On The Epistemic Value of Photographs1
Jonathan Cohen2 and Aaron Meskin3
The photograph is the only picture that can truly
convey information, even if it is technically faulty and the object
can barely be identified.
A painting of a murder is of no interest whatever; but a photograph of
a murder fascinates everyone.
- Gerhard Richter, quoted in [Obrist, 1995], 56-57.
Many have held that photographs give us a firmer epistemic connection
to the world than do other depictive representations.
To take just one example, Bazin famously claimed that "The objective
nature of photography confers on it a quality of credibility absent
from all other picture-making" ([Bazin, 1967], 14).
Unfortunately, while the intuition in question is widely shared, it
has remained poorly understood.
In this paper we propose to explain the special epistemic status of
We take as our starting place (in §1) Kendall Walton's
startling proposal that photographs are special because they are
"transparent" [Walton, 1984] - that is, that they are special
because, unlike other depictive representations, they enable us
literally to see their depicta.4
Walton's proposal has not convinced many; however, it has proven
surprisingly difficult to say just what is wrong about the
In §§2-4 we'll rise to this challenge
and show why photographs are not transparent in Walton's sense.
Finally, in §§5-7 we'll propose and
defend a novel diagnosis of what is epistemically special about
1 Transparency and Photographs
In saying that photographs are transparent, Walton means that visually
attending to a photograph enables us to see something numerically
distinct from that photograph - viz., its
For Walton, photographs are of a kind with mirrors, telescopes, and
microscopes: they are prosthetic devices that enable us to see things
that we could not see without them (cf. [Lewis, 1980]).
Whereas these other prostheses help us to see things around corners,
very distant things, and very small things, photographs enable us to
see things that are spatiotemporally remote.6
Walton emphasizes that he means this proposal quite literally:
I must warn against watering down this suggestion, against taking it
to be a colorful, or exaggerated, or not quite literal way of making a
relatively mundane point.
I am not saying that the person looking at the dusty photographs has
the impression of seeing his ancestors - in fact, he doesn't
have the impression of seeing them "in the flesh," with the unaided
I am not saying that photography supplements vision by helping
us to discover things we can't discover by seeing....
Nor is my point that what we see - photographs - are
duplicates or doubles or reproductions of
objects, or substitutes or surrogates for them.
My claim is that we see, quite literally, our dead relatives
themselves when we look at photographs of them ([Walton, 1984],
251-252, emphasis in original).
Why does Walton insist that photographs are transparent?
He believes that there are significant similarities between the way
that photographs provide visual experiences and the way that ordinary
vision provides visual experiences.
For one, photographic images are counterfactually dependent on the
scenes they represent; for example, had your ancestor been smiling
rather than frowning, the photograph of her would have looked
For another, and unlike realistic paintings and drawings (where such
counterfactual dependency may hold), this counterfactual dependence is
not mediated by the intentional states of any intermediary agents.
As Gregory Currie puts it, there is a "natural dependence" of
photographs on the scenes that they depict ([Currie, 1995], 55).
Finally, photographs also preserve real similarity relations between
objects: like ordinary perception, confusions about photographic
representations (i.e., with respect to what they depict) tend to be
linked to real similarities between objects.
For Walton, then, photographs are transparent but paintings are not.
Moreover, he argues, this difference makes an epistemic difference -
for example, it explains why the appearance of photographs but not
that of paintings supports counterfactuals about the appearance of the
In addition, it explains why we often treat photographs as evidence
(both formal and informal), whereas we are resistant to treating
paintings and drawings as such.
We believe that Walton's proposal does highlight certain important
features of photographs that are worth capturing.
However, it has the significant defect that its core thesis - that
of the transparency of photographs - is (to put it gently) highly
But just what is wrong with this thesis?
In particular, if we are to deny the thesis, we owe an explanation of
what it is about photographs that makes them non-transparent, given
that there are other visual prostheses, such as mirrors, microscopes
and telescopes, that are transparent.
This, then, is Walton's challenge to those who reject the transparency
thesis: explain the relevant difference between photographs, on the
one hand, and mirrors (etc.), on the other.
2 Egocentric Spatial Beliefs
To motivate our own answer to Walton's challenge, it will be useful to
begin with a proposal that has been suggested by a number of
authors (cf. [Carroll, 1995], [Carroll, 1996] (62-63),
[Currie, 1991], [Currie, 1995], [Warburton, 1988]), and that
turns on an appeal to visually represented spatial information.
The idea here is that a necessary requirement for x's seeing y is
that x represents information about the spatial relations between
x and y.8
This requirement, it has been suggested, effectively draws a line in
the sand between uncontroversial examples of transparent visual
prostheses on the one hand, and photographs on the other:
With ordinary seeing, we get information about the spatial and
temporal relations between the object seen and ourselves ....
Photographs on the other hand do not convey egocentric information;
seeing a photograph does not tell me anything much about where the
object photographed is in relation to me ([Currie, 1995], 66).
I submit that we do not speak literally of seeing objects unless I can
perspicuously relate myself spatially to them - i.e., unless I know
(roughly) where they are in the space I inhabit ([Carroll, 1996],
The most obvious way of understanding this proposal is as adding a
doxastic requirement (a requirement about what the agent believes or
knows) to the conditions that an agent must satisfy if she is to count
as seeing an object.
Understood in this way, the proposal is that seeing requires the
formation of certain beliefs or judgments.
For example, Currie specifically refers to the "kinds of judgments
we make in cases of ordinary seeing ... which have no counterparts
in the case of seeing photographs" ([Currie, 1995], 66).
Similarly, Carroll speaks of ordinary seeing as requiring knowledge
about spatial relations.10
Walton has argued in [Walton, 1997] that no proposal of this sort
can be successful because the requirement it places on seeing is too
To make this point, Walton imagines two cases in which a viewer sees a
carnation without meeting the doxastic requirement about spatial
information set out above.
In the first, a viewer receives visual information about a carnation
through a long series of mirrors; the viewer knows neither how many
mirrors are involved nor how they are oriented, so he has no idea what
direction the carnation is from him (70).
Walton claims that this viewer will lack information about the
location of the carnation in egocentric space; but since all parties
to the discussion concede that mirrors are transparent, he thinks, the
viewer should count as (prosthetically) seeing the carnation.
In the second case, the carnation is indeed right in front of me, but
there are many mirrors around, or I suspect that there are.
Here, too, Walton claims that I lack the relevant egocentric
spatial information about the carnation: "... I think I may
be seeing the image of a carnation reflected in one or many mirrors.
So I have no idea where the carnation is in relation to me" (70).
Since he thinks that in both cases the viewer sees the carnation, even
though she lacks information about its egocentric location, Walton
concludes that possession of that information about the carnation is
not necessary for seeing it.11
While these cases pose serious problems for Currie and Carroll, we do
not believe that they settle the issue against the doxastic proposal
For one thing, although Currie is comfortable denying that seeing
takes place in the sequence of mirrors case ([Currie, 1995], 70) -
and would seem forced to take the same position about Walton's second
case - an alternative answer would be to weaken the doxastic
requirement so as to evade the case.
For example, one might hold that seeing requires not (as before)
holding a belief about the egocentric location of the object, but
merely the belief that the object is in the same general space as
On a weakened doxastic theory of this sort, it is plausible that the
agent in both of Walton's cases manages to see, since, plausibly, such
very minimal belief is present in these cases.
Unfortunately, we anticipate that the debate would become stymied if
carried on in this fashion: Walton would respond with further
counterexamples to the weakened doxastic requirement, which could then
be used to motivate still weaker versions of the doxastic requirement,
at which point Walton would concoct yet stranger counterexamples, and
We believe that a cycle of counterexamples and responses of this
kind is unlikely to convince anyone of anything.
However, we propose to sidestep these difficulties: as we shall argue
below, there are independent (and, we believe, more compelling) reasons
for doubting that any doxastic solution can succeed.
It is to these reasons that we now turn.
3 Toward a Non-Doxastic Solution
We are convinced that the contemplated requirement on seeing proposed
by Currie and Carroll is too strong.
However, we believe that a proper appreciation of the reasons for the
failure of this requirement points the way toward a more successful
answer to Walton's challenge.
Rather than weakening the doxastic requirement, we propose to drop it
altogether, while retaining Currie's and Carroll's insight that
spatial information is the key to resisting transparency.
The requirement at issue (on the doxastic reading considered so far)
concerns what subjects must believe in order to count as seeing an
Walton's cases are designed to bring out the failure of such a
doxastic requirement on object seeing by pointing out that beliefs can
be undermined too easily - viz., beliefs can be undermined in ways
that do not undermine seeing.
For example, virtually any of my beliefs can be undermined by the
onset of a sufficiently far-reaching skepticism.
But, while it is plausible that the onset of skeptical doubt might
erode a subject's belief that she sees a carnation (or her
belief that she is within four feet of a carnation, or even her belief
that she is somewhere near a carnation), presumably we do not want to
say that it would (by itself) prevent her from seeing a
carnation that is right in front of her face.
This is why we are inclined to say of Walton's second case, wherein
the subject merely doubts that she lacks egocentric information, that
the subject nonetheless sees the carnation.
Similarly, the onset of confusion may undermine a subject's
belief that she sees (or any of her other beliefs, for that
matter), but it is implausible that such confusion should (by itself)
vitiate her capacity to see.
This is why we are inclined to say of Walton's first case, wherein the
intervention of a series of mirrors at unknown angles makes the
subject confused about the egocentric location of the carnation, that
the subject continues to see the carnation.12
These reflections suggest to us that no doxastic condition on object
seeing will suffice to distinguish prosthetic seeing through mirrors
from (putative) prosthetic seeing through photographs.
That is, object seeing cannot involve the requirement that the subject
believe any particular content, such as content about the egocentric
location of particulars.
Belief is fragile with respect to perturbations that leave seeing
intact, so no doxastic state can be necessary for
(A further reason for thinking that a doxastic requirement on object
seeing is too strong involves the possibility of object seeing by
non-human animals and neonate human beings.
For one thing, while many writers have felt uncomfortable attributing
doxastic states to non-human animals and human neonates, they have
generally been less reluctant to claim that such creatures are
incapable of object seeing; but if object seeing requires any doxastic
state, then the latter claim follows from the denial of doxastic
states in non-human animals and human neonates.
For another, the question whether all seeing animals are cognizing
animals strikes us as broadly empirical; as such, it strikes us as
inappropriate as a matter of methodology to allow this question to be
settled as a consequence of the requirements on object seeing imposed
from the armchair.)
What then explains the continued appeal of placing a doxastic
condition on seeing?
Like Fred Dretske, who has also argued for a non-doxastic account of
seeing ([Dretske, 1969]; see also
[Dretske, 1979]),14 we are inclined to apportion blame to a number
Among these, Dretske points to the "utterance implications" of
ordinary statements about seeing.
For example, since we do not ordinarily say that we see (or have seen)
an object unless we have identified the object that we see, talk about
seeing often creates the conversational implicature that we hold
identificatory beliefs about the seen object.
Dretske also notes that ordinary instances of object seeing typically
lead us to form beliefs about seen objects, and, in particular, we
ordinarily form beliefs about their egocentric locations.
Finally, we suggest that the appeal of doxastic accounts of object
seeing may be due, in part, to running together the conditions
required for seeing, on the one hand, and the conditions that are
required for knowing that one sees, on the other.
It is plausible that knowing that one sees an object requires that
one have beliefs about the egocentric location of the object.
But since one can see without knowing that one sees, this observation
does not motivate a doxastic condition on mere object seeing.
4 Egocentric Spatial Information
The moral we have drawn so far is that a successful answer to Walton's
challenge cannot involve a doxastic requirement on object seeing.
On the other hand, we do not believe that photographs are transparent,
and we are sympathetic to the general idea of exploiting egocentric
spatial information to distinguish between genuine and non-genuine
cases of prosthetic seeing.
Our task, then, will be to find a way of exploiting egocentric spatial
information that does not place doxastic requirements on seeing, and
thereby avoids the problems that plague the variants examined so far.
The doxastic baggage we are hoping to avoid appeared in other accounts
because they understood the notion of (egocentric spatial) information
doxastically - namely, in terms of the beliefs or knowledge produced
in would-be seers.
We propose to do without doxastic elements by construing the notion of
(egocentric spatial) information non-doxastically.
In particular, we propose to rely here on an understanding of
information originally due to Shannon and Weaver, and that
was first put to philosophical use (as far as we know) in
To a first approximation, Dretske understands information-carrying as
a kind of (objective) probabilistic, counterfactual-supporting,
connection between independent variables.
Thus, for example, the state of the room's thermometer carries
information about the temperature in the room insofar as there is an
objective probabilistic connection between the two: the probability of
the room temperature's being 72°F conditional on the
thermometer's reading 72°F is much higher than the probability
of the room temperature's being 72°F conditional on the
thermometer's not reading 72°F (assuming the thermometer is in
good working order, is calibrated, is free from outside influence, and
And this probabilistic relationship is made evident by counterfactuals
relating the room temperature and the thermometer's state; namely,
if the temperature of the room were different then the thermometer's
reading would be different (again, assuming ideal conditions).
Note that there is no such probabilistic link between the state of the
thermometer and the temperature of a second room, even if the
temperature of this second room is also 72°F; for here the
correlation is accidental - not probabilistically linked, and not
(Of course, the correlation is not accidental if the temperature in
the second room is probabilistically related to the temperature in the
first room - say, by thermal connections between the two rooms or
something; but in that case there will also be an informational link
between its temperature and the state of the thermometer.)
Again, evidence for this claim about information relations comes from
consideration of counterfactuals; viz., it is not the case that if the
temperature in the second room were to change, the thermometer reading
Significantly, the claim that x carries information about y is a
claim about an objective probabilistic link between the two, and as
such its truth is independent of anyone's doxastic attitudes about the
In the context of the problems examined in §3,
such a non-doxastic understanding of information - according to
which information carrying is independent of any subject's beliefs
about whether it is carried - seems to be just what we need to move
We propose to use this non-doxastic account of information to
formulate a non-doxastic requirement on object seeing.
We believe that this will enable us to draw the desired distinction
between ordinary and prosthetic seeing on the one hand, and
photography on the other.
Here, then, is our proposed answer to Walton's challenge.
We propose that neither belief nor knowledge about the egocentric
spatial location of an object is a necessary condition for seeing it,
but instead that what is essential is that the relevant visual
experience is produced by a process that carries egocentric spatial
information about the object.
That is, x sees y through a visual process z only if z carries
information about the egocentric location of y with respect to x.
According to us, mirrors are transparent in Walton's sense because
mirrors carry egocentric spatial information about objects.
In contrast, our view secures the desired conclusion that photography
is not transparent, insofar as the visual process of looking at
photographs fails to carry egocentric spatial information about their
For there is no probabilistic relationship between the
photographic image and the egocentric location of the depictum:
as I move around the world with the photograph, the egocentric
location of the depictum changes, but the photographic image does
Some comments are in order.
To see that our proposal is extensionally correct, let us examine a
We begin by looking at some cases where it is clear that a visual
process does underwrite object seeing.
We take it is as fairly obvious that our view allows for ordinary
(non-prosthetic) seeing and uncontroversial cases of seeing by visual
Ordinary seeing carries information about the egocentric location of
objects (although it is, of course, subject to failures of
information-carrying in individual cases).
In addition, our proposal allows for uncontroversial cases of
prosthetic vision involving eyeglasses, binoculars, telescopes, and
All of these prostheses carry information about the egocentric
location of objects perceived (although they may fail in certain
Evidence of this informational link can be found in various
counterfactuals that hold true about these processes; in each case, if
one were to change the egocentric location of the objects seen, one
would be presented with a different visual image.18
For the same reason, our view allows for seeing through a single
Moreover, the condition we propose creates no problem for saying that
I see in the case in which I am surrounded by many mirrors (or merely
suspect that I am).
Although this situation might undercut my belief that I am seeing, and
hence my ability to know that I see, this cannot undercut the mirror's
capacity to carry information about the egocentric location of the
Finally, the same holds true regarding a long sequence of mirrors.
In all of these cases, change in an object's egocentric location would
bring about change in the (mirror-produced) image.
What about cases in which a visual process does not underwrite
As mentioned above, our proposal provides a principled basis for
rejecting photographic transparency.
That is, it implies that photographs and films do not allow us to see
the objects they depict.
For, as we have maintained, visual processes involving photographs and
film fail to carry egocentric spatial information about their depicta
(although they do carry some sorts of information about their
depicta): there is no probabilistic relationship between the
photographic/film image, on the one hand, and the egocentric location
of the depictum, on the other.
Evidence of the lack of this probabilistic relation is, as usual, to
be found by consideration of the counterfactuals linking the two.
It is not the case that if our egocentric location with respect to the
objects were to change, the photographic image would change.
For one can walk around with a photograph - changing one's location
with respect to the depictum - without a concomitant change in the
The same seems to be true of broadcast and live feed video.
Broadcast video (whether broadcast live or from a pre-recorded source)
can be viewed in many different absolute locations; hence the (fixed)
depictum can be in any of many different egocentric locations with
respect to the viewer without any change in the video image.
This shows that broadcast video fails to carry information about the
egocentric location of the depictum, hence does not permit prosthetic
On the other hand, suppose there is a direct video feed (not a
broadcast signal) directly connected to a monitor at only one
If the monitor should happen to remain in one place, there may very
well be a de facto correlation between the video image
and the egocentric location of the depictum.
But this correlation fails to rise to the level of an informational
link, as can be seen by consideration of the relevant counterfactual:
if, contrary to fact, there were a modification in the egocentric
location of the depictum (say, if, contrary to fact, someone bought a
longer video cable and moved the monitor by twenty feet), the video
image would remain unchanged.
Here, too, then, the process type fails to carry information about the
egocentric location of the depictum, so there is no object
What about painting and drawing done in realist (or even
Consider cases in which a painter strives to depict an actual person
or scene accurately.
In these cases, counterfactual dependence and the preservation of real
similarity relations may be present.
In addition, such paintings may carry a great deal of information
about their subjects.
But visual processes involving these paintings (like photographs) fail
to carry egocentric spatial information about the objects they depict.
Again, one can move about with the painting - thereby changing one's
egocentric location with respect to the objects that it depicts -
without changing the image.
Hence, seeing the depicted objects is precluded (as desired).
- We are not claiming that carrying information about egocentric
location of perceived objects is sufficient for seeing.
Clearly it is not, and our account reflects this.
- Information carrying is, in the first instance, defined for
token events: token x carries information about token y just in
case there is an appropriate objective probabilistic link between x
Our requirement on object perception, in contrast, talks about the
information carried by a visual process type - appropriately, since
the challenge we take ourselves to be answering is a challenge to mark
distinctions among various process types (not tokens).
We intend the appeal to the information carried by process types as a
generalization of the more basic informational relation defined for
Namely, we can say that a process type carries the information of a
certain kind just in case the process's tokens are typically tokens
that carry information of that kind.
Indeed, we can construe this feature of processes as a disposition:
processes that carry information of a certain kind are disposed
to have tokens that carry information of that kind.
- Since, as just noted, the notion of information carrying for
process types is construed dispositionally, we can allow that, even
for a process type that carries information about the egocentric
location of objects, there may be individual tokens of the type that
fail to carry information about the egocentric location of objects
That is to say, information-carrying processes can fail to carry
information in individual cases without thereby ceasing to be
- Why do we formulate our condition on object seeing in terms of
egocentric location (i.e., location with respect to the viewer)
rather than absolute location or allocentric location (i.e., location
with respect to a frame of reference independent of the viewer)?
Mainly because it enables us to draw the distinctions we need to draw
while avoiding a host of thorny issues.
For example, suppose someone wants to individuate photographs by the
absolute or allocentric locations of their depicta.
Then if the counterfactuals are read de dicto, photographs
will, trivially, carry information about the allocentric location of
their depicta (because the relevant counterfactuals will turn out to
be vaccuously true).
But that would mean that a requirement stated in terms of absolute or
allocentric locational information will not distinguish between the
visual process of looking at photographs, on the one hand, and
uncontroversial cases of prosthetic or non-prosthetic vision on the
We suppose we could defend an allocentric/absolute formulation of our
requirement if we were willing to rule out the individuative standard
at issue or plump for a de re reading of the counterfactuals,
but we'd prefer not to take sides about such tendentious issues if we
can avoid it.
In contrast, (however you read the counterfactuals) individuating
photographs by the allocentric location of their depicta does not make
it the case that photographs carry information about the egocentric
location of their depicta.17
Furthermore, the idea of individuating photographs by the egocentric
location of their depicta is implausible on its face - it is hard to
accept that walking across the room with the photograph of your
grandmother amounts to replacing the old photograph with a new one.
Consequently, formulating our requirement in terms of egocentric
locational information allows us to distinguish between photographs
and visual prosthetics without having to make controversial claims
about the individuation of photographs and the interpretation of
- Our account does not place a doxastic requirement on seeing.
We hold that what is essential to seeing is that the relevant visual
experience is produced by a process that carries information about the
egocentric spatial information of the perceived object.
On our account, knowledge - or even mere belief - about the
location of the object is not necessary for seeing.
For the activity of information-carrying processes need not result in
beliefs (for example, such processes may be at work in the case of the
thoroughgoing skeptic, although in her case they would fail to result
in beliefs; this is in accord with our insistence in
§3 that the onset of skeptical doubt should not
erode the capacity for object seeing).
For this reason, our account evades the problems pressed against other
answers to Walton in §3.
- Walton complains that the doxastic proposal put forth by Currie
and Carroll amounts to "ad hoc linguistic legislation"
([Walton, 1997], 71), and that such disputes over terminology have
no philosophical interest.
Are we, in putting forward our own anti-transparency proposal, guilty
of the same sin?
We hope not.
Linguistic usage of `sees' is eclectic, and obviously occurs
(appropriately) in cases where object seeing is not at issue (e.g.,
when someone says `I see a horse in the clouds'; cf. [Dretske, 1969]).
As such, we agree with Walton that there is no point in arguing over
who gets to keep the word.
On the other hand, we take it that there is philosophical point to
"bring[ing] out the important similarities and differences...
especially the kinship which seeing a photograph of something bears to
other ways of seeing it, and seeing a painting of it does not"
([Walton, 1997], 71).
We contend that our own proposal attains this goal more successfully
than does the transparency thesis.
For while both accounts bring out similarities between object seeing
and the ways in which we perceptually interact with photographs and
other depictive representations, our account is more successful than
Walton's in bringing out differences between the cases - differences
whose salience and importance is revealed by the extent to which most
readers (including Walton himself; see note 4)
regard Walton's proposal as counterintuitive.
5 The Epistemic Value of Photographs
So far we've been reacting against the transparency thesis - we have
taken it as our goal to show why photographs are not transparent.
However, our account of what separates genuine cases of prosthetic
perception from photographs suggests what seems to us a new and
better way of addressing one of the original questions to which
transparency was proposed as an answer: why are photographs
epistemically special in a way that other sorts of depictive
representations are not?
(Why, for example, do photographs but not paintings carry evidentiary
This question will be our focus in what follows.
In order to answer it in a way that connects with what we have said so
far about visual process types, we need to extend our information-related
terminology once again so that it will apply to depictive
Therefore, we will say that a type T of depictive representation
carries information of a certain kind if and only if the type of
visual process involving looking at T-tokens carries information of
Likewise, we can define a notion of information carrying for token
visual representations: a token t carries information of a certain
kind just in case the visual process token involving looking at t
carries information of that kind.
Like the notion of information carrying defined for visual process
types above, the notion of information carrying for depictive
representation types is dispositional; hence, a type T can carry
information of some kind despite occasional failures to carry
information of that kind by isolated T-tokens.
With this terminology in hand, we propose that part of what makes
photographs epistemically special is this: they are information
carriers whose conditions of employment are easier to satisfy than
other information carriers.
To see what we mean by this, consider these two kinds of information
that a representation (or representation-type) can carry about its
For many ordinary cases these two sorts of information-carrying
capacities coincide: things that carry type (i) information
also carry type (ii) information.
Even more than this, it seems that things typically have their
capacity to carry type (i) information only insofar as they have a
concomitant capacity to carry type (ii) information as well.
Thus, for example, ordinary, non-prosthetic vision carries both type
(i) and type (ii) information, and would not carry type (i)
information if it did not also carry type (ii) information.
Similarly, a mirror carries type (i) and type (ii) information about
the carnation, but it would not carry type (i) information about the
carnation if it were not spatially related to the carnation and the
viewer in such a way that it also carries type (ii) information.
Ordinarily, then, transmission of type (i) information occurs only
when transmission of type (ii) information occurs as well.
However, we believe, there are exceptions to this generalization;
namely, for reasons given in §4, we believe that
photographs convey type (i) information without conveying type (ii)
To coin a term, we will refer to anything that carries type (i)
information without carrying type (ii) information as a
spatially agnostic informant.
We propose to explain the special epistemic features of photographs
(partly) in terms of their being spatially agnostic informants.
Why do we believe that this fact about photographs has interesting
First, insofar as information about visually accessible properties is
epistemically useful, it seems clear that anything that carries
information of type (i) has non-trivial epistemic value.
Photographs have an epistemic value that paintings and other sorts of
depictive representations lack since the former carry type (i)
information while the latter don't.
(Our claim here is that the criterion in play can distinguish between
photographs and paintings qua types of depictive
representations; we do not mean to deny that there are token paintings
that carry information of type (i).
More on this point below.)
However, our suggestion is that, insofar as they are spatially
agnostic informants, photographs have an epistemic value not possessed
by other type (i) information carriers.
As noted, most things that carry type (i) information are unavailable
except where they also carry type (ii) information.
But this is to say that such sources of type (i) information come with
In particular, they do not serve as sources of type (i) information in
those cases where they fail to provide type (ii) information.
And, as it happens, sometimes we are not situated in a way that allows
for the provision of type (ii) information at all, but where it
nonetheless serves our needs to have type (i) information.
It is in these cases that photographs hold a special epistemic value.
Photographs are epistemically valuable because they constitute a
relatively undemanding source of information about the visually
accessible properties of objects - one that works even when we lack
information about egocentric location.
Insofar as tools with relatively undemanding conditions of employment
are valuable, the fact that photographs are spatially agnostic
informants explains why they are valuable in ways that even other
information carriers are not.21
Of course, this is not to say that photographs are epistemically
superior to other sources of type (i) information along every
dimension of evaluation; in particular, one dimension along which the
former are epistemically inferior to the latter is that, precisely
because of their spatial agnosticism, photographs are
informationally poorer than other sources of type (i) information.
The special epistemic value of photographs, we claim, is pragmatic:
they do their epistemic job of conveying type (i) information in
situations where other candidates for the job are
- information about the visually accessible properties of
the representational object, and
- information about the egocentric location of the
6 Tokens, Types, and Evidentiary Status
What we have said in §5 is intended to explain why
photographs (qua type) enjoy an epistemic status that is in
some ways superior both to other types of depictive representations
(say, paintings) and other types of carriers of type (i) information
But, of course, some tokens of other representation types -
some realistic portrait paintings and some courtroom illustrations, for
example - are also spatially agnostic informants;23
thus, if what we have said on behalf of photographs is correct, these
non-photographic tokens should hold the same special epistemic
On the other hand, this seems counterintuitive, insofar as we do not
accord the same epistemic status to realistic portrait paintings that
we accord to photographs.
What has gone wrong?
The first point to make in connection with this is that, taken as
particulars, these tokens pose no threat to the thesis about what
makes photographs special: our thesis is intended to mark out what is
special about photographs qua type, and this is compatible
with extending the same status to individual tokens of other types.
However, the possibility of gathering these particulars into a type
suggests an objection to our view, and a full explanation of the
epistemic status of photographs demands an answer to this objection.
Consider the type consisting of token depictive representations that
are spatially agnostic informants but are not photographs.
On our own admission, this type is non-empty.
Moreover, there are several interesting and non-empty subtypes of this
type, including, for example, the type of veridical portrait
These types are like the type of photographs in that their members are
spatially agnostic informants.
Yet we take it that there is an important epistemic difference between
these types and the type of photographs: it seems that instances of
the former types do not command assent in the way that photographs
do (for example, they are not accorded the same evidentiary weight
that is accorded to photographs; but see below for exceptions to this
This shows that more remains to be said.
We propose to explain the relevant epistemic difference between
photographs, on the one hand, and tokens of (most) other types of
spatially agnostic informants, on the other, by holding that
the former type is salient for subjects in a sense that these other
types are not.
By this we mean that subjects visually experiencing a token photograph
typically categorize that token as an instance of the type of
photographs (typically on the strength of their visual experience of
the token and background knowledge about how photographs visually
appear, although nothing we will say hangs on this).
In contrast, we claim, subjects visually experiencing a token
veridical portrait painting typically do not categorize that token as
an instance of the type of veridical portrait paintings; rather,
unless they have some special knowledge about the conditions under
which the work was made, they are likely to categorize a token of this
type as an instance of the type of paintings, or perhaps an instance
of the type of portrait paintings.24
Moreover, we contend, subjects (tacitly) hold relevant background
beliefs about the types to which they assign these
Namely, they believe that the type to which token photographs are
assigned (namely, the type of photographs) is a type whose members
carry type (i) information.
In contrast, they believe that the type to which token veridical
portrait paintings are assigned (namely, the type of paintings, or the
type of portrait paintings) is a type whose members may fail to carry
type (i) information.
These background beliefs, we think, explain why subjects accord a
different evidentiary status to token photographs and token portrait
Namely, as a result of the beliefs in question, subjects believe that
a currently seen token photograph (like other tokens of the type of
photographs) is likely to carry type (i) information.
In contrast, subjects will believe that a currently seen token
veridical portrait painting (like other tokens of the type of portrait
paintings) may fail to carry type (i)
But, plausibly, a subject will take a depictive representation as
evidence for a proposition p only if she believes that it (or its
type - see point 2 in the itemized list in §4) carries
the information that p.
Consequently, subjects will take photographs as evidence for
propositions about the visually accessible properties of their
representational objects, but will not extend this evidentiary status
to veridical portrait paintings (in the absence of independent
knowledge about their veracity).
It is worth noticing, at this point, that what we have said about
the type of photographs plausibly extends to some other types of
depictive representations as well.
For example, it may well be that ornithological illustrations
carry information about the visually accessible properties of our
Moreover, it is plausible that this is a salient type for many typical
viewers of such depictions.
Their distinctive style, and the contexts in which they are typically
presented make it the case that token ornithological illustrations are
typically categorized as tokens of the type of ornithological
illustrations rather than simply as tokens of the type of drawings.
In addition, it is plausible that subjects typically (and tacitly)
hold the background belief that tokens of this type provide type (i)
If this is right, then the type of ornithological illustrations (and,
potentially, other types as well) would seem to be on all fours with
the type of photographs.
And this is not implausible; we are prepared to accept that
ornithological illustrations carry the sort of evidentiary weight at
issue (in the bird-watching and bird-identifying contexts in which the
illustrations in question are typically used).27
7 The Contingency of Photographic Peculiarity
In §§5-6 we have argued that there are
important epistemic differences between the class of photographs
and other classes of depictive representations.
However, we believe that these differences between photography and
other forms of depictive representation are contingent, rooted in the
history of the uses of these various media, and not solely in their
Before we give our reason for believing this claim, we want to
consider another reason that might be advanced in favor of the same
conclusion, but which we take not to be convincing.
The thought here starts from the observation that, on our account, the
epistemic peculiarity of photographs is rooted in their being
spatially agnostic informants.
But some have alleged that some photograph tokens do, under
certain circumstances, provide type (ii) information.
For example, Currie writes that "photographs can serve, along with
information from other sources, in an inference to egocentric
If I know where and when the shot was taken, and where I am now (and
what the time is now), I may infer that the scene depicted stands in a
certain spatiotemporal relation to my current time slice"
([Currie, 1995], 66).
If Currie is right about this, then it follows that spatial
agnosticism (and hence whatever epistemic peculiarity of photographs
that results from their spatial agnosticism) is a merely contingent
feature of photographs.
However, this view seems to us to be mistaken.
For, at least given our way of thinking about information, photographs
do not carry type (ii) information in Currie's cases (despite
any inferences that may be drawn from them).29
For this reason, we are unpersuaded by the line of thought under
For all that, we do believe that the epistemic peculiarity of
photographs is contingent.
To see why, recall that our account of the epistemic differences
between photographs and other spatially agnostic depictive
representations rests (in part) on claims about the relative salience
of various representational types and the standard background beliefs
associated with these.
We have claimed that the type of photographs is salient in a way
that the type of veridical portrait paintings is not (i.e.,
photograph tokens are typically categorized as photographs, while
veridical portrait paintings are categorized merely as paintings or
Moreover, it is plausible that the folk theory of photography assumes
that photographs are sources of visual information, while our
background beliefs about paintings differ - we don't expect them to
be sources of information.
But both the saliency ordering among representational types and the
generally-held background beliefs about these types are, presumably,
contingent; namely, they are contingent on facts about both the
history of representational practices and our perceptual/cognitive
That is, if these facts had been different, the evidential status of
photographs vis-a-vis that of paintings (for example) might have been
different as well.31
In this paper we have made a number of claims about the epistemic
status of photographs.
First, we have claimed, pace Walton, that photographs are not
transparent because, unlike mirrors, telescopes, and the like, they
are spatially agnostic informants.
However, we suggest, the type of photographs is epistemically superior
to the type of drawings in that instances of the former but not the
latter type provide type (i) information about their depicta.
Moreover, the type of photographs has (and, consequently, tokens of
that type have) an evidentiary status superior to the type of portrait
paintings (and its instances) and even the type of veridical portrait
paintings (and its instances) because of differences in the salience
of these types for subjects and their background beliefs about these
On the other hand, the same sort of factors explain why the special
evidentiary status of photographs also extends to some sub-categories
of veridical non-photographic depictions in some settings.
Finally, we claim, the epistemic differences between photography and
other depictive representations are based on contingent rather
than necessary features of these representational types.32
- [Bazin, 1967]
Bazin, A. (1967).
What Is Cinema?
University of California Press, Berkeley.
Translated by Hugh Gray.
- [Bonjour, 1992]
Bonjour, L. (1992).
In Dancy, J. and Sosa, E., editors, A Companion to
Epistemology, pages 132-136. Basil Blackwell, Oxford.
- [Carroll, 1995]
Carroll, N. (1995).
Towards an ontology of the moving image.
In Freeland, C. A. and Wartenberg, T. E., editors, Philosophy
and Film. Routledge, New York.
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Carroll, N. (1996).
Theorizing the Moving Image.
Cambridge University Press, New York.
- [Currie, 1991]
Currie, G. (1991).
Photography, painting and perception.
Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 49(1):23-29.
- [Currie, 1995]
Currie, G. (1995).
Image and Mind: Film, Philosophy and Cognitive Science.
Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
- [Dretske, 1969]
Dretske, F. I. (1969).
Seeing and Knowing.
University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
- [Dretske, 1979]
Dretske, F. I. (1979).
In Gustafson, D. F. and Tapscott, B. L., editors, Body, Mind and
Method: Essays in Honor of Virgil C. Aldrich. Reidel, Boston.
Reprinted in [Dretske, 2000].
- [Dretske, 1981]
Dretske, F. I. (1981).
Knowledge and the Flow of Information.
MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
- [Dretske, 2000]
Dretske, F. I. (2000).
Perception, Knowledge, and Belief: Selected Essays.
Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
- [Lewis, 1980]
Lewis, D. (1980).
Veridical hallucination and prosthetic vision.
Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 58:239-249.
Reprinted in [Lewis, 1986], 273-286.
- [Lewis, 1986]
Lewis, D. (1986).
Philosophical Papers, Volume II.
Oxford University Press, New York.
- [Loewer, 1987]
Loewer, B. (1987).
From information to intentionality.
- [Obrist, 1995]
Obrist, H.-U., editor (1995).
Gerhard Richter: The Daily Practice of Painting: Writings and
MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
- [Savedoff, 2000]
Savedoff, B. (2000).
Cornell University Press, Ithaca.
- [Snyder and Allen, 1975]
Snyder, J. and Allen, N. W. (1975).
Photography, vision, and representation.
Critical Inquiry, 2:143-169.
- [Walton, 1970]
Walton, K. (1970).
Categories of art.
The Philosophical Review, 79(3):334-367.
- [Walton, 1984]
Walton, K. (1984).
Transparent pictures: On the nature of photographic realism.
Critical Inquiry, 11:246-276.
- [Walton, 1997]
Walton, K. (1997).
On pictures and photographs: Objections answered.
In Allen, R. and Smith, M., editors, Film Theory and
Philosophy, pages 60-75. Oxford University Press.
- [Warburton, 1988]
Warburton, N. (1988).
Seeing through "Seeing through Photographs".
Ratio, NS 1:64-74.
1Some of the
material in this paper appeared (in an earlier version) in a shorter
paper entitled "Photographs are Not Transparent" that we presented
at the 2003 Pacific Division meeting of the American Society for
This work is fully collaborative; the authors are listed
2Department of Philosophy, University of
California, San Diego, 9500 Gilman Drive, La Jolla, CA 92093-0119,
joncohenREMOVETHIS@aardvark.ucsd.edu (omit text in caps, which reduces automated spam)
Philosophy, Texas Tech University, Box 43092, Lubbock, TX 79409,
4To be fair, Walton uses the
transparency thesis to explain more than just the epistemic value of
That said, this is clearly one of the important explanatory targets
that he uses to motivate the proposal.
5Cinematographic and video depictions also count as
transparent on Walton's account; the intended contrast is with
painting and drawing, which he takes to be non-transparent.
Note that Walton does not claim that the depictum is the only thing we
see when we look at a photograph; in particular, he does not deny
that we see the photograph in addition to its depictum.
Indeed, he insists that it is in virtue of seeing the photograph that
we see its depictum.
Hence, on this view, transparency does not entail invisibility.
photographs are not unique among these visual prostheses in allowing
for a specifically temporal separation between viewer and the object
seen: we speak unhesitatingly of seeing a stellar explosion through
a telescope, even if the explosion transpired millions of years before
the viewer existed.
We suspect even Walton would concede this much - this would explain
why he felt the need to warn against taking the thesis non-literally.
Of course, these sorts of intuitions are not infallible, so it is open
to one to respond by rejecting them.
On the other hand, general canons of rational conservatism counsel
against rejecting such intuitions (especially deeply held ones)
when less revisionary alternatives are available.
Therefore, we propose to take the intuitions seriously and attempt
to explain them as reasonably as we can.
This policy applies to both the intuition that photographs provide a
special epistemic connection to the world (one that Walton accepts)
and the anti-transparency intuition (one that Walton rejects even
while appearing to recognize its force), inter alia.
8Some articulations of this point (e.g., that in
[Currie, 1995], 66) put the point in terms of spatiotemporal
We prefer to express the point in terms of spatial relations
in the context of an attempt to exclude photographs because, arguably,
when x looks at time t at a photograph of y, x (or x's
visual system) represents the information that y existed before time
We don't see any non-stipulative reason for refusing to count this as
information about the spatiotemporal relation between the viewer and
the depictum, but it doesn't seem reasonable to count it as
information about the spatial relation between the viewer and the
9Currie and Carroll claim that the spatial requirement in
question is a necessary condition for prosthetic seeing, not that it
is a sufficient condition.
This is all to the good, since it is not a sufficient condition: if I
am looking straight down at my desk, wearing blinders, and you hand me
written descriptions of the spatial relations that obtain between me
and objects in my vicinity, then I may know where these objects are in
relation to me, but presumably I am not (or not literally) seeing
these objects prosthetically (using you as my prosthetic).
We find the doxastic construal the most straightforward reading of
Currie and Carroll.
We shall be arguing below that no such doxastic proposal can succeed
as an answer to Walton, and offering a non-doxastic proposal in its
However, if Currie and Carroll want to insist that they originally
intended a non-doxastic view, and that our proposal is a mere
extension of what they had in mind all along, that's all right
with us too.
11We can imagine a defender of the
egocentric information requirement who would allow that, after the
number of intervening mirrors between the subject and the carnation
gets sufficiently large - say, greater than n, the subject ceases
to see the carnation.
Therefore, she might suggest, the case involving n+1 mirrors is not
a case where the subject sees without egocentric spatial information,
hence not a counterexample to the requirement she is defending.
But we find this response unconvincing.
For as Walton's second case shows, the point does not turn on
assuming large numbers of mirrors are involved.
Therefore, the point goes through even if we concede the objection.
about Walton's specific cases adduced here are certainly not beyond
dispute - especially if the doxastic requirement under discussion is
weakened in the way imagined at the end of §2.
But the general moral we are drawing stands, independently of verdicts
about these specific cases: mere confusion can undermine belief
but cannot undermine seeing.
13Arguably there is a non-doxastic reading of at least
Carroll's version of the spatiotemporal information proposal.
For, at times, Carroll seems to be suggesting that the relevant
difference between ordinary seeing and photographic looking has to do
with their relation to our physical abilities:
I can `orient my body' spatially to what I see, either with the naked
eye or through a telescope or microscope.
But when I see a photograph I cannot orient my body to the
The space of the objects is `disconnected phenomenologically from the
space I live in' ([Carroll, 1995], 71).
If the `orientability requirement' Carroll suggests here is understood
as not placing doxastic requirements on would-be seers, then it would
evade the problem we have been discussing.
However, this requirement, too, seems too strong, since, it would
inappropriately follow from the requirement (on its most
straightforward reading) that organisms incapable of moving their
bodies (e.g., normal human victims of paralysis) cannot see any
14Indeed, in these works Dretske makes
points similar to those we are urging against doxastic accounts.
However, the view of non-epistemic seeing defended in
[Dretske, 1969] (according to which "S seesn D = D is
visually differentiated from its immediate environment by S"
([Dretske, 1969], 20)) plausibly entails that we see objects by
means of photographs of them.
If so, then Dretske's view also underwrites the transparency thesis.
Needless to say, we do not accept this (non-doxastic) account of
object seeing either.
15It is worth mentioning, only so that we can set
aside, two concerns about the metaphysics of information.
First, as [Loewer, 1987] points out, it is not obvious how to
understand the objective conditional probabilities (including
objective conditional probabilities for unrepeatable token events)
undergirding Dretske's notion of information: standard proposals are
inapplicable, and Dretske doesn't offer anything in their place.
We have nothing to say about this problem.
Second, in appealing to certain counterfactuals as evidence for
informational relations, we are not committed to the view that
informational relations are constituted by the holding of such
counterfactuals per se.
We are only committed to the weaker claim that the counterfactuals
provide evidence for the informational relations.
16Famously, Dretske appeals to this understanding of
information, in part, as part of an account of knowledge and
Since information carrying is non-doxastic in the sense explained, it
turns out that, on Dretske's account, a subject can know that p (/be
justified in believing that p) so long as she satisfies the
conditions (including informational conditions) even if she
fails to believe that she satisfies them.
In the standard jargon, this means that Dretske's account of knowledge
and justification is externalist rather than internalist
(cf. [Bonjour, 1992], 132).
In helping ourselves to the Dretskean understanding of information in
the service of a proposal about object seeing, we are not thereby
signing on to Dretske's epistemology, and therefore do not take on
the burdens of defending Dretske's conception of knowledge or
17Reading the counterfactual
de dicto, it is not the case that if the depictum were to
change its egocentric location then the image would change, because
such a change is only possible if the viewer moves.
On a de re reading, the counterfactual fails as well: it is
not the case that if Grandma were to change her egocentric location
then the image would change.
is critical to the standard use of these tools that they carry
information about egocentric location.
Consider, for example, binoculars and periscopes: we don't simply want
to find out what the enemy soldier and enemy battleship look like, we
also want to know where they are in relation to us.
19Objection: What was just said about live feed video
plausibly extends to telescopes (etc.), contrary to our claim that
these are visual prostheses.
For while there is a de facto correlation between the
telescopic image and the egocentric location of the depictum, one
could modify the telescope - by inserting a tube, adding mirrors so
the eyepiece is three feet to the left, or whatever - without
thereby changing the telescopic image.
Response: First, many changes in telescopic mirrors, tubes, and the
like do change the telescopic image.
Adding tubes, for example, changes the magnification, while adding a
mirror inverts the image.
Of course, such changes can be offset by various means (adding mirrors
only in pairs so that inversions are reinverted, changing the lenses
to offset magnification differences).
If you make such extensive modifications to your telescope, it will be
true that the egocentric location of the depictum with respect to the
viewer before the modifications is distinct from the egocentric
location of the depictum with respect to the viewer after the
modifications, although the telescopic image will be unchanged.
However, we are inclined to say that the telescope before the changes
is distinct from the telescope after the changes (and that the type of
visual processes involving the first is distinct from the type of
visual processes involving the second).
Moreover, it seems that there is a probabilistic link between the
telescopic image produced by each telescope and the egocentric
location of the depictum with respect to it.
We claim, then, there is no single telescope such that visual
processes involving it fail to carry egocentric spatial information;
instead, there are two telescopes such that visual processes involving
each of them do carry egocentric spatial information.
That's just what one would expect if, as we claim, the type of visual
processes involving telescopes carry egocentric spatial information.
20Objection: If egocentric location is
a visually accessible property, then type (ii) information is a
species of type (i) information.
Response: In this case, restrict type (i) information so that it
includes only information about visually accessible properties of the
representational objects other than its egocentric location.
In what follows, we'll ignore this point for ease of expression.
21The importance that photographs
have depends partly on the (presumably contingent) fact that we
sometimes want type (i) information in situations where type (ii)
information is unavailable, given the de facto limitations on
our perceptual capacities.
By way of contrast, notice that black and white photographs are less
demanding sources of visual information than color photographs in that
the former are chromatically agnostic informants.
But since we are rarely confronted with situations in which in which
seeing is possible but seeing in color is not, we tend not to accord
to black and white photographs an epistemic value over and above
that of color photographs.
A number of authors have held that the special epistemic status of
photographs is to be explained (at least partly) in terms of the
automaticity, or lack of intentional mediation in the production of
Have we erred in ignoring this factor in our account?
We think not; photographic production is indeed mediated by intentions
(for example, intentions at work in the selection of lenses, and in
the development process; cf. [Snyder and Allen, 1975]).
On the other hand, it may be that widespread belief in the lack of
intentional mediation in photography partially explains the fact that
subjects tend to believe that photographs carry type (i)
If so, this would be relevant to the assignment of high evidential
status to the type; we consider this topic in §6.
follows from this, of course, that Richter is wrong in saying (see the
epigraph at the beginning of this essay) that the photograph is the
only picture that can convey information.
24Why does a subject
categorize a given token as an instance of type T rather than type
T¢ (assuming the token is in fact an instance of both types)?
We suppose this has to do, in large part, with the degree to which the
alternative types are culturally entrenched, the subject's
personal history of exposure to the alternative types, and so on.
Cf. [Walton, 1970], 357ff.
More on these themes in §7.
25Note that, by appealing to belief here we are not
giving up our claim that seeing is independent of belief (see
§3); instead, we are appealing to belief only in
order to mark out different ways in which subjects tend to treat
different types of depictive representations.
26Significantly, these differing assessments of
the information-carrying credentials of photographs and portrait
paintings may be erroneous in individual cases; for example, as noted,
there are token portrait paintings that carry type (i) information
That is to say, a token may in fact be a spatially agnostic
informant; but if this fact is unknown to its viewers, it will not be
accorded evidentiary weight.
Likewise, assuming that altered photographs count as photographs
(something that is not obvious, given what we've said in this paper),
a token photograph may fail to carry type (i) information; if so,
then our account predicts that it will be accorded an evidentiary
status that it does not deserve.
Evidence concerning another sort of error in judgment provides further
support for our view.
Namely, it seems that what drives the evidentiary status I accord to a
work is not what type of work it is, but rather what type of work I
take it to be: if I mistake a photograph for a painting, I will give
it less evidentiary weight than other representations I take to be
photographs (even if, in fact, the latter are paintings I have
mistaken for photographs).
We take this as a confirmation of our strategy of explaining the
differing evidentiary status of photographs and paintings in terms of
subjects' category judgments about works.
contexts, namely those in which the relevant background beliefs are
not in place, our account predicts that the very same tokens will lack
the relevant sort of evidentiary weight.
Indeed, we can imagine certain cognitive purposes for which
ornithological illustrations (for example) may be epistemically
preferable to photographs.
For example, suppose that one is interested primarily in making fine
distinctions among visually similar birds (as opposed to getting
accurate information about the visually accessible features of
In this case, it may be preferable to consult representations that
highlight and exaggerate dissimilarities between species of birds,
even if this highlighting and exaggerating has the result that such
representations carry less type (i) information about their depicta
than photographs would.
28What we've said here leaves room for further significant
differences between photographs and veridical drawings.
Among these, we note that while photographs and veridical drawings are
both epistemic tools with relatively undemanding conditions of use,
photographs are in one way even less demanding than the latter.
This is because extant veridical drawings - although they are
spatially agnostic themselves - are necessarily causally dependent
on spatially committed informants (viz. the object seeing of the
depictum by the agent who produced the drawing).
In contrast, not all photographs depend on such spatially committed
informants (despite being intentionally mediated - see
Although many photographs are produced by agents who see the depictum,
cameras may also be positioned to photograph automatically in
circumstances where no agent sees the depictum (and, hence, where
there are no spatially committed informants).
For this reason, photographs can convey visual information about
places too distant or inaccessible for the use of non-prosthetic or
This confers upon photography another pragmatic advantage (analogous
to the advantage it has over mirrors by being spatially agnostic):
photographs can carry visual information in situations where we want
that information, and where other candidates are unavailable for the
We also hold that, if the category of veridical machine-made
drawings were to become salient, their epistemic value would be
equivalent to that of photographs, and that they would share the
pragmatic advantage just ascribed to photographs.
29To the extent
that Currie would deny this contention, this gives further support to
our interpretation of him as holding a doxastic understanding of
spatial information (see note 7).
30In fact, the cases we can imagine in which
photographs carry type (ii) information (in our sense) are pretty
far-fetched - maybe even (nomically or metaphysically) impossible,
for all we know.
Still, we have no proof of the impossibility of photographs providing
type (ii) information; and if there could be such a case, this would
show that our account of the epistemic status of photographs and the
basis of our denial of the transparency thesis rely on merely
contingent features of photographs.
In order to avoid the aforementioned conclusion about our argument
against transparency (which might suggest the possibility of
transparent photographs in distant possible worlds), one could respond
by amending the necessary condition on object seeing to rule out
processes that are possibly spatially agnostic.
On such a revised view, the proposed necessary condition on
object seeing - one satisfied by visual prostheses but not
by photographs - would be this:
On this account, even if there are possible worlds in which
photographs provide information of type (ii), they are still not
worlds in which photographs are transparent.
Nonetheless, since photographs would not be spatially agnostic
informants in such worlds, our view predicts that the epistemic status
of photographs in these worlds would be different than that of
photographs in the actual world.
31In this connection, it may be pertinent to
consider actual developments in the practice and use of photography
rather than (or in addition to) mere possibilities.
While it has long been possible to physically manipulate photographs
(e.g., through manual or chemical means), thereby degrading the
information that they provide, standard photographic practice has
eschewed such manipulations and hence photographs have remained a
source of information about the visually accessible properties of
This (contingent) norm, we claim, explains the persistence of our
background beliefs about (hence the persistence of the evidentiary
status of) photographs.
However, the development of digital photography, and, in particular,
the development of cheap and easy digital means of manipulating
photography, may force viewers to confront seriously the possibility
of unreliable, non-information-carrying, photography; if so, this may
change epistemological attitudes toward photographs.
As Barbara Savedoff puts the point, "To the extent that we can see
photographs as potentially indistinguishable from their digitally
altered counterparts, they become suspect as carriers of even the most
basic information, suspect as bearers of any evidence"
([Savedoff, 2000], 201).
In fact, Savedoff suggests that this shift in status may not even
await the development of digital photographs that are perceptually
indistinguishable from traditional photography: "If we reach the
point where photographs are as commonly digitized and altered as not,
our faith in the credibility of photography will inevitably, if slowly
and painfully weaken, and one of the major differences in our
conceptions of paintings and photographs could all but disappear"
are grateful to Colin Allen, Craig Callender, Dom Lopes, Ram Neta,
Jenefer Robinson, Rob Rupert, Scott Walden, and Jonathan Weinberg
for helpful comments on earlier drafts.
- x sees y through a visual process z only if z
necessarily carries information about the egocentric location of y
with respect to x.
File translated from
On 15 Sep 2003, 10:14.