Reading Texts and Pictures

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Reading Texts and Pictures

Comments on Thomas Wartenberg’s Thoughtful Images: Illustrating Philosophy Through Art


Cynthia A. Freeland


Wartenberg’s book, Thoughtful Images, is an ambitious defense of the value of philosophical illustrations. Through examples from a vast historical sweep, he differentiates several ways that images help us understand or even enact philosophy. My critical response focuses on how viewers understand and make sense of visual images, by comparison with how we interpret texts of philosophical authors. I argue that the relevant processes of interpretation are more similar than what Wartenberg assumes, especially when issues arise about the role of narratives in both texts and pictures.

Key Words
Aristotle; art interpretation; Dante; illustrations; Foucault; Las Meninasnarratives; Plato’s Cave


1. Introduction: The philosophical value of illustrations

Illustrations are sometimes helpful or fun, but they generally have not been considered important modes of conveying philosophical ideas. In this original and ambitious study, Thomas Wartenberg explains what illustrations can do and defends their philosophical value. He even argues that they can “provide innovative philosophical insights that are independent of written philosophical texts.” Wartenberg divides philosophical illustrations into three types: text-based, concept-based, and theory-based. His focus is on illustrations that are visual images, though he acknowledges that other kinds of illustration exist. Visual illustrations are themselves varied, including prints, engravings, paintings, sculptures, and so on, and sometimes incorporate text.

One might balk at the idea of the value of philosophical illustrations because traditionally philosophy has employed texts, words, and arguments, not pictures. But there are many examples of illustrations of philosophical thought, dating back to some of the earliest texts of ancient Greek philosophy. For example, there are illustrations of Plato’s Analogy of the Cave in the Republic and of the Timaeus’s account of the structure of the cosmos. Wartenberg also discusses complex Renaissance illustrations of Aristotle’s views. Such illustrations offer certain advantages over verbal texts. They are easier to take in and to remember ().[1] Illustrations can help clarify complex ideas, since we can take them in at once rather than sequentially.

2. Illustrations and narratives: Plato’s Cave

I worry that there may be an overly simple text/image dichotomy underpinning some of Wartenberg’s claims. Let me first discuss Plato. It is a well-known crux of Plato studies to explain why someone so hostile to images himself employed numerous images by writing dialogues that “imitated” characters, scenes, and situations.[2] Many of the images Socrates offers in his conversations are heavily visual. Besides the Cave, we can think of the chariot image of the soul in the Phaedrus, Aristophanes’ double-bodied lovers in the Symposium, and the aviary with birds of knowledge in the Theaetetus.[3] Now, you might suspect that some ancient Greek terminology is about to come up here, and you would be correct. It is not clear that the classical Greeks had and used a word equivalent to our English term ‘illustration.’ ‘Image‘ can be a translation of several key Greek words, including both ‘mimēsis’ (imitation) and ‘eikon’ (likeness). These tend to be used as terms of derogation in Plato, as in the Divided Line analogy or the treatment of tragedy in Republic X.[4]

Importantly, the Cave analogy starts with Socrates instructing Glaucon to “imagine” a situation in which prisoners are forced to gaze upon figures that are deceptive images, mere shadows. Glaucon comments, “It’s a strange image (eikon) you’re describing, and strange prisoners.”[5] We soon learn, though, that not all likenesses (images) are equally deceptive. In fact, within the higher sections of the Divided Line, some truth is reached by geometers who hypothesize using images.

Wartenberg calls the examples of illustrations of the Cave text-based. But, while illustrations of the Cave are in one sense text-based, since they stem from the text of the Republic, they are also image-based in that they are illustrations of something that is itself an image. Much the same is true of the Timaeus cosmos illustrations. Indeed, the whole of the Timaeus is said, at the end, to have been an “eikos muthos” or “likely story”—note the key term “eikos” here.[6]

Pondering this point, I wonder how texts and illustrations are mentally processed. Is it through perception, ratiocination, or what? Is an illustration of a textual image (for example, the Cave) easier to grasp than an illustration of a concept from a philosopher (the transcendental self, or the primary/secondary quality distinction)? A further complication is that Socrates’ illustration of the Cave is a story: we are told first to imagine the prisoners in the Cave, with their competition over the identification of shadowed objects, and then several subsequent events. Somehow one prisoner is freed and escapes; then that person returns to the Cave to free his former mates, only to be attacked by them because he fails at the contests they are used to in the Cave. It might seem more natural to illustrate the Cave through a sequence of images, as in a comic book or film.[7] It is not clear to me that seeing an illustration of the Cave situation is easier or more memorable than imagining it while reading the original story.

Wartenberg draws a parallel between successful illustrations and good textual translations: They both aim at the goals of felicity and faithfulness. When the original philosophical text is a narrative, an illustrator must not only translate the verbal into the visual but also convert a story into a still. Viewers, in turn, do the reverse, by inferring back again to the story from the still.  As an example, Wartenberg discusses illustrations of a scene from Canto XXVIII of Dante’s Inferno, in which the poet describes a man’s just punishment as part of a story. Here we are told of a schismatic, Bertram de Born, who is punished by being forced to carry around his own head like a lantern. This is a verbal image that conveys Dante’s conception of contrapasso as just punishment. Diverse illustrations of the tale exist. Botticelli depicts this poor fellow as part of a broader scene, whereas Gustav Doré zeroes in on him to heighten the horror of his situation. In both cases, the viewer is meant to grasp the point of the illustration by supplying the added context of the whole tale of Virgil’s voyage into the layers of Hell. I wonder, then, whether and how we can compare the philosophical value or “quality” of diverse illustrations of a given text.

3. Illustrations and arguments: Examples from Aristotle

Wartenberg notes that examples like the narrative stories in the Republic and the Inferno are relatively rare in philosophy texts. He asks whether visual illustrations can render more standard philosophical techniques, such as “claims, arguments, and theories.”[8] The processes that occur when a person “receives” an image in an illustration must become more complex as the illustrations themselves get developed. I use ‘receive’ as a neutral term here, but surely more is involved than just looking at or seeing a picture of some sort. Wartenberg discusses examples of French fourteenth-century illustrations of Aristotle’s philosophy.[9] In a beautiful, illuminated manuscript, Aristotle’s three types of friendship are shown through a painting that shows three pairs of men who are presumably friends of distinct types, with distinctive clothes and activities. This manuscript, like another one showing Aristotle’s three types of justice, works through personification. These images were intended to help people remember abstract concepts in manuscripts translating Aristotle’s Latin texts into newly developed French terms.[10]  Perhaps the pictures would help students by serving as a kind of short-hand version of the more complex and nuanced theoretical concepts that they illustrate. For instance, since one pair of friends in the first illustration are shown as monks, the pupil will be reminded that some friendships are based upon goodness of character rather than on pleasure.

There are later (1614) print engravings of some of Aristotle’s texts that Wartenberg describes as using forms of analogical illustration. One such image, which Wartenberg labels “Descriptio” (Figure 3.3, p. 67), depicts multiple parts of Aristotle’s logic as diverse forms of knowledge growing like plants in an elaborate garden. This picture uses the recently introduced notion of a formal garden to help students grasp unfamiliar concepts from Aristotle’s philosophy. Other broadsides illustrated different aspects of Aristotle’s thought. For example, the one titled “Synopsis” depicts Aristotle’s views on form, matter, and substantial change, by using an analogical illustration based upon a biological metaphor.[11] These images are large and very complex, with many small details. They even include bits of text here and there as labels of items shown in various parts of the drawings. (It is a welcome feature of Wartenberg’s text that many of the images like this one are reproduced in the book, including a number in beautiful, full-color plates.)

Wartenberg, following art historian Susanna Berger, calls such illustrations “plural images” with conceptual unity (p. 69).[12] The garden image shows more than just plants, a fountain, and tree; distinct roles are played by figures shown alongside, above, and under the garden; and, as mentioned just above, bits of text are also included. Despite the complexity of the picture, Wartenberg says, “the garden is a pictorial element that unifies all the diverse elements in the broadside into a single imaginary scene” (p. 69). He admits, however, that it is unlikely that a viewer could easily take in all the image’s visual elements at once.[13] Indeed, Wartenberg says, “A plural image dictates to the viewer an appropriate sequence for understanding it” (p. 70).

But this mental complexity in processing images conflicts with Wartenberg’s previous claims about the greater simplicity, speed, and ease of viewing images. Another quite complex illustration he discusses is the well-known picture done by Bosse that serves as the frontispiece of Hobbes’s Leviathan. Wartenberg holds that this illustration presents some key ideas of that text in a particularly “succinct” manner, “because of the nature of visual images as opposed to characteristics of words” (p. 84). Whereas words present ideas sequentially, he says, a visual image can “include an array of numerous elements that the viewer takes in essentially all at once” (p. 84).[14]  Again, this leaves me confused about what it means to say a viewer is “taking in” the image all at once.

4. Are there musical illustrations of philosophy?

Another point that strikes me when thinking about Aristotle suggests broader questions about the possibly varied nature of philosophical images. [15] In Aristotle’s plan for moral education in Politics VIII, there is a very prominent role for music.[16] Plato had similarly argued in Republic IV and The Laws that music is important for imparting good character to youths. This is because music imitates or represents characters; Aristotle says, “In the tunes themselves are mimmata of types of character” (Politics 1340a38–39). By representing moral characters, certain musical types help to “cultivate the power of forming right judgment.”

These passages from ancient moral theorists make me wonder if Wartenberg might agree there can be musical illustrations of philosophy. How would such images work? At least in part, the Greek answer offers an intriguing variant on the idea that we absorb examples in images by some kind of “passive” perception alone. Plato and Aristotle both held that not just hearing but also performing music was important for moral education. There is a bodily-emotional effect on pupils when they are trained to perform music with diverse rhythms and cadences. Aristotle says that music (presumably, when heard) is better able to do this than arts employing the other senses, even sight. Listening to music can actually change our souls. Habits of feeling pleasure at certain mimēseis or representations (including those in music) can lead to similar habits of being pleased by the right things in real life—and presumably, ultimately to the right choices and actions—although scholars have disagreed about how to construe these views. [17]

Perhaps musical illustrations of philosophy do exist and can serve as pedagogical aids like some of the visual examples Wartenberg mentions, but such illustrations are perceived in a unique way that involves internalization through our emotions in addition to our thoughts. Martial music might convey ideas of courage, while more tranquil rhythms and harmonies illustrate the virtue of self-control.[18] This would be easier for young people than, say, learning through a more extended and tedious process of applying examples of practical syllogisms to discern appropriate behaviors.

5. Understanding vs. interpreting philosophical pictures

The final issue I want to discuss also concerns ways in which viewers mentally process various types of images. This arises in response to points in Wartenberg’s Chapter 5, “Paintings that Illustrate Philosophy.” My focus is on the nature and role of interpretation in comprehending both texts and illustrations. Wartenberg speaks at times of giving an “analysis” of a Renaissance illustration of Aristotle’s views, and of the need for unpacking the purport of some illustrations in a certain sequence. This task sounds much like textual interpretation to me. Let us suppose that the relevant interpretation of illustrations is a mental process through which we seek to understand how an illustration functions to convey a philosophical idea. In Chapter 5, Wartenberg discusses a distinctive use of illustrations by three philosophers, Nietzsche, Foucault, and Heidegger. These thinkers did not create a new image as Plato or Dante had done to convey or clarify a philosophical point. Instead, they imported their unique philosophical ideas back into already existing images and argued that the artist had presented a version of the new theories that the philosophers were presenting. In so doing, they made an existing painting into a philosophical illustration of their own work. For example, in The Order of Things, Foucault takes Velázquez’s painting, Las Meninas, to be making a point that he, Foucault, thinks is true about how human ideas are framed by distinct historical stages. On his account, the painting illustrates key philosophical points about subjectivity and knowledge in what Foucault calls the “episteme” of Modernity.

Wartenberg compares this distinctive sort of philosophical use of paintings to art historical interpretations. As with art historians’ work, philosophers’ interpretations are more or less plausible according to whether the new philosophical theory can reasonably be seen to afford a persuasive account of what the relevant artist’s intentions might have been. Wartenberg comments that, “what the theory does is to guide an interpretation of the painting that posits it as an illustration of that very theory” (p. 129.) Judged on these grounds, he thinks, Foucault’s interpretation of Las Meninas is plausible, since Velázquez can reasonably be understood as aiming at a point like the one Foucault has in mind.

We could compare Foucault’s interpretation of the Velázquez work with an interpretation of a work by an art historian, such as Svetlana Alpers’ interpretation of Vermeer’s The Art of Painting. Vermeer’s work is often compared with Las Meninas, since it is also a great artist’s meditation on the nature of painting itself. Both paintings have been construed as deeply reflective and even philosophical in nature. In her 1983 book, The Art of Describing, Alpers explains the Vermeer work’s meaning by highlighting the word “Descriptio” written at the top of the map on the background wall of Vermeer’s painting. She uses this observation to ground an interpretation of what Vermeer was “saying” about how mapmaking and painting compare as modes of describing, knowing about, and indeed representing the world.[19]

I agree that there is some plausibility in comparing philosophers’ interpretations of paintings to the interpretations of art historians. However, as Wartenberg is no doubt aware, there are numerous disputes in aesthetics about when an interpretation of an artwork is plausible or “true.” Reference to artists’ intentions is frequently cited as a factor that is important in assessing the truth of interpretations, but some accounts eschew this factor in favor of some sort of implied author, an audience response, or a more contextual/historical account. If one emphasizes the role of audience response in constructing interpretations, then we might say that Heidegger’s “reading” of Van Gogh’s painting of peasant boots is valuable even if it does not accurately reflect what the artist’s actual intentions may have been (as critics have argued).

Given the complexity of existing debates on these issues, I am doubtful that we can successfully rely on artists’ intentions in judging the value of philosophical interpretations that treat artworks as illustrations. This is not to mention a related point: If an art historian like Alpers advances an interpretation of a work like The Art of Painting that is a very philosophical account, since it concerns the relation of any representation to the world, is she thereby doing the work of a philosopher? What makes Alpers’ interpretation different from Foucault’s?

6. Conclusion

Thoughtful Images tells a sweeping historical story; I have only been able to skim the surface of this ambitious book. Wartenberg’s examples are quite varied, moving from the ancient Greeks to the Renaissance and beyond. The modern and contemporary examples include significant and detailed explorations of philosophical illustrations in or of works by Wittgenstein, Bochner, various comics, and “graphic philosophy” works by Lichtenstein, McCloud, Bechtel, and others. Here, my discussion has focused on questions about how people in general, including philosophers, understand and make sense of illustrations and, indeed, of images in general. We may apprehend images visually all at once, but, in many cases, we also ponder, analyze, and interpret them, just as we must do with philosophical works conveyed through texts. The differences are perhaps less than we might have imagined before reading this rich and penetrating book.


Cynthia Freeland

Cynthia Freeland is Professor Emerita of Philosophy at the University of Houston. She has published on topics in ancient philosophy, feminist philosophy, film theory, and aesthetics. Her books include But Is It Art? (Oxford, 2001) and Portraits and Persons (Oxford, 2010). From 2014-2016 she served as president of the American Society for Aesthetics.

Published November 25, 2023.

Cite this article: Cynthia Freeland, “Reading Texts and Pictures,” Contemporary Aesthetics, Volume 21 (2023), accessed date.



[1] Wartenberg cites an empirical study [Levie and Lentz, 1982] in support of this claim.

[2] See, for example, Philosophy as Drama: On Plato’s Way of Thinking through Dialogue, ed. Vigdis Songe-Moller and Hallvard Fossheim, Bloomsbury Press, 2019.

[3] Wartenberg mentions Renaissance illustrations of myths like these on 65; see his n. 9.

[4] There is a word for “illustration” in classical Greek, epexēgēsē. However, Nicholas Denyer has told me that this is from later usage, not from Plato and Aristotle (private correspondence). Occasionally Plato uses other words which we translate as “figure” or “sketch,” including schedio and diagramma.

[5] Plato, Republic VII, 515a3 (translated Grube/rev. Reeve), from Plato, Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Hackett, Indianapolis and Cambridge, 1997), 1132.

[6] See my articles, “Schemes and Scenes of Reading the Timaeus,” in Feminist Reflections on the History of Philosophy (The New Synthese Historical Library), ed. Lilli Alanen and Charlotte Witt (Springer, 2004), 33-49; and “Imagery in the Phaedrus: Seeing, Growing, Nourishing,” Symbolae Osloenses 84 (2010).

[7] A nice animation of Aristophanes’ tale of lovers can be viewed at and a versions of the Analogy of the Cave at

[8] In fact, even an argument-heavy philosopher like Aristotle uses many analogies in his works (see Wartenberg’s reference to Hesse 1965 on this point,  71).

[9] These illustrated editions of translations of the Nicomachean Ethics and Politics were produced at the request of Charles V of France in the 1370’s with translations by Nicole Oresme, a French philosopher.

[10] Still, the illustration on its own does little to explain the intricacies of Aristotle’s views, such as his argument that a friend is another self, or that friends should live together.

[11] Art historian Susanna Berger explains that students and scholars using these illustrations would be able to work with both spatial constructs and visual commentaries. Wartenberg follows Berger in her claim that in both broadsides the illustration does some real philosophical work by illuminating novel ideas, such as how a proposition emerges from noun and verb like the fruit of two palm trees, and how a person emerges from the imposition of form upon matter.

[12] Martin Meurisse (1584–1644), a Franciscan professor of philosophy at the Grand Couvent des Cordeliers in Paris, commissioned these to help educate his students. Susanna Berger comments, “their inventive iconography inspired new visualizations of thought in a range of drawn and printed sources: from the lecture notebooks of students in Leuven to eighteenth-century German textbooks.” See

[13] Much the same is true of the illustrations from Hobbes and Rousseau that Wartenberg discusses in Chapter 4.

[14] This seems to contradict Wartenberg’s remarks on the sequence of understanding the Aristotle illustrations. He admits that “to analyze the image is to deconstruct its unity in order to be able to articulate its meaning verbally” (84).

[15] This is a view Aristotle actually shares with Plato, despite his teacher’s notorious critique of imitations in Republic X. Plato in both Republic IV and The Laws outlined important uses of poetry and music for educating youths in a just society.

[16] For scholarly discussions, see Sophie Bourgault, “Music and Pedagogy in the Platonic City,” The Journal of Aesthetic Education. Vol. 46, No. 1 (Spring 2012),  59-72; Philipp Brüllmann, “Music Builds Character, Aristotle, Politics VIII 5, 1340a14–b5”, Apeiron 2013; 46(4): 345–373; Howard Curzer, “Aristotle’s Painful Path to Virtue, Journal of the History of Philosophy, 40 No. 2 (2002): 141-162; Andrew Ford , “Catharsis: The Power of Music in Aristotle’s Politics,” in P. Murray and P. Wilson (eds.), Music and the Muses: The Culture of ‘Mousikē’ in the Classical Athenian City, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2004, 309–36; and Paul Woodruff, “Aristotle on Mimēsis” in A. Oksenberg Rorty (ed.), Essays on Aristotle’s Poetics. Princeton: Princeton University Press 1992,  73–95.

[17] I have offered a more detailed account in my “Comments for Marta Jimenez,” delivered at the Central Division APA, Tuesday, February 23, 2021 (unpublished). Recent theories concerning emotions in music indicate that we may still think along these lines at least in some cases. See Jenefer Robinson, Deeper Than Reason: Emotion and Its Role in Literature, Music, and Art, Oxford University Press, 2005.

[18] Rhythms and melodies are similar to states of character in that they can have the same sorts of effect on a listener as states of character do. Victor Caston has attempted to explain this idea with the example of Beethoven’s Eroica. See Caston, “Aristotle and the Problem of Intentionality,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research Vol. LVIII, No. 2, June 1998, 249-298. The idea is, for example, that the Eroica can represent Napoleon’ s bravery insofar as both are able to arouse the same reaction (278).

[19] Svetlana Alpers, The Art of Describing, Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century, University of Chicago Press, 1983. To view excerpts from numerous other scholars’ quite varied interpretations of this work, see Essential Vermeer, “Critical Assessments: What is the meaning of The Art of Painting?,” at