Color and a priori knowledge


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.

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  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.


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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.

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Correspondence to Brian Cutter.

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Cutter, B. Color and a priori knowledge. Philos Stud 178, 293–315 (2021).

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  • Color
  • Perception
  • Consciousness
  • A priori knowledge