The purpose of this paper is twofold:
to define the problem of thick representation and to show that the problem is a
puzzle for representation rather than a puzzle for a specific art form or art,
in general, as has previously been suggested. In the course of identifying and
formulating the problem, I shall demonstrate why the solution proposed thus far
fails to solve either the artistic problem at which it is aimed or the
representational problem I define. I conclude by indicating two promising
directions in which a solution might be found and by explaining the
philosophical and critical significance of finding a solution.
art; cognitive value; literature;
In “Realism and Representation: The
Case of Rembrandt’s Hat,” Michael Morris uses Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait with
Two Circles (1660) to illustrate the concept of conspicuous representation.
Conspicuous representations are “ways of representing the real world which call
attention to their own medium of representation.” They are contrasted with
self-effacing representations, in which “an effort is made to prevent the
medium calling attention to itself, or when the use of the medium follows some
over-familiar formula.” Significantly, conspicuous
representations not only draw attention to their medium but also to that which
they represent. In his self-portrait, Rembrandt represents his hat with thick,
greasy, white paint that fails to cover the darker background completely.
Morris maintains that it is impossible not to see Rembrandt’s simple strokes of
creamy paint qua paint but they nonetheless constitute an especially
effective representation of a cloth hat. The representation is puzzling because
it is both conspicuous, in drawing attention to itself as paint, and vivid, in
revealing the character of the hat:
representations are often particularly effective at presenting the character of
something in the real world precisely in virtue of calling attention to some
feature of the medium of representation… .
Morris is concerned with
representational art, in general, rather than painting, but his paper is
focused entirely on pictorial representation. In disambiguating conspicuous
representation from related issues, for example, he distinguishes it from
Richard Wollheim’s seeing-in and Robert Hopkins' inflected seeing-in. The question of seeing-in concerns
the way in which three-dimensional objects are represented on two-dimensional
surfaces and is related to what E.H. Gombrich describes as “the essential
paradox of painting, which is that it represents depth on a surface.” Furthermore, Morris names no other
work of art in his paper and does not refer to Self-Portrait with Two Circles
by name but the only other example discussed is of “a trompe l’oeil
violin painted on the back of a door in a great house,” which seems to either
refer to or have been inspired by Jan van der Vaardt’s
Trompe l’oeil of a violin and bow hanging on a door
Morris’ examples and argument thus
focus on painting, and the extension of his thesis of conspicuous
representation to art, in general, is reliant on essentialist assumptions about
works of art for which he fails to argue and which I do not wish to assume
here. I shall therefore restrict his thesis to its strongest version, as a
thesis about painting, and augment it with another example, Picasso’s
representation of a violin in Violin and Grapes (1912). Gombrich employs
Picasso’s still life as a paradigmatic example of a cubist work, describing the
painting as representing the way in which one thinks of a violin, that is, of
different aspects simultaneously, with some more distinct than others. In Morris’ terms, Violin and
Grapes both draws attention to a feature of the representation, the
juxtaposition of shapes on the canvas, and presents the character of real
violins. I shall leave open the question of whether the cubist style is
particularly suited to conspicuous representation.
Picasso, Violin and Grapes (1912)
Morris distinguishes between the
psychological and philosophical questions raised by the phenomenon of
conspicuous representation and restricts his interest to the latter. He sets
out the problem of conspicuous representation in terms of the truth of both of
the following two contradictory propositions:
conspicuous representations enable us to understand the world as it is in
representations can only enable us to understand the world as it stands to
their own means of representation.
Rembrandt and Picasso’s respective
works seem to tell us something about real cloth hats and real violins (A), but
the fact that they draw attention to the thickly applied paint and carefully arranged
shapes on the canvases suggests that they can only tell us about hats and
violins in relation to textures and shapes (B). The problem that Morris sets
out to solve is thus about the cognitive value of conspicuous representation.
Before casting the problem in my own
terms and examining Morris’s solution, there are two points about his example
that require clarification. If one compares Self-Portrait with Two Circles
with the self-portrait Rembrandt completed earlier in the same year, Self-Portrait
at the Easel (1660), he appears to be wearing a similar or identical hat.
Rembrandt, Self-Portrait with Two Circles (1660)
Rembrandt, Self-Portrait at the Easel (1660)
The comparison between the
representations of the hat in each painting serves as a nice illustration of
Morris’ point. One does not need to see the actual painting in Kenwood House to
realize that the white paint in Self-Portrait with Two Circles “is
applied thickly, almost in slabs” in a way that draws attention to the
brushstrokes on the canvas. Rembrandt was, however, in the habit
of leaving some parts of his paintings crudely depicted in comparison with the
rest, creating an unfinished appearance. Gombrich uses the example of Jan
Six (1654), where Rembrandt “left the hand in the glove as a mere sketch”
in contrast to the rest of his friend, who is depicted in lifelike detail.
Rembrandt, Jan Six (1654)
The question of whether Rembrandt is
attempting to draw attention to the medium of painting in Self-Portrait with
Two Circles or is, as Gombrich puts it, exercising his right to decide when
the painting is finished is not, however, relevant to Morris’ thesis that
excludes both artistic intention and the expression of emotion or attitudes as
A detailed discussion of artistic technique is
beyond the scope of this paper but the contrast between Rembrandt’s hat and
Six’s gloved hand offers a ready answer. Although there is a sense in which
both representations are crudely sketched rather than finely detailed, the hat,
due to the features identified by Morris, draws attention to the paint in a way
that the hand does not. My conclusion is that the property of being unfinished,
however that is construed, is neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition of
The second point concerns what Morris
calls reflexive representations, “representations which are concerned to
represent features of their own medium of representation: paintings in which
painters are at work painting, for example.” Unlike Self-Portrait at the Easel,
Self-Portrait with Two Circles does not depict Rembrandt actually at
work, as he has turned away from his canvas and adopted a pose, but there is
nonetheless a sense in which the painting draws attention to its medium of
representation in a way that Jan Six does not. The point is better
illustrated by paradigmatic examples of reflexive representations, such as
Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656) and Magritte’s Attempting the
Impossible (1928). Morris distinguishes the issue raised by conspicuous
representation from the issues raised by reflexive representation. Once again,
comparison can be employed to offer evidence for his claim. The way in which
the representation of the hat in Self-Portrait with Two Circles and the
representation of Velázquez painting a portrait in Las Meninas draw
attention to the medium of painting is entirely different. My conclusion is
that the property of being reflexive is neither a sufficient nor necessary
condition for conspicuous representation.
Las Meninas (1656)
In The Event of Literature,
Terry Eagleton identifies a paradox characteristic of the linguistic medium of
representation, which he refers to variously as “the idea of the self-flaunting
sign,” the “paradox of the poetic sign,” and the paradox of “the dual nature of
Unlike Morris, Eagleton is not setting out a problem preparatory to
presenting one or more solutions but articulating a paradox that is at least
partly constitutive of the poetic or literary medium of representation. The
paradox nonetheless poses a problem for a specific literary genre, literary
realism, and my discussion of Eagleton’s work will focus on this problem. Eagleton
introduces the idea of the self-flaunting sign while attempting to delineate a
plausible concept of literature, noting the difference between obtrusive, or
conspicuous, and self-effacing literary styles, typified by authors such as
Flaubert and Hemingway, respectively. In a manner reminiscent of Morris’
treatment of reflexive representations, Eagleton is quick to point out that the
obtrusive style cannot be reduced to self-referentiality and quotes Britain’s
Banking Act 1979 as an example of a text that has failed to attract poetic
interest despite its explicit self-reference.
He explores the obtrusive style by articulating the paradoxical nature
of the referential relations of the self-flaunting or poetic sign, where the
latter appears to be a sub-category of the former. The poetic use of language
appears to both loosen the link between word and world by drawing attention to
the poem as a representation, and increase the referential power of the words by
means of its formal density.
Eagleton regards the paradox of the poetic sign as the paradigm of a
more basic paradox of the linguistic sign:
is a paradox involved in the dual nature of language. This is the fact that the
more rigorously one specifies, the more general possibilities one evokes. To
depict a thing in all its singularity means laying language on thick; but this
then swaddles the thing in a dense web of connotations and allows the
imagination to play freely around it.
The paradox is caused by the ambiguity
of meaning, the combination of denotation and connotation essential to
linguistic representation. As Eagleton’s initial name for the paradox suggests,
this ambiguity is not exclusive to linguistic signs or linguistic
representations. A picture of a bulldog can signify both a breed of dog and a
nation state. The ambiguity may be more prominent in linguistic signs, however,
due to the necessary absence of resemblance, that is, 'bulldog' resembles
neither a bulldog nor a nation, but a picture of a bulldog standardly resembles
an actual bulldog. In his book, Eagleton’s concern is restricted to linguistic
signs, so he is not required to make a more general claim; I shall return to
this question in Section 3. The paradox of the linguistic sign is exacerbated
in poetry but is symptomatic of the poetic sign rather than problematic: “The
more thickly textured the poem’s language, the more it becomes a thing in its
own right, yet the more it can gesture beyond itself.” For Eagleton, the paradox only
becomes a problem in the genre of literary realism. The realist author attempts
to represent the real world by means of language and creates a representation
where “what looks free-floating and particularized is covertly ordered into a
more 'typical' or generic set of fables, characters and situations.” The relation between the particular
and the general presents the following problem for the author:
the general attitudes of a realist text are incarnate in its concrete
particulars, those particulars need to be realised as compellingly as possible.
Indeed, literature is the “thickest” description of reality that we have. Yet
this may have the effect of undercutting the work’s overall way of seeing,
drawing the reader’s eye from that to the details that instantiate it. The text
needs to allude to more than itself, but not at the expense of the very
specificity which renders such allusions pervasive. The concrete is the medium
of the general, but can always end up obstructing it.
The realist author aims to explore and
develop general or universal subjects and themes by means of compelling
concrete particulars. Flaubert, for example, explores the ethics of
powerlessness by means of his thick descriptions of everyday domestic life in Madame
These thick descriptions generate their own interest, however, and this
interest is at odds with and can threaten to overwhelm or obstruct interest in
the theme. The tension between particular and universal that realist authors
must negotiate is supervenient on the tension between denotation and
connotation in linguistic representation. In attempting to draw attention to
the real world, authors employ thick descriptions that draw attention away from
the real world to the medium of representation.
The problem for literary realism is
similar to Morris’ problem of conspicuous representation, which is consistent
with Morris’ claim that conspicuous representation occurs across all art forms.
I shall set out the problem in a way that mirrors Morris’ formulation while
remaining faithful to Eagleton’s conception. Realist poets aim to represent the
world as it is, that is, in all its detail and complexity. In consequence of
the way in which concrete particulars are realized in linguistic
representation, realist poetic representations are typically thick, that is,
rich in formal features such as structure, morphology (the patterns of word
formation), syntax (the rules of sentence formation), meter (the arrangement of
words in regularly measured, patterned, or rhythmic lines or verses), and
tropes (all literary or rhetorical devices that use words in other than their
literal sense). These formal features draw attention to the poetic medium of
representation. The philosophical problem arises with the apparent truth of
both of the following contradictory propositions:
representations of reality draw attention away from their medium of
representation to the world.
representations of reality draw attention away from the world to their medium
I shall call this the problem of
Thus far I have discussed two kinds of
artistic representation, conspicuous and poetic. My concern is with modes of
representation rather than art forms, however, so the kinds in which I am
interested are pictorial representation and linguistic representation, which I
representation: the representans, a picture, either a painting or a
photograph, represents the representatum, an object, either physical or
abstract, by means of depiction.
representation: the representans, a series of words, either written or
spoken, represents the representatum, an object, either physical or
abstract, by means of description.
Drawing on Eagleton’s claims that
poetic language is thick in texture and literary language, the thickest
description of reality available, I shall apply Gilbert Ryle’s thick/thin
distinction to representation. Recall that Morris distinguishes between
conspicuous representations that draw attention to their medium of
representation, and self-effacing representations that draw attention away from
their medium of representation. Morris notes two ways in which a representation
can be self-effacing: either the artist makes an effort to prevent the medium
from drawing attention to itself or the artist employs an over-familiar
formula. In the latter case, representations draw attention away from their
medium of representation by employing well-established conventions that do not
require interpretation or are so familiar that interpretation is automatic.
With this in mind, I employ the thick/thin distinction as follows:
representation: a representation that draws attention to its representans,
that is, to the medium of representation.
representation: a self-effacing representation that draws attention to its representatum,
that is, to the subject of representation.
There are four points to note about
this distinction. First, both Morris’ conspicuous representations and
Eagleton’s poetic representations are thick representations. Second, the
thick/thin distinction is gradational rather than categorical. Third, thickness
and thinness are antagonistic properties such that a representation cannot be
both thick and thin, and the extent to which a representation is thick is
inversely proportional to the extent to which it is thin. Finally, the
distinction is neutral with respect to artistic representation. Thickness may
be a necessary or a sufficient condition of artistic representation but
classification as art or non-art is beyond the scope of the problem in which I
My concern in this paper is with the
cognitive value of representations, which I define as follows:
value: a representation is cognitively valuable to the extent that it provides
knowledge of the world as it is in itself.
My definition employs Morris’ contrast
between knowledge of the world as it is in itself and knowledge of the world as
it stands to the particular medium of representation. I do not deny that the latter
is knowledge or has cognitive value; it is simply not the kind of cognitive
value in which I am interested here. Returning to my example in section 1, no
violin, not even one that has been disassembled, looks like Picasso’s thick
representation of a violin in Violin and grapes. Similarly, Erich
Auerbach makes the following observation concerning a passage in chapter twelve
of the second part of Madame Bovary:
is not at all a naturalistic representation of consciousness. Natural shocks
occur quite differently. The ordering hand of the writer is present here,
deliberately summing up the confusion of the psychological situation in the
direction toward which it tends of itself – the direction of “aversion to
Auerbach is commenting on a specific
passage, but the ordering hand of the writer is obvious in most, if not all,
thick linguistic representations. The relation I am proposing between
thickness/thinness and cognitive value, as defined above, is thus:
cognitive value of a representation is directly proportional to its thinness.
cognitive value of a representation is inversely proportional to its thickness.
If (1) and (2) are correct, then one
would expect thick representations to be poor vehicles for providing knowledge
about the world as it is. The comparison of thick and thin representations of a
similar representatum suggests that this is not always the case.
Consider the following comparison, the pictorial pair taken from Kendall
(1) Representatum: the horror of war.
representation: Goya’s “Even Worse” (1810), part of his The Disasters of War.
representation: Timothy H. O’Sullivan’s photograph, Death on a Misty Morning
Dublin on June 16, 1904.
representation: Joyce’s Ulysses (1922).
representation: The Irish Times for June 16, 1904.
It seems that, in at least some cases,
thick representations can have a higher cognitive value than corresponding thin
representations. Gombrich and Auerbach both gesture towards this phenomenon in
their respective commentaries on Violin and grapes and Virginia Woolf’s To
yet this strange medley of images represents more of the ‘real’ violin than any
simple snapshot or meticulous painting could ever contain.”
both excurses we are dealing with attempts to fathom a more genuine, a deeper,
and indeed a more real reality.”
Recall from section 1 that the problem
Morris is seeking to solve is how artistic representations are often
particularly effective at presenting the character of something in the real
world precisely in virtue of calling attention to some feature of the medium of
representation. That is the problem of conspicuous representation. Recall from
section 2 that the problem Eagleton identified for the realist author was that,
in attempting to draw attention to the real world, he or she employs thick
descriptions that draw attention away from the real world to the medium of
representation. This is the problem of poetic representation. Both the
phenomena of conspicuous representation and poetic representation are
instantiations of thick representation as defined above. The problem with which
I am concerned, the problem of thick representation, can be set out in the form
of a paradox containing three propositions for whose plausibility I have argued
but which are nonetheless mutually inconsistent:
(1) Thick representations draw attention to
attention to the representatum is a necessary condition of cognitive
thick representations are cognitively valuable.
Morris sets out the problem of
conspicuous representation in terms of the following pair of contradictory
conspicuous representations enable us to understand the world as it is in
representations can only enable us to understand the world as it stands to
their own means of representation.
He claims that both propositions are
true and solves the problem by demonstrating that (1) and (2) are not
contradictory by means of a third proposition:
representations enable us to understand the world as it is in itself as it
stands to their own means of representation.
Morris maintains that (3) shows not
only the point of conspicuous representation but the point of artistic, as
opposed to non-artistic, representation. Morris reaches (3) by returning to
the question of the cognitive value of conspicuous representation and amending
(Cog) to (Cog2):
basic virtue of conspicuous representation is that it enables us to understand
basic virtue of conspicuous representation is that it reveals what it
represents as the object of its own medium of representation.
By “the object of its own medium of
representation,” Morris means that the conspicuous representation reveals the
opportunities and challenges that the particular representatum poses for
the particular representans and the way in which they are exploited and
overcome by the artist. In conspicuous representations, “we are forced to
reconsider the relation between the medium and the object of representation.” In other words, Morris has amended
his initial claim that Self-Portrait with Two Circles and Violin and
Grapes enable us to understand cloth hats and violins to the claim that the
respective paintings enable us to understand the opportunities and challenges
cloth hats and violins present for painters.
The revised proposition (3) is clearly
true but equally and clearly an unsatisfactory solution to the problem. First,
(Cog2) verges on the trivial. Paintings that draw attention to their representans
do enable us to understand the opportunities and challenges the representatum
presents to the painter but so do self-effacing pictorial representations. Even
the most self-effacing representation represents a physical or abstract object
and, in so doing, reveals its representatum as the object of its representans.
When one looks at Death on a Misty Morning or, to take a photograph that
represents colors accurately and is thus less likely to draw attention to its representans,
Kevin Carter’s Struggling Girl (1993), one is not under the illusion
that one is actually in the presence of the casualties of war and famine depicted.
The only obvious exception to this rule is trompe l’oeil, which seems to
have the potential to be completely self-effacing, at least on initial viewing.
If one grants this, then, aside from trompe l’oeil representations,
(Cog2) and, therefore, (3) are true of most representations, even if
conspicuous representations may provide a more sophisticated understanding than
Second, compare the violin in Violin
and Grapes with, for example, Frans Hals’ more readily recognizable violin
in Daniel van Aken Playing the Violin (1640).
Hals, Daniel van Aken Playing the Violin (1640)
Hals’ representation of a
violin provides an accurate depiction of what it is like to see a real violin
from a particular angle, and an accurate depiction of real motion, Van Aken’s
light touch with the bow, in a static medium. Picasso’s representation of a
violin looks, as I mentioned in section 1, nothing like a real violin but the
effect of presenting the violin from several angles at once enables the
understanding to which Gombrich alludes, mentioned in section 3. The different
understanding of violins enabled by Hals and Picasso cannot be explained by
attributing (3) to Picasso’s work because Violin and Grapes enables more
than an understanding of the relationship between violins and painting. (1) is more
appropriate than (3) because Violin and Grapes enables us to understand
the various constitutive properties of the concept violin, that is, violins as
they are. By contrast, (3) is more appropriate in describing the cognitive
value of Hals’ work because Daniel van Aken Playing the Violin enables
us to understand the perspectival problem of representing an object, the neck
of the violin, that is pointed at the viewer, which is solved by
In summary, Morris’ solution to the
problem of conspicuous representation is unsatisfactory because, although it is
true, it fails to account for the cognitive value of conspicuous
representations in two related ways: by failing to distinguish the cognitive
value of conspicuous representations from self-effacing representations and by
making an erroneously deflationary claim about conspicuous representations. An
application of Morris’ solution to the problem of conspicuous representation to
the problem of thick representation would involve a straightforward rejection
of the second proposition, that is, drawing attention to the representatum
is a necessary condition of cognitive value, on the basis that drawing
attention to the representans is cognitively valuable in the sense of
(Cog2), that is, revealing the representatum as the object of the representans.
As such, the criticism I have made of the conspicuous representation solution
can be reiterated: (Cog2) is neither a satisfactory account of the cognitive
value of conspicuous representations nor a satisfactory account of the
cognitive value of thick representations.
5. New solutions?
As noted in section 1, Morris
differentiates conspicuous representation from both seeing-in and inflected
seeing-in. The problems of thick representation and seeing-in are similarly
different, but Hopkins’ inflected seeing-in and Michael Newall’s related
imbrication are nonetheless suggestive of a resolution to the paradox with
which I am concerned. Seeing-in refers to the twofoldness of the visual
experience of pictures, as contrasted with the visual experience of objects. Wollheim’s proposal is that unlike
seeing a cloth hat, for example, seeing a painting of a cloth hat involves
seeing both the surface of the painting and the cloth hat in that painted
surface. He initially conceived of twofoldness in terms of two simultaneous
experiences but his subsequent conception of a single experience with two
aspects has become the standard account.
Hopkins’ employs Dominic McIver Lopes’
distinction between the design of a picture and the scene visible in the
According to Lopes, design refers to “those visible surface properties
in virtue of which a picture depicts what it does.”
Design is thus what Morris is attending to when he writes of seeing
Rembrandt’s simple strokes of creamy paint qua paint. Hopkins claims
that inflected seeing-in occurs when “what is seen in a surface includes
properties a full characterization of which needs to make reference to that
He uses Rembrandt’s sketch of Jan Cornelisz Sylvius (1646) as an example
of inflected seeing-in, stating that one does not just see a hand in the sketch
but a hand constituted by strokes of ink.
Rembrandt, Sketch of JC Sylvius (1646)
The contrast with seeing-in seems to
be something like this. In seeing-in, one sees, for example, the gesture of a
right hand (scene) in the photograph (design) of Dorothea Lange’s Migrant
Mother (1936), and that gesture can be characterized without reference to
the paper or emulsion used to produce the photographic print. In inflected
seeing-in, one sees the gesture of a left hand (scene) in Rembrandt’s sketch
(design), but the gesture cannot be fully characterized without referring to
the ink on the paper, specifically the brushstrokes that flow upwards, in
contrast to the downward flow of the strokes constituting the robe, and
outwards, towards the viewer. In other words, in order to characterize the
properties of the representatum (moving hand) fully, one must refer to
the properties of the representans (the way the ink has been applied to
the paper), that is, one must see the ink-strokes qua ink-strokes in
order to see not only the hand but the gesture that the hand is making.
Michael Newall proposes a particular
type of inflected seeing-in that he calls imbrication, in his discussion of the
relationship between seeing-in and transparency/opacity. Imbrication indicates “the appearance
of a picture’s subject matter when textural features of brushwork are
attributed to the surface of the subject matter rather than the picture.” Imbrication thus occurs when the
features of the brushwork, for example the thick, greasy slabs applied by
Rembrandt, are attributed to the represented cloth hat (scene/subject matter)
rather than the canvas (design/picture). Newall takes another of Rembrandt’s
self-portraits, Self-Portrait as the Apostle Paul (1661), as an example,
noting the way in which the brushstrokes depict Rembrandt’s turban, face, and
tone and texture are laid down in the same strokes, as we see in those sections
of Rembrandt’s self-portrait that I have mentioned, the elements of the
depicted texture and actual texture will be similar in size and orientation,
and so they are attributed to a single surface, that of the subject matter.
Here the textures of the paint appear imbricated with the subject matter in its
own space. This creates the appearance of a composite texture, comprised of the
texture that the picture is depicted as having through the manipulation of
tone, and the texture of the paint, which we also attribute to the depicted
Rembrandt, Self-Portrait as the Apostle Paul (1661)
Newall notes that this experience is
not twofold in Wollheim’s sense and that different parts of the same painting
may sustain distinct experiences of imbrication and transparency. In what Newall attributes to analytic
caution, Hopkins restricts his claims about inflected seeing-in to the sketch
of Jan Cornelisz Sylvius, but that sketch, in particular, and the phenomenon of
imbrication, more generally, seem to offer paradigmatic examples of thick
representation, that is, representations that draw attention to their representans.
It is also interesting that Morris and Hopkins employ works by Rembrandt
independently of each other and Morris and Newall employ self-portraits by
Rembrandt independently of each other. There is something in that artist’s style,
it seems, that succeeds in providing knowledge of the world as it is in itself,
in spite of, or perhaps in virtue of, drawing attention to the representans of
his works. As such, the research on inflected seeing-in suggests that drawing
attention to the representatum is not a necessary condition of cognitive
value for paintings and sketches. The question of whether this approach can be
applied to linguistic representation and thus provide a solution to the problem
of thick representation remains to be explored.
Nelson Goodman claims that resemblance
is neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition of representation. The relationship between a
representation and that which it represents is denotation: “A picture that
represents – like a passage that describes – an object refers to and, more
particularly, denotes it.” Denotation is contrasted with
exemplification, and the relationships are explained in terms of labeling and
sampling. Any representation can, for example, be used to denote redness but
only a red thing can be used as a sample of redness. ‘Red’ thus denotes red in virtue of
the referential relation between the word and the color, whereas a tailor’s
swatch of cloth exemplifies red in virtue of being red, that is, possessing the
property of redness, like the bolt of material of which it is a sample. The red
swatch also refers to red, however, and exemplification is possession of
redness, plus reference to redness. In other words, “denotation implies
reference between two elements in one direction while exemplification implies
reference between the two in both directions.” Reference in red occurs in one
direction, from the word to the color, and reference in the tailor’s swatch in
two directions, from the swatch to the color and from the color to the swatch.
I have used red and a tailor’s swatch as convenient examples of denotation and
exemplification, respectively, but I could equally have used the drawing and
‘red’ typed in red font instead. In this case, the former would refer to red
without possessing the property of redness and the latter would both refer to
the color and possess the color.
The problem of thick representation is
concerned with how, for example, Rembrandt’s slabs of creamy white paint
provide knowledge about cloth hats in spite of drawing attention to themselves qua
paint. Exemplification, understood in terms of possession, is suggestive of an
explanation. The representation of Rembrandt’s hat in Self-Portrait at the
Easel appears to be a case of denotation, that is, the paint on the canvas
denotes the cloth hat. In Self-Portrait with Two Circles, the paint on
the canvas not only denotes the cloth hat but appears to possess certain
properties in virtue of which it provides more knowledge of the clothiness of
the hat. Goodman employs his conception of exemplification to explain
expression, claiming: “What is expressed is metaphorically exemplified.” What is expressed is therefore
possessed, and he is explicit that “the property belongs to the symbol itself.” Expression and exemplification are
both distinct from and opposed to representation and description: “a passage or
picture may exemplify or express without describing or representing, and even
without being a description or representation at all.” Goodman summarizes his conception of
expression as displaying rather than depicting or describing, the means of
communication employed by representation. In these terms, one might say that
Rembrandt’s painting depicts the hat and displays its clothiness.
One of the appealing features of
Goodman’s theory is that it is intended to apply to all media of representation
and, perhaps more readily than answers that may emerge from inflected
seeing-in, can be just as easily brought to bear on linguistic representation.
The naturalistic representation of consciousness in Madame Bovary upon
which Auerbach comments both refers to Emma Bovary’s thoughts and expresses her
aversion to her husband:
it was above all at mealtimes that she could bear it no longer, in that little
room on the ground floor, with the smoking stove, the creaking door, the oozing
walls, the damp floor-tiles; all the bitterness of life seemed to be served to
her on her plate, and, with the steam from the boiled beef, there rose from the
depths of her soul other exhalations as it were of disgust. Charles was a
slow-eater; she would nibble a few hazel-nuts, or else, leaning on her elbow,
would amuse herself making marks on the oilcloth with the point of her
What is of particular interest here is
that the passage quoted contains no explicit aversion to Charles Bovary, as the
only mention of him is the neutral comment on his eating, but the descriptions
of the room, the food, and Emma’s actions combine to express her aversion.
Exemplification may thus be able to demonstrate that drawing attention to the representatum
is not a necessary condition of cognitive value in either pictorial or
linguistic representation. If exemplification is to provide a solution to the
problem of thick representation, however, the way in which displays provide
knowledge of the world as it is in addition to, or in virtue of, depiction and
description will require detailed explanation.
The purpose of this paper has been to
identify a problem rather than provide a solution and to field questions rather
than answers. If my argument that there is a single problem underlying the
problems of conspicuous and poetic representation is convincing, then the most
important question has yet to be answered: why does the problem of thick
representation matter? There are three
answers to this question, each of which is both independent of the others and
significant enough to warrant attention on its own merit. I list them in order
of ascending ambition.
First, at least some thick
representations are also works of art. A solution to the problem of thick
representation would therefore provide an answer to the much-debated question
of the cognitive value of art or the dispute concerning aesthetic cognitivism.
Thick representations provide knowledge in a manner that is aesthetically
relevant because it is precisely in virtue of drawing attention to the representans
that they provide knowledge of the representatum. Second, if, as I have
claimed, the problem of thick representation is not a puzzle about one or more
art forms but about representation per se, then a solution would shed
light on the mechanism by which representation operates. That solution may involve
an explication of the relationship between representation and expression, a
perennial issue in both philosophy and criticism, or involve a new direction
for research, exploring the similarities between texture in pictorial and
linguistic representation. Finally, solving the problem of the association of
cognitive value with thick representation has the potential to offer a new
theory of representation that could be applied to both artistic and cultural
criticism. Thick representation is thus not only a genuine problem but one
whose solution is well worth pursuing.
Rafe McGregor is Lecturer in
Criminology at Leeds Trinity University and the author of The Value of
Literature, Narrative Justice, and over two hundred works of fiction
and non-fiction. He can be found online at @rafemcgregor.
Published on June 26, 2018.
 Michael Morris, “Realism and Representation: The Case of
Rembrandt’s Hat,” European Journal of Philosophy 23 (2013), 909-932, 912.
 E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art, 16th
edition (London: Phaidon Press, 1995), p. 575.
 Morris, “Realism and Representation,” 925.
 Gombrich, Story of Art, p. 574.
 Morris, “Realism and Representation,” 913.
 The same may also be true of the subsequent self-portrait, Self-Portrait
as the Apostle Paul (1661), which I discuss in §5.
 Morris, “Realism and Representation,” 909.
 Gombrich, Story of Art, pp. 422-423.
 Morris, “Realism and Representation,” 911 en.6.
 Terry Eagleton, The Event of Literature (London:
Yale, 2012), p. 37-38, 84.
 The thick-thin terminology Eagleton employs is from Gilbert
Ryle, “The Thinking of Thoughts: What is ‘Le Penseur’ Doing?” in Volume II:
Collected Essays 1929-1969 (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1971), pp.
 Morris treats conspicuous representation as a sufficient
condition of artistic representation in his paper. (“Realism and
Representation,” 925) I am inclined to the view that thick representation is a
necessary condition for artistic representation.
 Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality
in Western Literature, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton: Princeton,
2003), p. 485.
 Kendall Walton, “Transparent Pictures: On the Nature of
Photographic Realism,” Critical Inquiry 11 (1984), 246-277: 247-248.
 Gombrich, Story of Art, p. 574.
 Auerbach, Mimesis, p. 540.
 Morris, “Realism and Representation,” 928.
 Ibid., 923. This is consistent with his treatment of
conspicuous representation as a sufficient condition of artistic
representation. See: en.25.
 Richard Wollheim, Art and Its Objects, 2nd
edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980 ), p. 215.
 Richard Wollheim, Painting as an Art (Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press, 1987), pp. 46-77.
 Hopkins, “Inflected Pictorial Experience,” p. 155.
 Dominic McIver Lopes, Sight and Sensibility: Evaluating
Pictures (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005 ),
 Hopkins, “Inflected Pictorial Experience,” p. 158.
 Michael Newall, “Is Seeing-In a Transparency Effect?,” British
Journal of Aesthetics, 55
(2015), 131-156: 152.
 Newall, “Transparency Effect?,” 151.
 Nelson Goodman, Languages of Art: An Approach to a
Theory of Symbols, 2nd edition (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1976),
 Auerbach’s translation of Flaubert in: Auerbach, Mimesis,