Vagueness, Hysteresis, and the Instability of Color

  • Diana RaffmanEmail author
Part of the Synthese Library book series (SYLI, volume 388)


This paper explores the implications of some experimental data for views that identify colors with objective physical properties such as reflectance profiles. Those who reject objectivist views often argue from the existence of intersubjective differences in color categorization (application of color predicates); but objectivists have managed to stand their ground by (e.g.) identifying colors with sets or ranges of reflectances individuated by the ways in which they stimulate the visual system. In the interest of moving the debate forward, I provide a new kind of evidence against objectivism. Results of a psycholinguistic experiment (e.g., Raffman 2014) reveal hysteresis and enhanced contrast in ordinary speakers’ applications of vague terms. These dynamical patterns are purely psychological and give rise to intra-subjective variation in subjects’ applications of vague predicates; in particular, in the case of color predicates, nothing in the stimulus configuration or the illuminant undergoes any change, the only variable being the order in which stimuli are judged. I hypothesize that these order effects are necessary if vague words are to be applicable to values on dimensions, like color, that admit of continuous change. To the extent that this hypothesis is correct, it suggests that if (1) colors are the properties named by ordinary color predicates, and (2) ordinary color predicates are vague, and (3) the application of vague predicates exhibits the order effects found in the experiment, colours cannot be physical or otherwise objective in nature.


  1. Ball, L. (2008). Hysteresis in unemployment.
  2. Byrne, A., & Hilbert, D. (2003). Color realism and color science. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 26, 1–44.Google Scholar
  3. Dixit, A. (1992). Investment and hysteresis. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 6(1), 107–132.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Hilbert, D. R. (1987). Color and color perception. Stanford: CSLI Publications.Google Scholar
  5. Horgan, T. (1994). Robust vagueness and the forced-march sorites paradox. Philosophical Perspectives, 8, 159–188.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Jackson, F. (1996). The primary quality view of color. Philosophical Perspectives, 10, 199–219.Google Scholar
  7. Jackson, F. (2007). Color for representationalists. Erkenntinis, 66, 169–185.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Kamp, H. (1981). The paradox of the heap. In U. Mönnich (Ed.), Aspects of philosophical logic (pp. 225–277). Dordrecht: Reidel.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Matthen, M. (1988). Biological function and perceptual content. The Journal of Philosophy, 11, 5–27.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Nave, R. (2005). Hyperphysics. Department of Physics and Astronomy, Georgia State University.
  11. Raffman, D. (1994). Vagueness without paradox. The Philosophical Review, 103(1), 41–74.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Raffman, D. (1996). Vagueness and context relativity. Philosophical Studies, 81, 175–192.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Raffman, D. (2014). Unruly words: A study of vague language. New York: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Shapiro, S. (2007). Vagueness in context. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  15. Soames, S. (1999). Understanding truth. New York: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Tesser, A., & Achee, J. (1994). Aggression, love, conformity, and other social psychological catastrophes. In R. Vallacher & A. Nowak (Eds.), Dynamical systems in social psychology (pp. 96–108). San Diego: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  17. Tye, M. (2000). Consciousness, color, and content. Cambridge: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  18. Vergeer, M., Anstis, S., & van Lier, R. (2015, May 18). Flexible color perception depending on the shape and positioning of achromatic contours. Frontiers in Psychology. https://doi. org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00620
  19. Von der Heydt, R., Friedman, H. S., & Zhou, H. (2003). Searching for the neural mechanism for color filling-in. In L. Pessoa & P. de Weerd (Eds.), Filling-in: From perceptual completion to cortical reorganization (pp. 106–127). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  20. Watkins, G. M. (2002). Rediscovering colors: A study in Pollyanna realism. Dordrecht: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Williamson, T. (1994). Vagueness. London: Routledge.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of TorontoTorontoCanada

Personalised recommendations