Philosophy of color

Within the philosophy of color, there is a dispute between color realism, the view that colors are physical properties that objects possess, and color fictionalism, a species of error theory viewing colors according to which there are no such physical properties that objects possess.[1]

RBG color wheel
RYB color star

Theories of color

One of the topics in the philosophy of color is the problem of the ontology of color. The questions comprising this field of research are, for example, what kind of properties colors are (i.e. are they physical properties of objects? Or are they properties of their own kind?), but also problems about the representation of colors, and the relationship between the representation of colors and their ontological constitution.[2]

Within the ontology of color, there are various competing types of theories. One way of posing their relationship is in terms of whether they posit colors as sui generis properties (properties of a special kind that can't be reduced to more basic properties or constellations of such). This divides color primitivism from color reductionism. A primitivism about color is any theory that explains colors as unreducible properties. A reductionism is the opposite view, that colors are identical to or reducible to other properties. Typically a reductionist view of color explains colors as an object's disposition to cause certain effects in perceivers or the very dispositional power itself (this sort of view is often dubbed "relationalism", since it defines colors in terms of effects on perceivers, but it also often called simply dispositionalism - various forms of course exist). An example of a notable theorist that defends this kind of view is the philosopher Jonathan Cohen.

Another type of reductionism is color physicalism. Physicalism is the view that colors are identical to certain physical properties of objects. Most commonly the relevant properties are taken to be reflectance properties of surfaces (though there are accounts of colors apart from surface colors too). Byrne, Hilbert and Kalderon defends versions of this view. They identify colors with reflectance types.

A reflectance type is a set, or type, of reflectances, and a reflectance is a surface's disposition to reflect certain percentages of light specified for each wavelength within the visible spectrum.

Both relationalism and physicalism of these kinds are so called realist theories, since apart from specifying what colors are, they maintain that colored things exist.

Primitivism may be either realist or antirealist, since primitivism simply claims that colors aren't reducible to anything else. Some primitivists further accept that, though colors are primitive properties, no real or nomologically possible objects have them. Insofar as we visually represent things as colored - on this view - we are victims of color illusions. For this reason primitivism that denies that colors are ever instantiated is called an error theory.

Color discourse

If color fictionalism is true, and the world has no colors, should one just stop color discourse, and all the time wear clothes that clash with each other? Prescriptive color fictionalism would say no. In prescriptive color fictionalism, while color discourse is, strictly speaking, false, one should continue using it in everyday life as though color properties do exist.

Color vision became an important part of contemporary analytic philosophy due to the claim by scientists like Leo Hurvich that the physical and neurological aspects of color vision had become completely understood by empirical psychologists in the 1980s. An important work on the subject was C. L. Hardin's 'Color for Philosophers,' which explained stunning empirical findings by empirical psychologists to the conclusion that colors cannot possibly be part of the physical world, but are instead purely mental features.

David Hilbert and Alexander Byrne have devoted their careers to philosophical issues regarding color vision. Byrne and Hilbert have taken a minority position that colors are part of the physical world. Nigel J.T. Thomas provides a particularly clear presentation of the argument. The psychologist George Boeree, in the tradition of J. J. Gibson, specifically assigns color to light, and extends the idea of color realism to all sensory experience, an approach he refers to as "quality realism".

Jonathan Cohen of UCSD and Michael Tye of University of Texas have also written many essays on color vision. Cohen argues for the uncontroversial position of color relationalism with respect to semantics of color vision in Relationalist Manifesto. In The Red and the Real, Cohen argues for the position, with respect to color ontology that generalizes from his semantics to his metaphysics. Cohen's work marks the end of a vigorous debate on the topic of color that started with Hardin.

Michael Tye argues, among other things, that there is only one correct way to see colors. Therefore, the colorblind and most mammals do not really have color vision because their vision differs from the vision of "normal" humans. Similarly, creatures with more advanced color vision, although better able to distinguish objects than people, are suffering from color illusions because their vision differs from humans. Tye advanced this particular position in an essay called True Blue.

Paul Churchland of UCSD has also commented extensively on the implication of color vision science on his version of reductive materialism. In the 1980s Paul Churchland's view located colors in the retina. But his more recent view locates color in spectral opponency cells deeper in the color information stream. Paul Churchland's view is similar to Byrne and Hilbert's view, but differs in that it emphasized the subjective nature of color vision and identifies subjective colors with coding vectors in neural networks.

Many philosophers follow empirical psychologists in endorsing color irrealism, the view that colors are entirely mental constructs and not physical features of the world. Surprisingly, most philosophers who have extensively addressed the topic have attempted to defend color realism against the empirical psychologists who universally defend color antirealism (a.k.a. irrealism).

Jonathan Cohen of UCSD has edited a collection of essays on the topic of color philosophy called Color Vision and Color Science, Color Ontology and Color Science.

See also


  1. ^ "Colour Fictionalism – SFU" (PDF). Retrieved 23 March 2018.
  2. ^ Maund, Barry (23 March 2018). Zalta, Edward N. (ed.). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. Retrieved 23 March 2018 – via Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.


Further reading

  • Hardin, C. L. (1988). Color for Philosophers: Unweaving the Rainbow. Hackett Publishing. ISBN 978-0872200401.
Laura Guido-Clark

Laura Guido-Clark is an American designer of color, material and texture of consumer products. She has been dubbed a 'Experience Consultant' reflecting her interest and study of human reactions to the look and feel of new products. At NeoCon 2017 she launched a color methodology called Love Good Color. Her approach integrates scientific and aesthetic theories so that emotion and the senses can be considered by designers when using color.Guido-Clark is a native of Dearborn, Michigan, United States. She attended Wayne State University, Detroit. As a child she was inspired by Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Suess and The Wizard of Oz leading her to choose design over medicine as her major.She founded the non-profit Project Color Corps with the aim of "optical optimism" in urban neighborhood schools through paint and pattern.In 2011, under a Fast Company heading called Masters of Design, she was asked to contribute to a panel piece on American Design. The panel included Roger Martin of The University of Toronto, Thomas Lockwood of The Design Management Institute and Mickey McManus of Maya Design amongst others.In 2014, the IIDA Northern California Chapter awarded her with their Leadership Award of Excellence.

Alongside Laurie Pressman of Pantone and Kat Holmes of Microsoft she was a member of the interview panel for the documentary 'Color in Sight'. The film explored the impact of color in the design and success of a product

List of philosophies

Philosophical schools of thought and philosophical movements.

Mark Eli Kalderon

Mark Eli Kalderon (born 1964) is an American philosopher and Professor of Philosophy in the University College London Department of Philosophy. He is known for his expertise on philosophy of color and philosophy of perception.

Natalia Pankova

Natalia Yurievna Pankova (Russian: Наталия Юрьевна Панкова; born 28 June 1965, Gorky (Nizhny Novgorod)) is a Russian artist, art manager; member of the Russian Union of Artists.

, chairperson of the Executive Committee of the Nizhny Novgorod «Russian Art» Foundation, and Counselor to the Representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia in Nizhny Novgorod, Master of Arts.

Ronald Markman

Ronald Markman (May 29, 1931 – May 30, 2017) was an American artist and educator best known for producing large colorful paintings and sculptures in a style that combined elements of Surrealism and Pop Art with a deep grounding in color theory. He integrated classical and popular culture, humor, as well as whimsy and riotous color to deliver social satire and a deeply personal vision of the world.

Color topics
Color science
Color terms

This page is based on a Wikipedia article written by authors (here).
Text is available under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license; additional terms may apply.
Images, videos and audio are available under their respective licenses.