to do Things with Images: An Essay on the Pragmatics of Advertising’, Theory and Society, 9(4): 603-622.
Pateman, Trevor (1983), ‘How is Understanding an Advertisement Possible?’ in Howard Davis and Paul Walton (eds.), Language, Image, Media (London: Blackwell).
Pateman, Trevor (1986), ‘Translucent and Transparent Icons’, British Journal of Aesthetics, 26: 380-2.
Peacocke, Christopher (1987), Depiction, The Philosophical Review, 96: 383-410.
Ross, Stephanie (1971), ‘Caricature’, The Monist 58: 285-93.
Savile, Anthony (1986) ‘Imagination and Pictorial Understanding’, Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 60: 19-44.
Sartwell, Crispin (1991), ‘Natural Generativity and Imitation’, British Journal of Aesthetics, 31: 58-67.
Schier, Flint (1993) ‘Van Gogh’s Boots: The Claims of Representation’ in Dudley Knowles and John Skorupski (eds.) Virtue and Taste (Oxford: Blackwell).
Scholz, Oliver (2000), ‘A Solid Sense of Syntax’, Erkenntnis, 52: 199-212.
Sorenson, Roy (2002), ‘The Art of the Impossible’ in Tamar Szabo Gendler and John Hawthorne (eds.), Conceivability and Possibility (Oxford: Clarendon Press).
Walton, Kendall (1971), ‘Are Representations Symbols?’, The Monist 58: 236-254.
Walton, Kendall (1974), ‘Transparent Pictures: On the Nature of Photographic Realism’, Critical Inquiry, 11(2): 246-277.
Walton, Kendall (1992), ‘Seeing-In and Seeing Fictionally’, in James Hopkins and Anthony Savile (eds.), Mind, Psychoanalysis, and Art: Essays for Richard Wollheim, (Oxford: Blackwell), 281–291.
Walton, Kendall (1993), ‘Make-Believe, and its Role in Pictorial Representation and the Acquisition of Knowledge’, Philosophic Exchange 23: 81–95.
Walton, Kendall (1997), ‘On Pictures and Photographs: Objections Answered’, in Richard Allen and Murray Smith (eds.), Film Theory and Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press) 60-75.
Walton, Kendall (2002), ‘Depiction, Perception, and Imagination: Responses to Richard Wollheim’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 60(1): 27-35.
Wilkerson, T. E. (1991), ‘Pictorial Representation: A defense of the Aspect Theory’, Midwest Studies in Philosophy, 16: 152-166.
Wollheim, Richard (1990), ‘A Note on Mimesis as Make-Believe’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 51(2): 401-6.
Wollheim, Richard (1998), ‘Pictorial Representation’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 56: 217-26.
Wolsterstorff, Nicholas (1991a), ‘Two Approaches to Representation – And Then a Third’, Midwest Studies in Philosophy, 16: 167-199.
depiction in German: Darstellung

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