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Pictures in the Flesh: Presence and

Appearance in Pictorial Experience

Jérôme Dokic

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This essay explores the prospects of grounding an account of pictorial experience or ‘seeing-in’
on a theory of presence in ordinary perception. Even though worldly objects can be perceptually
recognized in a picture, they do not feel present as when they are perceived face to face. I defend a
dual view of perceptual phenomenology according to which the sense of presence is dissociated from
the contents of perception. On the one hand, the sense of presence is best conceived as a non-sensory
feeling. Ordinary objects are felt but not seen to be present. On the other hand, the contents of
perception are determined by the actualization of perceptual-recognitional abilities. Unlike current
versions of the feeling-based account of the sense of presence, I claim that these abilities enable us to
perceive worldly (partial or overall) appearances. This claim justifies the strongest interpretation of
recognition theories which does not fall back on the view that pictorial experience involves a kind of
perceptual illusion.

In the late 1940s, Wittgenstein explored a number of perceptual phenomena related

to what he called ‘seeing something as something else’, or ‘seeing an aspect’. One of his
favourite family of examples involved ambiguous or bistable figures, such as the famous
duck–rabbit drawing. It is generally considered that most of these examples actually con-
cern two distinct perceptual abilities, whose relationship needs further clarification. The
first is the ability to see something as an F, in the narrow sense which characterizes ordi-
nary or face-to-face perception. In this sense, I can see a candle as a candle rather than,
say, as a white-cedar wooden stick. The second ability can be called ‘seeing-in’, and char-
acterizes the experience of (more or less realistic) pictures.1 In the latter sense, I can see
a candle in a picture of a candle, say one of Richter’s candle paintings, even if I do not see
the picture itself as a candle. In fact, I may see the picture as what it is, typically a flat,
rectangular material object which could hardly be confused with a candle. Following
Wollheim, I shall say that pictorial experience is ‘twofold’. It involves both the experience
of the picture’s medium and the experience of its subject, e.g. a candle.
An influential constraint on the definition of seeing-in comes from so-called recogni-
tion theories of pictorial experience.2 According to these theories, seeing an F in a picture
involves the same perceptual recognitional abilities as those involved in the ordinary per-
ception of an F. In Lopes’ words, ‘if P depicts O then P engages the same visual processes

1 Richard Wollheim, ‘Seeing-as, Seeing-in, and Pictorial Representation’, in Art and Its Objects (2nd edn, Cambridge:
CUP, 1980), 205–26.
2 Flint Schier, Deeper into Pictures (Cambridge: CUP, 1986), Dominic McIver Lopes, Understanding Pictures (Oxford:
OUP, 1996).

British Journal of Aesthetics Vol. 52 | Number 4 | October 2012 | pp. 391–405 DOI:10.1093/aesthj/ays037
© British Society of Aesthetics 2012. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the British Society of Aesthetics.
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as are involved in seeing O’.3 The term ‘visual process’ is technical, but the underlying
idea is intuitive enough. I know how candles look, and my visual-recognitional knowledge
is in play both when I see a real candle and when I see a candle in a picture. Slightly more
formally, the canonical specification of the content of experience of seeing an F in a pic-
ture must involve the concept of an F. Any specification of this content which would omit
such a concept would fail to capture the phenomenology of the experience.
However, the constraint embodied in this intuitive idea is quite minimal. It is satisfied

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by illusion theories, according to which the content of the experience of seeing an F in a
picture P is of the form ‘P is an F’.4 However, it is equally satisfied by any theory according
to which the content of pictorial experience does not entail that P is an F, but involves a
relation weaker than predication between the picture and what it depicts. This is the case,
for instance, with metarepresentational theories according to which the content of picto-
rial experience is of the form ‘P is a picture of an F’, as well as theories according to which
this content is of the form ‘P resembles/looks like an F’. In both cases, the concept of an
F is indeed required for a canonical specification of what the subject experiences, but the
sense in which the subject ‘recognizes’ an F in the picture is rather weak. In this sense,
I visually recognize Pierre, who is absent, just because I see that his brother Sam, who is
present, looks a bit like him.
The challenge for recognition theories is to go beyond the minimal constraint, thereby
giving full force to the insight that pictorial experience involves, or at least can involve,
recognizing an F in the sense in which I recognize an F when I see it, while staying clear of
illusion theories. In this essay, I shall argue that there is a way of meeting this challenge,
based on a specific dual view of perceptual phenomenology.
On this view, the phenomenology of ordinary perception reflects both the content
of experience (what is perceived strictly speaking) and a ‘sense of presence’ of what is
perceived. More precisely, the content of perception is determined by the actualization
of perceptual recognitional abilities, while the sense of presence is a non-sensory feeling,
akin to what Husserl called ‘Leibhaftigkeit’.
Now what is missing in pictorial experience is a feeling of presence related to what the
image depicts. The objects represented in a picture do not feel present, unlike the objects
that are directly perceived. Although the general idea is already in the air, I shall propose
a new account of the duality of ordinary perception, which has different implications for
the theory of pictorial experience.5
The essay is structured as follows. In the next section, ‘The Puzzle of Perceptual
Presence’, the notion of perceptual presence is introduced by reference to an intuitive
contrast within perceptual experience. In the next two sections, I discuss and reject an
account of the sense of presence as being constituted by the perception of various affor-
dances. In the fifth section, ‘Presence as a Non-sensory Feeling’, I argue that the sense of
presence is best analysed as a non-sensory feeling extraneous to the contents of perception.

3 Dominic McIver Lopes, ‘Picture This: Image-based Demonstratives’, in Catharine Abell and Katerina Bantinaki
(eds), Philosophical Perspectives on Depiction (Oxford: OUP, 2010), 52–80, at 68.
4 Ernst Gombrich, Art and Illusion (5th edn, London: Phaidon, 1977).
5 For earlier accounts, see Mohan Matthen, Seeing, Doing, and Knowing (Oxford: OUP, 2005); Lopes, ‘Picture This’.
Pictures in the Flesh: Presence and Appearance in Pictorial Experience | 393

In the sixth section, ‘The Thetic Character of Experience’, I criticize Matthen’s own ver-
sion of the feeling-based account of perceptual presence, and in the seventh, ‘A Modified
Recognition Theory’, I move to a modified recognition theory of depiction. The conclud-
ing section recapitulates the main claims offered in this essay.

The Puzzle of Perceptual Presence

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The puzzle of perceptual presence points to a certain phenomenological contrast, which has
been noticed by philosophers from both the phenomenological and the analytic traditions.
Consider a situation in which the subject is seeing what is in fact an opaque voluminous
thing, say a tomato. There is a sense in which the subject sees a whole, three-dimensional
tomato, and not just a part of its material surface. As Noë puts it, ‘we have a sense of the
presence of a voluminous, ovoid, furrowed whole.’6 Yet there is another sense in which
what the subject sees falls short of being a whole, three-dimensional tomato. After all, the
subject’s visual system is sensitive to chromatic changes pertaining to the tomato’s facing
surface, but not to its hidden parts. So the subject might not notice a sudden or progressive
change of the tomato into a thin tomato surface.
In what follows I shall use Noë’s terminology to describe the relevant contrast. He says
that we are ‘visually aware of the presence of the parts of the tomato which [we] don’t
actually see.’7 What I shall say is that the subject is visually aware of the presence of a whole
tomato, although she does not see it. My formulation entails Noë’s if the visual awareness
of the presence of the whole tomato involves the visual awareness of the presence of its
hidden parts. The important point, as far as I am concerned, is that what the subject sees
(from her fixed perspective) is ‘neutral’ between an ordinary, voluminous tomato and a
mere tomato surface. By this I mean that it is consistent with there being a whole tomato,
but also with there being a mere surface suitably oriented. Thus, the content of the sub-
ject’s spontaneous judgement to the effect that there is a tomato must go beyond that part
of visual content which is concerned with what she sees.8
The contrast between what we see and what we are visually aware of seems to be
internal to perceptual experience itself. In particular, there are good reasons to deny
that what we are visually aware of is determined by mental states, such as beliefs or
imaginings, considered as separate additions to perceptual experiences with neutral
First, it can be appropriate for a perceiver to self-ascribe the visual experience of a
whole tomato as such (‘I seem to see a tomato in front of me’) even if she does not believe

6 Alva Noë, ‘Experience without the Head’, in Tamar Gendler and John Hawthorne (eds), Perceptual Experience
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006), 411–33, at 413.
7 Ibid., 414.
8 In the seventh section, ‘A Modified Recognition Theory’, I shall say more about the neutrality of perceptual
content. Note that my way of specifying the contrast between what the subject sees and what she is visually aware
of is committed neither to the claim that the hidden parts of the tomato are represented in perception (see Bence
Nanay, ‘Perception and Imagination: Amodal Perception as Mental Imagery’, Philosophical Studies 150 (2010),
239–54), nor to the claim that the facing surface of the tomato must be perceptually represented as such.
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(for extraneous reasons) that she is facing a whole tomato. Visual awareness of a whole
tomato seems to be belief independent.
Second, what we are visually aware of cannot be determined merely by what we imag-
ine, even if our imagining is itself visual.9 Otherwise, the sense of the presence of a whole
tomato would be extinguished by the subject’s imagining (either voluntarily or not) see-
ing a mere tomato surface, or visually imagining of the perceived object that it is a mere
tomato surface. However, it is possible that her sense of presence persist at least for a

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while, which would show that it is not determined simply by what she imagines about
what she sees.10
Thus, what we are visually aware of seems to be determined at a more fundamental level
than that of belief and imagination. The sui generis nature of visual awareness was also
highlighted by Merleau-Ponty, for instance in the following passage: ‘I grasp the unseen
side [of the lamp] as present, and I do not affirm that the back of the lamp exists in the
same sense that I say the solution of a problem exists. The hidden side is present in its own
way. It is in my vicinity.’11
The distinction between what we see and what we are visually aware of is relevant to an
understanding of how pictorial experience works. When I see a real tomato, I am visually
aware of the presence of a whole tomato. In contrast, when I see the picture of a tomato,
I am not visually aware of the presence of a whole tomato. I am only visually aware of the
presence of a flat material object with certain configurational properties.
The suggestion is not that seeing the picture of an F involves seeing the picture as an
F surface. Unlike depicted objects (at least if we exclude transparent pictures, such as a
painting on a glass window), material surfaces have hidden backs. So to be visually aware
of an F surface, the subject must have some sense of presence of the surface as such, even if
it is different from the sense of presence of a genuine F. Both cases contrast with our expe-
rience of depicted objects. We lack a sense of the presence of what is depicted, whether
as a material surface or as the genuine thing. Another way of putting the same point is to
say that we ordinarily experience both things and their facing surfaces as being located
in egocentric space, whereas we do not experience what is depicted as being located in
egocentric space. Of course, some egocentric notions are often required to capture what
is depicted. For instance, when I look at Titian’s portrait of François I, I see the king fac-
ing to my right. However, pace illusion theories, I do not see the king as being there in
front of me.12

9 This was Sellars’ view: ‘How can a volume of white apple flesh be present as actuality in the visual experience if
it is not seen? The answer should be obvious. It is present by virtue of being imagined’, Wilfrid Sellars, ‘The Role
of Imagination in Kant’s Theory of Experience’, in H. W. Johnstone (ed.), Categories: A Colloquium (Pennsylvania:
Pennsylvania State University Press, 1978), 231–45, at §16.
10 Here I am not targeting views according to which imagination can combine with perception to produce a single
phenomenal character; see Fiona MacPherson, ‘Cognitive Penetration of Colour Experience: Rethinking the Issue
in Light of an Indirect Mechanism’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 84 (2012), 24–62.
11 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception (Northwestern University Press, 1964) at p. 14; my italics.
12 I owe this example to John Hyman. There should be no mystery here; I can also visually imagine François I facing
to my right without locating him in my egocentric space.
Pictures in the Flesh: Presence and Appearance in Pictorial Experience | 395

Perceptual Expectations I: Noë

A substantial account of the sense of presence is needed beyond the purely schematic
description provided so far. One suggestion is that the sense of presence results from
certain low-level, belief-independent expectations about the course of one’s experi-
ence. Furthermore, these expectations, or at least some of them, are lacking in pictorial
For instance, seeing a tomato at the grocery store seems to be intimately linked

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with various expectations about how it would look from different perspectives. Indeed,
I expect that it would still look like an ordinary tomato if I observed it from behind. The
presence of such expectations would be manifested by the surprise I would experience if
I discovered that what looks like an ordinary tomato from my initial perspective were in
fact a thin surface.
The nature of perceptual expectations is itself a controversial issue. Consider Noë, who
suggests that the puzzle of perceptual presence can be solved within his general senso-
rimotor account of perception:
In what does your visual sense of the cubicalness of a cube consist? It consists in your
implicit expectation that its appearance would change in the characteristically cubical
way as you move in relation to it. To experience something as a cube, … is to experi-
ence it as exhibiting a characteristic sensorimotor profile.13
What does it mean to experience an object as having a sensorimotor profile? As I interpret
Noë’s view, the perception of an object involves the experience of the satisfaction of cer-
tain counterfactual contents, i.e. contents about complex dispositional properties. I see an
object as a cube because I see that the object would exhibit a specific cubical appearance if
I changed my spatial perspectival relationship to it.
On this view, the perception of the right counterfactual contents is necessary for per-
ceptual recognition to occur at all. It means that such perception determines both the
experience of the object as a cube and the sense that a genuine cube rather than a mere
surface is present. Perceptual recognition and the sense of presence are really two sides
of the same coin.
From the perspective of a recognition theory of depiction, this consequence is unfor-
tunate. For presumably, pictorial experience does not involve the experience of the
sensorimotor profile of what is depicted, conceived as the experience of the relevant coun-
terfactual contents being satisfied. When I see a picture of a cube, I am not visually aware
that the appearance of the depicted cube would change in the characteristically cubical
way if I moved relative to it. This is because the point of view internal to the picture is
necessarily fixed; I cannot move relative to what is depicted. It is true that even a fixed
perspective is often enough to extrapolate the look of something from other perspectives.

13 Alva Noë, ‘Real Presence’, Philosophical Topics 33 (2005), 235–64, at 239. ‘Implicit’ here cannot mean
‘unconscious’ or ‘subpersonal’, since expectations are supposed to enter the conscious content of experience.
Rather, expectations are implicit in the sense of being inarticulate, or difficult to describe in words, because they
are grasped in a practical way.
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For instance, I can become able to recognize a man in full face by seeing a three-quarter
or even a profile view in a portrait. So when I see Titian’s portrait of François I, there
is a sense in which I know how he looked from various perspectives (assuming that the
portrait is faithful). However, I cannot be visually aware of how the man I see in Titian’s
portrait of François I would look if he turned towards me, because this could never hap-
pen. This seems to entail that, on Noë’s view, I do not strictly speaking visually recognize
what is represented (a cube, a tomato, or François I) in a picture.

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Perceptual Expectations II: Siegel
In line with Noë, Siegel observes that ‘certain expectations are to be found at the level of
visual experience’,14 and construes perceptual expectations as perceptions of counterfac-
tual truths, such as the following:
(Perspectival connectedness, PC) If I were to change my perspective on the object,
my view of the object and of its relations to other objects that I see would change as
a result of this change.
Siegel’s account seems to imply that one can literally perceive that PC is satisfied, at least
in ordinary circumstances. In addition, she makes the intriguing suggestion that if the
subject were seeing a doll invisibly attached to her eyeglasses in such a way that PC per-
ceptibly ceased to hold, her experience would be purely ‘sensational’, like the experience
of ‘seeing stars’ from being hit on the head.
A natural interpretation of Siegel’s view is that the perception of PC (and other relevant
counterfactual truths) is responsible for the sense of presence.15 On the one hand, I have a
sense that the object on the table is an ordinary doll, because I experience the satisfaction
of PC. On the other hand, I do not have a sense that the doll attached to my eyeglasses is
present, even though I see a doll-like entity.
Unlike Noë, though, Siegel acknowledges that perceptual recognition of an object as
of a certain kind (a doll, a star, a cube, etc.) is achieved independently of the experience
of the counterfactual contents that determine the sense that an object of the relevant sort
is present. One can see that something is doll-like whether or not one has the sense of the
presence of an ordinary doll.
As a consequence, Siegel is not concerned with Noë’s problem of explaining what the
subject expects to see if she were to change her spatial relationship to the object. Noë
introduces what he calls ‘perspectival properties’ as what the relevant counterfactual
truths are about.16 So what one ‘recognizes’ independently of the satisfaction of these
truths are relational properties such as ‘elliptical from here’, which typically round objects

14 Susanna Siegel, ‘Subject and Object in the Content of Visual Experience’, Philosophical Review 115 (2006), 355–88,
at 358–9. See also Susanna Siegel, The Contents of Visual Experience (Oxford: OUP, 2010).
15 Note that the mere satisfaction of PC, which the subject might not be aware of, cannot determine a
phenomenologically distinctive experience such as the sense of presence. The relevant claim is rather that the
subject somehow experiences the satisfaction of PC.
16 Alva Noë, Action in Perception (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), ch. 5.
Pictures in the Flesh: Presence and Appearance in Pictorial Experience | 397

can have. It is questionable whether perspectival properties are directly accessible in this
sense. In contrast, Siegel allows for recognition to take place independently of the satisfac-
tion of the counterfactual truths responsible for the sense of presence. So what the subject
expects when she sees a cube is just that it would continue to appear as a cube if she were
to change her spatial relationship to it. Siegel’s account does not need perspectival proper-
ties as what her counterfactual truths are about.
Siegel does not discuss the case of picture perception in this context, but a plausible

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suggestion is that principles such as PC perceptibly do not hold with respect to what is
depicted. This might explain the sense in which what is depicted is not experienced as
being located in the subject’s egocentric space. Of course, seeing the picture of a doll is
not like ‘seeing stars’. What is missing is precisely the twofoldness of pictorial experience.
When I see the picture of the doll, I see the picture as such and I visually recognize a doll
in it. But in the same way as I do not have a sense of the doll’s presence in Siegel’s thought
experiment, I do not have a sense of the presence of the depicted doll.
Even though Siegel’s account is an improvement on Noë’s, I do not think that it pro-
vides a satisfactory account of the sense of presence. To begin with, I  find it hard to
understand what it means to perceive that if I were to change my spatial perspective on the
object, I would have such and such experiences. I have no quarrel with the view that we
can perceive dispositional properties and more specifically affordances (as action-related
properties). Perhaps I can see a crystal glass as fragile and a crack in the wall as affording
climbing. In other words, I can perceive counterfactual truths such as if the glass were
dropped, it would break, or that if I put the tip of my foot into the crack, I could haul up to
that other crack, and so on. However, in all such cases, I perceive counterfactual truths by
perceiving the corresponding categorical grounds: the thinness of the glass, the specific
shape of the crack, etc.17 In contrast, the perception of the counterfactual truths involved
in principles such as PC do not seem to be grounded in the perception of categorical prop-
erties. To my mind, this makes perception a form of divination. Surely, I have the general
knowledge about how a cube would look when seen from various perspectives, but how
could I know, just by facing a newly encountered particular cube from a single perspec-
tive, the way it would look if I changed my perspective on it? Do I really have perceptual
evidence, as from my fixed perspective, for the truth of this counterfactual?18

Presence as a Non-sensory Feeling
On both Noë’s and Siegel’s accounts, the sense of presence results from the perception
of dispositional properties having to do with my spatial relationship to my environment.
So the contrast between what we see and what we are visually aware of is conceived as
internal to perceptual content.19

17 See John Campbell, Reference and Consciousness (Oxford: OUP, 2002), ch. 7.
18 A related objection is that Siegel’s account violates the supervenience principle, S, to be explained in the seventh
section, below.
19 Sometimes Noë draws the contrast in terms of the distinction between ‘actual’ and ‘virtual’ content, insisting that
there is no sharp boundary between them.
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An alternative view construes the sense of presence, not as an aspect of perceptual

content, but as a non-sensory feeling associated with perceptual experience itself. On this
view, presence is not a perceptible feature like being red, round, or being a tomato. One
feels but does not see that something is present. The feeling of presence is not itself sensory,
but it can combine with any sensory content in any modality.
As Matthen observes, feelings of presence belong to the family of ‘cognitive feelings’,
which also includes feelings of familiarity and feelings of pastness. Matthen puts forward

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the following characterization of cognitive feelings:
A cognitive feeling C is a subpersonally generated, phenomenologically accessible fea-
ture of a mental state S that imparts to S semantic or practical import different from
that of another state S′, though S and S′ have the same content.20
In particular, the feeling of presence is determined independently of the contents of per-
ception, and marks the mode or ‘attitudinal force’ of one’s experience.
Matthen makes an empirical suggestion about the subpersonal groundings of feelings
of presence. According to him, the latter are traceable to a specific function of vision,
namely motor-guiding vision. Motor-guiding vision is realized in a visuomotor system
(in a dorsal stream in the brain) which locates perceived targets in egocentric space and
prepares our bodies for a characteristic type of physical interaction. For instance, we
unconsciously adjust the grip of our fingers depending on the size of the graspable objects
around us. The visuomotor system is known to proceed somewhat independently of the
visuosemantic system (in a ventral stream in the brain), whose function is to produce a
conscious representation of the scene.21
Although the workings of the visuomotor system are largely unconscious, they are respon-
sible for our feeling that ordinary perceived objects are present, i.e. spatially ‘there’ and prag-
matically accessible to us (‘ready-to-hand’). For instance, the visuomotor system would treat
a perceived tomato as a volumetric thing rather than as a thin surface, which we would be dis-
posed to grasp in a quite different way. This is why we feel the presence of an ordinary tomato.
What is the role of expectations in a feeling-based account of the sense of presence?
The feeling of presence is what allows the subject to take for granted that she is perceptu-
ally related to an object of a certain kind (a tomato, say, and not a mere surface) without
relying on concurrent empirical confirmation. Her experience does not ‘tell’ her that she
is in front of an ordinary tomato, as opposed to some other objet looking exactly like a
tomato from her current fixed perspective. However, since the tomato feels present, she
is allowed to have expectations about the ways her experience would develop were she to
change her perspective on the tomato. Perceptual expectations flow from the feeling of
presence, and are not part of what is perceived.

20 Mohan Matthen, ‘Two Visual Systems and the Feeling of Presence’, in Nivedita Gangopadhyay, Michael Madary
and Finn Spicer (eds), Perception, Action, and Consciousness: Sensorimotor Dynamics and Two Visual Systems (Oxford:
OUP, 2010) at p. 114.
21 David Milner and Melvyn Goodale, The Visual Brain in Action (Oxford: OUP, 1995). See also Pierre Jacob and Marc
Jeannerod, Ways of Seeing: The Scope and Limits of Visual Cognition (Oxford: OUP, 2003), for an empirically informed
philosophical account of the significance of the hypothesis of two visual systems.
Pictures in the Flesh: Presence and Appearance in Pictorial Experience | 399

There is a different role that expectations may play within a feeling-based account. The
feeling of presence is the conscious emanation of the operations of various subpersonal
mechanisms. This generates a kind of epistemic opacity which is characteristic of cogni-
tive feelings. The subject feels that an object of a certain kind is present, but she does not
know why she has this feeling. Now it might be the subpersonal mechanisms underlying
the feeling of presence actually test implicit (i.e. unconscious) expectations about the per-
ceiver’s environment. Indeed, it has been suggested that the visuomotor system is sensi-

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tive to microchanges in the visual scene that are filtered out by the visuosemantic system,
because of mechanisms ensuring the stability of the subject’s conscious experience.22 Now
some of these microchanges might concern the spatial relationship between the subject
and the perceived object, and be relevant to the visuomotor’s ‘decision’ to treat this object
as a volume of a certain size, and to unconsciously adjust the grip of the subject’s hands.
If this story is broadly on the right track, subpersonal analogues of principles such as PC
(see previous section) might be used by the visuomotor system, or some broader system
at the subpersonal level, while the result at the personal level is only a conscious feeling of
voluminous presence. Consider Siegel’s doll again. Let us assume with her that PC is not
perceived to be satisfied in such a case. When the doll is properly attached to my eyeglasses,
I do not see that if I were to change my spatial perspective on the doll, I would experience
a different side of it. However, given the dual architecture of our visual system, the percep-
tion of the relevant counterfactual truths is not necessary for feeling the presence of a volu-
minous object as opposed to a mere surface. Given that the visuomotor system operates (at
least to some extent) independently of the visuosemantic system, which grounds conscious
perceptual experience, the situation might be such that the subject has the feeling that an
ordinary doll is present, based on bodily states of action readiness, even though the subject
has no conscious evidence that the relevant expectations are met.
The dual architecture of our visual system implies that there are, at least in principle,
two different kinds of trompe l’oeil. The first kind of trompe l’oeil is the case in which the
subject sees what is in fact the picture of an F but has a conscious experience exactly
like the face-to-face vision of an F. In such a case, the visuosemantic system is fooled.
However, it does not follow that the visuomotor system is fooled too. Perhaps the subject
feels that she is seeing a picture rather than the real thing. The second kind of trompe l’oeil
occurs when the visuosemantic and the visuomotor systems are both fooled. The subject
sees what is in fact the picture of an F and feels that an F is present. Presumably, the latter
kind of trompe l’oeil is much more difficult to set up than the former.
In a nutshell, a case can be made for the claim that the feeling of presence is not, or at
least not always, constituted by the conscious perception that certain expectations about
the course of one’s experience are met. The feeling of presence seems to be generated
independently of the production (by the visuosemantic system) of a conscious perceptual
appearance. On the view under consideration, the feeling of presence is extraneous to the
perceptual contents of experience. Presence is not a perceptual feature, even if the latter
is construed in dispositional terms.

22 Ronald A. Rensink, ‘Visual Sensing without Seeing’, Psychological Science 15 (2004), 27–32.
400 | Jérôme Dokic

Before proceeding further, a caveat is in order.23 A feeling-based account of the sense of

presence is promising and may shed light on the phenomenon of pictorial experience. Even
though the picture is felt to be present, what is depicted is not felt to be present. However,
one should be open with respect to the subpersonal groundings of the feelings of presence.
The visuomotor system cannot be the only mechanism relevant to the generation of such
feelings. To begin with, feelings of presence are experienced with respect to other sensory
modalities; for instance, thunder cannot be seen but can be heard as present.24 Another

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issue concerns distant objects, such as stars. They are not felt as volumetric things, but
they are still experienced as present, and located in egocentric space. One option here is to
claim that they feel present because of their perceivable spatial relationship with ordinary
volumetric things.25 Finally, patients with derealization–depersonalization syndrome often
report that it is as if they were constantly watching a picture or a movie: ‘Through the eyes
I look out at a world that might be a picture of the world.’26 These patients lack the feel-
ing of presence with respect to what they perceive and thus seem to enjoy a pathological
version of pictorial experience but presumably (although this is an empirical matter) their
perceptual systems locate at least some objects in egocentric space. This suggests that the
experience of objects as being located in egocentric space is not a sufficient condition for
the feeling of their presence, although it may still be a necessary condition.

The Thetic Character of Experience

Matthen’s account of the feeling of presence comes with a high price. He assumes that
the same visual scene can be perceived, imagined, dreamt, or seen in a picture. He talks
accordingly of the visuosemantic system as realizing ‘descriptive vision’ with ‘imagistic’
contents. He then invokes two different models to characterize the feeling of presence:
the model of demonstrative reference and the model of assertion. First, motion-guiding
vision provides the perceiver with a demonstrative reference for the experience’s descriptive
content. This referential element is what creates ‘a feeling of reality of presence’.27 As we
have seen, it is not part of the content of experience, but pertains to the ‘manner whereby
the content is presented’. Second, the feeling of presence is responsible for the assertoric
force of the subject’s experience, or what Husserl called the thetic character of the experi-
ence and Sartre its positional character. In other words, this feeling transforms perceptual

23 Similar worries are voiced by John Hyman in his review of Abell and Bantinaki (eds), Philosophical Perspectives on
Depiction, in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews [online journal] (5 February 2011).
24 Indeed, there is some evidence for the existence of an auditory-motor system, even though the latter seems to be
parasitic on the visuomotor system. See Roberto Casati and Jérôme Dokic, ‘The Varieties of Spatial Hearing’, in
Matthew Nudds and Casey O’Callaghan (eds), Sounds and Perception. New Philosophical Essays (Oxford: OUP, 2009),
25 See Matthen, ‘‘Two Visual Systems and the Feeling of Presence’.
26 J. H. Shorvon et al., ‘The Depersonalization Syndrome’, Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine 39 (1946), 779–
92. For further discussion of the feeling of presence, see Jérôme Dokic and Jean-Rémy Martin, ‘Disjunctivism,
Hallucinations, and Metacognition’, Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science (2012), doi:10.1002/wcs.1190.
27 Matthen, Seeing, Doing, and Knowing, 395.
Pictures in the Flesh: Presence and Appearance in Pictorial Experience | 401

content into epistemically relevant content, i.e. content apt to warrant a perceptual judge-
ment about the actual presence of the perceived object.
For reasons that I can only sketch here, neither model strikes me as plausible. First, it is
not clear that perceptual content cannot be at least partly demonstrative independently of
the feeling of presence. Perhaps perceptual demonstrative reference depends on a visuo-
motor system, namely that which grounds our ability to track objects in visual space.28
However, the latter might be different from the visuomotor system underlying the feeling

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of presence. More generally, the contents of imaginings and perhaps even dreams, which
do not have assertoric force, could also be referential in this sense. Finally, although this
is an even more controversial issue, perhaps objects represented in a picture are available
for demonstrative reference after all.29
Second, a feeling-based account of the sense of presence is not committed to the claim
that the feeling of presence determines the assertoric force of our experience. Indeed,
certain dynamic experiences are guaranteed to be accompanied by some sense of pres-
ence. The puzzle of perceptual presence typically exploits a situation in which the subject
perceives only a partial look of the object, i.e. its look from a relatively static point of view.
Now in some cases at least we are also able to perceive the overall look of an object, i.e.
its look as experienced while continuously seeing different facets of it. O’Shaughnessy
calls the objects of such dynamic experiences ‘looks in round’.30 An ordinary tomato and
a tomato surface share a partial look (from a given perspective), but they have different
overall looks. We might argue that when we see the overall look of an ordinary tomato,
for instance when we manipulate it or see it rolling down a slope, its being a mere surface
is already excluded at the level of the content of our experience.31 That is, our experience
has enough epistemic force to ground the judgement that we are seeing a volumetric,
spheroid object independently of the feeling of presence. Of course, in such a case, we also
experience this feeling, but this is just another illustration of the redundancy of informa-
tion processing in our visual brain.
Indeed, Matthen’s descriptivist account of perceptual content leaves a gap in the expla-
nation of pictorial experience. It does not explain what it is to see an F in a picture, as
opposed to the much more general phenomenon of visually representing an F while looking
at a picture. In other words, what is missing is an explanation of how what is depicted is
bound to the picture in our pictorial experience. Within the framework assumed here,
this explanation should preserve twofoldness, i.e. the fact that we have a somehow unified

28 Zenon W. Pylyshyn, Things and Places: How the Mind Connects with the World (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007).
29 Lopes, ‘Picture This’; Alberto Voltolini, ‘How Demonstrative Pictorial Reference Grounds Contextualism’, Pacific
Philosophical Quarterly 90 (2009), 402–18; and Hyman, review of Abell and Bantinaki (eds), Philosophical Perspectives
on Depiction.
30 ‘Necessarily, we experience the look in a round only if the object is seen, over a period of time, across a tract of
space, from all visually differentiable angles’; Brian O’Shaughnessy, Consciousness and the World (Oxford: Clarendon
Press, 2000), 584–5. As Kevin Mulligan observes, O’Shaughnessy’s notion of looks in round has been anticipated
by Husserl, especially in Ding und Raum; see Mulligan, ‘Perception’, in Barry Smith and David Woodruff Smith
(eds), Cambridge Companion to Husserl (Cambridge: CUP, 1995), pp. 168–238.
31 Gareth Evans, The Varieties of Reference (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), 177.
402 | Jérôme Dokic

experience of both the picture and what is depicted. The puzzle is to explain how what is
depicted, which is felt to be absent, is bound to the picture, which is felt to be present.32
In the next section, I claim that the best way of solving this puzzle is to acknowledge
that, considered separately from feelings of presence, the content of perceptual experi-
ence is about worldly appearances.

A Modified Recognition Theory

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As we have seen above, the puzzle of perceptual presence is about an intuitive contrast
between what we see and what we are visually aware of. It is now time to say something
more about what we see, i.e. about the admissible contents of visual experience.
Let us start with the simple suggestion that what we see when we are in front of an
ordinary thing is just its facing surface. For instance, we see something as being a proper
part of a tomato, even if we are visually aware of a tomato as a whole. However, this sug-
gestion is objectionable. As Peter Strawson pointed out, we distort the visual experience of
a tomato if we describe it as an experience of a tomato part.33 In ordinary circumstances
at least, the facing surface of the tomato does not seem to be phenomenologically salient.
It might be possible for the subject to see a tomato surface as such, but this would be a
special, sophisticated experience.
A more plausible suggestion is that we see things as having specific looks or appearances,
including appearances of real kinds. Arguably seeing something as having the appearance
of a whole tomato is phenomenologically very different from seeing something as a mere
tomato surface. Of course, both ordinary tomatoes and tomato surfaces seen from the right
perspective have the look of a whole tomato (visual appearances are neutral in this respect),
but it does not follow that the subject sees the scene as involving a mere tomato surface.
The ontological nature of perceptual appearances is itself a complicated issue. On one
view they are purely phenomenal, and cannot really be ascribed to the perceived things
themselves. On another view, which I favour, they are ‘worldly appearances’, i.e. complex
properties of the perceived things.34 I think the latter view makes more sense of an impor-
tant constraint on the definition of manifest properties, i.e. properties that can figure in
the contents of perception.
Consider the visual case. Intuitively, properties can figure in the contents of visual per-
ception only if they are somehow detectable by our visual system. Our visual system is at
the very least equipped to detect low-level properties, such as colour, shape, size, texture,

32 In this respect, it seems to me that Lopes (in ‘Picture This’) is too charitable to Matthen when he suggests that
recognition theories can happily endorse the claim that mere ‘unasserted’ vision is involved in pictorial experience.
33 P. F. Strawson, ‘Imagination and Perception’ (1974), in Freedom and Resentment and Other Essays (London:
Routledge, 2008), 50–72.
34 Alan Millar, ‘The Scope of Perceptual Knowledge’, Philosophy 75 (2000), 73–88. The claim that appearances are
properties of worldly objects is compatible with their being response dependent or perceiver relative in some
sense. See Sidney Shoemaker, ‘Introspection and Phenomenal Character’, Philosophical Topics 28 (2000), 247–73.
Indeed what I called ‘partial looks’ above are relative to a point of view (which does not necessarily mean that they
are relative to a particular subject).
Pictures in the Flesh: Presence and Appearance in Pictorial Experience | 403

and orientation. Call these properties visual properties. Which visual properties there are
is an empirical matter, since it depends on the architecture of our visual system.
Now visual properties are not the only visible properties. It is plausible that we can see
higher-level properties or gestalten, which can enter the contents of our experience just
as simpler visual properties can.35 Even though our visual system might not be innately
equipped to detect specific higher-level properties, what makes them visible is their
special relationship to visual properties. I suggest that this relationship is at least partly

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described by the following supervenience principle, here generalized to perceptual expe-
rience as a whole:
(S) If F is a manifest property of the perceived object o, then the fact that o is F super-
venes on low-level sensory facts about o available to be detected by human perceptual
S is trivially true if F is itself a low-level visual property, such as colour or shape. There
are more interesting cases to consider, though, such as the property of being a lion. Is
it a manifest property? According to S, it is not. In principle, a perceived lion can be
almost instantaneously replaced by a robot without any low-level sensory change to be
detected. In contrast, consider the property of looking like a lion, in the sense of having
the visual appearance that lions generally or normally have (in common with convincing
lion robots). S entails that a change in this visual appearance must be visually detectable,
i.e. accompanied by some low-level visual change. This seems to be the case. Something
that looks like a lion cannot instantaneously turn into something that looks like a robot
without there being some low-level change. We may experience an object as having the
look of a motionless lion, and as soon as it moves, observe the object’s somewhat mechani-
cal behaviour, and come to experience it as having the look of a lion robot. In this case, we
experience a change in appearance through low-level changes pertaining to shape, texture
and orientation.
The notion of a change in appearance at stake here must be handled carefully. Consider
the experience of the duck–rabbit drawing, or better the experience of an ambiguous
three-dimensional object, which can look either like a duck or like a rabbit. One can
experience the visual appearance of a duck being suddenly replaced by the visual appear-
ance of a rabbit without experiencing any low-level change. This is not a counterexample
to S, though. Since one cannot experience the object as looking like a duck and looking
like a rabbit at the same time, one ceases to experience the look of the duck when one begins
to experience the object as a rabbit. It does not follow that the object ceases to have the
look of a duck. Indeed, the object does not in fact change its appearance, and one does not
see it as changing its appearance either. Because it is an ambiguous object, it really has the
look of a duck as well as the look of the rabbit, although we cannot experience both looks
at the same time.
S allows for perceptual appearances of a variety of more or less complex properties,
but there are limits. Suppose someone claims that mu-mesons have a visual appearance
because a competent observer can make non-inferential judgements about mu-mesons

35 Siegel, The Contents of Visual Experience (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
404 | Jérôme Dokic

on the basis of visible traces in a cloud chamber.36 Now these traces are of course not
intrinsic properties of mu-mesons, so changes in the putative appearance of mu-mesons
cannot be grounded on low-level sensory changes involving mu-mesons themselves. This
suggests that mu-mesons cannot have manifest properties, even if it is possible to acquire
non-inferential knowledge about them by observing their visible traces.
Of course, much more has to be said about perceptual appearances and their individu-
ation, and all I can offer here is a very schematic account. Still, two important points have

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emerged. First, a perceived object can have a visual appearance even though one does
not experience this appearance while looking at the object (even in optimal conditions
of observation). This is why appearances are best construed as being worldly, or at least
independent of the subject’s present experience. Second, if the subject experiences an
object as having a specific appearance, it cannot cease to have this appearance without
undergoing some visually detectable change, as long as the subject’s experience is fully
veridical during the whole process. We are visually sensitive to higher-order gestalten as
long as they supervene on strictly visual facts.
We are now in a position to complete our feeling-based account of the sense of pres-
ence lacking in pictorial experience. When I see Richter’s Candle (1982), I do not have any
feeling that a candle is present. This in turn has been analysed as entailing that no candle is
presented as being located in egocentric space (even though egocentric-spatial notions are
relevant to specifying the depicted scene). Still, my visual-recognitional abilities related
to candles are actualized in the same way as when I see a real candle. What I want to sug-
gest is that the actualization of these abilities is factive in both the pictorial and the ordi-
nary cases. In the pictorial case, I see part of the picture itself as having the appearance
of a candle. More precisely, I see the picture as having the appearance of a candle on its
surface, or perhaps in it. There is no illusion here, since the picture really has this appear-
ance, which is perceptually accessible only from a selected set of points of view. Now a
real candle can have the very same appearance too. Admittedly, few pictures of an F really
have the appearance of a real F, even from a fixed perspective. For instance, a woman and
her baby could not have the very same appearance as the woman and her baby in Picasso’s
Guernica. More often, the picture will be seen as merely resembling such an appearance.
However, the point remains that a picture can be seen as having the partial appearance of
an F, although unlike the picture a typical real F has many other partial F appearances, as
well as, of course, the overall appearance of an F.
In a nutshell, what is specific to pictorial experience is that it involves the perception
of a worldly partial appearance which is unaccompanied by any sense of the presence of
what it is an appearance of. Such a perception is non-ecological in the sense that in most
ordinary contexts, convincing appearances are experienced as manifesting the presence
of the corresponding kinds of objects.

36 Robert Brandom famously claimed that the physicists can observe mu-mesons because they can acquire
non-inferential knowledge about them caused by sensory stimulations; see ‘No Experience Necessary: Empiricism,
Non-inferential Knowledge and Secondary Qualities’, in Nicolas H. Smith (ed.), Reading McDowell: On Mind and
World (London: Routledge, 2002), 92–105.
Pictures in the Flesh: Presence and Appearance in Pictorial Experience | 405

In this essay, I have defended the following claims with respect to both ordinary and picto-
rial experience:
1. The duality of seeing-in experience can be accounted for in terms of a duality
internal to ordinary perceptual experience, between what we see and what we are
visually aware of.

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2. What we see is constituted by worldly (partial or overall) appearances.
3. What we are visually aware of is determined by what we see but also by
non-sensory feelings of presence.
4. Feelings of presence reflect our pragmatic attitude toward what we see rather
than the conscious empirical confirmation of expectations about the course of our
5. When we see an F in a picture, we may see the partial appearance of an F pertaining
to the picture itself.
6. When we see an F in a picture, we lack the feeling that an F is present.
This combination of claims justifies the strongest interpretation of recognition theories
which does not fall back on the view that pictorial experience involves a kind of percep-
tual illusion. What pictorial experience can reproduce is a worldly appearance which is
perceived in such a way that the subject does not expect this appearance to change in the
standard way (i.e. in the way ordinary appearances would change) were she to change her
spatial relationship to the picture.37

Jérôme Dokic
EHESS-Institut Jean-Nicod, Paris

37 Many thanks to John Hyman for his most helpful comments on an earlier draft of this essay.