Locke and the Meaning of Colour Words

  • P. M. S. Hacker
Part of the Royal Institute of Philosophy Lectures book series (RIPL)


Those of us who are not colour blind have a happy command of colour concepts. We say of trees that they are green in spring, that they are the same colour as grass and a different colour from the sky. If we shine a torch with a red bulb upon a white surface, we say that the surface looks pink although it is white. And if we suffer a bout of jaundice we (allegedly) claim that white things look yellowish to us, although they are not yellow, nor do they (publicly) look yellow. We employ this tripartite distinction unworriedly and unthinkingly. But when, in doing philosophy, we are called upon to elucidate colour concepts it becomes evident that these elementary concepts present intricate problems to the philosophical understanding. It is extraordinarily difficult to obtain a proper surview of colour grammar, and the temptations of philosophical illusion are legion. We go wrong before the first step is even taken, and hence do not notice our errors, for they are implicit in every move we make. We multiply impossibilities seriatim, getting better, like the White Queen, with practice. We then either slide into scepticism, or alternatively exclude it on empirical grounds — appealing, as is so popular in American philosophical circles, to the wonders of science, in particular physics and neurophysiology, to keep the malin genie from the door.


Colour Word Discriminatory Capacity Secondary Quality Normal Observer Colour Term 


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  1. 1.
    For discussions of the issue see J. Hintikka, ‘Wittgenstein on Private Language: Some Sources of Misunderstanding’ Mind, lxxviii (1969), pp. 423–5CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. A. J. P. Kenny, Wittgenstein, (Allen Lane, 1973) pp. 190 ffGoogle Scholar
  3. P. M. S. Hacker, Insight and Illusion: Wittgenstein on Philosophy and the Metaphysics of Experience (Oxford, 1972) pp. 234 ff.Google Scholar
  4. 2.
    Cf. P. T. Geach, Mental Acts (London, 1957) pp. 35–6Google Scholar
  5. 2.
    H. P. Grice, ‘The Causal Theory of Perception’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, suppl. vol. (1961).Google Scholar
  6. 1.
    Wittgenstein ‘Notes for Lectures on Private Experience and Sense Data’ Philosophical Review (1968) p. 306.Google Scholar

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© Royal Institute of Philosophy 1976

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  • P. M. S. Hacker

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