Exploring Gombrich’s "Art and Illusion" in Relation to the Philosophy of Science

Term Paper 2012 7 Pages

Philosophy - Miscellaneous


1. Introduction

Painting is a science and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature. Why, then, may not landscape painting be considered as a branch of natural philosophy, of which picture are but the experiments?” – John Constable (as cited in Gombrich, 1960, p. 29)

19th century British painter John Constable advocated the idea that through experimentation, art could rid itself of its chains of style and advance towards visual truth. With this notion he stands in a long Western tradition of viewing art progressing towards mimesis. To the same time the prevailing notion in science was that progress was the steady accumulation of established truths that would eventually provide access to a timeless world of reality. Progress was regarded as possessing a definite and unquestionable meaning, which was unique to the field of science[1]. This notion of ‘progress’ as a normative and goal-normative concept has come under scrutiny both in the arts and sciences (Niiniluoto, 2011).

In the history of art, Ernst Gombrich’s groundbreaking Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (1960) was influential in arguing against the traditional view of representation of reality in art as imitation. In the philosophy of science, notably Karl Popper and then Thomas Kuhn challenged the concept of progress as the cumulation of factual observations. This paper wants to approach the larger issue of progress within the framework of Art and Illusion by asking: in how far do concepts of progress as derived from the philosophy of science relate to the notion of arts? More specifically, how did Gombrich challenge the traditional idea of representation as imitation? In following, it will be shown that Gombrich’s methodology and main concepts are greatly indebted to Popper’s theory of falsification. In a second step, Thomas Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolution, which opposes Popper’s writings, will be outlined in relation to Gombrich and his ideas of perception and classification.

2. Progress in Art & Science

2.1 “Making Precedes Matching” – Progress through Falsification

With Art and Illusion, Gombrich puts forward a comprehensive revision of the story of visual discoveries to answer the question why stylistic difference exists in different periods of time. He argues against the idea of mimesis as imitation, which goes back to Antiquity and continues well into the 19th century (Gombrich, 1960). Rejecting Ruskin’s notion of the ‘innocence of the eye’ and the idea that stylistic change in art is the result of changes in straightforward modes of seeing and sense impressions, Gombrich draws on the psychology of representation to show how stylistic change is rather dependent on the conceptual framework, the models and traditions in which the artist lives (ibid.).


[1] Philosopher of science George Staton defined science as: “the history of science is the only history which can illustrate the progress of mankind. In fact, progress has no definite and unquestionable meaning in other fields than the field of science.” ( Niiniluoto, 2011 p. 159)


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Maastricht University
progress arts science exploring gombrich’s illusion study psychology pictorial representation relation philosophy



Title: Exploring Gombrich’s "Art and Illusion" in Relation to the Philosophy of Science