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How representationalism can account for the phenomenal significance of illumination


In this paper, I defend a representationalist account of the phenomenal character of color experiences. Representationalism, the thesis that phenomenal character supervenes on a certain kind of representational content, so-called phenomenal content, has been developed primarily in two different ways, as Russellian and Fregean representationalism. While the proponents of Russellian and Fregean representationalism differ with respect to what they take the contents of color experiences to be, they typically agree that colors are exhaustively characterized by the three dimensions of the color solid: hue, saturation, and lightness. I argue that a viable version of representationalism needs to renounce this restriction to three dimensions and consider illumination to be a genuine phenomenal dimension of color. My argument for this thesis falls into two parts. I first consider the phenomenon of color constancy in order to show that neither Russellian nor Fregean representationalism can do justice to the phenomenal significance of local illumination. I subsequently formulate a version of representationalism that accounts for illumination by taking it as a phenomenal dimension of color.

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Fig. 1


  1. The distinction between phenomenal character and representational content is not universally accepted. In this paper, however, I assume that this distinction is viable.

  2. I want to emphasize that I use the term “Russellian representationalism” in order categorize a number of different positions. Moreover, this term is often not used by the representatives of these positions. For example, Tye calls his version of representationalism Millian representationalism (Tye, 2003).

  3. The hue of a color is its redness, blueness, yellowness, etc. The saturation of a color refers to the strength of its hue in relation to gray. The lightness of a color determines its relation to black and white. Saturation is sometimes called “chroma” and lightness “value” (Palmer 1999, 98).

  4. Thompson writes, for example, “The phenomenal color appearance of a place in the visual field is exhaustively characterized by hue, saturation, and brightness [lightness, in my terminology] (understood as features of visual experience, not as physical qualities of light). This is not only introspectively verifiable – it is the standard view in the literature on color perception. It is in fact difficult to imagine a principled, rather than ad hoc, reason for holding that there is an aspect of color phenomenology that is not hue, saturation, or brightness” (Thompson 2006. 84).

  5. See Chalmers (2004).

  6. It is important not to conflate this notion of phenomenal properties with that of Shoemaker (Shoemaker 2000). Phenomenal properties in Shoemaker’s sense refer to a certain kind of relational object-property. An object instantiates a phenomenal color property in virtue of causing in a perceiver an experience with a certain phenomenal quality. Phenomenal properties in the sense above do not carry this metaphysical baggage. An experience is said to instantiate a given phenomenal color property simply in virtue of having a certain phenomenal character.

  7. Russellian representationalists also sometimes characterize phenomenal contents in terms of existentially quantified propositions involving properties (Thau 2002). But I do not consider this position here because it does not affect my argument.

  8. I want to emphasize that this is not universally accepted. For example, Shoemaker argues that the represented properties (phenomenal properties in his sense) are mind-dependent relational properties of objects.

  9. This is a first rough characterization of Fregean representationalism. I will discuss a more refined version in “Problems for Fregean Representationalism”.

  10. The task associated with this definition of color constancy is to show how the visual system recovers the invariant reflectance properties from the irradiance of the retinal image, that is, from the intensity and spectral composition of the light reaching the retina. The difficulty is that the irradiance depends on both the reflectance of the surface and the properties of the illuminant. It is also important to note that human color constancy is by no means perfect and breaks down in many situations. Nonetheless, it is a well-confirmed empirical fact that the human visual system is able to identify stable physical properties under varying conditions of illumination.

  11. Thompson has pointed out that the visual system possesses a number of adaptation mechanisms, as a result of which colors will look the same in changed viewing conditions. He points out that the phenomenon of color constancy can be restricted to cases in which these mechanisms have no relevant effects, however (Thompson 2006).

  12. Bäuml, for example, summarizes the results of these experiments in the following way: “This pattern of results demonstrates that the same surface can have quite different color appearance under two different illuminants but, at the same time, may be perceived as roughly the same surface under two different illuminants” (Bäuml 1999, 1532).

  13. Note that Cohen uses the term “apparent color,” rather than “appearance color” (Cohen 2008).

  14. For a defense of this view in a different context, see Kriegel (2002).

  15. Hilbert has recently put forward a number of arguments against the inference theory (Hilbert 2005). He distinguishes between conscious and unconscious inferences and dismisses them for different reasons. He thinks that the conscious inference theory has primarily three problems. First, it over-intellectualizes perception. Color-constancy has been shown to be present in organisms that do not have our cognitive abilities. Second, the results of these inferences do not seem to interact with the rest of the cognitive apparatus. Finally, the conscious inference theory seems to conflict with the fact that the appearance of sameness seems sensory rather than cognitive. The unconscious inference theory solves these problems. But it seems to be forced to attribute both appearance color and object color to the same position in the visual field. As we will see, in the context of Russellian representationalism, an explanation of color constancy in terms of judgments encounters more specific problems.

  16. The conclusion that the representation of constant color cannot be the result of a rational inference based on appearance colors and perceptual cues is also supported by empirical evidence. In a series of experiments, Amano, Foster, and Nascimento (2006) have shown that perceivers can estimate colors reliably without explicit illuminant cues. Their experiments demonstrate that the representation of explicit illumination cues is not a necessary condition for color constancy.

  17. Chalmers discusses this proposal in section 10 of his (2006).

  18. One could individuate the properties more finely, e.g., being in shadow89, being in shadow87, and so on.

  19. For a similar example, see (Thompson 2006, 82).

  20. It is important to emphasize that this is not Tye’s own position. See (Tye 2000).

  21. Thompson suggested that at the first level the experience represents occurrent reflectance properties and at the second dispositions to reflect wavelengths in certain illumination conditions (Thompson 2006). I also want to emphasize that it is not essential to this type of representationalism that the processes leading from one level to another be computational.

  22. The suggestion that surface colors are not phenomenally present in experience raises a potential problem. It implies that the two levels represent different kinds of color properties. Yet, phenomenally, color experiences seem to present only one kind of property. One way out of this problem would be to say that the higher level of content does not attribute a property. Rather, it simply represents the fact that two or more appearance colors belong to the same surface color.

  23. The illusion and Adelson’s explanation can be found at

  24. An alternative way of describing these three appearance colors would be to say that they are different shades of gray. Nothing hangs on the difference, however. I will use black, gray, and white for simplicity.

  25. As a matter of fact, Adelson has argued that the perception of shadows and shading involves higher-level processing. See Adelson (1993; 2000). Other visual effects indicating the contribution of higher-level processing are described by Hardin (1988).

  26. Thompson argues that Fregean holism fits with empirical work on color constancy, such as Land’s (1977) retinex theory of color vision.

  27. The assumption that two phenomenally identical total experiences cannot attribute different color properties may have to be strengthened. Imagine the following situation. You are looking at a black screen that occupies your entire visual field with a white circular region at the centre. A red spotlight is projected onto the screen somewhere near the periphery of your visual field, then slowly moves towards the white area, then eclipses it totally, and finally moves away from it. At the moment of the total eclipse, the white region looks white illuminated by red light. We can imagine a second veridical experience which is phenomenally identical with the experience at the moment of the total eclipse, but which represents a black screen with a red circle at the centre. Thus two phenomenally identical momentary experiences can represent different properties. Thompson could respond to this by saying that two phenomenally identical total experiences with at least partially identical histories cannot represent different properties. He could then say that the two experiences represent different properties, white in one case and red in the other, because of their different histories.

  28. The restriction to non-luminous surfaces is important. We can imagine a situation in which one’s entire visual field is taken up by the blue expanse of the sky. In this case, one sees the blue color that is not illuminated.


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For helpful comments, I want to thank Dan Farnham, Tamara Levitz, Melissa Seymour, Sarah Wright, and an anonymous reviewer for this journal. I am grateful to the Willson Center for Humanities and Arts for the research grant that made this project possible.

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Correspondence to René Jagnow.

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Jagnow, R. How representationalism can account for the phenomenal significance of illumination. Phenom Cogn Sci 8, 551–572 (2009).

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  • Representationalism
  • Color constancy
  • Phenomenal content
  • Color experience
  • Illumination