Springer Nature is making SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 research free. View research | View latest news | Sign up for updates

Color and a priori knowledge

Abstract

Some truths about color are knowable a priori. For example, it is knowable a priori that redness is not identical to the property of being square. This extremely modest and plausible claim has significant philosophical implications, or so I shall argue. First, I show that this claim entails the falsity of standard forms of color functionalism, the view that our color concepts are functional concepts that pick out their referents by way of functional descriptions that make reference to the subjective responses of perceivers. I then argue that, while some sophisticated forms of color functionalism can accommodate the a priori knowability of a truth like “redness is not identical to squareness,” they can only do so by abandoning color realism, the thesis that colors are instantiated by external material objects. In practice, color functionalists are almost invariably color realists. Thus, given extremely modest assumptions concerning what can be known a priori about color, we should conclude that color functionalism, at least in its typical realist form, is false.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Notes

  1. 1.

    The intended logical form here is A[~ (redness = squareness)], with the negation taking scope over everything else within the apriority operator.

  2. 2.

    Cf. Chalmers (2006: 50–51).

  3. 3.

    Proponents of presentationalism, or something near enough, include Tye (1995), Dretske (1995), Byrne and Hilbert (1997), Horgan and Tienson (2002), Pautz (2010), Speaks (2015), and Mendelovici (2018). Anti-presentationalism is defended by Peacocke (1983), Block (1990), Chalmers (2006, 2018), and Thompson (2009). Both views are characterized here under the assumption that experience is representational. Many naïve realists would object to assumption but otherwise accept views much in the spirit of presentationalism.

  4. 4.

    For scientific and philosophical arguments from presentationalism to color irrealism, see Chalmers (2006) and Pautz (2010).

  5. 5.

    See, for example, Campbell (1993), Dretske (1995), Lycan (1996), Byrne and Tye (2006), Allen (2016), and Cutter (2018).

  6. 6.

    Functionalists who apparently endorse some such view of experience include Reid (1764), Kripke (1980), Block (1990), Lewis (1997), McLaughlin (2003), and Morrison (2018).

  7. 7.

    Because I take color concepts to be unanalyzable, I regard “redness ≠ squareness” as an instance of the synthetic a priori, at least if “synthetic” truths are understood as those that cannot be transformed into logical truths by replacing expressions with their analyses.

  8. 8.

    Some color functionalists endorse a slightly more complicated analysis, one that relativizes colors to perceivers and circumstances of perception. Thus, Jackson and Pargetter (1987: 72) propose the following analysis: “Redness for S in C at t is the property which causes (or would cause) objects to look red to S in C at t.” (Cf. McLaughlin 2003: 122; Cohen 2003: 6). The functionalist’s relativization of color to perceivers and circumstances of perception is motivated by the familiar fact that color appearances can vary across different subjects and viewing conditions. The phenomenon of perceptual variation plays no role in the argument below, so we can harmlessly ignore the functionalist’s relativism and focus on simpler analyses like the one above.

  9. 9.

    Compare McLaughlin’s (2003) explanation of why we are tempted to accept Revelation about color.

  10. 10.

    A variation on the response above, which might appeal to Chalmers (2006), is to say that Apriority holds for perfect redness and squareness, but not for ordinary redness and squareness. My reply is similar: the intuitive support for Apriority retains its full force even when we are careful to employ our ordinary concepts of redness and squareness.

  11. 11.

    The term “core belief” comes from Johnston (1992), but it is not clear that Johnston takes it to be a conceptual truth that colors are whatever properties satisfy our core beliefs. Thus, it is not clear that Johnston qualifies as a core belief functionalist, though Lewis certainly does.

  12. 12.

    For endorsements of Intrinsicality (or its pre-theoretic plausibility), see: Johnston (1992: 223), Yablo (1995: 489), McGinn (1996: 542), and Tye (2000: 153). Also noteworthy is the scientific practice of classifying as an “illusion” any case where two intrinsically identical surfaces look different in respect of color, as in Kitaoka’s (2006) lightness illusion or Adelson’s (1995) checker-shadow illusion. This classification strikes us as appropriate because we tacitly assume that color is intrinsic. For endorsements of Categoricity (or its pre-theoretic plausibility) see Boghossian and Velleman (1989: 86), Yablo (1995: 490), McGinn (1996: 545), and Cutter (2018: 41). For endorsements of Similarity-Grounding (or its pre-theoretic plausibility), see Yablo (1995: 486), Cohen (2009: 188–193), and Cutter (2018: 41–42). An endorsement of Similarity-Grounding also appears to be implicit in Hardin’s (1988: 2–6, 64–67) objection to physicalist views of color, which moves from the premise that there is no non-disjunctive physical property common to the things we call blue to the conclusion that blue isn’t an objective physical property.

  13. 13.

    For explanations of color structure along these lines, see Shoemaker (1991), Lewis (1997), Cohen (2003), McLaughlin (2003). For a convincing argument that these strategies do not do full justice to our pre-theoretic beliefs about color structure, see Pautz (2006).

  14. 14.

    See, for example, Hardin’s (1988: 2–6) brief summary of the many and widely varying physical causes of blue appearances.

  15. 15.

    In my view, the only plausible cases where familiarity with paradigms may be a prerequisite for possessing a color concept are colors named after their paradigms, such as Johnston’s example of canary yellow. Even if paradigms play a role in the analysis of canary yellow, I think the same cannot be said of the more standard color concepts like red, yellow, or purple.

  16. 16.

    See also Allen (2016: 83–85) for Kripke-inspired arguments against some forms of functionalism.

References

  1. Adelson, E. (1995). Checkershadow illusion. Retrieved March 26, 2019 from http://persci.mit.edu/gallery/checkershadow.

  2. Allen, K. (2016). A naïve realist theory of colour. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  3. Armstrong, D. (1968). A materialist theory of mind. London: Routledge.

  4. Block, N. (1990). Inverted earth. Philosophical Perspectives,4, 53–79.

  5. Boghossian, P., & Velleman, D. (1989). Color as a secondary quality. Mind,98(January), 81–103.

  6. Byrne, A., & Hilbert, D. (1997). Colors and reflectances. In A. Byrne & D. R. Hilbert (Eds.), Readings on color, volume 1: The philosophy of color. Cambridge: MIT Press.

  7. Byrne, A., & Hilbert, D. (2003). Color realism and color science. Behavioral and Brain Sciences,26(1), 3–21.

  8. Byrne, A., & Tye, M. (2006). Qualia ain’t in the head. Noûs,40(2), 241–255.

  9. Campbell, J. (1993). A simple view of colour. In J. Haldane & C. Wright (Eds.), Reality: Representation and projection (pp. 257–268). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  10. Chalmers, D. (2006). Perception and the fall from Eden. In T. Gendler & J. Hawthorne (Eds.), Perceptual experience (pp. 49–125). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  11. Chalmers, D. (2011). The nature of epistemic space. In A. Egan & B. Weatherson (Eds.), Epistemic modality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  12. Chalmers, D. (2012). Constructing the world. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  13. Chalmers, D. (2018). Three puzzles about spatial experience. In A. Pautz & D. Stoljar (Eds.), Blockheads!: Essays on ned block’s philosophy of mind and consciousness. Cambridge: MIT Press.

  14. Cohen, J. (2003). Color: A functionalist proposal. Philosophical Studies,113(1), 1–42.

  15. Cohen, J. (2009). The red and the real: An essay on color ontology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  16. Cutter, B. (2016). Color and shape: A plea for equal treatment. Philosophers’ Imprint,16, 1–11.

  17. Cutter, B. (2018). Paradise regained: A non-reductive realist account of the sensible qualities. Australasian Journal of Philosophy,96(1), 38–52.

  18. Cutter, B. (2019). Indeterminate perception and colour relationism. Analysis,79(1), 25–34.

  19. Descartes, R. (1644/1988) Principles of philosophy. In J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff, D. Murdoch, & A. Kenny (Eds.), Descartes: Selected philosophical writings (pp. 160–212). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  20. Dretske, F. (1995). Naturalizing the mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

  21. Hardin, C. L. (1988). Color for philosophers: Unweaving the rainbow. Indianapolis: Hackett.

  22. Horgan, T., & Tienson, J. (2002). The intentionality of phenomenology and the phenomenology of intentionality. In D. J. Chalmers (Ed.), Philosophy of mind: Classical and contemporary readings (pp. 520–533). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  23. Jackson, F., & Pargetter, R. (1987). An objectivist’s guide to subjectivism about colour. Revue Internationale de Philosophie,41, 127–141.

  24. Johnston, M. (1992). How to speak of the colors. Philosophical Studies,68(3), 221–263.

  25. Johnston, M. (1996). Is the external world invisible? Philosophical Issues,7, 185–198.

  26. Kitaoka, A. (2006). Luminance-gradient-dependent lightness illusion. Retrieved March 26, 2019 from http://www.psy.ritsumei.ac.jp/akitaoka/gilchrist2006mytalke.html#LGLI.

  27. Kripke, S. (1980). Naming and necessity. Oxford: Blackwell.

  28. Levin, J. (2000). Dispositional theories of color and the claims of common sense. Philosophical Studies,100(2), 151–174.

  29. Lewis, D. (1983). New work for a theory of universals. Australasian Journal of Philosophy,61, 343–377.

  30. Lewis, D. (1997). Naming the colours. Australasian Journal of Philosophy,75(3), 325–342.

  31. Lycan, W. (1996). Consciousness and experience. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

  32. Maund, B. (1995). Colours: Their nature and representation. New York: Cambridge University Press.

  33. McGinn, C. (1983). The subjective view: Secondary qualities and indexical thoughts. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

  34. McGinn, C. (1996). Another look at color. Journal of Philosophy,93(11), 537–553.

  35. McLaughlin, B. (2003). The place of color in nature. In R. Mausfeld & D. Heyer (Eds.), Colour: Connecting the mind to the physical world (pp. 475–505). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  36. Mendelovici, A. (2018). The phenomenal basis of intentionality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  37. Morrison, J. (2018). Perceptual variation and structuralism. Noûs. https://doi.org/10.1111/nous.12245.

  38. Pautz, A. (2006). Can the physicalist explain colour structure in terms of colour experience? Australasian Journal of Philosophy,84(4), 535–564.

  39. Pautz, A. (2010). Do theories of consciousness rest on a mistake? Philosophical Issues,20(1), 333–367.

  40. Peacocke, C. (1983). Sense and content. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  41. Prior, E., Pargetter, R., & Jackson, F. (1982). Three theses about dispositions. American Philosophical Quarterly,19(3), 251–257.

  42. Reid, T. (1764/1970) An inquiry into the human mind on the principles of common sense (T. Duggan, Ed.). Chicago: Chicago University Press.

  43. Shoemaker, S. (1991). Qualia and consciousness. Mind,100(399), 507–524.

  44. Speaks, J. (2015). The phenomenal and the representational. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  45. Thompson, B. (2009). Senses for senses. Australasian Journal of Philosophy,87(1), 99–117.

  46. Tye, M. (1995). Ten problems of consciousness: A representational theory of the phenomenal mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

  47. Tye, M. (2000). Consciousness, color, and content. Cambridge, MA: MIT/Bradford.

  48. Yablo, S. (1995). Singling out properties. Philosophical Perspectives, 9, 477–502.

Download references

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Neil Mehta, Andrew Lee, and Jeff Speaks for helpful discussion and detailed feedback on an earlier draft. This paper also benefitted from the exceptionally helpful comments of an anonymous referee.

Author information

Correspondence to Brian Cutter.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Cutter, B. Color and a priori knowledge. Philos Stud (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-020-01432-z

Download citation

Keywords

  • Color
  • Perception
  • Consciousness
  • A priori knowledge