In philosophical parlance ‘that-p’ denotes propositional thought where a proposition is a statement that is capable of being true or false, if it is not non-sensical. Some philosophers think that seeing entails propositional thought, that we can only see what has been already conceptually contained.

So my research question is: does seeing ‘that-p’ entail a knowing of p that satisfies the kinds of experiences that we ascribe to the enjoyment of photographs? What I want to examine is the experiencing of photographs that I shall call ‘thus and so’, 1 that is inferentially and aesthetically.

Photographs have a number of philosophically interesting properties one of which can be summarised by the idea of ‘facticity’. 2 The question I wish to explore concerns the relationship between photographs and propositions 3 and the extent to which, if at all, photographs can be assimilated to ‘that-p’ talk, or whether indeed some other form of relation attends. To what extent does ‘seeing that p’ entitle us to say something about how p is known? What makes an explanation of how p is known a satisfactory explanation of knowing p?

Researching what it is to experience a photograph ‘thus and so’ will therefore examine the relationship between seeing and ‘that-p’ talk, drawing on the work of Peirce and McDowell and referencing the distinctiveness of looking at the world through photographs.

Philosophical context of this research idea

The photograph is characterised by a duality that is common to all pictures. 4 The experience of a picture is recognisable in two senses: in the immediate sense given to seeing and in the sense that a picture is about something other than just the objects depicted within it. 5 For this proposal I will call the former sense ‘Recognitional’ and the latter sense ‘Interpretational’ without making any assumptions about what each entails.

However the state of affairs seen through a photograph is quite different to the state of affairs observed directly or in a painting. The former’s properties in virtue of how ideal-typical photographs are made ‘fixes’ that state of affairs, preserved in a way that is not possible through direct observation. Indeed there is a sense that what we see through an ideal-typical photograph is a more reliable indication of what was seen, undistorted by fallible memory or a process of re-interpretation. Furthermore the aesthetic interests we take in photographs are quite different to those that we enjoy through just seeing a scene.  A photograph calls us to experience it in a certain way by virtue of a photographer’s skill.

A photograph is also experienced differently to a painting, particularly if the photograph leaves a trace which helps to distinguish it from a ‘photo-realistic’ painting. Our attitude seems to be that we forgive the photograph’s falling short of exact depiction (or we delight in it) because we already understand that we are putting the photograph to a different use based on its ability to indexically refer, that the aesthetic enjoyment is predicated on a different basis to the one pertaining to paintings.

The photograph therefore provides an interesting subject for philosophical inquiry. What is the relationship between recognitional and interpretational seeing and does a photograph’s distinctiveness tell us anything about intentionality and representation? Can we make sense of the experience of a propositional attitude in the same way as that of aesthetic enjoyment? What priority relations exist between them, if any? Does an aesthetic experience (q) yield from within an inferential process (if s, then p and q) or does the converse pertain, that inferential processes are, deep down, drawn from aesthetic intuition [Croce’s and Collingwood’s position— (s entails p) iff q]. Or is neither correct? 

Clearly answering all these questions would not fit within the confines of a short research idea. I raise these questions only to set out the philosophical context of my central question: Does seeing ‘that-p’ entail a knowing of p that satisfies the kinds of experience that we enjoy when we look at photographs?

The research idea

Making sense of a photograph suggests an inferential process of reasoning, that is, a recognition of the object photographed and an interpretation of the photographer’s intention. The experience of a photograph may also induce a belief in its aesthetic merits. Couched in terms of belief statements this aesthetic enjoyment also suggests an experience that is warranted by reasons, that is, reasons that gave rise to those beliefs.

For some, the immediate sense given to seeing, suggests a type of experience that is non-inferential. If looking at a photograph leaves us with a gap between what we can say about it and what we experience 6 then there remains a question over any limits to propositional or inferential reasoning. Unless, that is, our conscious experiences play a causal but non-epistemic role in our conceptions of objects that give rise to aesthetic satisfaction. 

For example Elkins has argued that “pictures (…seem) to consist of two immiscible parts: the flood of words and the insoluble wordless image”. For Elkins pictures are about “inenarrable” seeing, not in the trivial sense that pictures cannot invoke narrative descriptions but in the sense that once inferential understandings of a picture have been exhausted there remains an experience of a picture that is immune to further linguistic analysis. 7

Scruton’s elegant argument that photographs cannot express intention because they are causal is flawed. I argue that a photographer can record the world in such a way as to indicate an intention, by drawing attention, for example, to gestalt forms. The forms, I suggest, act as signs or meaning-bearing place-holders. They frame an object or a space, or point to a feature, for attention in a certain way, in a manner analogous to a painter drawing attention to something by virtue of her brush marks. Of course, being composed of light and shade, shape and line, photographs are not in themselves syntactic structures, but that does not preclude their mereological properties from shaping semantic relations. 

But how far does the notion of a sign get us towards seeing thus and so? A sign cannot stand for an object as also a word cannot stand for an object. One possible answer is that signs contribute to ‘that-p’ talk and that to see thus and so is just to enter into ‘that-p’ relations with the objects of perception.

One answer could draw on the work of Peirce. To the extent that experiencing a photograph involves the work of propositions then Peirce’s concept of a ‘dicisign’ affords a starting point. A pictorial sign that is interpreted as a sign of fact as opposed to a mere possible state of affairs from competing alternatives (a ‘rheme’ in Peirce’s lingo) may give us the necessary grip with which to handle the notion of a pictorial proposition, that is that ‘seeing that p’ entails a ‘knowing of p’. 

It also provides a vantage point from which to frame the experience of a photograph in such a way as to denya viewer response theory of interpretation, common in the field of semiotics 8 in today’s photography communities. Judgements about what a photograph is about are answerable to the world thus and so depicted, not to other judging subjects. The meaning of a photograph is inevitably open to some subjectivity. If the notion of pictorial proposition places some limits on what the viewer is entitled to think about, that is if a sign is regarded as a limiting function, then one can see the possibility of a photograph having a ‘meaning’ intended by the photographer. 

Against this Peircean conception of a pictorial proposition we will need to consider the possibility that seeing is just conceptual in a direct sense or that pictorial signs are nothing other than concepts at the level of reference.

Taking a broadly Kantian line of argument, McDowell argues that (in my shorthand) we see conceptually. I read from this that a photograph is structured in the same way as the world it depicts, that is conceptually, since it is quasi-transparent. It follows that our experience of a photograph is different to our experience of the world it depicts because a photograph is not totally transparent to its depicted world. This direct empiricism suggests no need for intermediary signs. On this reading perception is a competence rather than a translation mechanism.

Although experience is conceptually structured (in Sellars’ terminology, both are ‘above the line’) in perception and judgement, the “actualization of the relevant conceptual capacities, unlike the one that would be involved in the corresponding judgment, would be involuntary”, that is passively received. In this idea a coupling is set up between capacities that are actively exercised in free thinking and capacities that are passively actualized in perception. 9

But in his attempt to tightrope the line between ‘bald naturalism’ and ‘frictionless coherentism’, has McDowell asked conceptualism to do too much heavy lifting? A turn towards a notion of ‘intuition’ might suggest so. McDowell’s original analysis leaves little room for Kant’s third faculty: the notion of imaginative reproduction, a ‘blind but indispensable function of the soul.’ 10

Hence it seems that broadening the notion of a concept enables McDowell to maintain his conceptualist stance in the face of experiences that, prima facie, are not wholly conceptual in a constitutional or regulative way. This move gives us an opportunity to extend our inquiry to tackle views such as Elkins’s. Exploring the notion of ‘intuitive concepts’ will inform my research on whether ‘that-p’ talk is sufficient to deal with Elkins. This will inevitably take us into the grounds of ‘non-conceptual content’. 

Initial literature review

That pictures and words are closely connected has a long tradition of inquiry. Plato hinted at the idea that pictures and words are tied together. In the Philebus he compares the soul to a book, adding however that besides the ‘scribe’ who writes ‘within us’ there is also “another artist, ‘the painter’, who, after the scribe has done his work, draws images in the soul of the things which he has described.” 11

For the mature Aristotle the body and the soul are not thought of as separate substances but as the form and matter of one substance. Thought requires images so that “whenever one contemplates, one necessarily at the same time contemplates in images” 12

Having given up the notion of a ‘picture theory of meaning’ as set out in the Tractatus, Wittgenstein prevaricated about the role of pictures and their relationships to language. “What the picture tells me is itself”, he wrote several times 13 On describing a primitive cartoon of a face he says “Words can’t exactly describe it … this face has a particular expression: namely this (pointing to something). But if I had to point to anything in this place it would have to be the drawing I am looking at.” 14 against this, Wittgenstein’s use theory of pictures, according to which pictures by themselves acquire meaning only by being put to specific uses and being applied in linguistic contexts, suggests that pictures serve words 15.

A good deal has been written about how photographs signify. One of the most interesting accounts is provided by Kendall Walton. 16 The epistemic value of photographs is afforded by the way in which photographs differ from pictures in general, their so-called transparency 17. The aesthetic value of a photograph comes from a photograph being picture-like, its painterly qualities. This is not the place to take issue with this thesis except to say that the debates generated by it seem to largely ignore the relationship of the viewer to the photographer through the conduit of a photograph, that is the notion of intentionality. Few working in the genre of ‘philosophy of photography’ seem to have given much attention to the relationship between photography and language.

Perhaps it is the field of semiotics that has invested most in examining the nature of a pictorial sign. After its initial baptism by Barthes 18 pictorial semiotics has attracted a good deal of recent attention. Most researchers however have centred around one of three themes: the ontological nature of photographs as against other types of sign; the basic structures of pictorial signs and how these can be illustrated in particular photographs; and finally the use of signs as in, for example, advertising photographs. Little attention seems to have been given to how photographs, as indexical and iconic signs, might relate to language and through this the nature of intentionality.


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Bal, M. (1998) ‘See Signs: The Use of Semiotics for the Understanding of Visual Art’ in Mark A. Cheetham et al, eds. The Subjects of Art History, Historical Objects in Contemporary Perspective, Cambridge etc.: Cambridge University Press, 74-93. 

Barthes, R. (1982) ‘L’Obvie et l’obtus. Seuil, Paris. 

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  1. The nod to Kant via Strawson is indicated here – See Strawson P.F. (1966)  p 108. However I do not wish to imply that inferential understanding and an aesthetic enjoyment are separable.
  2. Hopkins, R, (2012) 
  3. I leave the term ‘proposition’ undefined for the purposes of this research idea
  4. Contra Scruton and others – see later.
  5. It is more complicated than this but this will not affect the direction of this article
  6. As suggested by the example of Frank Jackson’s ‘Black and White Mary’ thought experiment, see Jackson, F. (1982) 127-36
  7. Elkins, J. (1998) p. 268 
  8.  For a good discussion of what is meant here see Gaskin, R. (2013) chapter 5 et passim. I do not wish to impute that Gaskin would also have these views in respect of photographs
  9. McDowell J. (1997) 439f.
  10. Kant, I. (1998) B152 “Critique of Pure Reason”, Cambridge University Press, 1998, B152. 
  11. Https:// accessed 30 December 2019
  12. Aristotle’s De Anima in focus ed. by Michael Durrant (Routledge 2015 p.85)
  13. Wittgenstein, L. 1(980) p. 165 
  14. Wittgenstein, L. (1958b) p. 162 
  15. For discussion see A. Pichler and S. Säätelä (2013) (eds.), Wittgenstein: The Philosopher and his Works, pp. 322–353, Frankfurt. 
  16. See Costello (2018) for a good discussion.
  17. Actually photographs are not transparent to the world but the important point is that people think they are(ish).
  18. Barthes, R. (1982)