Philosophy of Mind Seminar (Friday - Week 2, TT23)

Philosophy of mind

Since photography’s invention in the 19th century, a number of writers and theorists have claimed that looking at photographs is different from looking at paintings, drawings, and other ‘handmade pictures’ in at least one important way—that when looking at a photograph of X, we are actually seeing X. Kendall Walton has offered an extended argument for this claim, which he calls the ‘photographic transparency’ thesis, where he argues that a photograph is not merely a kind of picture but is a prosthetic device for extending visual perception in space and time: that photography allows us to literally see moments of the past. However, Walton’s argument is not decisive, resting on what he calls ‘slippery slope considerations’ and a challenge to his opponents to give reasons for excluding photographs from the devices that allow ‘indirect’ or ‘mediated’ seeing, given that we include mirrors, telescopes, etc. 


In my talk I consider the main objections that have been raised against Walton and the transparency thesis and, in responding to what I consider the strongest, propose an additional condition for seeing based on the transmission of light. I argue that this condition is jointly sufficient with those that Walton proposes and that photographs therefore allow us to literally see the objects they are of, albeit indirectly or mediately. My argument not only justifies the feeling of being in a kind of ‘perceptual contact’ with the objects of photographs, but has implications for the notion of indirect or mediated perception in other sense modalities.


Philosophy of Mind Seminar convenors: Mike Martin, Matthew Parrott, Will Davies and Anil Gomes