Philosophical Studies

, Volume 166, Issue 1, pp 1–20 | Cite as

Are color experiences representational?

  • Todd GansonEmail author


The dominant view among philosophers of perception is that color experiences, like color judgments, are essentially representational: as part of their very nature color experiences possess representational contents which are either accurate or inaccurate. My starting point in assessing this view is Sydney Shoemaker’s familiar account of color perception. After providing a sympathetic reconstruction of his account, I show how plausible assumptions at the heart of Shoemaker’s theory make trouble for his claim that color experiences represent the colors of things. I consider various ways of trying to avoid the objection, and find all of the responses wanting. My conclusion is that we have reason to be skeptical of the orthodox view that color experiences are constitutively representational.


Color Experience Perception Color constancy Lightness constancy Color appearance Representation 



Special thanks to Keith Allen, Joshua Gert, and most of all Ben Bronner for providing valuable feedback on multiple versions of this paper. For helpful comments I wish to thank Alex Byrne, Alex Kerr, Neil Mehta, Peter Ross, Susanna Schellenberg, and an anonymous referee. For useful discussion of the topic I would like to thank Jonathan Cohen and David Hilbert.


  1. Allen, K. (2009). Being coloured and looking coloured. Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 39, 647–670.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Almeida, V., & Nascimento, S. (2009). Perception of illuminant colour changes across real scenes. Perception, 38, 1109–1117.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Arend, L., Reeves, A., Schirillo, J., & Goldstein, R. (1991). Simultaneous color constancy: Papers with diverse Munsell values. Journal of the Optical Society of America, A 8, 661–672.Google Scholar
  4. Arend, L., & Spehar, B. (1993). Lightness, brightness, and brightness contrast: 2. Reflectance Variation. Perception & Psychophysics, 54, 457–468.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Burge, T. (2010). Origins of objectivity. New York: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Byrne, A. (2001). Intentionalism defended. Philosophical Review, 110, 199–240.Google Scholar
  7. Byrne, A., & Hilbert, D. R. (1997). Colors and reflectances. In A. Byrne & D. R. Hilbert (Eds.), Readings on color, vol. 1: The philosophy of color (pp. 263–288). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  8. Casati, R. (2004). Shadows: Unlocking their secrets from plato to our time. New York: Random House, Inc.Google Scholar
  9. Chalmers, D. (2006). Perception and the fall from Eden. In T. S. Gendler & J. Hawthorne (Eds.), Perceptual experience (pp. 49–125). New York: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Cohen, J. (2008). Colour constancy as counterfactual. Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 86, 61–92.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Craven, B. J., & Foster, D. H. (1992). An operational approach to colour constancy. Vision Research, 32, 1359–1366.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Dretske, F. (1990). Seeing, believing, and knowing. In D. Osherson, S. Kosslyn, & J. Hollerbach (Eds.), Visual cognition and action (Vol. 2, pp. 129–148). Cambridge: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  13. Evans, R. (1959). Eye, film, and camera in photography. New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  14. Ganson, T. (2008). Reid’s rejection of intentionalism. Oxford Studies in Early Modern Philosophy, 4, 45–263.Google Scholar
  15. Ganson, T., Bronner, B., & Kerr, A. Burge’s defense of perceptual content. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research (Forthcoming).Google Scholar
  16. Gert, J. (2010). Color constancy, Complexity, and Counterfactual. Nous, 44, 669–690.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Gibson, J. J. (1986). The ecological approach to visual perception. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  18. Gilchrist, A. (2006). Seeing black and white. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Hilbert, D. (2005). Color constancy and the complexity of color. Philosophical Topics, 33, 141–158.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Jagnow, R. (2009). How representationalism can account for the phenomenal significance of illumination. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 8, 551–572.Google Scholar
  21. Jagnow, R. (2010). Shadow-experiences and the phenomenal structure of colors. Dialectica, 64, 187–212.Google Scholar
  22. Kalderon, M. (2011). Color illusion. Nous, 45, 751–775.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Katz, D. (1935). The world of colour. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co.Google Scholar
  24. Matthen, M. (2010). How things look (and What Things Look That Way). In B. Nanay (Ed.), Perceiving the world (pp. 226–253). New York: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Millar, B. (2010). Peacocke’s trees. Synthese, 174, 445–461.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Molyneux, B. (2009). Why experience told me nothing about transparency. Nous, 43, 116–136.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Mulligan, K. (1995). Perception. In B. Smith & D. W. Smith (Eds.), The Cambridge companion to Husserl (pp. 168–238). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Noë, A. (2004). Action in perception. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  29. O’Shaughnessy, B. (1985). Seeing the light. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 85, 193–218.Google Scholar
  30. O’Shaughnessy, B. (2000). Consciousness and the world. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  31. Palmer, S. (1999). Vision science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  32. Pautz, A. (2009). What are the contents of experiences? The Philosophical Quarterly, 59, 483–507.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Peacocke, C. (1983). Sense and content. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  34. Reid, T. (1997). In: D. R. Brookes (Ed.), An inquiry into the human mind. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.Google Scholar
  35. Rosenthal, D. (2010). How to think about mental qualities. Philosophical Issues, 20, 368–393.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Ross, W., & Pessoa, L. (2000). Lightness from contrast: A selective integration model. Perception and Psychophysics, 62, 1160–1181.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Schellenberg, S. (2008). The situation-dependency of perception. Journal of Philosophy, 105, 55–84.Google Scholar
  38. Schwartz, R. (2006). Visual versions. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  39. Shoemaker, S. (1996). The first-person perspective and other essays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Shoemaker, S. (2006). On the ways things appear. In T. S. Gendler & J. Hawthorne (Eds.), Perceptual experience (pp. 461–480). New York: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Sorensen, R. (2008). Seeing dark things. New York: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Thompson, B. (2009). Senses for senses. Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 87, 99–117.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Tye, M. (2006). In defense of representationalism. In M. Aydede (Ed.), Pain: New essays on its nature and the methodology of its study (pp. 163–175). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  44. Wallach, H. (1948). Brightness constancy and the nature of achromatic colors. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 38, 310–324.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyOberlin CollegeOberlinUSA

Personalised recommendations