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The logic of representation.

This paper is concerned with showing a possible way of dealing with representation in pictures. We know that a painting (except an abstract painting) represents or stands for or refers to something different from itself. This obvious fact involves several problems. The first is: how do we perceive an object?

The problem of perception is central to Michael Polanyi's epistemology. He elaborated a post-positivist theory of science which focused on perception and tacit knowing that proves useful if applied to solving the problems of representation.


|An object becomes invisible if its particulars cannot be picked out against a distinctive background.'[1] Polanyi called this process an instance of tacit knowing. Tacit knowing consists of two kinds of awareness: when we focus on an object we pick it out against a neutral background. While the background is perceived subsidiarily, we are focally aware of the object of perception. Our ability to perceive objects depends on a |from-to' relation between the foreground and the background of these objects. But the tacit process of perception can be performed only in the knower's mind. Thus we have arrived at the structure of tacit knowing, which consists of three components: the subsidiary term, the focal term, and the observer or the knower. According to Polanyi, perception is produced by these three terms. Perception makes an outside thing internal since its outcome will be a part of our knowledge of the world.

In perception Polanyi's starting-point was Gestalt psychology. The structure of tacit knowing was established with the help of this theory. He adopted from Gestalt psychology the idea that our power of perceiving real objects is a result of learning achieved, not by definitions or rules, but by tacit coefficients. Therefore, if we look at particulars in terms of a whole (i.e., subsidiarily) then we will look at them functionally; but if we look at each particular separately the functional aspect will disappear. Unless we look at particulars from the point of view of a joint function, they will not turn from a set of items into a comprehensive entity.


We know from Gestalt psychology that perception is a kind of learning. But what kind of learning is the perception of pictures? According to Polanyi, if we look at a picture we are subsidiarily aware of the presence of its flat canvas and we are focally aware of the thing represented and its model in our mind. Thus we recognize that a painting does not belong to reality but is an artefact. It is a part of the world of imagination. Therefore, a picture is not a simple copy of reality, and it follows that it cannot produce the complete illusion of it either. That is the final conclusion of M. H. Pirenne's book,[2] which follows Polanyi's argumentation on perception as a kind of tacit knowing. But Polanyi goes further than Pirenne, when he claims that |the painter must aim, from the very start, at producing an image essentially different from nature'.[3] According to Polanyi's theory, in a painting we meet something |beyond all that exists in nature or human affairs'.[4] In normal cases, as Polanyi and Pirenne put it, the perception of a picture precludes the possibility of deception, because we are subsidiarily aware of the flat surface of the picture, which protects us against the illusion. Our awareness of the plain surface of the picture thus solves Gombrich's problem,[5] namely, that we either perceive a painting which represents something different from itself or we perceive a flat canvas with blobs arranged on it. On the contrary, unless we see the painting's plain canvas with blobs on it we will not recognize it as an object which represents something different from itself. It is false to think that representational pictures achieve perfection if they are deceptive. Illusion is a failure: it could happen only if the knowledge subsidiarily embedded in our mind is missing behind the focused item. If, when perceiving a picture, we fall into the trap of illusion, we are falsely identifying the framework to which it belongs: we consider a part of the transnatural world as a part of reality.


In his volume written together with Harry Prosch, Polanyi distinguishes three types of integration in tacit knowing.

The first kind is indication. Here subsidiary clues bear upon focal items which claim our intrinsic interest. In normal cases of this integration the subsidiary clues are without intrinsic interest. Indication is called |self-centred' integration by Polanyi because here the self is never |carried away' by the focal object.

There is a second type of integration, that of symbolization. Here subsidiaries stand for or symbolize the focal object. They do not function (as they do above) merely as indicators, but they are of intrinsic interest to us. In this second case the subsidiary clues are of greater interest than those of the focal object.[6] They do not merely bear on a focal item but they are embodied in it. We are |carried away' by the subsidiary items. Symbolization is called |selfgiving' integration by Polanyi because in it not only does the symbol become involved in the process, but also the self, which is carried away by the symbol, becomes involved.

If a symbol embodies a significant thing which is significant by itself, then the result is a metaphor, the third type of integration. We define |metaphor' as a case where both subsidiaries and focals are of intrinsic interest. Here the subsidiary clues consist of our experiences and these are related to both parts of a metaphor: the tenor and the vehicle. Therefore, the from-to relation is doubled. We see it in the focal position once again. In spite of the fact that both tenor and vehicle are equally in the focal position, one of them is subordinated to the other: the tenor is transmitted by the vehicle. But these are two constituent parts of a metaphor, and they bring about a joint novel meaning. It is precisely this novel joint meaning that is focused while its starting-points, its subsidiary clues, remain in the background. Subsidiary clues, in a metaphor, are on two different levels: we find them both in the subsidiary and in the focal position. Hence if we look at the one from the point of view of the other they can be focused.


A problem may arise here. We have already seen that the vital condition of recognition of a work of art lies in the fact that we have to be subsidiarily aware of its flat canvas. In this way we are reminded that instead of being part of reality, paintings are parts of a transnatural world. Therefore, the integration of a work of art results in an artificial coherence. Polanyi emphasizes that there are two kinds of coherences: natural coherences, which we meet in nature, and artificial ones, which are contrived by man. From this point of view not only works of art but all other products of man are artificial coherences. But if we hear of artificial and natural things as two different kinds, we will think that while the latter by all means has ontological relevance the former - the artificial coherence - has relevance only in a knower's mind. Polanyi recognized this connection when he emphasized that we consider works of art as artefacts, hence as parts of a transnatural world. However, he was also aware of the fact that other products of man, e.g., those of scientific or religious thought, or tools, also have ontological relevance in spite of our awareness of them as products of man. Man acknowledges not only the products of nature as parts of the real world but also his own products. But if all coherences produced by man are artificial we will not know how the artificiality of a work of art is different from that of a tool. If we go further, we will see that although they do not differ in their original artificiality, they differ in their use.

Thus we have recognized that the same structure of integration may induce different kinds of meanings. According to Polanyi, artificial coherences are connected with semantic meanings whereas natural coherences are related to natural meanings.

|In general it may be said that to be a meaning is, epistemologically speaking, to be an object of focal awareness and, ontologically speaking, it is to be a comprehensive entity; to have a meaning is to be an object for subsidiary awareness and, ontologically speaking, it is to be a subsidiary component of a comprehensive entity.'[7] Meaning and coherence are two sides of the same phenomenon: if we look at a thing epistemologically it is a meaning, or something which has a meaning; while if we speak of it ontologically, it is a coherence, a comprehensive entity or a subsidiary component of it.

We see that from the epistemological point of view a, coherence can be considered as something which is, in itself, a meaning. In contrast to this, if an object has a meaning then this object will function as a tool in order to reach this meaning, but the object is not a comprehensive entity in its own right. Therefore, an artificial coherence which has a meaning is a subsidiary component of a comprehensive entity. In contrast to this, there are natural meanings which are the results of tacit processes of indication and they can be starting points to produce artificial coherences or semantic meanings. In this fact lies our ability to reach semantic meanings, which are on a higher level than the natural ones, and this helps us to come to know the stratified coherence of the universe, though not to exhaust its meaning.


We have seen that the different kinds of integration produce different kinds of coherences: the outcome of a process of indication is different from that of symbolization. In indication the result of the process is a piece of information. We obtain some new particulars of this information by integrating words or retinal images into a new joint meaning. The object which is produced by this process has a meaning. What we create in this manner, therefore, is semantic and self-centred meaning. Here we attend from the self as a centre of information to the object of our focal attention, in order to achieve new information. Epistemologically speaking, we can assert that the outcome of a process of indication is a transparent object. It is transparent because it bears on something else that is outside of it. Therefore, ontologically speaking, it is a subsidiary, component of a comprehensive entity; hence, if we look at it in itself, disattending from the item it bears on, it will lose its meaning. So it is clear that in indication, when our integration produces a transparent object, the result of the process of indication has a meaning but is not a meaning. Indication produces an object which has to function subsidiarily in order to refer to its meaning that bears on an outside thing or on a coherence.

We have also seen that there exists another kind of coherence which is produced by the process of symbolization. We have also noticed that in this case subsidiary clues are of greater interest that those of the focal object. In contrast to indication, here subsidiary clues do not refer to anything, but they denote or rather stand for their focal objects. In this way we do not acquire new information about these focal objects; they are of interest to us only because of their symbolic connection with the subsidiary clues. When regarded from the point of view of indication, a flag is only a piece of cloth, while from the point of view of symbolization, it is the symbol of our country. In the former case the self as a centre of acquired information points to this piece of cloth which is actually a flag. In the latter case the self is already aware of the essence of the flag and in the process of symbolization his or her awareness of the flag becomes embodied in the focal object, i.e., in the flag. Here we are not interested in the object of our focal awareness, i.e., in the flag or in its meaning, because we already know it. These are our diffuse experiences which are of interest to us as things which become embodied in the focal object. Therefore the relation between subsidiary clues and focal objects is mutual: subsidiary clues denote or stand for the focal object, while they are becoming embodied in it. Thus in the symbolization process we create a meaning which is inseparable from the object, in contrast to indication, where we produce a transparent object which has a meaning. Therefore, ontologically speaking, the result of a symbolization process is a comprehensive entity and, epistemologically speaking, is an object of focal awareness. It is a coherence in its own right, hence it does not bear upon an outside thing. And by the same reason it has no meaning in contrast to the object of indication. The meaning of a process of indication is something outside of the object it refers to, while in the case of symbolization the object symbolized is inseparable from its meaning or, more precisely, meaning is incarnated in it. Therefore, ontologically speaking, in symbolization the object embodies its own meaning while epistemologically speaking, it has no meaning. Symbolization produces an object which has to function focally in order to be able to incarnate its own meaning. Thus we have recognized that the result of symbolization is |self-giving' integration, because we are embodied in it. Symbolization produces an artificial coherence which incarnates a semantic meaning.

The features of symbolization and indication may become clearer if we remember Gombrich's treatment of a hobby horse.[8] Does a hobby horse refer to a living horse or stand for it? If we choose the latter, we will see that if a child calls a stick a horse |then the stick is neither a sign signifying the concept of horse nor is it a portrait of an individual horse'.[9] The stick serves as a |substitute' for the horse and in this way it becomes a horse in its own right. In the case of indication, the stick would serve as a name or a sign which bears upon a certain horse or the concept of horse, and thus it would refer to an outside thing. But in the case of representation, as Gombrich calls it, the common factor which connects a stick to a horse |is function rather than form . . . , for any' ridable |object could serve as a horse'.[10] Therefore, the stick will be connected to a coherence, i.e., to a whole which includes all kinds of horses, hence the stick will become a part of this whole. The concept of representation in the sense in which Gombrich uses it does not depend necessarily on formal similarities but rather on requirements of function.

We can go further and assert that Gombrich's notion of representation does not differ from Polanyi's concept of symbolization. The common component between the symbol and the thing symbolized (e.g., a flag and the country it symbolizes) is rooted in the common world of imagination of a given group of society or of a given culture. The flag is not a sign of the country it represents because it does not stand outside of it; rather it is part of the whole it incarnates (i.e., the country) because it can stand for it.

Does a metaphor differ from a symbol from the point of view of meaning? In a metaphor, subsidiary clues also do not merely refer to the focal objects but incarnate them. Their relation is similar to that of a part and a whole. But in a metaphor subsidiary clues may possess intrinsic interest as well. In a metaphor, the tenor and the vehicle which are found in the focal position are both meaningful even though they are subordinated to each other. But in spite of the fact that the tenor is transmitted by the vehicle, and not inversely, the vehicle is at the same time embodied in the tenor. This process does not differ from what we have seen in symbolization. Thus not merely the |from-to structure' but also the whole structure of symbolization is doubled in a metaphor. We can notice the process of symbolization not only in the whole structure, but in the focal position as well. To recapitulate, in Gombrich's sense of representation we may assert that, in a metaphor, in the focal position the tenor can be substituted for the vehicle as readily as the vehicle can stand for the tenor. We have acknowledged that the result of a process of symbolization has no meaning because it is a meaning itself. This description fits very well for the outcome of a metaphor. A metaphor does not refer to something else, since it is detached from outside things. Therefore the meaning of a metaphor is incarnated in itself According to Polanyi, the structure of a metaphor is a key both to the effects of different branches of art and to discovery in science.


Is the structure of symbolization or that of indication more suitable to accounting for the process of integration in a representational picture? We have already mentioned a kind of integration, that of symbolization, which could be suitable to account for this. But if we use |representation' only in the sense in which Gombrich uses it, we will not be able to account for the fact that there are different genres of painting, e. g., portrait, landscape, still life, where we do not meet a symbol but see only formal similarities between the painting and the object represented. In this case we use |representation' as depiction, while in contrast to depiction, |representation' is used as substitution in Gombrich's terms. The common factor which connects a painting to a thing it depicts is first of all formal similarity. Therefore, if a picture represents (depicts) an outside thing or a person, then it will refer to this item. But if representation is substitution then representation does not suppose an outside thing to refer to, because it can stand for it by its power of symbolization. In symbolization (in representation, in Gombrich's terms) the symbol becomes absorbed in the thing symbolized/represented and so both of them will be detached from the outside world. In contrast to symbolization, a representative or illusionistic picture needs the outside world to build into its frame and so bring about similarity between them. So we can assert that representational pictures indicate outside things or persons, and unless we are able to recognize their relation to each other we cannot perceive the picture.

But how does a naturalistic painting become a representation of its subject? We have already seen that, according to Polanyi, we have to be subsidiarily aware of the flat surface of a picture in order to be able to perceive it as a painting. The world of the picture then appears in an artificial, transnatural framework which is detached from the outside world, although not in the same way (as we have noticed) in the case of symbolization. If we recognize the similarity between the things represented in the painting and their counterparts in reality, or if we perceive a three-dimensional picture on a flat canvas, the processes of integration are roughly the same as those mentioned above under the name of |self-centred' integrations. There is a slight difference between them: in the case of indication both components of the integration belong to reality; and so the coherence produced has no frame of its own which would detach it from the outside world. But in a representational painting we integrate two incompatible elements into a whole: one of them belongs to reality while the other to a transnatural frame. Their difference is emphasized precisely by the artificial frame of a painting. It is produced by the quality of |flat-depth', which is an indispensable coefficient to promote both perception and reception of a painting. We encounter a phenomenon such as this neither in nature nor in human affairs; therefore, it is transnatural. The immanence of a work of art is established by its artificial frame, while this immanence is violated by the similarity relation holding between the things represented and their real counterparts. We attend from our subsidiary awareness of the flat surface of the picture both to the things represented and their real counterparts in nature. Otherwise we will not be able to compare the items represented with their models from the point of view of their verisimilitude. So in a representational painting we find two items in the focal position, though not in the same way as in a metaphor. The tenor of the focal position is the picture itself, which is a coherence bearing upon real things in nature or in human affairs. The real counterparts of the things represented serve as vehicles; therefore they are subordinated to the tenor. They can be focused from the point of view of the tenor, though in ordinary perception of a picture their relation cannot be changed, and the vehicle remains in the background. So the real counterparts.of the things represented are situated in the focal position although they function subsidiarily. It is only the picture itself which has intrinsic interest in this fourth case of integration. So we can notice that in the process of integration of a representational painting the structure of indication is doubled: we recognize it in the whole structure and in the focal position as well. In the focal position we have the structure of indication, because the real counterparts of the things perceived in reality do not possess an intrinsic interest, they are approached only in terms of the painting. The real counterpart of the things represented has to function subsidiarily in order to produce a similarity relation between itself and the items in the picture. And we can also notice the process of indication in the whole structure: the self attends from the flat surface of the picture to the items depicted on it and in this way it produces a coherence, a painting in his or her mind. This is an artificial coherence because it is contrived by man, and hence we cannot fall into the trap of the illusion. This is the fourth case of the process of integration, which remained unnoticed by Polanyi. It is suitable to account for perceiving illusionistic or representative pictures or photos. We can describe representation as a fourth case of integration.

The common denominator between the things represented and their models is formal similarity and not requirements of function, as we have seen in symbolization. But without the difference between the field of representation, i.e., the transnatural world, and the world of reality this relation cannot be produced. From the point of view of verisimilitude the tenor, i.e., the picture, is aimed to achieve identity with the vehicle, i.e., its real counterpart, but this cannot be reached completely, because of the difference of their respective fields. So the verisimilitude has to be judged between the picture and its real counterparts in reality from the point of view of formal appearance. This means that the things represented and their real counterparts have to remain different from each other, while at the same time they have to be compared concerning their shapes. With regard to formal similarities the equality sign should be inserted between the tenor and the vehicle. The tenor (i.e., the picture) and the vehicle (i.e., its model) refer mutually to each other, whereas they are also each other's meanings. The meaning of a picture is established through representation, while the thing represented is of interest only in terms of the painting that represents it.

We have noticed that there are several common features between the normal process of indication and the process of representation/depiction. First, in both only the focal object has intrinsic interest. Secondly, these are self-centred integrations: |they are made from the self as a centre (which includes all the subsidiary clues in which we dwell) to the object of our focal attention'.[11] In the self-centred integrations the self does not embody an item which is interesting in itself The self here may be regarded as rather transparent, like a word or a sign. In normal indication the meaning of the coherence can be natural or artificial. But in both cases the meaning of the coherence produced by indication is information.


Our last problem to solve is whether we can reach information through perceiving pictures, or should we claim with Polanyi that: |the factual information content of art is slight'?[12] We have ascertained that we get factual information through indication, in contrast to symbolization. In symbolization |our main purpose to evoke our participation in its utterance'.[13] Artificial coherences that belong either to symbolization or to representation can equally be components of the transnatural field of art. But we reach another kind of meaning through the former from what we can reach through the latter. The artificial coherence produced by symbolization is detached from the outside world, so that neither its subsidiary clues nor its focal objects bear upon an outside thing. Its immanence is much stronger than that of the coherence produced by representation. In contrast to symbolization in representation unless we are able to recognize the formal similarity between the painting and the things represented, we will not perceive the picture. The artificial coherences of symbolization embody meanings. Epistemologically speaking, they are meanings, while the artificial coherences of representation have meanings but these meanings are not incarnated in their coherences. We should claim, rather, that in representation meaning is embedded in the route from the model to the picture as they mutually refer to each other and establish each other's meanings. Since we find these two things (the picture and its model) in focal position, we have to rely on their |from-to structure' in order to understand their meanings. But in contrast to symbolization, where the symbol becomes absorbed in the thing symbolized, the realm related to the picture, i.e., the reality, remains an independent component of the reception of a picture. We can leave and return again to this realm while we recognize formal similarities between reality and the picture. We cannot reach factual information through this process, but we may learn from it to perceive reality in a new way. As we are returning from reality to the picture, we get to know a new aspect from which reality can be viewed. Reality in a picture functions in the same way as those words in a sentence which do not convey factual information but depict the situation in which something happened. We reach information through them because we already know the situation or the persons, i.e., the frame in which the thing in question happened. The meaning emerges from this background by means of some other words conveying information. We also do not come to gain factual information, e.g., of a well-known person portrayed in a picture. If this picture is a valuable artefact we will notice in it a so-far unknown viewpoint from which we have not seen him or her before. So the meaning of a picture emerges from the relation between the thing represented and its real counterpart with respect to their formal similarities. If a picture has factual information then it is used as illustration, a tool outside the transnatural world of art. Then the picture fulfils a function (e. g., illustration) which is important in life. But this function has to be wiped out from the relation between a thing represented and its real counterpart if the painting is meant to belong to the transnatural field of art. From the fact that formal similarity is a universally holding relation between reality and the objects represented, it follows that it can be extended to every possible subject of representation. In contrast to representation, in symbolization the function connecting the symbol with the thing symbolized is non-universal but particular. This function can change from object to object or from person to person, and its change depends on requirements of everyday life. Our relation to a particular thing depends on its function in our life and it is repeated in front of the thing symbolized (as we have noticed in the case of Gombrich's hobby horse).

Let us take an example! Does our relation to a flag depicted as a symbol change compared with the real flag considered as a symbol? Our relation to a symbol, e.g., to a flag, is that it stands for its meaning, in this case, for the country symbolized; therefore, our relation to the flag has to be the same as to the country symbolized. If the flag in question is depicted, provided we consider it as a symbol henceforward, our relation to it will not be changed. From the fact that the meaning of the flag depicted as a symbol is the same as that of the flag of the real world, it follows that both can stand for the country symbolized. The difference between the picture and the real thing will not be a significant component of their meaning because in both cases they are regarded as symbols. We have already recognized that the symbol becomes absorbed in the thing symbolized and so, epistemologically speaking, they are meanings. These meanings are inseparably absorbed in each other; we cannot point at the meaning of the symbol and at the meaning of the thing symbolized. The emphasis is placed on their functions in life, since their meanings are absorbed completely in them.

But our relation to a flag depicted is not necessarily the same as our relation to the real flag. We can consider a depicted flag primarily as a depiction and only secondarily as a flag. Then our relation to it will be the same as to other things represented. If we place the emphasis on the formal similarity between the thing represented and its real counterpart, then we will disregard everyday functions. Formal similarity can only bring about a connection which is universal, which is equally suitable for anything that is depicted. Therefore the meaning of the picture is not the same as that of its model in reality; the painting has a meaning which emerges from the relation between the thing depicted and its counterpart and it is different from the meaning of the thing in reality. Their meanings are not absorbed into each other. So in spite of the fact that symbolization produces a coherence which has stronger immanence than that of representation, we should claim that representation produces a coherence which always has to be regarded as a part of the transnatural field of art. The coherence of symbolization can also be regarded as a work of art but only in certain cases. The coherence of representation, provided that it is not used as a tool, offers us a possibility to perceive the world related to the picture in a new way. So we can claim that in contrast to symbolization or factual information, the meaning of a representational painting can only change the frame in which we have seen the world before.


[1] M. Polanyi, Tacit Knowing: Its Bearing on Some Problems of Philosophy in: Knowing and Being. Essays by Michael Polanyi, ed. by Marjorie Grene (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969), p. 169. [2] M. H. Pirenne, Optics, Painting and Photography (Cambridge, 1970). [3] M. Polanyi, What Is a Painting? (American Scholar, Vol. 39, No. 4, Autumn 1970), P. 663. [4] Ibid. [5] E. H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (New York: Bollingen Foundation, 1960), p. 279. [6] |The focal object in symbolization, in contrast to the focal object in indication, is of interest to us only because of its symbolic connections with the subsidiary clues through which it became a focal object.' in M. Polanyi and Harry Prosch, Meaning (Chicago and London: the University of Chicago Press, 1975), P. [7] J. W. Stines, |Vocation Recalled' (The Polanyi Society Journal, 1984), P. 16. [8] E. H. Gombrich, Meditations on a Hobby Horse, and other Essays on the Theory of Art (London and New York: Phaidon, 1963), pp. 1-12. [9] Gombrich, op. cit., p. 2. [10] Gombrich, op. cit., P. 4. [11] M. Polanyi and Harry Prosch, Meaning, op. cit., p-71. [12] M. Polanyi, What Is a Painting? (American Scholar, Autumn 1970), p. 232. [13] Ibid.

Gabriella Ujlaki, III Budapest, Muegyetmi rkp. 3. K.1.59, The Technical University, Dept of Philosophy, Michael Polanyi Association, Hungary.
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Author:Ujlaki, Gabriella
Publication:The British Journal of Aesthetics
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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