Color Refigured



A New Theory of Color



I will first state the theory as simply and clearly as possible, and then I will consider what may be said in its favor. I call the theory “Double Object Dispositional Primitivism” (DODP) or just “the double object theory”.[1]Its tenets are as follows: When you see an ordinary object the color it is seen to have is a simple monadic property of the object’s surface (not a disposition). This property is generated from within the mind and is projected onto the seen object. The mind has a disposition (power) to project color qualities onto seen objects, and it is a necessary and sufficient condition for being (say) red that the object should elicit this disposition. The object is red in virtue of the fact that it triggers the mind’s disposition to project redness onto objects. Another type of mind might have a disposition to project blueness onto the same objects (say, Martians) and then the object would be blue for them. Color is relative. In addition to this object there is another object (intuitively, an object of physics) that is not itself red but which has a disposition to interact with the first disposition to give rise to experiences of red. This disposition is by no means identical to redness, but it is closely related to it: the object that has it triggers perceptions of the primitive property of redness. The physical object interacts with a mind to make that mind activate its disposition to see things as red; it is “red-inducing”. The object induces perceptions of red (in certain perceivers) in which the primitive property of redness is projected onto an object that is not identical with the inducing object. So there are two connected ontological levels: a perceptual object that has the primitive property of being red, and a physical object that lacks that property but which has a disposition to cause perceptions of red (in conjunction with the mind’s disposition to see certain objects as red). It is strictly false to describe this second object as red, though it is natural to do so given its actual role in producing experiences of red. In short: perceptual objects are primitively red while physical objects are dispositionally red (i.e. not really red). We see the primitive property of redness, but we never see the dispositional property associated with it. These two properties are possessed by two distinct objects (think the manifest image and the scientific image).

The mind has a disposition to see certain objects as red and this disposition can be triggered by physical objects. When this happens an object is seen as red, but that object is not the triggering object. The mental disposition can in principle be triggered in other ways too, as when a brain in a vat sees things as red because of stimulation of the visual centers. Here no physical object operates to trigger the disposition (i.e. an object in the perceiver’s environment acting on the eyes) and yet an object is seen. Hallucinated objects can be red too. This is hard to account for under the classical dispositional theory, since that theory supposes that only (existing) physical objects with certain dispositions can be red. But to be red is not just to be a physical object that is disposed to produce red experiences by normal perception, because hallucinated objects can also be red. The important factor is the mind’s disposition to generate such experiences, not the de factodispositions of the physical world. Generally the mental disposition is triggered by the usual environmental objects, but it can also be triggered in other ways, as with the brain in a vat scenario. Suppose I say, “That tomato is red”: this is true if I am referring to a perceptual object of a certain kind, whether real or hallucinated, but not if I am referring to the physical object associated with that object. The objects of physics have no color (they lack primitive color properties), though they do have dispositions to produce color experiences (in conjunction with suitable minds). Those objects had no color before perceivers came along and they have none now, though they do now possess a disposition they lacked earlier. They do not have secondary as well as primary qualities (or else physics would be required to mention them). The objects that have colors are different objects—perceptual objects. And colored objects can be perceived even by a brain in a vat. To use a familiar terminology, phenomenal objects are red but noumenal objects are not, despite being closely tied to phenomenal objects.[2]

What nice things can be said about the double object theory? First, we do justice to the phenomenal primitiveness of colors, their manifest simplicity, and to the fact that we can see them (as we could not if colors were identical to dispositions).  Second, we acknowledge the role of mental dispositions in grounding attributions of color, as well as the role of external objects in eliciting perceptions of color. We are not completely wide of the mark in calling physical objects colored—though it is a question how often we really do this, given that we are normally talking about perceptual objects not the objects of physics. The relationship between our ordinary ontology of tables, tomatoes, and tulips, on the one hand, and the objects described in physics, on the other, is obscure; and it is by no means obvious that we speak of the latter when referring to the former. In any case, according to DODP there are two objects at play here, one of which is red, and the other of which is not (though it has a disposition to cause experiences of objects of the first kind to look red). It is not one and the same entity that is both red and disposed to look red. Certainly, the color red is not the categorical basis of the disposition to appear red—that will be a matter of the physical properties of the object belonging to physics. There are three levels at work here: the physical properties of the physical object that ground its disposition to give rise to appearances; the disposition itself; and the primitive property that perceptual objects possess (and appear to possess). Only the last of these is perceptible. The crucial component is the disposition of the mind to see things a certain way: once that disposition is activated color comes into the world, projected by the mind.

What might be said against the theory? Perhaps some will find the doubling of objects objectionable—they will prefer to attribute color to the objects of physics. In fact the spirit of the theory would be largely preserved by this move, with the primitive color properties instantiated in the same object as the disposition to cause color experiences—we can still keep these properties distinct, as well as invoke projection to explain the presence of the primitive property in the object. I have formulated the theory in the double-object way because I favor this position on independent grounds (having to do with hallucinations, intentional objects, and brains in vats). I also think it undesirable to locate colors in the world studied by physics, since physics makes no mention of these properties (their relativity to perceivers disqualifies them to begin with). I think of perceptual objects as an ontological layer over and above the objects described by physics (compare Eddington on the “two tables”). Artifacts and organisms, in particular, should not be seen as individuated and constituted by the categories proper to physics, but as a distinct ontological layer (though no doubt dependent on the physical level in some way). Color properties attach to this common sense level not to the rarefied level occupied by physics (the “absolute conception”). Still, it would be possible to apply the apparatus of DODP to a single-level ontology, the essential idea being that colors are primitive properties bestowed on the world by dispositions of the mind (coupled with the action of physical objects).

That idea might itself provoke further dissent: for how can the mind generate these properties from within its own resources? Isn’t this mysterious and magical-seeming? I totally agree: how the mind (brain) manufactures color properties is indeed mysterious, like many things about the mind. But this is not a fatal objection to the theory, simply a fact about the mind that needs to be acknowledged, i.e. that there is much about it that we cannot explain. Other theories avoid such mysteries by advocating reductive accounts of color—as that colors are reducible to electromagnetic wavelengths or that they are logical constructions from subjective qualia conceived as inner sensations. But these attempts at reduction are implausible (for reasons I won’t go into), the primitive property theory emerging as superior—though it does indeed lead to problems of intelligibility. Where do these remarkable properties come from? Does the mind create them itself or find them elsewhere (in a Platonic world of color universals, say)? How exactly are they “projected” onto objects? The theory raises plenty of puzzles, to be sure, but it might yet be true, since the truth is sometimes mysterious.[3]What the theory does is arrange the facts into an intelligible structure, aiming to respect phenomenology and logical coherence. Instead of working just with physical objects and their dispositions, it invokes an extra layer of non-dispositional properties and places them within a mind possessing certain projective dispositions. Perceptual objects thus have exactly the properties they appear to have, while we avoid treating colors as mind-independent. Colors have no place in physics, but they are front and center in our ordinary experience of things, just as they seem to be.


Colin McGinn


[1]I first wrote about color in The Subjective View(1983), then in “Another Look at Color” (1996), and now in this paper (2018). At each point I have modified the position that came before, while retaining the basic outlook. The successive theories have become more complicated as time has gone by.

[2]This terminology is not strictly accurate because “noumenal” is generally taken to entail “unknowable”, but the objects of physics are not unknowable. Still, the terminology may be helpful in capturing the structure of the position.

[3]It is true that we should not multiply mysteries beyond necessity, but necessity sometimes requires that we face up to mysteries.


Mysterious Color




The Mystery of Color



How does color come into the world? Not color experience but color itself—the color properties of objects. How do things come to be red, say? Not by virtue of their intrinsic objective properties, since things are not intrinsically and objectively colored. Shape properties (among others) come into the world in virtue of the nature of physical objects, but color properties are not like that (they are “secondary” not “primary” properties). Let us say that colors don’t have a “worldly genesis”, unlike shape. Then the obvious suggestion is that they have a mental genesis: they come into the world in virtue of the mind that apprehends the world. The explanation of the fact that objects are colored is that we seethem as colored—that is how colors come to be, what they “emerge” from. They don’t come from objects themselves, or from nowhere, but from our peculiar mode of sensibility. Thus we resolve the mystery of the origin of color. As Hume famously put it, the mind spreadscolor on the world, paints it in qualities of its own devising; or as people nowadays say, we projectcolor onto the world. Colors emanate from inside us, but we project them outward, thus creating a world of colored objects. Mystery removed.

But we should scrutinize this idea of spreading or projecting more carefully: do we really understand what it means? The most obvious interpretation of it is that the mind has certain properties that it attributes to things outside it, as in primitive animism or anthropomorphism. It transfers properties from itself to things beyond, making external what is originally internal. Why it would do this is a question, since it appears to involve a rather grotesque error, but the suggestion is that the mind has a natural tendency to spread itself. Perception is an exercise in self-projection: we see the world according to our own mental nature. But this picture faces an obvious problem: the mind is not itself colored. Our perceptual experiences are not red or blue or purple; rather, they represent external things as red or blue or purple. We don’t experience our experiences as colored; we experience the external world as colored. Nor could they becolored because then they would have to have properties of extension such as size and shape. If I see a red sphere, I do not have an experience that itself red and spherical. So there is no property of my mind that could be the basis for the projection we are contemplating. Note that we don’t project the property of experiencingcolor onto objects—that would be a case of genuine projection; we are supposed to project color itself from the inside to the outside—yet we don’t instantiate color properties on the inside. It would be bizarre if we projected color experience onto objects; the error would be only too obvious. But we don’t do that when we see colors; so whatwe see is not a property of mind. True, the mind representscolor perceptually, but that is not the same as the mind’s beingcolored.

Why not say that the mind projects what it represents, as opposed to instantiates? The idea would be that objects are not objectively colored, but the mind has the capacity to depict the world as colored from within its own resources. The problem with this is that it presupposes that color properties already exist—as objects of representation, if not as prior properties of objects. But where did the property come from? Not from external objects and not from internal properties of experience; so it seems to come from nowhere. The property exists and we can get it in our mental sights, but it has its origin neither in the external realm nor the internal. Its existence is mysterious, unexplained, perplexing. Where did it come from? It seems like it belongs to a third realm, neither mental nor physical (nor abstract). We don’t find the property in external objects as an antecedent existence but nor do we sense it in ourselves (like pain or pleasure): it is a worldly property that comes neither from external reality nor from projection of our own nature as psychological beings. It is neither discovered out there nor projected from in here. So the two most natural theories of its origin don’t work. Nor is it remotely plausible to suggest that brain properties form the origin of color properties, since the brain does not have the colors possessed by external objects, being mainly grey: we don’t have red neurons whose properties we attribute to (intrinsically colorless) things outside! The color red appears to be instantiated neither by the mind (or brain) nor by external objects considered independently of the mind. Objects are colored but not in virtue of their intrinsic nature or the projective powers of the mind (if there are such powers). The whole idea of projection was contrived to explain how objects manage to be colored without being so in themselves, but it faces insuperable problems of intelligibility, given that the mind is not itself colored. So we are in the presence of a classic philosophical conundrum: there seems to be a fact (objects are colored) that has no explanation. We are confronted by a mystery, analogous to other mysteries (e.g. consciousness). Colors ought not to exist, but they do.

Various responses are conceivable, and they run the usual gamut. We could favor a reductionist theory that claims colors to be reducible to physical properties of objects, so that their origin is the same as other properties, i.e. the actual nature of things. Or we could declare colors to be pseudo-properties, so there is nothing to explain: when we see things as colored we don’t really see them to have properties, as we do for things like size and shape, but rather we reify in some way our subjective responses. We have visual sensations in response to objects but these sensations don’t involve any represented properties; we then mistakenly construe our responses as involving properties of objects. Third, we might claim that experiences do actually instantiate color properties but in a special way: they may be said to be “reddish” or to occur “redly”. There is thus enough red in them to provide an adequate basis for projection (plus modification). Fourth, we might opt for radical ontological inflation: color properties exist in a realm of their own, accessible by the mind, and don’t need to be explained in terms of anything else. They don’t exist in virtue of the inherent nature of objects nor by some kind of projective mental act; they exist in their own right, primitively and inexplicably. Fifth, we might be tempted by a supernatural explanation: God bestows these properties on objects for our use and entertainment, so their origin is divine. We gaze at objects and God intervenes to implant colors in those objects, thus obviating the need for human projection.[1]

I won’t discuss these different theories, merely noting the familiarity of the theoretical landscape; my point is that we are confronted by a mystery of a standard philosophical type. I will say that none of the proffered positions is terribly attractive, so we are left with a real mystery whose solution is elusive. It is genuinely puzzling how the world comes to contain colors: they weren’t there all along and the mind is incapable of conferring them; so their existence is problematic. What makes the world colored?[2]


Colin McGinn

[1]A determined theologian might see here an argument for the existence of God: the only way for objects to be colored is for God to be the author of their existence, since minds and objects can’t do the trick. Whenever we see a red object we are seeing God at work.

[2]Imagine if the objective world lacked shape properties and yet we perceived objects as having shapes. It would be hard to maintain that we project such properties from mind to world, given that the mind doesn’t have shape. This would present a real puzzle: how can there be shape properties attributed to objects if objects don’t have shape and shape cannot be derived from the mind? Where would these properties come from? They would seem to be invented from nothing.


Ancient Insights



The Nature of Things



Long ago there lived a pre-Socratic philosopher named Kryptos. Kryptos was interested in change and he had noticed an interesting fact about change: some changes leave an object in existence while other changes put an object out of existence. If you bend a stick or move it from one place to another, you effect a change in it, but it remains in existence, while if you cut it into pieces or burn it in a fire it goes out of existence. Kryptos named these types of change “preservative change” and “destructive change”, and was pleased to have hit upon such an important distinction. Further reflection led him to the idea that things have two sorts of properties: those that are required for the thing to exist and those that are not required for the thing to exist. He had no name for this distinction, but his vague thought was that some properties are more central to a thing’s identity than others. In line with this he made an observation that struck him as significant—a discovery about the nature of things: color is never central to a thing’s identity, but shape can be. Things can always change their color without going out of existence, no matter how extreme the change, but if you change a thing’s shape enough you will destroy it. That is what happens with fire: a burning leaf, for example, goes from its leaf shape to an amorphous pile of ash after undergoing a series of shape changes. Kryptos’ theory was that color change is always preservative but shape change can be destructive (yet it was puzzling to him that someshape change is preservative—what’s the difference?). He had discovered a general truth about things, change, properties, and existence. He felt he was onto something.

He struggled to find a verbal formulation for his discoveries; he needed a good label for the distinction he had unearthed. He decided to call the properties that were central to a thing’s existence “inherent attributes” and properties that were peripheral “extraneous attributes”. His crude thought was that the former are inthe object while the latter areoutsideof it (the Athens Greek Dictionarydefined “inherent” as “existing in something as a permanent or essential attribute”). The shape of a thing—its geometrical form–was inherent in it, while the spatial location of a thing was extraneous to it (as was its color). Clearly, not every aspect of shape was thus inherent, but it seemed to Kryptos that there is a sharp limit on how much change of shape a thing could undergo before ceasing to exist (a chariot, say, could not assume the shape of a quill pen and still exist). This was very obvious in the case of geometrical objects themselves: if you change the shape of a circle to that of a square, you put the circle out of existence. In geometry form is identity. He took to speaking of the “inherent-extraneous distinction” and explaining it to interested parties. He thought of it as an ontological distinction because it concerned the nature of being, i.e. what is involved in something’s existence. The attributes of things partitioned into those that were inherent and those that were extraneous, those that formed the core of an object and those that hung more loosely on the object. It would be possible to examine the object and determine which attributes fall where. He toyed with other labels for the distinction he had discovered: sometimes he spoke of “constitutive attributes” and “circumstantial attributes”, or of what was “intrinsic” and what was “extrinsic”, or of “internal properties” and “external properties”. These labels all had their merits and he was reluctant to be tied down. The distinction itself was what mattered.

A pupil of Kryptos suggested a simplification: call the cluster of attributes that form the core of a thing its “nature”, defined by the dictionary as “the basic or inherent features, qualities, or character of a person or thing”. True, everything about a thing is part of nature (more or less), but it seemed right to single some attributes out as constituting the specific natureof a thing; the others could be described as “accidental”. Kryptos adopted the suggestion and added something to it: he maintained that it is possible to analyzethe nature of a thing—break it down into its constituents. Things were generally complex and could be analyzed into simpler things. Thus some facts about a thing could be revealed by analyzing it, while others could not be arrived at in this way—those that were extraneous. We can analyze the nature of a thing and produce inherent truths about it, but we can also investigate it and discover extraneous truths about it. All this flowed from Kryptos’ initial insight about preservative and destructive change. He had identified a deep ontological distinction: the distinction between what is integral to a thing’s existence and what is peripheral to it—what is built into a thing and what is merely conjoined with it.

Before long Kryptos added to his basic theory: he noticed that what was inherent was (as he put it) “indispensable”, while what was extraneous was “dispensable”. He saw this as implicit in his original conception, though it now needed to be spelled out. We can say that some attributes couldnot be removed from a thing without destroying it, while others could be so removed: some are necessaryand some are not. He had no established terminology for this distinction, so he adopted the Greek word for mode; that enabled him to speak of a “modal” distinction. Thus he announced the “indispensable-dispensable distinction” and added it to the inherent-extraneous distinction. Then he made the following claim: the modal distinction mirrors the ontological distinction. What is inherent is indispensable and what is extraneous is dispensable. You couldn’t have a thing without its inherent properties, but you could have a thing without its extraneous properties. Another way to put the point was this: the properties that are discovered by analyzing the nature of a thing are indispensable, while those that are discovered by investigating the circumstances of a thing are dispensable. The two distinctions coincide; indeed, the modal distinction seems like a good way to articulate the ontological distinction. In any case, they were glued together. Things have an inherent nature that is essential to them (as Kryptos started saying), while also having extraneous properties that are merely accidental.

So far Kryptos had said nothing about knowledge of things, only about things themselves. But he eventually began to see the epistemological implications. If a thing’s nature could be discovered by analysis, while learning of its circumstances required going beyond analyzing it, then there were two types of knowledge we could have of a thing—analytic knowledge and circumstantial knowledge. Again, he struggled with terminology (he was a conceptual trailblazer after all), since nothing in colloquial Greek quite supplied what he needed. After intense thought he hit upon what he took to be another insight: some knowledge of things is more basic than other knowledge of things. That is, some knowledge of things presupposes other knowledge of things—and hence is conceptually dependent on such knowledge. Specifically, knowledge of whata thing is is more basic than knowledge of howit is: for we can’t have the latter without the former. We first have to identifythings before we can investigatethem; or refer to them before we can predicate things of them; or form an adequate conception of them before we try to find out what is true of them (their laws etc). Thus knowledge of a thing’s nature comes before knowledge of its circumstances—knowledge of its inherent attributes precedes knowledge of its extraneous attributes. Analytic knowledge of a thing is prior to other knowledge of it; we find out the latter after we already possess the former. You first form an inventory of the things in the world, in which inherent attributes are specified (nature, essence, conditions of existence), and then you set about discovering the laws and accidental facts about these things. You couldn’t do the reverse. Kryptos christened this epistemological distinction the “prior-subsequent distinction”, for lack of better words (the intuitive idea seemed clear enough). He then took the obvious next step and announced that this distinction coincides with the other two: we have prior knowledge of the inherent indispensable attributes of a thing, while having subsequent knowledge of the extraneous dispensable attributes. The three distinctions—ontological, modal, and epistemological–all line up. Moreover, the ontological distinction is basic, since the others follow from it quite naturally. We can say, in Kryptos’ terminology, that analytic facts about a thing are both indispensable to it and known prior to extraneous facts. For example, we can say that facts about the chemical analysis of a substance are both modally indispensable and epistemologically prior. Likewise, the analysis of a triangle as a three-sided closed figure involves modal indispensability and epistemological priority, in contrast to the fact that (say) triangles are popular in Vladivostok.

Having established all of this Kryptos composed a treatise entitled Fundamental Distinctions of Nature, only fragments of which survive. In it he made gnomic pronouncements like, “Nature divides into the what it is and the how it is”, and “Some attributes are guaranteed by the existence of a thing while others are left to chance”, and “Some knowledge results from labor while some is in the knowing”. One of his main propositions was what came to be called among his disciples the Convergence Thesis, namely that his three distinctions converge: the ontological, the modal, and the epistemological map onto each other. We should observe that he never said anything about sentences or meanings or propositions; he spoke only of things and facts, natures and attributes. His dualisms were resolutely de re: they concerned existence, things, change, attributes, natures, essences, and ways of knowing. How any of this might be expressed in language and thought was not his concern—Kryptos cared only about reality and its divisions. His achievement was to identify these distinctions in reality and demonstrate their interrelatedness. Ontology, modality, and epistemology form a tightly connected package, not to be sundered.

Later philosophers introduced other terminology, intended to capture other distinctions, though reminiscent of Kryptos’ groundbreaking work. Thus we have the analytic-synthetic distinction, the necessary-contingent distinction, and the a priori-a posteriori distinction. Each of these has been much contested and their interrelations subject to controversy. Interestingly enough, one recent group of philosophers agreed with the Convergence Thesis, even accepting that something like Kryptos’ ontological distinction is fundamental. The logical positivists took it that the analytic-synthetic distinction is fundamental, with the modal and epistemological distinctions emerging as consequences. Kant had referred to this distinction as the “explicative-ampliative” distinction, and there are echoes in this of Kryptos’ distinction between the intrinsic nature of a thing and what holds of it as a matter of extrinsic fact. The difference is that Kant was thinking of the explication or analysis of concepts or meanings whereas Kryptos was interested in the explication or analysis of things—geometric forms, substances, species, persons, etc. To him the interesting distinction is between water being H2O (this being its chemical analysis) and the fact that there is water in this glass (an extrinsic non-analytic fact about water). He had no interest in “truth in virtue of meaning”, only in what belongs to the nature of a thing: for him “water is H2O” is an analytic truth because it gives the (chemical) analysis of water.[1]

Nor did he link the concept of prior knowledge to the concept of experience: his notion of priority is not that of knowledge a person has independently of all sense experience, since we know the nature of substances by sense experience. We could say that his notion of subsequent knowledge coincides with another use of the word “experience”, as when we say that someone has had a lot of experience of the world. Here we are referring to the person’s observing and interacting with many things over a substantial period of time, not to the state of consciousness called “sense experience”—as in a doctor saying, “I’ve had a lot of experience with malaria”. In this sense we can say that subsequent knowledge involves experience while prior knowledge does not, since you can know what something is while having very little experience of how it behaves. I might know what an octopus is by once seeing one (or reading a zoology text) but have had very little experience of octopuses and know nothing of their ways.  The contemporary modal distinction between necessary and contingent truths bears an obvious relation to Kryptos’ distinction between indispensable and dispensable attributes, though it too concerns language not things, and carries other baggage. So there is no simple mapping of Kryptos’ distinctions onto these later distinctions; they are certainly not different ways of saying the same thing, despite some overlap.

What is interesting from Kryptos’ point of view is the recent contention that the Convergence Thesis is false (mainly due to Kripke). He would have no particular objection to the rejection of that thesis for the modern distinctions, but he would no doubt be anxious to point out that the kinds of examples produced by Kripke have no bearing on hisdistinctions. What are today called analytic truths contain no analysisat all by Kryptos’ standards: truth in virtue of meaning is not analytic truth in the literal sense, which requires breaking something down into constituents (consider “ais identical to a”).[2]Nor are his extraneous truths aptly described as “synthetic” in any meaningful sense: they don’t involve assembling parts into a whole (i.e. synthesis), as chemical parts can be combined to produce a composite substance. In his sense of “analytic truth” prior knowledge is of analytic truth and all necessity is analytic, since both concern the constitutive structure of a thing as opposed to what is extraneous to it and therefore known subsequently. Knowing what a hexagon is, for example, involves analyzing it into its essential components. Similarly, knowing what water is involves analyzing it into its chemical constituents (or grasping its superficial properties). So “water is H2O” is an analytic truth, a necessary truth, and a prior truth (in the sense that it can be known just by knowing what water is prior to any knowledge of further extraneous facts about water).  But Kryptos has no wish to argue over words: he wishes rather to insist that his distinctions are real, important, and convergent. In his opinion the later distinctions are distorted and misleading versions of his original ideas; but, be that as it may, his distinctions are solid, and they converge. There is no “necessary a posteriori” or “contingent a priori”, as hewould interpret these phrases. If an attribute is necessary it is part of a thing’s nature, in which case it is known prior to other facts about the thing; and if an attribute is contingent it is not part of a thing’s nature, in which case it must be known subsequently. Moreover, the necessary and the a priori, as he interprets these terms, coincide with the analytic, as he interprets that term—just as the contingent and the a posteriori coincide with the extraneous (“synthetic” if you must). Thus the three deep distinctions written into the nature of things line up according to the Convergence Thesis, whatever may be true of the newfangled notions. Those notions look like a mess to Kryptos, as he gazes down from his seat in Platonic heaven, while his notions have stood the test of time (none of the other philosophers up there with him have managed to make a dent in them in the last 3,000 years).  People should never have taken the linguistic turn to begin with, he thinks; that was never going to end well. Also, they became too obsessed with epistemology and what is certain (that was the fault of those later Greek skeptics, not to mention that parvenuDescartes). They liked their concept of a priori knowledge because it seemed to grant them certainty in at least one area, but the concept of prior knowledge in Kryptos’ sense affords nothing of the kind. We cannot be certain of the essence or nature of empirical things, but we can know these things well enough to be getting on with. Questions of doubt and certainty are beside the point when it comes to the nature of things. What matters is (a) that things have intrinsic natures and extraneous circumstances (ontological), (b) that some of their attributes are guaranteed by their nature while some are not (modal), and (c) that knowledge of their nature is more basic than, and prior to, knowledge of their other characteristics. We should not lose sight of these fundamental distinctions and their interrelatedness, whatever may be said of more recent distinctions.


Colin McGinn





[1]This is what might be called a “deep analysis” of water, but there is also the possibility of a “superficial analysis”, as when we determine the cluster of properties that belong to the appearance of water (transparent, tasteless, liquid, etc). Both may be said to constitute the nature of water. Neither concerns the meaning of the word “water”.

[2]It is an interesting question whether the modern notion of analytic truth can be assimilated to something like Kryptos’ notion. Consider “bachelors are unmarried men”: this can be interpreted as providing a de reanalysis of the attribute of being a bachelor, not as an analysis of meaning as such. Then a statement like “bachelors are happy” is not an analytic truth in this sense, but rather involves facts extraneous to the very nature of a bachelor. So Kryptos would agree that analytic truths in the modern sense coincide with analytic truths in his sense, at least in certain cases.


A Psychology of Philosophy


A Psychology of Philosophy



Most philosophers would agree that philosophy is a very difficult subject, in their heart of hearts if not in their practice. The problems of philosophy are difficult problems. They are not easily solved (sometimes not easily stated). The difficulty might be rated differently by different philosophers—from moderately difficult to extremely difficult to impossibly difficult. In any case there is a widespread perception of pronounced difficulty. I am concerned with the psychology that goes with that perception: what kind of mind is formed by the perception that philosophy is exceptionally difficult? Better: what kind of personality is created by the perception of philosophical difficulty? If a person gives his or her life to philosophy, while fully recognizing its exceptional difficulty, what kind of psychological formation will flow from that? If you devote your life to a subject that admits of relatively easy answers, you will likely experience satisfaction and a sense of achievement (as it might be, the flora and fauna of the Hebrides); but if you devote your life to a set of questions you believe you probably (or certainly) can’t answer, what will this do to you?

The obvious reply is that you will not meet with success and you will suffer the pangs thereof. You want to know the answer and you strive to discover it, but you accept that you won’t succeed, probably or certainly. Suppose you have been struck with the problem of skepticism and you long to find an answer to the skeptic, but you accept that the problem is extremely difficult and that you have not discovered an answer, and probably never will. You could simply accept this fact, maybe reducing your efforts at solution, given that your chances of success are miniscule; that would be rational enough, considering. But you mightalso react by overvaluing your less-than-perfect efforts or by downplaying the difficulty of the problem. You might decide you were wrong about the difficulty of refuting the skeptic, or you might congratulate yourself on devising a highly ingenious or insightful response that has escaped the attention of others. This would be understandable, if not completely rational: you have succumbed to a kind of intellectual dishonesty (given that you are tacitly aware that your proposed solution doesn’t really measure up to the severity of the problem). You are engaging in intellectual bad faith. You do this because your earlier response was psychologically uncomfortable: why keep trying to solve what you believe you (probably) can’t solve? Why put so much effort into something pointless? And even if you think you mightsolve the problem, you still have to wrestle with the strong probability that you won’tsolve it—given its extreme difficulty. It is psychologically uncomfortable to strive to do what you think you (probably) can’t do, so it is natural to revise your view of things.[1]

What I have just described is a situation in which cognitive dissonanceis apt to occur. Cognitive dissonance theory was invented by the psychologist Leon Festinger in the 1950s and has become a standard part of psychology.[2]The outlines of the theory are as follows. People are equipped with an overall drive towards psychological consistency. This drive is not restricted to belief consistency but applies also to harmony among desires, actions, emotions, and beliefs. If there is a lack of harmony, the subject will experience mental stress or discomfort or anxiety. This will lead to attempts at dissonance reduction by a variety of stratagems in order to restore harmony. The magnitude of the stress is a function of the magnitude of the dissonance. So a person will not be happy to act in ways contrary to his desires, or make statements contrary to his beliefs, or desire what he knows he cannot possess, or feel what he knows he shouldn’t feel, or believe what he has evidence against. Cognitive dissonance leads to dissonance reduction by modifying the dissonant psychological configuration. In Festinger’s original example, a member of a cult who is confronted by evidence undermining the tenets of the cult will be apt to deny the evidence or invent some ad hocexplanation for the evidence that preserves his cherished beliefs. Or a person compelled to work in an occupation that violates her values is likely to abandon or modify those values, or to insist that the occupation really serves to further them despite appearances (as it might be, pollution is actually good in the long term). The central point is that the drive for psychological consistency leads to bad faith of one kind or another. Dissonance is intolerable, so the subject strives to minimize or deny it, often by mental contortions and self-deception. Living with cognitive dissonance is harder than conforming one’s attitudes so as to avoid it. This is the realm of motivated belief and fake emotion and fabricated desire.

How does this apply to philosophy? Simple: the acknowledged difficulty of philosophy induces cognitive dissonance, which is then massaged in various ways to reduce the mental discomfort. Difficulty produces dissonance because the life of a philosopher is predicated on denying or underestimating it. For the philosopher is investing time and resources in a project she knows is unlikely to bear fruit. She is working on impossible problems—problems she knows (or strongly suspects) she can’t solve. Suppose she is gripped by the problem of skepticism and is working hard to provide a convincing answer to the skeptic—burning the midnight oil, neglecting her family, not having any fun—all the while believing that her efforts have close to zero chance of success (after all, no one else has come up with anything). That is not a tolerable mental state to be in, because of the dissonance between will and belief: she wants and wills what she believes is not within her reach. Various dissonance-reducing reactions are possible: she can give up working on the problem, pretend that the difficulty is not as great as has been supposed, overestimate the value of whatever ideas she can come up with, become a dogmatist. In the extreme she could always declare that philosophical problems are pseudo problems or are meaningless or reflect mental illness. That way she can deflect the dissonance, restore her mental equilibrium, and relieve the stress. She might have started her philosophical life brimming with optimism—shewill get to the bottom of these problems where others have failed (through insufficient attention to ordinary language, or by relying on a primitive type of logic, or by not knowing enough science, or because of general sloppiness). Thenshe felt no dissonance, because her beliefs were consistent with her desires and actions (such as protracted and expensive study of philosophy). But as her philosophical life wears on and the futility of her efforts becomes more apparent, she is likely to arrive at a more pessimistic view of her philosophical prospects—she comes to believe that she will likely not solve the problems that so gripped her (and still do). Then cognitive dissonance is apt to set in: she knows that she can’t achieve what she wants desperately to achieve. She could try to learn to live with this fact, though it would no doubt modify her practical motivations, or she could adopt a variety of dissonance-reducing stratagems. The two most obvious ones are denying the difficulty and overestimating her feeble efforts (“Yes, the problem is devilishly difficult, but mytheory finally lays it to rest!”).

I take it this will seem familiar. My suggestion is that cognitive dissonance lies behind some of the characteristic types of philosophical posture. Hence the psychological appeal of logical positivism, ordinary language philosophy, the latest brand of scientism, dedication to formal logic, post-modernism, Wittgensteinian quietism, neurophilosophy, descriptive phenomenology, experimental philosophy, eliminativism, and engaging in purely historical studies. These are all attempts to avoid or downplay the recognition of the difficulty of philosophical problems. Not that they might not have arguments in their favor, but the psychological attraction of such doctrines stems from their promise to free us from cognitive dissonance. It is not that any of them are prima facieall that plausible—they are commonly represented as revisionist—but we feel compelled to accept them because of the stress produced by acknowledging philosophical difficulty. Add to this purely internal source of disharmony the institutional pressures of teaching or studying at a place of higher learning: how can you justify teaching a subject to students that you admit consists of insoluble (or at least unsolved) problems? What truths are the students supposed to learn as a result of such teaching? What resultsare you conveying to them? How can they justify the expense to their parents? Also: what justifies tenure in a field where no one ever makes any substantial progress? How can you be paid to work on problems no one thinks you can solve? There is a lot of pressure to deny that philosophy is as difficult as it seems to be and has proven to be. We just need that nice fat grant and we will finally answer the skeptic! The latest fad (as it might be, neuroimaging) will resolve those age-old problems, so we need not accept that things are as dire as they appear. We need not accept that we are striving to do what we know we can’t do. That is the fundamental problem, psychologically speaking—the cognitive dissonance at the heart of the philosophical enterprise.

Other subjects do not writhe under this kind of pressure. In them progress is made, large and small, so that the striving to achieve results is gratified, with the hope of further achievements in the future. True, they can contain great difficulties, but history has been kind to them, and there are many areas in which substantial progress has been made. The physicist never feels under pressure to deny that his questions are meaningful, or to resort to ordinary language, or to eliminate what he finds puzzling (“There are no receding galaxies!”). Nor does the biologist have to accept that she is getting nowhere—she has many discoveries to occupy her time. But in philosophy the main questions—the questions that bring us to the subject—remain maddeningly recalcitrant: the mind-body problem, skepticism, the nature of moral truth, free will, the meaning of life, space and time. Not thatnoprogress is made; rather, the core problems are so difficult that meaningful progress can hardly be expected. Once this fact is acknowledged (assuming it to be a fact) cognitive dissonance is the natural response: if it’s so difficult, why even attempt it? To that question we need a dissonance-reducing answer. Other disciplines are not so afflicted: they are not defined by problems of this magnitude of difficulty. So their practitioners are not subject to the same mental torment as philosophers; they have no dissonance to reduce (maybe psychologists have an inkling of what we go through in some of their more baffled moments).

Imagine a subject of study Sthat expressly advertises itself as dealing only with the most difficult problems known to man. Some people find themselves going into S. These peculiar people don’t just explain what the problems are and then sit back and marvel at them—they try to solve them. Isn’t Sa ripe subject for cognitive dissonance? No one has solved a problem in Sfor hundreds of years and there is widespread pessimism about solving any of them; yet people persist in trying to solve them and promoting their subject as a worthwhile investment of time and resources. There is thus a lack of harmony here between beliefs about Sand life commitment to S—and there is much frustration, self-doubt, neurosis, self-deception, etc. It wouldn’t be surprising if people occasionally sprung up proclaiming that they have discovered a new method for solving their problems (say, studying Sanskrit) or insisting that the problems of Sare really pseudo problems—and they would no doubt find their relieved followers. It’s tough devoting your life to problems you don’t think you stand a chance of solving. That way lies acute cognitive dissonance, with its strategies of avoidance. Better not to go into Sat all, despite its intrinsic interest; people only go into it because they believe (unrealistically) that they alone can solve the problems of S(ego trumps realism). Doesn’t Ssound a lot like philosophy, psychologically speaking? It needn’t bephilosophy, but it would feellike it—it would reproduce philosophy’s characteristic psychological contours. The difficulty of Scombined with devoting one’s life to it sets up psychic tensions that lead naturally to certain kinds of reaction—mostly involving bad faith. This is the psychological landscape occupied by the philosophical mind. In particular, we philosophers are always trying to find ways to make philosophy easier than we know it to be.

I have spoken of the individual psychology of the philosopher, which may be taken to be more or less universal given the nature of the subject, but there are also some more local sociological pressures conducive to cognitive dissonance. I mean those pressures (mentioned earlier) stemming from the institutional structure of a typical university and of the profession of philosophy, as it exists today. It is necessary to publish and compete and establish oneself as defending a certain position. You have to show that you are goodat philosophy, in the sense of being capable of producing it; and this leads to excessive optimism about what can be achieved in the subject. In particular, you have to show yourself superior to others in solving philosophical problems. Thus you will develop a tendency to overestimate the quality of what you do while underestimating the quality of what other people do. Your views and theories are clearly correct while theirs are clearly incorrect. In teaching the subject you will be tempted to make it seem easier to make progress than it is, so that certain views will be favored as the demonstrably true ones, as opposed to those radically misguided alternatives. This will lead to a culture of exaggeration and overconfidence—a lack of humility in the face of difficulty. How can you stand out professionally if you meekly suggest that it is all very difficult? The cognitive dissonance created by the confrontation between the intrinsic difficulty of philosophy and the institutional structures within which it is practiced will lead to extreme ways of trying to reduce the dissonance—such as declaring your own position definitively correct and everyone else’s hopelessly confused.[3]Thus it is that factions are formed and feuds triggered. Professionally, you have to have a thesis—a position, a doctrine. But this conflicts with the recognition that it is incredibly hard to come up with anything convincing in philosophy—there are always opponents and objections. So we have cognitive dissonance built into the structures of the institution of professional philosophy, and with it those dubious and dishonest strategies of avoidance—particularly, overestimating one’s own position and underestimating the difficulty of the problem. And isn’t this exactly what we in fact find in professional philosophy—the blowhard and the minimizer, to put it crudely? Also the cult of personality, the formation of “schools”, the withering contempt for those who refuse to see the light, the ever-changing fads and fashions, the dogmatism, the willful blindness, the haggard looks, the neurosis, the swaggering and posing—all attempts to deal with the cognitive dissonance created by philosophical difficulty as it interacts with professional existence. Just consider the familiar figure of the philosopher who thinks (or purports to think) that he has it all figured out: emotivism in ethics, materialism in metaphysics, nominalism in logic, naïve realism in epistemology—everything is bathed in sunlight with not a mystery in sight. This philosopher can see, and will brook, no objection to any of these firmly held views; all alternatives he rejects as absurd and dishonest. Philosophy contains no difficulty for this jolly optimist. Mustn’t we wonder at such a person’s brash confidence? Can he really believe it is all so simple and straightforward? Isn’t his breezy conviction the result of an underlying cognitive dissonance? He knows that things are not really so easy and yet this causes him such acute mental discomfort that he has decided to act as if he has it all figured out.[4]This is intelligible enough from a psychological point of view, but it amounts to nothing more than a strategy for avoiding cognitive dissonance. At the other extreme someone might feel the difficulty with particular force and decide to give up the study of philosophy altogether. That would also resolve the dissonance and might impress us by its intellectual integrity. But most of us are stuck between these two extremes, suffering the symptoms of cognitive dissonance: it is only partially resolved in us, if at all. We have our cherished theories, so desperately cobbled together, but deep down we realize that they may be wide of the mark or just grotesque errors. To take an example more or less at random: there was a time when people convinced themselves that Davidson’s use of Tarski’s theory of truth supplied all that could be asked of a philosophical theory of meaning; and this position was held with almost religious fervor. It is hard not to see this in hindsight as a kind of bad faith prompted by the felt difficulty of the problem of meaning combined with the need to say something positive about it. The problem isn’t so hard after all–all we need to do is throw some fancy formal logic at it and it will disappear in a flood of biconditionals! Either that or we have to admit that we are trying to solve a problem we haven’t the faintest idea how to solve (or even formulate).

There is a psychology to philosophy, generated by the peculiar character of the subject, and Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance seems like a good theory of what that psychology is.[5]It explains many of the phenomena we observe and fits the way philosophy feels from the inside. It is an empirical psychological theory like any other and should be judged accordingly. It won’t solve any of our philosophical problems, but it might alert us to psychic forces in us that distort our thinking and practice.


[1]It is often noted that you can’t intend to do what you believe it is impossible for you to do, so no one could intend to solve a philosophical problem he believed could not be solved. But that leaves room for intending to do what you think it is quite improbable for you to do. However, that attitude is inherently unstable and disagreeable, especially as the failures and sense of futility mount. At what point do you give up? (Desire, of course, is perfectly possible in the presence of a belief that the desired state of affairs is impossible.)

[2]Leon Festinger, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance(Stanford University Press, 1957).

[3]I have noticed over the years that people always seem to believe what they learned in graduate school, casually dismissing what has happened since. Pure cognitive dissonance.

[4]It is not always a “he”, but statistically speaking…

[5]What would a Freudian explanation of the philosopher’s psychology look like? Perhaps this: The difficulty of philosophy is experienced as a form of castration anxiety (of the intellect not the body), which is naturally repressed, and which manifests itself either as a denial of the castrating power of philosophy or as an assertion of the phallic prowess of the philosopher. Thus the philosopher rejects philosophical problems as meaningless or phony (and hence incapable of castrating him) or he elevates himself to superhuman levels of problem solving (phallic invincibility). The anxiety is thus allayed (how this fits the case of women philosophers is left for future research.) Maybe there was a time at which such an explanation would be taken seriously (in fact I invented it in the shower), but I prefer the Festingerian explanation to the Freudian one, having more to do with logic than libido.