What photographs are (and what they are not)

Disputatio 4 (31):239 - 254 (2011)
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Abstract
For the metaphysician, photographs are very puzzling entities indeed. And even from the non-philosopher's intuitive point of view, it is not that clear what sort of thing a photograph is. Typically, if a client wants to purchase a photograph, she can mean very different things by 'buying a photograph' : she can mean to buy a print or a number of prints, or she can mean to buy a negative (when traditional film photographs are concerned) or a file (when digital photography is concerned), or she can mean to buy a right to use a photograph a precisely determined number of times in a number of brochures or on a website, and so on. When facing a new client, I always, without exception, face the problem of explaining to her what it is that she is actually buying – and it is not always clear that she is ever buying a photograph. As a metaphysician, I face a much more difficult challenge : find out to what ontological category photographs belong to. Are they concrete spatio-temporal entities like prints, are they universals since there can be many 'prints-instances' of a same photograph, are they sets or aggregates of prints, or something even different ? This is the task that I wish to undertake in this paper : examine all plausible metaphysical categories to which photographs could belong to, and see which one is the fittest. As we shall see, in this 'survival for the fittest' competition between traditional metaphysical categories, there will be no real winner : several categories will reveal themselves to be enlightening and useful when describing features of what photographs are, but none will prove to be entirely satisfactory. Photographs, it seems, are a sort of borderline entities that share some but not all aspects of several traditional metaphysical categories. Is it then justified to postulate a new ontological category to which photographs would properly belong ? On mainly methodological grounds, I shall argue that it is not, and I will suggest a different way out of this metaphysician's trouble by defending a nihilism about photographs. To put it bluntly, I will defend the claim that photographs do not exist – but I will also argue that this is not a very revisionary or anti-commonsensical claim.
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2011-01-29

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