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  • Being Coloured and Looking Coloured
  • Keith Allen (bio)

Intuitively, there is an intimate connection between being coloured and looking coloured. As Strawson memorably remarked, it is natural to assume that ‘colours are visibilia or they are nothing’ (1979, 109). But what exactly is the nature of this relationship?

A traditionally popular view of the relationship between being coloured and looking coloured starts from the common place that the character of our perceptual experience changes as the conditions in which an object is perceived vary. For instance, our experience changes when we view an object under different illuminants, as when we move from artificial illumination indoors to natural daylight outside. It changes under one and the same illuminant, depending on whether the object is directly or indirectly illuminated. And it varies independently of this, as the background against which the object is perceived varies. Placing a lot of weight on the idea that objects look or appear different as the perceptual conditions vary, proponents of this approach suggest that we can understand what it is for something to be coloured in terms of what it is for something to look coloured in specific perceptual conditions.

A version of this general approach to understanding the relationship between being coloured and looking coloured, canonically associated with dispositionalist theories of colour in the broadly Lockean tradition, has recently been proposed by Alva Noë in Action in Perception (2004). I argue that Noë’s phenomenal objectivism is no more successful [End Page 647] than traditional dispositional theories of colour. But Noë’s distinctive version of this general approach suggests an alternative way of developing an account of what it is to be coloured. Whilst phenomenal objectivism respects the intimate connection being coloured and looking coloured, it mischaracterizes the relevant sense of ‘looking coloured’. The alternative is to understand ‘look’ non-perspectivally. Non-perspectival looks are mind-independent properties of the environment that transcend specific circumstances of viewing: they are properties that objects have independently of the way they look in particular perceptual conditions.

§I situates Noë’s phenomenal objectivism in relation to traditional dispositional theories of colour. §II raises two problems common to theories of this general kind: one phenomenological, one epistemological. These problems are then used to motivate the alternative account of colour developed in §III.

I Phenomenal Objectivism

Noë’s phenomenal objectivism starts with a reification of ‘looks’ or ‘appears,’ such that when an object looks a certain way in a particular set of perceptual conditions, there is a relational property — a look or apparent property — that the object has in those circumstances. A silver car under orange street lighting, for instance, has the relational property of being orange in orange light. A white wall in shadow has the relational property of being grey in shadow. A grey square against a black background has the relational property of being light grey against a black background. Colours are then identified colours with ‘patterns’ of these apparent properties, or what Noë calls ‘colour aspect profiles.’

Phenomenal objectivism is phenomenalist in the sense that colours are reductively identified with colour aspect profiles: colours are nothing more than patterns of apparent properties that objects manifest in different perceptual circumstances, and in particular, there are no underlying chromatic properties that apparent colours are appearances of. Colours contrast in this respect with observable properties like shape and size. Corresponding to apparent colours, objects also have relational shape and size properties, which Noë calls ‘P-properties’ or ‘perspectival properties,’ such as being elliptical from here or being occluded by a penny on a plane perpendicular to the line of sight from here (2004, 82–3). But these apparent shapes and sizes are appearances of underlying shape and size properties that exist over and above the pattern of perspectival shape and size properties that objects manifest in different perceptual conditions. Phenomenal objectivism is objectivist, on the other hand, in [End Page 648] so far as these apparent properties are themselves mind-independent properties of the perceptual environment. The property that an object has of being grey in shadow is a relational property of that object. But because it is a relation between and an object and a light source — and crucially...


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