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Tuesday, April 04, 2006


Abtract accepted for the conference Art and Science the will be held in London, 22-23 June 2006.

Much of the recent debate about the role of representations in science and argumentation focuses on the role of visual representations in scientific reasoning. How do scientists use visual representations and what do these images mean? Can images be part of a scientific argument? And, if they can, how do they contribute to the overall meaning of a scientific argument? Visual representations are thus viewed as non-linguistic objects that can exploit the fine-grainedness of visual perception as opposed to verbal description for a variety of purposes such as conveying data, exemplifying an argument, or acting as cognitive facilitators in order to visualise information.
In this paper I will argue that illustrations, that is, cognitive facilitators that make things clearer to the mind, play a central role both in language and in other representational systems. In my view, illustrations (linguistic and pictorial) are a subset of exemplifications, and play a distinctive role in argumentation: Instead of providing evidence for an hypothesis (as exemplifications do in inductive reasoning) they facilitate the construction of a visual representation of that hypothesis. Both kinds of illustrations, linguistic and non-linguistic elicit semantically dense representations of a property or a concept presented in an argument. I will take some linguistic examples of illustration coming from the philosophical literature, in order to show that their role in the overall meaning of an argument is very similar to the role of images when used as illustrations.
Take the example of a relatively recent philosophical book, Margaret Gilbert’s book on Social Facts (Routledge, 1989). She introduces the technical philosophical notion of “we-intentions” and the illustrates it with various examples, such as for example the “restaurant case” (p.175) in which: “A group of people are eating together, two of them, Tony and Celia, are engaged and the other two barely know each other. Tony asks Celia: “Shall we share a pastry?” Celia agrees. The one of the other man, Bernard, turns to Sylvia, who is sitting on his right and whom she hardly knows and asks “Shall we share a pastry?”. She finds his use of “we” inappropriate”. These stories are neither presented as pieces of evidence that may prove the hypothesis at stake, nor are they standard exemplifications (as defined in Goodman, 1976) because the don’t possess the properties they are supposed to exemplify. They illustrate these properties by eliciting a visual representation.
Or take the more classical case of J.P. Sartre’s famous illustrations of what “bad faith” means. He introduces the description of a scene, in which he pictures a girl sitting with a man who she knows very well would like to seduce her. But when he takes her hand, she tries to avoid the painful necessity of a decision to accept or reject him, by pretending not to notice, leaving her hand in his as if she were not aware of it. The second illustration of “bad faith” describes a café waiter who is doing his job just a little too keenly; he is obviously 'acting the part'. These descriptions play an obvious role in his argument by contributing to making the notion of “bad faith” more vivid.
These descriptive sketches require a narrative ability and may fail to elicit the appropriate visualisation of the concept because of lack of some aesthetic properties.
My idea is that illustration as a rhetoric device bears interesting relations with visual representations both in the case of linguistic illustrations and graphic illustrations. A better investigation of the notion of illustration could provide an insight on the role of visual representations in argumentation.