Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Representation Defined



What follows is a guest post by Jim Hamlyn. Jim has previously been described on Aesthetics for the Birds as an “asshole” and a “Brook acolyte”, [**in the comments section here, with a snapshot found here**] at least one of which he freely admits is probably true. Aside from this Jim is a lecturer at both The Glasgow School of Art and Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen, Scotland where he is also an established member of the IDEAS Research Institute. His research on the subject of imagination led him in 2011 to the work of the Australian art theorist Donald Brook whose theories of representation and cultural evolution, Jim believes, have significant but largely unexplored implications for our understanding of art, perception and consciousness.

[**CHRISTY NOTE: In the following guest post, Jim has adopted a fictional Q&A format for rhetorical purposes.**]

Q: What is representation?

A: It’s the substitution of one thing for another. Representations are stand-ins.

Q: So, if I replaced a cat with a dog, would that be a representation?

A: That depends on several things – the respects in which you want the dog to represent the cat, the strategy of representation you use and the skills and especially the perceptual weaknesses of the person or creature you’re offering the representation to.

Q: So you’re saying that it’s possible, but only in certain ways and for certain perceivers?

A: That’s right.

Q: So, could I use a dog to represent a cat in respect of its being a furry, four-legged house pet?

A: Sure you could, because in those specific respects dogs and cats are alike.

Q: So something has to be like something else to be usable as a representation?

A: Only in this specific kind of representation. There are two other kinds of representation where the representation doesn’t have to be like the represented thing at all.

Q: Could I use a dog to represent a cat using these other kinds of representations?

A: Yes, but let’s try to keep things simple. The strategy I’ve just outlined is what the theorist Donald Brook calls “Matching”. Matching representations trade on our ability to match attributes. Other species’ might perceive differences between things that humans find identical, so representations of this kind are dependent upon shared perceptual limitations. If things were never like one another in any respects then Matching would be impossible.

Q: What about approximate matches then?

A: Sure, you can have approximate matches. Some approximations are better than others obviously.

Q: Ok, I get it that Matching representations must seem objectively the same or approximately the same in some way as the things they represent. But what about these other kinds of representation? How can I represent a cat with a dog?

A: Well the easiest way to represent the cat with a dog is to tell someone that this is what you intend. We actually do this all the time with language: we substitute sounds or words for things. The word “dog” doesn’t share anything in common with dogs but because we know the rule that assigns the word “dog” to a particular species of animal we can use the representation with other rule users.

Q: It’s symbolic then isn’t it?

A: That’s exactly what it is.

Q: So, what about the third type of representation, the one where the representation doesn’t have to be objectively like the represented thing?

A: This strategy requires careful control of the way the representation is presented in relation to the perceptual skills of the person or creature you are producing the representation for. You couldn’t very easily use a dog to represent a cat with this strategy so I won’t even try. Let’s concentrate on some simple examples. Let’s say you have a blue piece of paper and you hold it up to the sky and find it to be indiscriminable from the sky. The assumption might be to say that the paper Matches the sky but this would be incorrect. A bee, for instance, probably wouldn’t perceive both colours to be the same because bees are sensitive to a wider range of colours that than we are.

Q: Isn’t it just an approximate match then?

A: Actually no. Let’s take another example that might help. Imagine you have a colour-blind friend who cannot discriminate between red and green. Say you want to represent a green field to them but you only have red paint. For you the red painting would look completely wrong but for them it would look exactly the same as if it were green.

Q: So, the red doesn’t actually match the green at all, yet my friend would perceive that it does?

A: Precisely.

Q: But in the case of the sky and blue paper, wouldn’t it be possible to get the blue sheet to reflect the exact hue, saturation and brightness as the sky so that  all possible perceivers would find it impossible to discriminate between the real and the represented blue? Wouldn’t this be a matching representation?

A: In principle, maybe, but you’re missing the point. The point is that when we “simulate” – as Donald Brook would say – the sky with a sheet of blue paper we exploit the fact that the perceptual capacities of normally sighted humans have regularly occurring limitations. These limitations make it impossible for us, under certain circumstances, to discriminate between one thing and another in a respect or respects in which they are objectively different.

Q: Can you give me another example?

A: Sure. Imagine you have a circular object – a coin say. You can easily use this to match other circular objects in respect of their shape – by matching them – but  you can also use it to simulate the size of other circular objects too, depending on how you present it.

Q: I don’t follow.

A: Think of it this way. If you hold a coin at the right distance from your eye you can get it to look like it’s the same size as other circular objects despite the fact that these are different sizes. You can even get it to look the same size as the moon if you want.

Q: Well yes, but only in a sense. Its obviously not really the same size as the moon.

A: No, of course not. But the point is that it looks like it is.

Q: So you’re saying it’s an illusion?

A: No. I’m saying that under these precise circumstances of presentation, the coin is indiscriminable from the moon in respect of its size.

Q: I’m still not getting it. I don’t see how these examples add up to a form of representation. They just seem like cases where we mistake one thing for another thing.

A: These are just examples of the principle. Such mistakes are systematic characteristics of our sensory capacities and because we’re all subject to them to the same degree we have learnt to exploit this. The discovery of perspective was a case in point. Simulating representations of this kind are a very sophisticated form of representation which has been discovered only gradually – although our ancestors have no doubt been susceptible to it since early prehistory.

Q: So are images simulating representations of this kind?

A: In the main yes. The problem though is that images also contain aspects of matching and symbolisation, which is no doubt why the question of representation has been so vexed for so long. It’s also handy to think of sculpture as predominantly a form of matching representation and language as symbolic – as you already guessed.

Q: Are you sure that there aren’t any other forms of representation? Three seems a bit limited.

A: Well, there are countless representations and representational media but there are only three distinct procedures for creating them: Matching, Simulating and Symbolising. There are also many sub-categories of the main three, like indicating and referring for example, which are both forms of symbolisation. But if three seems limited to you then it might be worth thinking of computer code. From a simple combination of ones and zeros we get an infinite variety – and let’s not forget that numbers are symbols too.


  1. I am grateful to Jim Hamlyn for drawing attention to my division of representing practices into three sorts, that I have characterized as matching, simulating and symbolizing.

    There is some danger, however, that an elucidation of the details of this division–and especially of the evolutionary implication that language is only a recently acquired symbolic representational mode–is likely to be opaque or confusing unless a foundational element of the theory is made explicit. I do not take representing, in the usual way, to be an activity in which denoting, signifying (or any other linguistically inten[s]ional factor is necessarily implicit. Actions of denoting (etc.) come to us along with the linguistic territory only after this territory has been colonised by highly evolved communicating organisms.

    Before linguistic abilities have been acquired, and indeed also long after they have become available, practices of representing have been and continue to be enabled most fundamentally by efficaciously substituting a thing of one sort for a thing of another sort.

    The possibility of efficaciously and regularly substituting a thing of one sort for a thing of another sort turns crucially on the fact that organisms that share similarly regular powers of sensory discrimination also share regular inabilities to discriminate between these things in these respects. It is just because you and I cannot sensorily discriminate in numerous respects between one and the other of a pair of identical twins that we are able to use one twin to represent the other for the purpose (let's say) of generating a plausible passport photograph, or for the purpose of buying a pair of comfortable shoes.

    To conceive of representing in terms of the efficacious substitutabily of a thing of one sort for a thing of another sort (by relying on inescapably shared inabilities of sensory discrimination rather than on shared abilities) is absolutely not to conceive of representing as an essentially linguistically mediated practice. Representing is only a linguistically mediated practice within the recently evolved repertoire of a very limited range of species of organisms. Moreover all such species–notable we ourselves–significantly retain a fundamental capacity to substitutively and efficaciously employ radically non-verbal (and indeed often presciently pre-verbal) representations. There is a connection here to the nature of artistic activity that I shall not immediately pursue.

  2. I don't see a clear distinction between simulation and matching. All the examples of simulation seem like cases of matching for specific respects of similarity:
    The blue sky and the blue sheet of paper are similar — at least in colour, approximately, and when presented in specific ways.
    Red and green paint are similar. Even though they look different to me, they are the same point on a plane projection of the Munsell colour solid (with the plane perpendicular to the red-green axis). Lighter and darker shades of a colour are similar in much the same way, for a different plane.
    A coin held thusly is genuinely like the moon, in that it takes up the same amount of the visual field. It's true that it does that because of where my eyes are, but the perspectival relation is objective.

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  4. Thanks P.D. Magnus.

    Yes, if there were no clear distinction between Matching and Simulating the whole theory would collapse.

    When we say that two things match in certain respects, we genuinely think that they share respects in which they are alike. However, when we say that a coin held at arm's length looks to be the same size as the moon we never suppose that there might be an objective match or even a similarity between the size of the coin and the size of the moon. Likewise we can produce a simulating representation of someone seen in profile by drawing them with just one eye even though objectively they have two eyes.

    Points of view are fundamentally perceiver-dependent whereas the concept of objectivity is fundamentally perceiver-independent.

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