Dispositionalism: Democritus and Colours by Convention

  • Barry MaundEmail author
Part of the Synthese Library book series (SYLI, volume 388)


Dispositionalism about colours is usually held to be incompatible with Colour Eliminativism: the view that there are no objects that have colours. I think that this common belief is false. There are different forms, both of Eliminativism and Dispositionalism, and that we can mount a combination of two forms of the views, forms that are compatible. The aim of this paper is to support this claim by discussion of the ancient Greek philosopher Democritus. We mostly have only second-hand reports of his thought, some of which ascribe to him, some very ropey arguments in support of his view on colour. (One of these receives heavy emphasis by R.C. Chisholm, in his discussion of perception.) One fragment of his writings we do have is the famous remark: “For by convention colour exists, by convention bitter, by convention sweet, but in reality atoms and the void.” But this remarks suggests that his position is more complex than it is usually considered. If it comprises eliminativism, it is not a bald eliminativism. For in the first part of the fragment, he says “By convention colour exists, by convention sweet exists, …” I suggest that there is a way of understanding Democritus’s position: it comprises a form of dispositionalism, but a special kind: it is one that is compatible with one form of Eliminativism, which can be thought of as Colour-Fictionalism. This suggestion is not meant to be merely of historical interest. It is, I argue, an eminently defensible position to hold about colour.


  1. Aristotle. (1984). De Anima, metaphysics (J. Barnes, Trans.), The complete works of Aristotle. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  2. Austin, J. L. (1962). Sense and Sensibilia (G. Warnock, Ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Averill, E. W. (1992). The relational nature of colour. Philosophical Review, 101, 551–588.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Averill, E. W. (2005). Toward a projectivist account of color. The Journal of Philosophy, 102, 217–234.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bennett, J. (1971). Locke, Berkeley and Hume. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  6. Burnyeat, M. (1979). Conflicting appearances. Proceedings of the British Academy, 65, 69–111.Google Scholar
  7. Byrne, A., & Hilbert, D. R. (1997). Readings on color: The philosophy of color. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  8. Byrne, A., & Hilbert, D. R. (2003). Color realism and color science. Behavioural and Brain Sciences, 26, 1–44.Google Scholar
  9. Chisholm, R. (1957). Perceiving: A philosophical study. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
  10. Chisholm, R. (1966). Theory of knowledge. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.Google Scholar
  11. Cohen, J. (2009). The red and the real. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Crane, T. (2000). The origins of qualia. In T. Crane & S. Patterson (Eds.), History of the mind-body problem (pp. 169–194). London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  13. Democritus. (1999). The atomists: Leucippus and Democritus, fragments, a text and translation with commentary (C. C. W. Taylor, Ed.). Toronto: Toronto University Press.Google Scholar
  14. Descartes, R. (1644/1988). Principles of philosophy. In J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff, & D. Murdoch (Eds.), Descartes: Selected philosophical writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  15. Fodor, J. (1998). There are no recognitional concepts: Not even RED. Philosophical Issues, 9, 1–14.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Horgan, T. (1998). Recognitional concepts and the compositionality of concept possession. Philosophical Issues, 9, 27–33.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Jackson, F. (1977). Perception: A philosophical study. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  18. Kulvicki, J. V. (2014). Images. London/New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  19. Levin, J. (2000). Dispositional theories of color and the claims of common sense. Philosophical Studies, 100, 151–174.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Locke, J. (1706/1961). An essay concerning human understanding (J. Yolton, Ed.). London: Dent.Google Scholar
  21. Lopes, D. (1995). Understanding pictures. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  22. Maund, B. (1996). Colours: Their nature and representation. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  23. Maund, B. (2003). Perception. Chesham: Acumen.Google Scholar
  24. Maund, B. (2011). Colour eliminativism. In L. Nolan (Ed.), Primary and secondary qualities. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  25. Maund, B. (2012). Colour relationalism and colour. Croatian Journal of Philosophy, 36, 379–398.Google Scholar
  26. McDowell, J. (1994). Mind and World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  27. McGinn, C. (1983). The subjective view: Secondary qualities an indexical thoughts. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  28. McGinn, C. (1996). Another look at color. Journal of Philosophy, 93, 537–553.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Millar, A. (1991). Reasons and experience. Oxford: Oxford UniverPress.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Millar, A. (2008). Perceptual–recognitional abilities and perceptual knowledge. In A. Haddock & F. Macpherson (Eds.), Disjunctivism: Perception, action, knowledge (pp. 330–347). Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Millikan, R. (1998). A more plausible kind of recognitional concept. Philosophical Issues, 9, 35–41.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Peacocke, C. (1984/1997): Colour concepts and colour experience. In A. Byrne, & D. R. Hilbert (Eds.), (1997) (pp. 51–66).Google Scholar
  33. Searle, J. R. (1995). The construction of social reality. New York: The Free Press.Google Scholar
  34. Sellars, W. (1956/1997) Empiricism and the philosophy of mind, with a study guide by Robert Brandom, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  35. Smart, J. J. (1975/1997) On some criticisms of a physicalist theory of colors. In A. Byrne, & D. R. Hilbert (Eds.), (1997), (pp. 1–10).Google Scholar
  36. Tye, M. (2000). Consciousness, Color and Content. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  37. Wright, E. (1996). What it isn’t Like. American Philosophical Quarterly, 33, 23–42.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Western AustraliaCrawleyAustralia

Personalised recommendations