Vignettes on Recognising

                                                                                                  by Jorge D. Goldfarb



             The relevance for landscape appreciation of the mental activity of ‘recognising’  is quite obvious. After all, if we are set on appreciating something we’d better make sure first that the thing in question is what we assume it is; if we are set to appreciate some thing as a landscape we'd better be certain that we are dealing with a landscape (or, better put, that the thing in question can be properly called ‘a landscape’).  Although the relevance of ‘recognising’ in the process of appreciation might be obvious, the affair of recognising some thing as a landscape is not that obvious. As it may transpire from the vignettes below, the said affair is quite problematic and deserves being explored in depth and detail.

       The understanding of the mental activity of recognising a landscape is just like the understanding of the recognition of any other thing...only harder.


        Why harder to understand?  There are a number of counts for  ‘the because’  but I’d say the most weighty ones are: a) we are not at all sure of what ‘sort of thing’  a landscape might be; a view, a place, an area, a space, a scene?   b) we are not even sure if a landscape is; for many, what we call a landscape is considered as  a  figment of our imagination,  a sociological, cultural or semantic ‘construal’.  Add to this that the term itself,‘Recognition”, is markedly polysemous and you’ll get an inkling of the vagaries that may hide behind the seemingly innocent term: 'landscape recognition'.

                As you may have rightly guessed, the difficulties enunciated under a) and b)  could be obviated if we just have  at hand a definition of landscape. Formal definitions are perhaps the most useful tools for recognising some thing as a member of a particular category. If an individual case fulfills all of the sufficient and necessary conditions required for membership in a category, we recognise it as “ falling under the concept of” and that’s all there is to its recognition as a member. I'’ll expound on what is entailed by ‘formal’ (aristotelian?) definitions, categories and concepts later on; here suffice to say that the problem we face is not the absence of definitions of ‘landscape’ but that we have too many of them with new ones being added as time goes by. This multiplicity of definitions is mainly the result of lack of consensus, within academia, regarding  the above mentioned count a).

                   Accordingly, the plan followed in the following vignettes is, roughly, to explore first  the general question  of 'recognising' and then  the particular one of recognising some thing as a landscape.  I say “roughly” because, as mentioned in the Introduction, my vignettes seldom follow a neat plan or framework; they are intended as “ramblings into” a topic rather than “a treatise on” a topic.  And I say "exploring" as a going from one place to another, noticing some aspects (not all) of each place and learning about alternative routes. Vignettes appear particularly suited for this sort of theoretical exploration.  It may be that, by the end of our exploration, we had not discovered previously uncharted territory but, at the very least, we'd be wiser than when we started. And,  the end of all our exploring , wrote T.S. Eliot in one of his sonnets:

                                            will be to arrive to where we started 

                                            and know the place for the first time. 




         As said above, I’ll  start with some general considerations on the problematic of the mental activity that goes by being called Recognition.

   Schematically, recognition “presupposes a subject of recognition (the recognizer) and an object (the recognized).”[1]. In our context ‘the object of recognition’ or the recognized should be taken as a particular landscape. Although one may object to the dualism subject/object entailed in the sentence it may be accepted as a convenient tool for studying the activity of recognising, much in the same way as it may be done with the ‘subject’ and ‘object’ of an experience. (the experiencing of the ‘object’ being the context in which the act of recognising is situated).

   The term ‘recognition’ is a notable example of those terms which carry with them a hefty load of senses. Paul Ricoeur, in his The Course of Recognition, mentions no less than 23 different senses or meanings of the word[2]. One may say that ‘recognition’ is a term representative of a semantic group of terms loosely connected with each other by a sort of family resemblance in the sense used by Wittgenstein [3]

    Even a cursory look to the cloud image presented in the Introduction  reveals that much the same could be said for the various clouds presented there, so that each cloud may be taken to stand for the various members of 'a family' of terms[4] Reflect for a moment on the multiplicity of senses of terms like ‘experience’, ‘perception’, ‘appreciation’, etc.  and compound them with the multiple senses of ‘place’, ‘space’, ‘landscape’ and you’ll begin to understand how and why discourses on landscapes can differ so much from each other whilst at the same time showing some degree of internal consistency because they all go by the same family name  Landscape.

 Footnotes and Refs:
[1] Iser, Mattias, "Recognition", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

[2] Ricoeur, P., The Course of Recognition, Harvard Univ Press (2005)

[3] Wittgenstein L., Philosophical Investigations, Blackwell Publ. (2001)
[4] Think, as a simile, about an imaginary family, the Furtherstoins, counting, say, 40 members; an individual, Mr. Archibald Furtherstoins,  may show  a number of physical and personality features shared with many (although not all)  family members; many but not all, so that some members may show other of those features while still being “part of the family”.


          Paul Ricouer’s book The Course of Recognition, cited above,  is an admirable exploration into the lexical and philosophical intricacies of meanings of the term ‘recognition’.

        Why “The Course of …”? In Ricouer’s own words:


               “My investigation arose from a sense of perplexity having to do

     with the semantic status of the very term recognition on the plane

     of philosophical discourse. It is a fact that no theory of recognition

     worthy of the name exists in the way that one or more theories of

                                                    knowledge exist. This surprising lacuna stands in contrast to the

                                                    kind of coherence that allows the word recognition to appear in a

                                                                dictionary as a single lexical unit, despite the multiple senses that

                                                                this lexical unit embraces... "  


             Since quite a number of scholars, far more learned than myself, have presented us with extensive and incisive commentaries of Ricouer’s work on Recognition, I will not even try to follow their footprints. What I will attempt though in the vignettes that follow is to bring to light the implications of Ricoeur’s inquiries to the question of recognising landscapes, This, by following a course which starts with the question of ‘recognising something as a landscape and follows with the question of recognising types of landscape (that is, to which type or genre a particular landscape might belong). From there I will proceed to the question of self-recognition (oneself as the recognising agent) which is basic to a phenomenological approach. All of the preceding being permeated by the sense of ‘recognising’ as ‘exploring’ (a sense that flows better from French’s reconnaissance and reconnoitre), that is, an exploration of landscape as a field of inquiry; a search for “the kind of coherence that allows the word Landscape to appear as a single lexical unit despite the multiple senses that this lexical unit embraces”.     



     Ricoeur, in the above mentioned The Course of Recognition, talks about “the most natural meaning of recognition”:

           Which meaning is taken to come first? The one that appears to be the most natural

 namely, the one that derives recognition (reconnoitre) from connaitre by  means of the prefix re- : "to bring again to mind  the idea of someone or something one knows (connait)"


…What is unsaid lies in the force of the re-, taken at first sight in the temporal sense of repetition. (my emphasis)


       So, in the re- of  re-cognizing, re-connaittre , re-conocer, ri-conoscere , we confront a sense of temporal repetition because the individual object is the same that was initially known (cognised) as some thing and then known again in a different way. where the re- stands here for: again, anew, afresh, di nuovo. 

                        "What is more, if the definition evokes the mind's initiative ("to bring again to mind"), it leaves indistinct  the quid  of what is recognized as such. Indeed, nothing is said about the marks by which one recognizes something. This later silence is  broken in the following definition. Here we pass to the act of recognizing something one has never seen before:       

          2.-  To know by some sign, some mark, some indication, a person or a thing one has never seen before. “By her bearing, one recognizes a goddess. To recognize a plant on the basis of the description given in a book."

          It is not only a temporal sense of repetition but also a qualitative sense; from a thing that has particular qualities (or properties) to the sort or kind of thing which has those qualities and a few more. For instance: we may first know a thing as ‘an insect’ (with the properties or qualities that the concept entails) and then we come to realize that the particular insect we confront is a bee. Upon encountering an scene one has never seen before, we may know it ‘initially’ as a new scene and then  we know -it-again as a landscape; the temporal coupled with the qualitative because such processes  imply going from the general (scene in this case) to the less general or more particular (landscape).


           "…What remains unsaid here is the reliability of the sign, the mark, or

         the indication of recognition by which one recognizes something or someone."


          This question of the reliability of the signs, marks or indications by which one may recognise some thing as a landscape requires further attention; the question has to do not only with the reliability of recognising but also with that of categorisation.  In the phrase ‘recognising some thing as …’ the as involves the activity of categorisation. It is a sort of short script for the longer phrase "recognising some thing as a member of the category of…”. 

         As I have discussed elsewhere [*],   I use 'categorisation' as having a wider meaning than 'classification' in the sense that 'categories' encompasses 'classes', 'kinds of', 'types' and other terms which some times are used interchangeably. I'd say that Hampton [**] appeals to that wider meaning when he writes: 


                "The classification of the world around us into labeled conceptual categories is probably

      the most fundamental of human cognitive achievements.  It is not only the basis of our general factual knowledge,

       but also provides us with the basic tools for reasoning."

[*] Goldfarb J.D. From Landscape Types to Genres;
[**] Hampton, J.A. (2012). Thinking intuitively: The rich (and at times illogical) world of concepts. Current Directions in Psychological  Sciencearb,  21, 398-402.

         Let’s reiterate the first two senses of ‘recognition’ chosen by Ricoeur, namely, 1.To bring again to mind the idea of someone or something one knows and 2. To know by some sign, some mark, some indication, a person or a thing one has never seen before. These two senses may be considered in terms of an implicit or explicit dialogue:


–What is that? (meaning, that which we are seeing now)

– Well… that is a landscape.

– How do you know that that is a landscape? 

– Although I’ve never seen it before, I know that that is a landscape by the  “marks, signs or    indications” that are peculiar to them.

         It doesn’t really matter whether the dialogue is performed by talking to another or talking to ourselves, what matters here is the multiplicity of questions which it rises. First of all, the that … does the that denote a view, a scene, an area, a prospect, a space, a place? I say first of all because herein lies the nature of our first, or initial, ‘knowing’ of the thing in question; those  various terms are not identical and represent different pre-conceptions of how we tend to parcel the world around us.  The that as ‘view’, for instance,  entails a separation between subject and object, of the knowing person and ‘the known’; it implies a certain detachment or distancing from what is first known, what is sometimes called a ‘spectatorial’ situation. The that as ‘place’, by contrast, unifies ‘the known’ with the knowing person  through our ‘being-in-place”; an embodied situation as opposed to the spectatorial one. It may be said that the other 'sorts of things' that a landscape might be: scene, prospect, area, space, etc., represent intermediate situations between those of ‘view’ in one extreme and ‘place’ in the other. 


      Second, the question of the re- as a temporal sequence: an initial encounter in which we get ‘to know’ something as a view, scene, space, place, etc.  followed by a ‘knowing again’ denoted by the re-, in the form of “an idea brought to mind”, in this case the idea of landscape. This of course, assuming that the idea of landscape is already part of our personal repertoire of ideas, otherwise it cannot be “brought to mind”.


       To recognise a certain insect as a bee entails deciding that the “marks, signs or indications” that we discern in that insect correspond to those exhibited by all the members of the category Bees. The strong or hard version of categorization requires that the insect in question complies with a set of jointly necessary and sufficient conditions for an insect to be ‘recognised as a bee; the enunciation of the set amounts to the definition of ‘bee’. This might work reasonably well for the likes of apples or elephants or pencils but works poorly for the likes of ‘landscape’ which, as conceptual categories, are markedly vague and ambiguous. In the later case a weaker or softer  version, in which it is enough for a thing to comply with only some conditions of the set in order to be accepted as a member of the category. The softer version (which is the one that I subscribe to throughout these vignettes) abides with the irrelevancy of said set of conditions for certain terms and hence commits the capital sin of disavowing definitions. The clause ‘for certain terms’ is by no means a mute point because we include here terms such as History, Art, Truth, Power, Reality, Literature, which happen to be just a few items of a very, very, long list. 


        Within this  context, the problematic of recognising some thing as a landscape is, in many aspects, similar to that of recognising some artifact as a work of art. Confronting the later case, Beryl Gaut proposed a softer version of categorisation which he called a Cluster Account of Art  [*]. Change ‘art’ for ‘landscape’ in the following excerpts and you may judge the merits of validating Gaut’s arguments for the ‘Landscape’ as a concept:


   “In holding that ‘art’ is a cluster concept I mean that there are multiple criteria for the application of the concept, none of which is a necessary condition for something’s being art” … “First, if all of the properties that are criteria are instantiated, this suffices for an object to fall under the concept; and more strongly, if fewer than all of these properties are instantiated, this also suffices for the application of the concept. So there are jointly sufficient conditions for the application of the concept. Second, there are no properties that are individually necessary conditions for the object to fall under the concept (that is, there is no property that all objects falling under the concept must possess).” … “By the second point, it follows that if a concept’s meaning is given by a cluster account, one cannot define that concept, in the sense of fixing individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions for it.” (Gaut:274) (my emphasis)

[*] Gaut B., (2005) The Cluster Account of Art Defended, British Journal of Aesthetics, 45: 3, 273-288.




        At this stage some of my readers may be thinking that I'm unnecessarily  complicating the topic of landscape recognition. Some may even say that, after all, this business of recognising landscapes is quite simple and -- Anyone can recognise a landscape when seeing one! -- ( a statement similar to: anyone can recognise a lie when hearing one). Since it is in the spirit of my vignettes to present various views upon a subject, even if they are contradictory, allow me to present a simple and schematic view upon which may be based the claim that anyone can recognise a landscape "just by seeing one".

       Succinctly: through education we come to form in our minds an idea of landscape. when exposed to a particular view or sight we compare it with this preformed idea; if it matches, we conclude that “that is a landscape” (we recognise the view as a landscape)  if it doesn’t match then “that is not a landscape”.

     Thus put, the process of recognition looks quite neat and simple. Being members of a linguistic community

we learn and note the usage of terms by hearing and reading others using them; that's how, through education we come to form ideas which are associated to certain terms(in our case: the idea of landscape). That part of the scheme is relatively unproblematic, but the matching process requires further examination.

         The belief that we come to cognise and recognise some thing by matching ideas we have ‘in the head’ to things in the world is quite old and can be traced back to Locke and Hume. Then and later it has been variously understood by substituting ‘head’ by ‘mind’ or by ‘brain’; some times the ideas have been thought as stored images, at others as lists of features or traits. To think of an idea as a stored image leads to think of the ‘matching’ process in terms of pictorial similarity between said image and the one perceived at a particular moment[*].  If, for instance,  a particular image we form from perception is similar to the stored-in-mind image of a lake then we can say that what we are watching  is a lake and the same for a mountain or a river...or a landscape.

        A criticism that may be raised at this point is that also we can somewhat conceive how a mental image of, say, a lake or a hill or a chair  might look like, we cannot manage to do so for the mental image of a landscape. Such an image will have to conciliate the differences between prospects of a desert, a beach, a mountain range, a large town, etc., etc.           A way out of this objection is to claim that the 'stored image' of the landscape idea  corresponds to some sort of 

composite of what we might consider a ‘typical’ landscape; ‘typical’ in the sense of “true to type”. This hypothesis looks attractive because it may be made to link with contemporary models of prototypes in cognitive psychology.  I’d venture to say that the assertion “anyone can recognise a landscape when seeing one” underlies a limited, stereotyped, conception of landscapes which reduces the immense variety of examples to those that exemplify only the typical ones.

        The question of 'typicality' of a landscape in the context of prototype theory will be taken up again in another vignette.

In the meantime we may  recall that as said above, the matching could be done either through stored images or through lists of features or traits. If objections are raised to 'mental images, then we can recur instead to "lists of traits". If so, the process of recognition would proceed more or less like this: if a certain thing exhibits the same features or properties that the corresponding 'mental description' enumerates then we'd have 'a positive match' and that thing will be recognized as being a case that instantiates the idea. For example, we come to form a mental description of 'Bee' consisting of a number of features that a perceived object should exhibit in order to be considered a bee (an idea of Bee) and whenever we come in the presence of an object that instantiates the idea we conclude it is a bee. In the case of a lake the list would include features of being a 'vast' 'area' of 'water' and scalar features that could be used to distinguish it from a pond as a lower limit and an ocean as the upper one. Now, in the case of landscape, it is not that easy to conceive the corresponding idea as a list of features. Note that for this model to work satisfactorily the list of features must be common to all the bees and all the lakes; this requires as a necessary condition for all the members of a category to have the same status and, accordingly, a unique meaning for the term that designates the idea. This necessary condition simply does not hold in the case of landscapes for reasons expounded in other vignettes and for this model to apply we have to adopt a particular reductive definition which would live outside of the category things that, according to other reductive definitions, may be recognised as landscapes.


[*] For an in-depth discussion see Fodor J.A., On Some Parallels Between Perception Theories and Semantic Theories pp. 10 in Pylishin Z.   Constraining Cognitive Theories, Ablex Publ. Corp. (1998) 




    It is of course a mere speculation of mine that Lewis Carroll wrote the following passage of The Hunting of the Snark [*]as a sort of satire of the model described in the preceding vignette. A rather tempting speculation because, in various versions, the notion of ideas stored in the head or the mind as either pictorial images or lists of features was quite in fashion in Carroll's times; besides, through his mastery of Logic, he was quite aware of the problematic of categories[**]. In any case, let's consider the speech  of the Bellman when addressing his crew shortly after landing: 



                                                                   "Come, listen, my men, while I tell you again

                                                 The five unmistakable marks

                                                 By which you may know, wheresoever you go,

                                                 The warranted genuine Snarks.


                                                   Let us take them in order. The first is the taste,

                                                Which is meagre and hollow, but crisp:

                                                 Like a coat that is rather too tight in the waist,

                                                 With a flavour of Will-o'-the-wisp.


                                                  Its habit of getting up late you'll agree

                                                  That it carries too far, when I say

                                                  That it frequently breakfasts at five-o'clock tea,

                                                  And dines on the following day.


                                                   The third is its slowness in taking a jest.

                                                  Should you happen to venture on one,

                                                  It will sigh like a thing that is deeply distressed:

                                                  And it always looks grave at a pun. 


                                                 "The fourth is its fondness for bathing-machines,

                                                  Which it constantly carries about,

                                                  And believes that they add to the beauty of scenes—

                                                                A sentiment open to doubt.


                                                 "The fifth is ambition. It next will be right

                                                  To describe each particular batch:

                                                  Distinguishing those that have feathers, and bite,

                                                   From those that have whiskers, and scratch. (my emphasis throughout)

            When hunting an animal you've never seen before you'd be well advised to know in advance how could you recognise it. Here the sense 2.-quoted by Ricoeur may come in handy: "To know by some sign, some mark, some indication, a person or a thing one has never seen before."  It is wise then on the part of the Bellman to instruct his crew on some "unmistakable marks" for recognising Snarks; only that, as you will have noted, the list of features he gives to them are rather peculiar. Except perhaps for paying attention to animals that happen to be towing bathing-machines, he gives them no visual clues for reconising a snark. Only at the end, somewhat as an afterthought he offers some clues to distinguish Snarks from Boojums but without telling which ones "have feathers and bite".

          As said, I guess that Lewis Carroll was making fun at the tendency of being too clever when trying to describe a concept while ignoring to mention the most basic features.  Within our context Carroll might have had a field day when reading some of the definitions proposed for Landscape in our days. To quote just a notorious one, the European Landscape Convention (Oct.,2000) gave the following:
--"Landscape" means an area, as perceived by people, whose character is the result of the action and interaction of natural and/or human factors;" . If you happen to be "hunting for landscapes" try to use this one as a list of features useful for recognising one.

(*)   Carroll L., The Hunting of the Snark, (an Agony in 8 Fits) , Start Publishing LLC, 2013  (original publ. 1876
(**) Carroll L., Symbolic Logic , Dover Publications Inc., 1958 



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                                                                                                                                                                                                           Copyright Jorge D. Goldfarb  2015