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Color and Competence: A New View of Color Perception

Part of the Interdisciplinary Evolution Research book series (IDER,volume 8)


I have two main goals in this paper. My first goal is to sketch a new view of color perception. The core of the view can be expressed in the following two theses: (i) the overarching function of color vision is to enable and enhance the manifestation of relevant (species-specific) competences and (ii) color experiences are correct when they result from processing that directly and non-accidentally subserves the manifestation of such competences. My second goal is to show that the view can accommodate and account for a wide variety of color perceptual phenomena, including many problem cases. Importantly, the framework allows us to differentiate between two kinds of good cases of color perception: ideal cases where the demands of the relevant competences converge and non-ideal cases where the demands of the relevant competences diverge and clash.


  • Color perception
  • Competence
  • Correctness
  • Function
  • Color illusion

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  1. 1.

    For example, Byrne and Hilbert admit that the entailment “that many of us misperceive unique greens” is an “unwelcome result” (1997, p. 274). See also Gert (2006).

  2. 2.

    This kind of eliminativism accepts an objectivist treatment of color, but eliminativism about the colors of external objects is also consistent with the view that colors are instantiated by mental objects instead.

  3. 3.

    This idea is commonly accepted by philosophers working on color and color perception. Boghossian and Velleman write that “seeing something as red is the sort of thing that can be illusory or veridical” (1989, p. 82). Chirimuuta suggests that it is strongly intuitive to think that color misperception occurs (2015, p. 179). Cohen maintains that the “idea that there are errors of color perception is so fundamental to our (naïve and scientific) thinking about the visual system that it would be very difficult to accept a theory of color that failed to sustain it” (2007, p. 349).

  4. 4.

    The basic dividing line is between “Wrightian” (Wright 1973, 1976) etiological analyses of function that appeal to natural selection (e.g., Neander 2017) and Cummins-style (Cummins 1975) causal-role functional analyses which find normativity in the practices of the scientific community (e.g., Hardcastle 2002).

  5. 5.

    For example, one of the main objections to traditional dispositionalism – the view that colors are dispositions to cause certain kind of chromatic experiences in normal perceivers in standard conditions (e.g., Levin 2000) – is that it cannot specify “normal” perceivers and “standard” conditions in any satisfactory, non-arbitrary manner (Hardin 1993). But this criticism does not just apply to dispositionalism, but to all theories that posit stable, determinate object colors (e.g., Allen 2016; Campbell 1993; Byrne and Hilbert 2003). For criticism of the idea of unknowable color facts, see, e.g., Cohen (2003).

  6. 6.

    Some philosophers appear to think that insofar as their view entails the illusoriness of a (type of) perceptual experience, then no other explanation for that (type of) experience is needed. For example, Tye suggests that simultaneous contrast effects in color perception are “illusions or normal misperceptions” that can be explicated in terms of “the workings of the visual system” (2000, pp. 154–156), but does not himself attempt to explicate the issue any further.

  7. 7.

    I consider myself to be directly building on the work of Akins and Chirimuuta here, but my view also shares similarities with certain other naturalistic, action-oriented accounts of color perception that link the correctness of color experiences to species-specific functions of color vision (e.g., Thompson 1995; Hatfield 2003; Matthen 2005). For example, I am generally sympathetic to Matthen’s thesis that sensory systems are “automatic sorting machines” that sort environmental objects “into classes according to how they should be treated for the purposes of physical manipulation and investigation” (2005, p. 8). That said, I think that Matthen’s epistemology of color perception overemphasizes the role color vision plays in the building of a “stable record” of the properties of environmental objects. Matthen proposes, for example, that a color experience is incorrect if it disposes a perceiver to make mistaken inferences about the ripeness of fruit, e.g., when the perceiver “misclassifies a particular fruit as pale green, although in fact it meets the physical specification of the sensory category, yellow” (ibid., p. 208). I do not deny that we often use color-looks to make such inferences, but I maintain that an experience of a normally yellow-appearing fruit as pale green need not be incorrect, and that there can even be situations where experiencing the fruit this way constitutes the best case scenario for the perceiving organism. On the other hand, my approach has very little in common with certain other “pragmatist” views. One example is Gert’s neo-pragmatist account which takes color language as its starting point and aims to explain “how and why we talk the way we do” (2018, p. 225). Whereas perceptual pragmatism often starts with the question of the function of color vision and looks to vision science for help, Gert’s linguistic pragmatism starts with the question of the function of color terms in ordinary discourse.

  8. 8.

    Humans have two kinds of retinal photoreceptors: rods and cones. Both absorb light as a function of wavelength and intensity, but whereas the rods all have the same wavelength sensitivity, cones come in different types (normal human perceivers have three classes of cones with absorption maxima in the short-, medium-, and long-wavelength regions of the visible spectrum). Color vision requires the comparing of the activity of at least two classes of receptors with different wavelength sensitivities. Because there is only a single type of photoreceptor active in very low light, rod-mediated vision is achromatic. At higher levels of light, cones become active and their outputs “are combined at the post-receptor level in two different ways: one additive, giving rise to luminance signals with no information regarding the wavelength composition of light, and one subtractive, which preserves the latter and can thus be used for determining the color of objects” (Moutoussis 2015, p. 5).

  9. 9.

    I have chosen to discuss the “color visual system” as if it were a unified entity and to lump together different kinds of processing that subserve different competences. Some readers might consider this an oversimplification and prefer instead to differentiate between two (or more) separate systems within color vision, e.g., one system that computes chromatic contrast and another that computes (more or less constant) surface color representations (see, e.g., Akins and Hahn 2014; Moutoussis 2015). In the end, nothing I say here requires the adoption of the first conception, and those in favor of the multi-system conception can read me as suggesting that color vision consists in the operation of different systems that subserve different perceptual competences.

  10. 10.

    On the origins and aims of primate color vision, see e.g., Jacobs (1981), Mollon (1989), and Dominy and Lucas (2001).

  11. 11.

    We should generally exercise caution when proposing adaptive explanations for the number of cone types or the spectral tuning of those cones in a given species. As Chittka and Briscoe (2001) remind us, some sensory traits are better explained by phylogenetic constraint, evolutionary inertia, or random processes.

  12. 12.

    Some etiological theorists require that proper functions reflect recent natural selection (e.g., Godfrey-Smith 1994), while others appeal to the “continuing usefulness” of traits selected for specific purposes (e.g., Schwartz 2002).

  13. 13.

    See, e.g., Kingdom (2008), Shevell and Kingdom (2008), Troscianko et al. (1991), Smithson (2015), Tanaka et al. (2001), Paramei and van Leeuwen (2016), Gegenfurtner and Rieger (2000), and Moutoussis (2015). For a helpful overview, see Chirimuuta (2015, Chap. 4). Vision scientists themselves often engage in function attribution and seem sensitive to the distinction between the kind of perceptual phenomena that plausibly reflect the proper functions of color vision and the kind of perceptual phenomena that are mere by-products of the mechanisms of color vision.

  14. 14.

    Of course, the ability to recognize ground-up lapis lazuli from the way it chromatically appears likely had nothing to do with the evolution of color vision in humans and other primates. But this ability is a special case of a more general, ecologically-relevant ability to recognize properties (being ripe, being angry, etc.) from the way things chromatically appear (red, etc.).

  15. 15.

    These are objects at the relevant, species-specific level of description. For humans, this means things like apples, tables, and mosquitoes.

  16. 16.

    For a review, see Peterson (2015).

  17. 17.

    When it comes to boundary computations, the cells in the luminance system respond to luminance edges even in the absence of chromatic contrast, and the cells in the color visual system respond to (certain kinds of) chromatic edges even in the absence of luminance contrast. Therefore, the luminance system and the color visual system need not be thought of as being completely independent and modular. There is likely to be interaction between the two and the systems might even share some neural resources in the visual cortex (see, e.g., Shapley et al. 2014, p. 577; Moutoussis 2015, p. 6).

  18. 18.

    Garg et al. (2019) suggest that even the majority of color-preferring neurons in the primary visual cortex might be strongly tuned for orientation.

  19. 19.

    The idea is that when we hallucinate a red particular, a red particular does not really exist to be discriminated and singled out. When our perception of a given particular as red is illusory, the particular exists but does not instantiate the property of redness. In both cases, then, there is a lack of correspondence between the perceiver’s perceptual state and the state of the world.

  20. 20.

    One could attempt to formulate a radically relativist competence account of color perception by proposing that the appropriate regularities obtain between particular perceptual agents, object surfaces, and particular perceptual circumstances. Although this would eradicate the need to posit stable object color, it would also dilute the notion of perceptual competence.

  21. 21.

    Perceivers can, of course, fail to manifest perceptual competences for various reasons. I might mistake a tomato for an apple, i.e., fail to exercise my object (tomato) identification competence, even if my color visual system is doing everything right and the “demands” of the competences line up.

  22. 22.

    The distinction between ideal and non-ideal good cases has nothing to do with the appeals that some philosophers make to “ideal conditions” in which the true colors of object surfaces are veridically perceived by normal perceivers. Under my view, color experiences are correct in both ideal and non-ideal cases, and the distinction is merely meant to capture the difference between perceptual situations where the demands of the relevant competences clash and situations where no such clash occurs.

  23. 23.

    In the afterimage case the color visual system is engaged and a chromatic experience results. That said, we could plausibly extend the notion of color visual system failure to situations where the relevant kind of processing simply does not take place. In very low light, the visual perception of contours, objects, and scenes relies solely on achromatic rod vision, with no help from color vision. From the point of view of CE, any instance of visual perception in which color vision fails to be useful can be considered a “bad” case of color perception. This is because the role of color vision in the perceptual economy of the organism is understood purely in terms of enhancement. When such enhancement takes place, the color system fulfills its function, and we have a good case of color perception. When enhancement does not take place, we have a bad case of color perception. Just as a respiratory system can fail to fulfill its function due to some internal condition (e.g., pulmonary embolism) or some external condition (e.g., the presence of high levels of carbon monoxide in the air), the color visual system, too, can fail to fulfill its function when the light levels are too low.

  24. 24.

    “Choices” should be understood loosely as the rules that the color system either follows or instantiates.

  25. 25.

    I mentioned earlier (in note 9) that some readers might prefer to think of color vision as dividing into multiple systems with different aims. Those readers can now read me as suggesting that in the ideal cases the demands of the competences converge and the different systems can fulfill their functions simultaneously (by coming up with the same answer, so to speak). In non-ideal cases, on the other hand, one of the systems is forced to cede precedence to another. Many thanks to an anonymous reviewer for pointing this out.

  26. 26.

    Pinna (2005) himself takes watercolor illusions to reveal a new principle of perceptual grouping and figure-ground segregation that he calls the “the asymmetric luminance contrast principle.” According to this principle, ceteris paribus, given a boundary and an asymmetric luminance contrast on both sides of the boundary, the region with the less abrupt luminance gradient is perceived as the figure, and the region with the more abrupt luminance gradient is perceived as the background (ibid., p. 205). In Fig. 1, the luminance gradient is more abrupt where the dark contour directly meets the white background, and less abrupt where the dark contour meets the lighter contour which in turn meets the background. Although luminance contrast alone might be enough to bring about the figural effect, the coloration effect and the figural effects do seem to support and reinforce one another, as Pinna himself observes (see also von der Heydt and Pierson 2006, p. 334). In addition, Devinck et al. (2006) report that not only is a chromatic contrast between the two contours and between the contours and the background important for a robust watercolor effect, but that the effect can also be induced using equiluminant stimuli.

  27. 27.

    Cohen explains the illusoriness of certain kinds of chromatic experiences by the non-veridicality of higher-level representations of the kind surface x is orange to perceivers pretty much like me, in circumstances pretty much like those I normally encounter (2007, p. 343). But we often find certain perceptual experiences puzzling when no such higher-level representations are involved.

  28. 28.

    Recall that textbook color illusions are usually designed to make certain kinds of perceptual effects more noticeable. In more ecologically realistic settings assimilation effects are likely to be less drastic, but also more useful.

  29. 29.

    The RGB values of the background in Fig. 2 (a) are based on those used by Akiyoshi Kitaoka in the “Cherry blossom 2” section of his website.

  30. 30.

    This point has been forcefully argued by Hardin (1993) and Cohen (2009).

  31. 31.

    Hatfield (2003) suggests that the true coarse-grained colors that objects instantiate can be veridically perceived by species-specific normal perceivers in ecologically standard conditions. But “ecologically standard conditions” cannot just refer to ecologically standard lighting conditions (e.g., daylight for humans). If it did, then we could not determine which color the petals in Fig. 2 really instantiate and we also could not evaluate the correctness of the color experiences elicited by the image. On the other hand, specifying ecologically standard surround colors seems like a difficult task. Natural scenes instantiate a wide variety of different colors, including whites and brilliant cyans, and it seems arbitrary to rule some of them out as being ecologically non-standard.

  32. 32.

    Views that posit stable fine-grained colors entail widespread color visual system failure (because hue shifts at the level of fine-grained colors are extremely common), whereas views that posit only coarse-grained colors can restrict such failure to special cases. But the latter views need to explain why perceptual variation due to simultaneous contrast is acceptable when it occurs within color types, but unacceptable when it crosses those types. This is particularly difficult if it turns out that color type-crossing perceptual variation is useful to the perceiving organism, since considerations of usefulness are often what often motivate such views to begin with.

  33. 33.

    Imagine a human color normal viewing a ripe Red Delicious against green foliage. Figure-ground segregation and object perception competences “demand” that the apple be perceived as chromatically different from the surrounding foliage. Seeing the apple as red helps achieve this, although seeing the apple as some other color sufficiently different from the perceived color of the foliage would also suffice. On the other hand, the color visual system can only help the person manifest her ripe Red Delicious apple identification competence by outputting an experience sufficiently similar to the experiences usually elicited by ripe Red Delicious apples. An object re-identification competence “demands” that the perceived color of the apple does not vary too much with context, i.e., that the apple does not look dramatically different in different lighting conditions or against different backgrounds. When I say that the demands of these competences converge, I simply mean that a (normal) color visual system can simultaneously help an organism manifest all these competences.

  34. 34.

    See, e.g., Schefrin and Werner (1990), Kuehni (2004).

  35. 35.

    This way of thinking comes naturally to me. Empirical work by Cohen and Nichols (2010) suggest that it comes naturally to others as well.

  36. 36.

    Note that CE also entails that many/most of the color experiences of atypical human color perceivers (e.g., dichromats or anomalous trichromats) are correct.

  37. 37.

    That said, I acknowledge that we can disagree about the referents of color terms. For example, if an object looks distinctly mint-green to me and a friend claims that it is turquoise, I might take her to be confused about the referents of “mint-green” and “turquoise,” on the assumption that the two of us live in fairly similar phenomenal worlds.

  38. 38.

    The differences might reflect certain “internal priors” of the perceivers: the perceivers in the different camps might “favor” and expect different kinds of illuminants (see Lafer-Sousa et al. 2015).

  39. 39.

    This option is inspired by Cohen (2009).

  40. 40.

    “Non-pragmatist” views seem antithetical to this line of reasoning. For example, if color is equated with some microphysical property and veridical color perception is understood in terms of accurate detection of this property, then there exists a rigid binary of correct and incorrect color perception. CE is consistent with both the rigid boundary option and the gradated option, and those who find the idea of degrees of correctness unsavory can still accept the core tenets of CE.


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I would like to thank Gary Hatfield, Lisa Miracchi Titus, Elizabeth Johnson, Quayshawn Spencer, Penelope Maddy, Evan Sommers, Charles Leitz, Jeffrey Schatz, Eugene Vaynberg, Youngbin Yoon, Kate Nicole Hoffman, and two anonymous reviewers for their very helpful comments and suggestions.

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Correspondence to Tiina Rosenqvist .

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Rosenqvist, T. (2023). Color and Competence: A New View of Color Perception. In: Viejo, J.M., Sanjuán, M. (eds) Life and Mind. Interdisciplinary Evolution Research, vol 8. Springer, Cham.

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