Illustrating Philosophy: Comments on Tom Wartenberg’s Thoughtful Images

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Illustrating Philosophy: Comments on Tom Wartenberg’s Thoughtful Images

Elisabeth Schellekens


This short paper focuses on Thomas Wartenberg’s Thoughtful Images (OUP 2022) and offers a critical discussion of some of the book’s main claims. Of particular interest is the notion described by Wartenberg as “concept-based illustration” and the prospects of this kind of illustration to successfully represent a philosophical concept or theory. Among the questions raised, we find “What is required for an artwork to represent a philosophical claim?”, “Which norms should govern successful illustrations?”, and “How detailed can the content of a concept-based illustration be?”.


Key Words
conceptual art; illustration; knowledge; philosophy


1. Central questions

What is involved in illustrating a given philosophical idea or theory? More specifically, what is required for an artwork to represent a philosophical claim? These are the intriguing questions that serve as the starting point of Tom Wartenberg’s Thoughtful Images. The questions are apposite. For what are we to make of the illustrations of philosophical theories, concepts, and claims that we find throughout the history of Western thought, not only in books or publications outlining those theories and ideas, but also in places such as galleries, art colleges, newspapers, and even comic strips?

Three concerns are described as central to Wartenberg’s project:

Q1: Can visual art images ever really succeed in illustrating philosophical claims and theories?

Q2: If so, can such illustrations be said to contribute in a meaningful way to those same philosophical theories and claims?

Q3: Are there limitations to the kinds of philosophical claims or theories that can be successfully illustrated?

Thoughtful Images targets a rich and multifaceted cluster of concerns, all well worth exploring. Even a brief reflection on some of these questions reveals the manner in which they interconnect with an even broader set of themes, including artistic interpretation (especially Q1 and Q3), aesthetic cognitivism (especially Q2), and depiction (especially Q3). In the process of unpacking the many topics that demand our attention here, we are offered several self-standing discussions of a variety of artworks and their representational reach. The range of examples is truly remarkable, taking us from the Ancient World to the 1970s. Helpful historical trajectories are also traced and explained, ranging from medieval philosophical texts to contemporary cartoons. This is a book that sets out to break new ground and argue for the view that every concern listed above calls for an affirmative answer: Yes, visual images can illustrate philosophy successfully; yes, they can contribute in meaningful ways to the very same philosophical theories, ideas, and claims that they set out to capture; and yes, there are fewer limits than we tend to assume when it comes to the kinds of philosophical claims which can be successfully illustrated.

2. Kinds of illustration

From the very beginning, the author quite rightly distances himself from the skeptic who assumes that there can only be one kind of illustration in philosophy, or that all such illustrations operate just like the images we find of Plato’s cave. There are, he tells us, other kinds of illustrations too—four, to be precise. First, there are text-based illustrations, or images illustrating a selected passage of text, generally describing a specific event or person. An example of such illustration is Gustave Doré’s The Schismatics (1890), representing specific scenes from Dante’s Divine Comedy. Illustrations of this kind are governed by norms of fidelity to text source, in order to ensure that the illustration communicates the meaning of the text source accurately, and with felicity, in so far as it should appear as an autonomous work or have a certain degree of independence.

Second, we find theory-based illustrations. Although not intended as illustrations by their creators, the existence of dominant artistic interpretations derived from specific philosophical theories explain why they are, or have come to be seen as, illustrations. In such cases, the theory is said to guide a reading of the painting or artwork that posits it as an illustration of that same theory. A case in point is Martin Heidegger’s use of Van Gogh’s Shoes (1886) to illustrate his view of art’s work, which is said to include the effects of art and our responses to them.

Third, there are concept-based illustrations, or images illustrating abstract philosophical concepts or ideas. Again, the author tells us, “[t]he crucial feature of concept-based illustrations… is the role that the norms of fidelity and felicity play in their creation. For an illustration to successfully illustrate an abstract concept or theory, it must represent that idea faithfully” (p.39). Connecting this kind of case to an earlier example, the author discusses Tom Phillips’ “The Schismatics” from Dante’s Inferno (1983) and the concept of contrapasso, the idea in Canto 28 of Dante’s Inferno that each sin will be punished in a manner that very specifically befits it. In contrast to Doré’s The Schismatics, here we find an illustration of the notion of contrapasso that, although not as gruesome, perhaps better captures the philosophical point of the punishment or at least does so from a different perspective.

Finally, some illustrations are quotation-based, that is to say they are works that directly involve quotations of philosophical theories or statements. A well-known case in point is Joseph Kosuth’s On Color Blue (1990), which cites passages from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.

3. Illustrating concepts

Of these four categories of illustration, it is the third that is the most critical to the author’s treatment in Chapters 6, 7, and 8 of what may broadly be referred to as art and artists in the conceptual tradition. In the cases he discusses here—Joseph Kosuth, Adrian Piper, Mel Bochner, Bruce Nauman, and Maria Bussmann, but also Eduardo Paolozzi, Jasper Johns, and Jackson Pollock—concept-based illustrations of philosophical theories are central, often relying on some kind of analogy. For Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs, it is, of course, Plato’s theory of Forms; for Bochner, it is Wittgenstein’s argument against the skeptical hypothesis that all our beliefs about the world might entirely be mistaken.

My comments in this and the following section target some of the underlying ideas and positive proposals outlined in these three chapters and take their point of departure in two observations that might have been given more room in Wartenberg’s argument. The first observation is that there is, in fact, a considerable variety even within the rather narrow category of concept-based illustrations of philosophy, in so far as it is one thing to say that a concept-based illustration can successfully illustrate a philosophical concept and another to hold that such an illustration can illustrate a philosophical theory. The degree of specificity and level of complexity of the concept of contrapasso, say, and that of Wittgenstein’s private language argument differ in important ways. The distinction is relevant both to Q2 and Q3, that is, to the potential cognitive contribution of illustrations to the claims and theories they capture and any possible limitations to the kind of claim or theory that visual images can successfully illustrate. For the prospects of effectively illustrating an individual concept, even when open to some degree of interpretation, may well be different to the representational possibilities available to intricate composite analyses or accounts.

Second, despite its intuitive appeal, the claim that it is possible for art to illustrate philosophical standpoints and theories in a concept-based manner is, in fact, very difficult to establish. Critics will remark that illustration can mean many different things, and that for the claim to be significant there will have to be some benchmark that has to be met for it to qualify as such. Can such a benchmark be found and agreed upon? And what does it really mean to say that an artwork illustrates philosophy? Surely Q1 and Q3 call for greater clarification on these issues. We shall return to these points below.

4. The prospects of concepts-based illustration

In Philosophy and Conceptual Art, Peter Goldie and I outline five tenets distinctive of conceptual art broadly conceived.[1] The fifth on our list holds that conceptual art tends to replace traditional illustrative representation by what we call “semantic representation.” Such representation is semantic not only or necessarily in the sense of actual words or phrases appearing on or in the work of art but also and primarily in the particular manner in which it represents a meaning. That is to say, even if the artwork relies on some form of illustrative representation, it is really the meaning of something, or the idea, if you will, that the work represents. (I take this claim to be in alignment with Wartenberg’s suggestion that artworks can illustrate claims and theories.) Based on that formulation, I have proposed that we can distinguish among different kinds of ideas in conceptual works.[2] At the very least, we can find (1) art-reflexive ideas, such as in Mel Bochner’s Working Drawings and other Visible Things on Paper not Necessarily Meant to be Viewed as Art (1966); (2) socio-political ideas, such as in Cildo Mereiles’ Insertions into Ideological Circuits: Coca-Cola Project (1970); and (3) philosophical ideas, such as in Michael Craig-Martin’s An Oak Tree (1973) or Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs (1965–7).

The reason I highlight two examples of (3) is that, at least according to many established readings, these works have significantly different kinds of philosophical content. Whereas the first seeks to represent or illustrate a specific concept (like transubstantiation[3]), the second aims to represent an entire world-view (such as Plato’s theory of Forms[4]). Crucially, both face significant challenges.

As I see it, Craig-Martin’s An Oak Tree successfully captures or illustrates the idea of transubstantiation. The simplicity of the material objects presented—a water glass, a bathroom shelf—simultaneously ordinary and abstract in character, leads us to reflect on the many possible and subtle manifestations of the concept at hand and also to contemplate the role of this notion in our own moral and religious life. How do we establish whether this work illustrates transubstantiation successfully? Well, pace Wartenberg, we do so by assessing whether it “represent[s] that idea faithfully” (p.39). If fidelity and felicity is secured, then so is illustrative success.

In some respects, at least, this seems straightforward enough—a case of one concept-based representation illustrating one particular philosophical concept. That said, and despite the relative specificity of the concept under scrutiny, questions still arise. To begin, one might wonder what it is for some notion to count as a distinctly philosophical concept. And is engaging with An Oak Tree really an instance of “doing philosophy,” as the author repeatedly claims? The discussion laid out in these three chapters suggests that all kinds of ideas mentioned a moment ago—self-reflexive, socio-political and philosophical—would be considered philosophical by the author; that, of course, is a place to start. But in many examples, he goes further still, extending our notion to include also religious, psychological, social concepts, and more. What, if anything, hangs on the concepts under scrutiny being philosophical in character? Perhaps not much? Is the argument for an affirmative answer to Q1 best conceived as a positive case for the possibility of just about any concept being illustrated in art? If so, how? And why?

A more significant concern that echoes the worry raised in the section above is this: In what sense can what we witness when we engage with An Oak Tree or One and Three Chairs really be said to be an illustration of determined claims or theories? Early on, the author tells us that what he means by this term is the ability to “illuminate” or “shed light” on something. Although fruitful in some ways, one may wonder whether it is not, at least to some degree, inherent to such a definition that an illustration always makes some cognitive contribution, however minimal, to that which it illustrates. Should there then be some threshold beyond which we can talk of a significant cognitive contribution being made? If so, which criteria should apply? Also, the question remains of whether it is a contribution to the claim, theory, or idea itself or instead is a contribution to our grasp or level of engagement with the particular artwork, or indeed a contribution to the claim or concept within the limited confines of that specific work—a pedagogical tool or device, not actively illustrating the theories of Russell, Wittgenstein or Plato so much as aiding us to grasp one individual manifestation of them (in art).

This should lead us to ask whether the norms of fidelity and felicity, though useful, suffice to explain what makes something a successful illustration of a concept? Although difficult to pin down, something else seems to be at work here too, something roughly to do with artistic selection or choice. Add a toothbrush to An Oak Tree, say, and the successful illustrative relation is broken. Opt for a flower pot on a window ledge instead of a glass on a bathroom shelf, for example, and the piece might be neither a successful illustration of transubstantiation nor an illustration of it at all. Explaining precisely why this is so is difficult to say. Perhaps it has something to do with the way in which conceptual art, or art where the kind of representation at work in question seems primarily semantic rather than illustrative, relies so heavily on the artist finding the expressive means that are just right in order to guide us to the specific philosophical concept or claim they seek to represent. This choice, while hardly problematic in principle, introduces an element of unpredictability into the manifestation of the illustration and risks weakening the direct illustrative relation at all times. Can we ever know for sure just from engaging with the artwork what an artist in this tradition seeks to illustrate? Perhaps one may venture to suggest, the relation between the artwork and the philosophical claim or theory is not so much illustrative as associative, coincidental rather than conceptual, personal rather than communal.

Moving from concepts to theories, these questions acquire an even sharper edge. Can a concept-based illustration ever actively illustrate a fully fledged philosophical theory? What is it for an artwork to illustrate often intricate or tortuous lines of reasoning leading us from a set of premises to a conclusion? The risk of over-simplification seems to loom large when we assume that an illustration, or even a series of drawings, can cover all or most relevant angles of a philosophical argument or theory. Options heading forward seem to be either to reduce a complex philosophical theory to one concept— a move which would get us back to the structure of the previous case—or to open up an even larger set of concerns as they relate to whether the norms of fidelity and felicity said to guarantee successful illustration do suffice in the face of greater semantic complexity.

The creative expressive choice thus risks being both one of the elements of artmaking that we value the most and, at the same time, that which weakens the ambition for a directly illustrative relation between art and philosophy. If, for a work to count as an illustration of a concept or theory, that work needs to be both faithful to (norm of fidelity) and yet autonomous from (norm of felicity) the philosophical concept or account, there will be at least some occasions in which the two norms central to Wartenberg’s account may pull in different directions, loyal to that which is being represented and yet also safeguarding its independence from it.

Artworks are unpredictable, suggestive, and multi-referential. One example of this is the manner in which much of the meaning of modern art relies on internal references (that is, internal to art in a certain tradition). Cross-referencing can be a very important part of how a work acquires a certain philosophical meaning. An example of this is Martin Creed’s Work No. 997, consisting of five chairs stacked on top of one another, that has been taken to refer directly to Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs, which in turn, of course, refers to Plato’s metaphysics. But Creed’s work can be taken to defend or comment on an alternative account to the Platonic one, namely Aristotle’s. This thus seems to be a case where an artwork does achieve a certain degree of philosophical complexity, although it does so not simply by illustrating a specific philosophical theory. Rather, it succeeds by presenting us with a certain carefully selected angle on it, by commenting and thereby adding something to it. If Work No. 997 can be said to illustrate Aristotle’s metaphysics, it does so in other words at least partly by going beyond norms of fidelity and building in references to Plato, Kosuth, and more.[5]

5. Concluding Thoughts

So, is the notion of illustration a good way to cash out semantic representation in art? The difficulties and challenges outlined here, although of some concern, are probably not insurmountable. As with the notion of representation, we can work to develop strong accounts of what illustration in art is and how by visual means we can capture sophisticated mental states and intellectual composites. Answering Q2 and Q3 in the affirmative seems, however, more problematic than many of us who share an appreciation of modern art would hope, perhaps especially when it comes to works where complex belief systems are involved.

Wartenberg’s book constitutes a significant advance on how we think about these questions and which difficulties lie ahead. The distinctions drawn in his treatment of philosophical illustrations in art are enormously helpful and enable us to better organize our analyses of what it means to say or what is required in order for it to be the case that an artwork illustrates a particular philosophical claim or theory. This is a book that encourages us to take a stand not just on issues to do with representation and illustration but also on what philosophy is and what it is to be engaged in philosophical activity. If, as the author states, the arts is often about doing philosophy by other means, using Robert Pippin’s phrase cited early on, then we certainly have a strong case for it here.


Elisabeth Schellekens

Elisabeth Schellekens is Chair Professor of Aesthetics at the Department of Philosophy at Uppsala University and Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts and Sciences. She was Editor of the British Journal of Aesthetics 2007-2020 (with John Hyman). Her research interests include the relations between aesthetic, moral and cognitive value in art, non-perceptual art and intelligible beauty, theories of perception, Hume’s and Kant’s aesthetics, the philosophy of cultural heritage, aesthetic normativity, and more.

Published on December 4, 2025.

Cite this article: Elisabeth Schellekens, “Illustrating Philosophy: Comments on Tom Wartenberg’s Thoughtful Images,” Contemporary Aesthetics, Volume 21 (2023), accessed date.



[1] Goldie, Peter and Elisabeth Schellekens, eds., Philosophy and Conceptual Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

[2] Schellekens, Elisabeth, “The Aesthetic Value of Ideas,” in Philosophy and Conceptual Art.

[3] Part of the artwork is the following text: “I have changed the physical substance of the glass of water into that of an oak tree. I didn’t change its appearance. The actual oak tree is physically present, but in the form of a glass of water… It would no longer be accurate to call it a glass of water. One could call it anything one wished but that would not alter the fact that it is an oak tree.” In the words of Nicholas Serota, “Craig-Martin’s work… reminds us that the appreciation of all art involves an act of faith comparable to the belief that, through transubstantiation, the bread and wine of Holy Communion become the body and blood of Christ.” In “There is No Need to be Afraid of the Present,” The Independent, 23 November 2000.

[4] Van Gerwen, Rob, “Philosophical Directions: The Effort of Understanding,” Directions in Philosophy – Rob van Gerwen, Universiteit Utrecht.

[5] A similar case can be found in Sarah Lucas’ The Old In, Out (1998), which directly refers to Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain.