Color-judgment expressivism?

Hey guys,  

I don’t know too much about the philosophy of color, except for what you learn from examples people use in discussions about other topics. I’ve noticed that some people, to take one example, think that we should be error theorists about color: we falsely believe that surfaces have these mind-independent color features that they don’t really have, and therefore our color-judgments attributing these properties to surfaces are all systematically erroneous.  This, if I am not mistaken, is Velleman’s view. He brings this up in a discussion about whether people’s belief in free will is some kind of systematic illusion of a similar sort.  Other people, like Gibbard, think that an error-theory about color-judgments is too extreme; we should not attribute systematic errors to the folk unless no other, friendlier theory is available.  One type of theory of a friendlier sort takes color-judgments to be judgments about dispositional properties: we judge things to be such that they tend to look a certain way to people.   But, what are some other possible views?

Here’s what I am specifically interested in knowing: do you guys know if any philosophers have given expressivist views about color judgments?  The idea would be something like this.  In saying, for example, “the sky is blue” what people are doing is expressing their mental state of seeing the sky as blue.  Now, what is their seeing it as blue supposed to mean here?  Well, perhaps I would have done better to say something like “they express their mental state of its looking a certain particular way to them”.  So, the state of judging something to have a certain color is closely tied, on this view, to the state of something looking/appearing a certain way to you.  And, if you say that the thing has the color in question, then you are expressing this state of mind, rather than reporting it.  (This, by the way, seems right: in calling something blue it seems better to say that I am expressing my state of mind of seeing it as blue than to say that I report its looking to blue to me.)

So, my first question is: do people know if this kind of view has been suggested?  Here is a second question.  If it has been suggested, has anybody combined it with a theory according to which, even though our color claims express our mental state of things’ appearing certain ways to us, they can be true or false in a sense: perhaps there are facts about color which consist in how these surfaces would appear to people in certain, naturalistically describable ideal conditions.  So, if how the surface appears to me matches how it would appear to the relevant people in these conditions, and I say it has the color in question, then my claim is true.  If I say it has a certain color, and it is not the one people would see the thing as having in the ideal conditions, then my claim is false.  Or something like that.  

I am not pushing this view, and I don’t know how plausible I think it is; I am just asking whether people know of philosophers who have discussed these particular ideas.  Since people like being expressivists about all sorts of things, surely there are expressivisits about color judgments out there, or no?


17 Responses to Color-judgment expressivism?

  1. Steve Nayak-Young says:

    Hi Sven,

    Great post, interesting question! Unfortunately, I don’t know whether anyone has developed an expressivist theory about color. There’s a guy named Jonathan Cohen at UCSD who works on color and has a bunch of papers linked from his website:

    He seems to have some “overview” articles as well as more specific ones.

  2. Sven Nyholm says:

    Thanks for the link, Steve!

  3. asilk says:

    Hey Sven. I think I’m missing something important in your proposed account. It seems like your response supposes that expressivist theories about the meaning of a concept work something like this. We have some concept – say, a color concept – and we want to know what it means. But instead of giving a straightforward analysis of the concept, we give an indirect analysis by specifying what state of mind one is in when one uses it, whatever sort of state of mind that is. For example, we could give an indirect analysis of what ‘blue’ means by saying what state of mind is expressed in saying ‘X is blue’. But this sort of requirement for a theory to be expressivist is too liberal. For an analysis of a concept to be expressivist, it can’t just specify what state of mind one is in when one uses the concept; it must specify this state of mind as, at least at the explanatory outset, non-cognitive, or something other than belief. If all a theory had to do was say what state of mind one is in when using a term, all analyses would be expressivistic: my saying “X is gold” expresses a state of mind, namely, my belief that X is gold (or its having gold-ish properties); my saying “X is water” expresses my state of mind of believing that X is water (or its having water-ish properties). But in saying this, I’m not giving an expressivist analysis of metals or water; the semantics for these claims is still referential, not expressivistic. Similarly, if, as you suggest, “X is blue” expresses my state of mind of X’s appearing a certain way to me, it would seem that this state of mind is most straightforwardly understood as one of belief – i.e., that in saying “X is blue” I’m expressing my belief that X appears a certain way to me. (By contrast, in the case of the normative term “wrong,” one could say that “X is wrong” expresses one’s disapproval of X, where disapproval is a non-cognitive attitude.) If this isn’t what you’re suggesting, what sort of non-cognitive attitude do you think assertions about color express? I guess the question comes to this: if you think the relevant state of mind is one of belief, then the analysis isn’t really expressivistic; but if you think the relevant state of mind isn’t to be (at least initially) characterized as belief, then what sort of attitude is being expressed? Given your second point, it seems like you’re thinking of this along the former route? For if we can give straightforward truth conditions for color claims (in the dispositionalist sort of way you suggest), and if the content of color claims can be described in completely naturalistic terms, then how is the theory you suggest expressivistic (since the attitude seems to be even initially characterized as having the properties of belief)? Am I mischaracterizing the view you’re proposing?

  4. Sven Nyholm says:

    Whoa, that’s a long, big paragraph there, Alex! Thanks for these comments. Yes, in one way your comments suggest an inadequacy with the label “expressivism” for the kind of view that Allan and others take. Because of course any kind of statement expresses some kind of state of mind. Thus if I say “the cat is on the mat” this is a way for me to express my state of mind of believing that the cat is on the mat. Is there any relevant difference between that state of mind and claim and the state of mind of something’s looking a certain way to me and my claiming that it does? (I guess this is your main question, right?) Perhaps something’s appearing to have a certain color, as I experience the thing, just is a belief that it has that color. Or, perhaps there is a difference between believing that something has this color and its appearing to have the color. I guess I was thinking along the lines of this latter option, but I am now not so sure that it always is the the case. Usually we just take experience at face value: if something, for example, looks green, then we believe it’s green. Sometimes though, like the other day when I had been out in the sun, there is a difference between what color we believe that some surface has and what color it looks to us to have. Coming back to the office the walls looked pink to me, because I had been out in the sun for quite some time, but I didn’t believe that the walls of the office were pink. When I wrote my post I was thinking of these kinds of cases, and that usually what we express when we attribute a color to some surface is our state of its seeming to have a certain color. This usually goes hand in hand with our beliefs about what colors things have, though, so perhaps usually we, in effect, express these beliefs when we make our color-judgment statements. But, to answer your question, the state of mind I was thinking about was not the beliefs we usually form based on what colors things appear to have, but rather the perceptual state of things’ appearing to have these colors.

  5. When you came in, Sven, would you have said, “The walls are pink”? I’m guessing you wouldn’t have. Maybe you would’ve said “The walls look pink.”

    I’m thinking that you wouldn’t say “The walls are pink” because you don’t believe that the walls are pink. And I think you would say “The walls look pink” because you believe that the walls look pink. These are the states of mind that I’d take the utterances to express.

    So it seems to me that the cases you allude to actually give evidence that color talk is expressive of beliefs about color properties, not a perceptual state or some other non-cognitive attitude.

  6. Sven Nyholm says:

    Thanks for this, Neil. So, would you extend your comment in the following way? Ordinarily when we make statements expressing color judgments we express the beliefs we automatically form based on our perceptual experiences? In my example I would not say, as you point out, “the walls are pink”, since I know they are actually white. In normal cases since we have little reason to doubt that anything funny is going on with our color experiences, we just go directly from things’ appearing to have certain colors to their having certain colors. Our claims about color then express the beliefs we’ve just formed. That seems like a plausible view. As I said above, I myself don’t advocate this type of perceptual expressivism; I was just curious to hear whether people knew about philosophers that have been pushing such views.

  7. Ordinarily when we make statements expressing color judgments we express the beliefs we automatically form based on our perceptual experiences

    Maybe, but since you put in the thing about automatic formation based on perceptual experiences, “ordinarily” will have to be pretty weak for this to be true. There are going to be plenty of non-ordinary cases, not just including cases of nonveridical perception like the pink-looking walls. For example, I believe that some swans are black because other people tell me so, though I’ve never had a perceptual experience of one myself.

    But the more general point that our color talk expresses beliefs sounds right to me.

  8. Jon S. says:

    Hi Sven,

    I also wonder if the claim that what’s going on when you see the walls as pink is out of the ordinary should be subjected to more criticism. My high school physics teacher at some point went through a series of examples demonstrating that our perception of what color something was could be changed by what colors it was next to. It didn’t require prolonged exposure to bright light or anything to generate the effect. So in some sense something like that is always going on. This makes me wonder whether the pink-looking walls are any less veridical than any other case of color perception. But to take care of this, maybe the right account just needs to specify that, e.g., being white means appearing white in many circumstances but appearing pink in others, etc. The only two accounts of color I’ve read anything about are dispositional accounts and (assuming my memory is serving me well here) the account that Frank Jackson describes in _From Metaphysics to Ethics_, where colors are identified with physical properties, but I think both of them could accommodate this sort of subtlety.

  9. Sven says:

    Thanks for these comments, Jon.

  10. jmsytsma says:

    A quick classificatory question.

    What do you take the “error” to be that the expressivist view would try to get around ascribing to the folk? I read the initial post as (perhaps) suggesting that all judgments that things outside the head are colored are in error because colors are secondary qualities (the objects have the power to produce the colors in us, but aren’t actually colored). The later talk of color illusions and unordinary cases, however, suggests that the “error” might be that we tend to think of objects as having a specific color, but of course the color that we detect at a given moment depends on environmental factors like lighting conditions and the condition of our visual system. The latter “error” concerns the move from a color sample to a judgment about the object color regardless of sampling conditions, the former “error” concerns any color judgment whatsoever (whether color sample or object color).

  11. Sven Nyholm says:

    Thanks for this.

    I was not necessarily thinking that the expressivist I am imagining would think that there is any systemic error involved in color talk in the sense that the error theorist thinks there is. I was thinking of the expressivist as saying that color-judgments consist in states of mind of things appearing to us in certain colored ways and that when we attribute colors to things we express these states of things’ looking certain ways to us. I was then speculating that, in case you took this view, then perhaps you could even so think that there is an appearance/reality distinction when it comes to color. Perhaps you could say that something merely appears to have a certain color if it looks to have this color, but the conditions are funny somehow. (In a similar way if you are an expressivist about morality you might say, like Blackburn used to, that our moral sensibilities and epistemic situations can in certain respects be improved and that, for this reason, there is an appearance/reality distinction quasi-realists about ethics can explain using this idea of improved sensibilities.) The reason why the expressivist might want to use this type of appearence/reality distinction talk, even though they are saying that ultimately color judgments involve how things appear to us, could be that it is part of common practice to take into account whether there is something unusual with lighting conditions or not (just as in my “the walls look pink” case above).

    So, to summarize, when I mentioned error in the original post, I was first thinking of the kind error theory that people like Velleman have put forward about color judgments. Then I switched, later on in the post, to thinking about how my imagined expressivist about color might want to incorporate concerns about unusual lighting conditions into their views.

    Again, I am just speculating about possible views here. (And, the reason is not that I want to put forward a view about color judgments, but rather that I am interested in how the view about color judgments I am speculating about might relate to some views we might take in meta-ethics.)

  12. James Gray says:

    I just wrote a post on something similar to this. McDowell argues that colors are secondary qualities, but secondary qualities are not deceptive or illusory because they do not purport to be primary qualities. In fact, color can not be described to be a primary quality because it can’t be described in terminology other than our actual experience. In other words, color is simply a subjective state and it doesn’t pretend to be anything else. Therefore, there can be no error involved.

    Is this view expressivist? It sounds similar to what you want.

  13. jmsytsma says:


    Could you say a bit more? Specifically, how do secondary qualities purport or colors pretend? I assume that it is the truth/falsity of our judgments about colors that are at issue (at least in the originating post), not the truth/falsity of the colors themselves. If McDowell’s point here is that colors aren’t in error, just as the cup of coffee on my desk isn’t in error, well that seems true enough; but, it doesn’t imply that we aren’t in error when we make judgments about colors (or coffee cups).

    It might be that colors are secondary qualities (although I don’t think they are), but I’m not sure how a supposed fact about their nature would imply that we couldn’t be wrong about it. I agree that our color terminology describes a type of quality that we are aware of in visual experience, but at best our visual experience of colors leaves it open as to whether they are primary qualities of objects or just created in us by causal interaction with primary qualities of those objects. I say *at best* because I think it seems that the colors belong to the objects (and have evidence that naive subjects treat colors as mind-independent qualities of external objects). But, if visual experience is open with regard to the primary/secondary nature of the qualities seen, what stops us from making a judgment about it that is in error?

  14. James Gray says:

    We need to agree on what primary and secondary qualities are. Primary qualities are perceptions that are based on something that exists other than the perception, so we can describe it in non-perception terminology. This is not the case with secondary qualities. McDowell understands secondary qualities to be subjective experiences that don’t resemble anything other than the subjective experience.

    McDowell has shifted the burden of proof. If you think red could be understood to be a primary quality, then describe it in non-experience terminology. From my post:

    McDowell argues that secondary qualities are not necessarily illusory because there is nothing misleading about it. Although the experience of the color red doesn’t tell us about the microscopic elements required to have the experience, there is still nothing misleading about the experience. The only way to know what color the microscopic elements will/should produce is to take a look (168-169). The color red could still be understood to be real, even though the experience might not resemble what exists in the world independently of our experience. (The color red is simply our experience of it.) The only reason that secondary qualities should ever be considered to be illusory is if they somehow trick us into thinking that they are primary qualities–and really do appear to us as they actually exist.

  15. jmsytsma says:

    Strange; so primary qualities aren’t qualities (they are perceptions)? How do you understand the perceptions, or subjective experiences, here? Specifically, is it the object of perception that is colored, the act of perceiving, a state of the subject, something else? I haven’t read McDowell on this stuff in quite a while, but I would have thought that he wanted to say that in seeing we stand in a perceptual relation to objects in the world and that those objects are, among other things, colored. That an object is colored, however, does not mean that that quality is physically reducible or can be described in terms of microscopic elements. I would have thought that McDowell denies that our color judgments are in error rather directly, not by spinning a different story about those judgments.

  16. James Gray says:


    Not sure if I can respond without repeating myself.

    How do I think McDowell understands subjective experiences of primary qualities? They are indeed subjective experiences but they in some way resemble something other than the experience itself. The experience resembles the actual object. Primary qualities can be described in terminology other than our subjective experience: A square experience can be described in mathematical terminology, for example.

    Although primary qualities are subjective, they do represent objective reality. Those objects will have those characteristics even if we don’t perceive them.

    McDowell does not think objects are really colored. The perception of color depends on our subjective experience. However, McDowell might agree that we experience objects as having color. Although we might experience objects as having color, we are not mislead into thinking that the experience is representing an objective reality for technical reasons.

  17. Ajay says:

    I can belive on like such theories of colors , i had also experienced the powe of colors.

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