In Defense of Color Realism


In this article, I argue that popular explanatory frameworks in perceptual psychology suggest the truth of color realism. I focus on perceptual judgments and their evidential basis: namely perceptual representation. I first draw a distinction between two sorts of normativities with respect to which we can evaluate representational capacities and systems: biological and psychological normativities. The former is defined in terms of evolutionary fitness, and the latter in terms of representational accuracy. Generally, representational systems achieve psychological and biological success (i.e., facilitate survival and reproduction and accurately represent the world) hand in hand, but in special circumstances, a representational system can be such that it serves the organism best while not generally furnishing the organism with accurate representations. I argue in this essay that an explanation how and why our ancestors developed color vision that cleaves its biological success conditions from its psychological success conditions cannot be given unless we are prepared to say the same about the visual perception of distance and other geometrical features of the world. Moreover, it is difficult to see how the anti-realist could begin to specify psychological success conditions for color representations. Hence, we ought to accept the biological utility of color vision as evidence that it is typically representationally successful, and regard our perceptual judgments about color as generally true.

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  1. 1.

    I assume here that avoidance behavior is an exercise of agency, and that an exercise of agency must be guided by representations in the agent’s mind.

  2. 2.

    This is perhaps a bit oversimplified, as there is some parasitic cases: doubting that what is represented in perception, for instance, or judging contrary to perception, but these cases will not concern us in anything that follows.

  3. 3.

    This is not a metaphysical theory of information. How exactly to understand the nature of information per se is a matter of dispute. The dominant, perhaps classical, understanding of information is as a probabilistic notion, as in Shannon (1948) and Dretske (1981). An alternative proposal due to Cohen (2003) analyses information in terms of counterfactual relations between events.

  4. 4.

    This result has been reproduced many times. See Wright (2013).

  5. 5.

    For misgivings about motivating phenomenal constancy by appeal to the dimensionality of color, see Wright (2013: 448)

  6. 6.

    Wright (2013) and Hilbert (2011) each propose alternative ways that projective and phenomenal constancies may work together.

  7. 7.

    Foster specifies that the property be surface reflectance, but this isn’t a necessary specification — changes the represented sort of property may be merely correlated with changes in reflectance, so long as they are illumination-independent. It is important to note this in order to stay neutral between the various theories of color ontology.

  8. 8.

    I will ignore other skeptical possibilities, since the point about the brain-in-vat scenario is meant to generalize.

  9. 9.

    Or, in the case of the brain in a vat, some connection between the perceiver and supercomputer.

  10. 10.

    One task for the empirical project of studying color perception is to unpack just what “natural daylight” and “commonly occurring surface reflectances” could mean to the visual system. That is, by what parameters would the visual system recognize such features of the environment? I bracket those questions here.

  11. 11.

    Recently, Stov̌er and Bregant (2017: 91) have advanced a form of realism in which colors exist in the brain, while remaining silent on the status of ordinary demonstrative judgments about color. They note that “the latest neurophysiological research suggests that the activity of certain neurons in the brain is enough to realize the colour experience” and conclude that because this is all that is required in order that one experience colors, it must be that colors are located in the brain. According to what we have advanced above, this line of reasoning seems specious. It mistakes the visual representation of color for the instantiation or existence of color—consider that our experience of color can be inaccurate. Were the experience of any given color sufficient for it to be found in the world, there would be no color illusions nor hallucinations. In fact, we ought to count artificially created circumstances like those cited by the authors as paradigmatic of those that give rise to illusion.

  12. 12.

    I have in mind here something along the lines of Burge’s (1991) criticism of Searle’s theory of perceptual content according to which the causal chain between perceived objects and the perceiver is part of the content of a perceptual state. Burge claims that this is simply something that must be in place in order that the content be veridical, but not part of the content itself. It is in this sense that I use the phrase “background condition.”

  13. 13.

    Of note are anti-realist arguments pertaining to the structure of color space put forward in Boghossian and Velleman (1991: 85-86) and Hardin (1988: 66), and addressed in Cohen (2003), Byrne and Hilbert (2003), and Tye (2003).

  14. 14.

    Here for a surface to “appear” some color is for it to be represented as having that color. If we understand color vision as relying on projective color constancy, this does not necessarily entail that the qualitative appearance of the surface has a particular “phenomenal feel.”

  15. 15.

    “Performance was nearly perfect for arrays of 1–3 items and then declined systematically as the set size increased from 4 to 12 items.” (Luck and Vogel 1997: 279)

  16. 16.

    Thanks to Jonathan Cohen, Kevin Falvey, Michael Rescorla, Wayne Wright, two anonymous referees, and an audience at UC Santa Barbara for many helpful comments and suggestions on earlier drafts of this material.


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Correspondence to Corey McGrath.

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McGrath, C. In Defense of Color Realism. Acta Anal 35, 101–127 (2020).

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  • Color
  • Perception
  • Realism
  • Perceptual constancy
  • Normativity