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Are color experiences representational?


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.

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  1. 1.

    Of course, my conclusion is compatible with the idea that our visual experiences represent properties other than the color-related ones. Kalderon (2011) and Schwartz (2006) offer different arguments for the same sort of skepticism defended here. For a defense of the view that color experience is constitutively representational, see Burge (2010). I respond to Burge’s argumentative strategy in Ganson et al. (forthcoming).

  2. 2.

    The term “surface color” is meant as a place-holder for whatever it is that is perceived as constant in instances of lightness constancy. (See below for a detailed discussion of lightness constancy.) At times it will be convenient to follow Byrne and Hilbert (1997) in supposing that surface color is surface reflectance. (Since our focus is specifically on lightness constancy, we are talking about achromatic reflectance, the percentage of light a surface reflects.) The force of my skeptical argument does not depend on this choice to follow Byrne and Hilbert.

  3. 3.

    See Shoemaker (1996). For a response, see Rosenthal (2010).

  4. 4.

    This quote comes from Mulligan (1995), p. 182. Two notes on terminology. First, I will avoid talk of sensation or visual field throughout. Second, I will speak of hue, saturation, and lightness (in place of Peacocke’s brightness). Some authors suggest that we need to add a further dimension to the familiar three dimensions of color space in order to accommodate cases like Peacocke’s example of the two walls. I will reserve the term “brightness” for this alleged fourth dimension.

  5. 5.

    As noted above, Shoemaker appeals to the possibility of spectrum inversion in order to establish the existence of nameless color appearances. Two subjects might make all the same color discriminations and agree verbally about how to name and describe the colors, and yet their color experiences might be phenomenally inverted relative to one another throughout the spectrally pure colors. So, for example, what it is like for the one to see a ripe tomato might be just what it is like for the other to see a ripe granny smith apple, and vice versa. Now, in addition to the subjects’ shared cognition of the colors of things, we need to posit distinctive ways things look or color appearances.

  6. 6.

    Our focus here is on experience of color-related properties, but similar points have been made about shape and size constancy (e.g., Millar 2010). Shoemaker (2006) also posits nameless properties in connection with sense modalities other than vision.

  7. 7.

    Nonetheless, one could, with some effort, devise an argument from color constancy that parallels Shoemaker’s argument from lightness color constancy. I will not attempt to do so here.

  8. 8.

    Shoemaker is making a substantive assumption in supposing that these further items are nameless. A plausible alternative is that our everyday term “color” is ambiguous. I want to avoid the verbal issue of what is and what is not properly deserving of the name “color.”

  9. 9.

    Helmholtz had thought of lightness constancy as a matter of “discounting the illuminant,” but Katz rightly insisted that “wherever objects are perceived an impression of illumination is always produced” (1935, p. 51).

  10. 10.

    When I use the phrase “degree of illumination,” I am not concerned with the absolute level of illumination. I am referring to a surface area’s degree of illumination relative to surrounding areas.

  11. 11.

    In his more recent defense of the claim that we see light whenever we see, O’Shaughnessy (2000) argues from premises not unlike those that figure in Shoemaker’s argument from lightness constancy. By contrast, in his classic defense of this claim O’Shaughnessy (1985) makes no mention of shadows. Likewise, when Gibson (1986) defends the opposing claim that strictly speaking we never see light, he says nothing about shadows. For recent discussion of the neglected topic of shadows see Casati (2004) and Sorensen (2008).

  12. 12.

    For further discussion of background-independent constancy, see Ross and Pessoa (2000) and Gilchrist (2006).

  13. 13.

    It is not plausible to think of color appearance as a kind of internal record of luminance values present in the retinal image. The requisite correlation between luminance values and color appearances simply does not exist. This point could be illustrated in numerous ways, but I will limit myself to two examples. We have already noted the effects surrounding colors have on color appearance. A visual artist attentive to these pervasive effects on how things look is not attending to luminance: the luminance of a surface area does not change with a change in surrounding colors. No less noteworthy are the effects penumbrae (along with other graded contours) have on color appearance. An area reflecting light of lesser intensity than surrounding areas will appear lighter than it would otherwise if the contours of that area are graded, as they typically are in the case of shadows (Evans 1959). (This lightening effect occurs whether the weaker luminance is due to weaker illumination or darker surface color, and it occurs whether or not the area is interpreted by the subject as lying in a shadow.) The painter confronted with colors in shadows and asked to make matches in lightness will not, it seems, be tracking luminance. Typically two regions yielding the same luminance will differ in lightness if one lies in shadow and the other does not: the area in shadow will appear lighter thanks to the presence of the penumbra.

  14. 14.

    Should we say, with Shoemaker, that reflection on lightness constancy gets us to roughly the same conclusion as reflection on the possibility of spectrum inversion? On the usual way of characterizing spectrum inversion scenarios, the phenomenal inversion is supposed to have no behavioral manifestations whatsoever. Insofar as it is divorced in this way from behavior, the phenomenal difference in question does not seem to be a psychological difference. For it is plausible to think of the psychological as supervening on the behavioral (Molyneux 2009). By contrast, the argument from lightness constancy is an argument for a distinct psychological kind (i.e., a kind that figures in psychological explanations and predictions). The notion of color appearance that figures in psychological accounts of lightness constancy is typically glossed by way of the further psychological notions of hue, saturation, and lightness—dimensions of color space. In the spectrum inversion scenario, subjects will share one and the same color space, operationally defined. Their experiences will differ in some further, presumably nameless way.

  15. 15.

    Shoemaker’s claim that color experience represents color appearance is problematic. When psychologists talk about the properties represented by our visual states, they have in mind distal stimuli to which our visual states are causally sensitive (Palmer 1999, p. 78), properties like size, shape, surface color, degree of illumination, distance, and motion. As we have seen, color appearance is something distinct from the stimuli to which achromatic color vision is responsive. Further, part of the point in speaking of a sensory state as a representation is to mark the fact that the sensory state is informing or reporting and can do so accurately or inaccurately, but the attribution of color appearances to objects is supposed to be uninformative and infallible.

    A familiar alternative is the view that color appearance is a mode of presentation. For this view see Burge (2010), Chalmers (2006), and Thompson (2009). Burge (2010, p. 412) claims that the non-illusory changes in color appearance through changes in illumination are different modes of presentation of the same shade of color, and he adds: “Often, as in this case, the difference in mode of presentation involves perception of, and as of, other environmental attributes. For example, one sees the color shade as the same, but one also sees the illumination of the surface as different.” As it relates specifically to Peacocke’s case of the two walls, Burge’s suggestion seems to come to the same thing as the response of Byrne and Tye discussed above, a response that dispenses with color appearances! Further, why say that the perception of illumination is a mode of presentation of the surface color rather than that the perception of surface color is a mode of presentation of the illumination?

  16. 16.

    For an overview see Gilchrist (2006, pp. 173–187).

  17. 17.

    One might think there is an easy way for Shoemaker to preserve the idea that color experience is representational. He could grant that achromatic color experiences are ill-suited to represent differences in surface color or degree of illumination, and still insist that they represent differences in luminance. In fact, this is not an easy fix. Moving to the view that achromatic color experiences represent differences in luminance would involve abandoning the argument from lightness constancy. This argument depends on the idea that perception of surface color remains stable through various non-illusory changes in color appearance. Many of these changes in appearance would straightforwardly count as illusory if achromatic color perception is instead directed towards differences in luminance. (No doubt many will resist the suggestion that color experience represents differences in luminance precisely because it has counterintuitive consequences regarding which experiences count as illusory).

  18. 18.

    One might object that I am begging the question in assuming that there is something which remains relatively determinate in the circumstances. However, my goal is not to offer a decisive objection to Hilbert. I am somewhat sympathetic with his view. My goal is simply to point out a counterintuitive consequence of his view. It would be counterintuitive to deny that something remains relatively determinate in the circumstances.

  19. 19.

    As Allen (2009) notes, Noë (2004) comes close to endorsing this claim at times.

  20. 20.

    So far we have been talking about lightness constancy in humans. The present account can be adapted to non-human animals whose conditioned behavior speaks in favor of attributing lightness constancy, though in some cases it will be more appropriate to speak of creature-level interpretation.

  21. 21.

    Proponents of cognitive penetration may wish to call these concept-deploying states experiences. And in that case some color experiences will be representations. They will have contents that attribute surfaces colors to objects. The important issue is not whether concept-deploying interpretations of color appearances deserve the name “experience.” What is important is whether our visual states attribute surface colors to objects in the absence of the sort of concept deployment involved in recognition. I am skeptical that they do.

  22. 22.

    See Reid (1997, p. 86). For discussion of Reid’s views on these matters see Ganson (2008).

  23. 23.

    Presumably it is only in cognitively sophisticated creatures like us that entertaining and endorsing could come apart. There is no reason to doubt that the creature-level accomplishment of interpreting an ambiguous sensory state occurs in animals lacking the concept of truth, but it is doubtful that the distinction between entertaining and endorsing an interpretation could have any application to such a creature. They would come to the same thing.

  24. 24.

    It looks like we end up with something like Craven and Foster’s (1992) operational approach to constancy. Color constancy, on their view, is a matter of person-level interpretation of variable color appearances. According to Craven and Foster, color constancy is something accomplished by the subject interpreting her unstable color appearances, not by the visual system itself. This kind of view is explicitly offered as an alternative to traditional conceptions of color constancy.


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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.

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Correspondence to Todd Ganson.

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Ganson, T. Are color experiences representational?. Philos Stud 166, 1–20 (2013).

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  • Color
  • Experience
  • Perception
  • Color constancy
  • Lightness constancy
  • Color appearance
  • Representation