Color and Object
Color and Object
I am going to give a list of reasons for supposing (a) that colors are mental and (b) that colors are in external objects. None of them is apodictic but they provide a powerful prima facie case, which I think is supported by common sense.
As to (a) the first point to make is that colors are not physical or regarded as such: we distinguish them (and other secondary qualities) from physical qualities like figure, motion, and mass. We contrast them with the physical (whatever this notion quite comes to): we know that they are fundamentally different. Second, colors are subjective in the sense that we only grasp their nature from a specific point of view: we only know what red is by having experiences of red—as we only know what an experience of red is by having such experiences. So colors are like mental states in good standing in this respect; not so for primary qualities like figure and motion, which are accessible from many points of view. Third, colors are arguably supervenient on dispositions to produce experiences, though not identical with them, whereas primary qualities are not.  They are thus relative to a perceiving mind and pro tanto mental. What supervenes on the mental is mental, if only derivatively. Fourth, we naturally classify them with other secondary qualities like sounds, tastes, and smells, thus indicating that we regard them as mental in the way those qualities are (surely a sweet taste is mental not physical). Fifth, similar issues arise about colors as arise about the mind—specifically, how they relate to the physical properties of an object. Are they distinct properties (property dualism) or are they perhaps reducible to physical properties? We have a kind of color mind-body problem (could there be immaterial substances that instantiate colors?). Sixth, they are clearly not abstract like numbers, so we can’t place them in that ontological category: they are concrete realities, just not physical realities. Do we want to create a fourth category for colors to belong to or should we assign them to the mental category? Seventh, colors are intrinsically bound up with seeming, as figure and motion are not: the way red is is the way it seems, with no conceivable gap between them. We thus can’t be wrong about the nature of red: we know exactly what the color red is just by knowing how it appears to us. The explanation of this necessary connection is that red is mental like seeming red. Eighth, there is no good reason to deny mentality to colors, as there is for figure and motion: they play no role in physics, they lack causal powers, and they are not part of the “absolute conception”. Ninth, there is as much reason to classify colors as mental as there is so to classify regular mental states: for we classify a wide variety of phenomena as mental—sensations of many types, emotions, desires, beliefs, memories, traits of character, and acts of imagination. What do these all have in common? It’s hard to say yet we confidently apply the concept anyway. Applying it to colors seems no great stretch, any more than applying it to tastes and smells: they are all “in the mind”. Tenth, pain is “in the body” but not on that account non-mental: we don’t require that a state be a state of a self for it to be mental. The subject of a pain can be bodily part and still pain is mental. Some balk at this and call pain a non-mental state of the body, but that is an ordinary language point that doesn’t classify pains according to more important characteristics (such as how they are known). Eleventh, colors form a “quality space” parallel to that of sensations of color, with relations of similarity and difference: this suggests an intimate affinity between color and sensations of color, as between taste qualities and sensations of taste qualities. Twelfth, people often confuse colors with sensations of color, eliding the difference between them, thus suggesting an affinity of nature—as if colors were really made of sensations of color in some way. Thirteenth, people often suppose that colors are literally qualities of the mind or the self, as with sense data theories: they work like other mental attributes. They aren’t qualities of objects at all but of inner states, which we somehow imagine to belong to outer things. This can be seen as a manifestation of a tacit acceptance of the mentality of colors, combined with a narrow view of the possible bearers of color, as if everything mental must belong to the human self or to inward consciousness (no unconscious mind, no insect mind, no panpsychist mind—all as a matter of definition). Fourteenth, it is more parsimonious to classify colors as mental than to invent an extra category for them—a non-physical non-mental non-abstract category with no recognized name. Fifteenth, colors are connected to the realm of appearance: visual appearances are often described as patches of color with nothing standing between them and the perceiver’s consciousness. We don’t think of primary qualities this way, because we know that they can be presented via different sorts of appearance. Colors constitute appearances, and appearances are joined to perceptions, so colors exist in close proximity to the mind. Sixteenth, isn’t there something it’s like to be red? Not just to see red but to be red. The phrase trips off the tongue, which it doesn’t for figure and motion—as if we think of color itself as a mode of consciousness. According to projectivist views, that is just what it is, so we find ourselves thinking of colors as modes of what it’s like. Seventeenth, colors are always included in the list of sense data and hence treated as mental, however confused this may be; but we don’t so readily speak of primary qualities this way, since they are regarded as objective features of external objects (at most we hear about sense data of “perceived shape”). Eighteenth, tastes, smells, and sounds are already taken to be mental, so it would be surprising if colors didn’t fall into line, despite their distal appearance. Nineteenth, it may be tempting to some to confuse colors with their physical basis, and hence to deny their mentality; but once we recognize the distinction the way is clear to accepting their mentality. Twentieth, we simply have a primitive intuition that colors are mental, and the only question is what really has them and what kind of mental property they might be. This intuition needs to be respected in any account of the ultimate metaphysics of color.
As to (b) the first point to make is that colors look to exist in external objects: it really does seem to us that objects are objectively colored—not that we are somehow internally colored. They look as objective as figure and motion; they don’t look like projections from inside our minds, whatever that might mean. The color looks to be onthe object, as much as its texture. Second, we need to explain how color can exist unperceived if it is not objectively present in the object in the way that primary qualities are. It can’t be present merely as a disposition to cause experiences in perceivers, since that is not a way that color exists unperceived, merely a way that dispositions can exist without being continuously manifested. The object is really red when no one is looking at it. Also, it could have a disposition to appear red even if it were not really red, and it could be red and lack that disposition: this is a common failing of dispositional theories of anything. Third, color is not a property of mental items, since that would make experiences literally colored (an old point); nor is it experienced as such. And what else could have it save the object that appears to have it? Fourth, there is no good explanation of the appearance of color other than the obvious one, viz. that the appearances are veridical. The projective explanation limps at every point, and the obvious question is why the appearance of color should be so alien to its true nature. Error theories need an explanation of the error or else we can question whether there is really an error. Fifth, projective theories are implausible and incoherent: there is no evidence of a mental act of projection, internal of external; it is a mystery why projection should happen at all; it is puzzling why the phenomenology is so similar to that of shape perception if in fact color does not inhere in external objects; and it raises the question of why color perception doesn’t work like pain, i.e. the external object triggers an internal sensation recognized as such. That could have been the way we use color to negotiate the world instead of falsely attributing it to external objects: why project color at all? We don’t project pain but pain sensations are useful sources of real-world information. Sixth, there is no good reason to deny it—no reason to doubt common sense and perceptual phenomenology. Some people say science has discovered that objects are not colored; no, it has not, it has simply discovered that colors are not relevant to physical phenomena, particularly motion. Objects can really have properties without those properties figuring in the explanations of physics (the theory of motion). Seventh, we can compare colors to aesthetic properties like beauty, which also strike us as outer: do we really want to say that paintings and landscapes are not beautiful but only inner states of the observer are? Color and beauty exist side by side in the object; neither is the result of the observer hurling his inner states into the external world, where they mysteriously stick to the surface of objects. Eighth, we don’t want to say that nothing instantiates color, neither the outer object nor the inner sensation: for why should there be a property that nothing instantiates yet which is perceived all the time as instantiated? Ninth, if sensations were literally colored, they would have to have shape too; but that is absurd. Tenth, it seems plausible that colors preexisted animal minds in some way, because it is hard to see how minds could have generated them from nothing. Primary qualities preexisted minds and were not created by minds, so shouldn’t secondary qualities also preexist animal minds? How could a mind or brain produce the quality of red from nowhere? The quality had to be there already for minds to latch onto it. Eleventh, if colors are sui generis primitive properties, they could be possessed by objects without the existence of perceivers, since their being does not include the being of such extraneous perceivers (though it might presuppose the existence of perceivers inside the perceived object). Twelfth, not being causal does not imply not being out there, because there are many properties of external objects that are not causal, such as aesthetic properties or modal properties. Thirteenth, colors are always extended in space, but only objects in space are extended in the way required, so color must be instantiated along with extension, i.e. in external objects. The patch of color always has an extension, and it precisely coincides with the extension of the external object; so that’s where the color is located. Why would it so precisely coincide with objective extension if it were projected outwards? Fourteenth, we would have to suppose a systematic error in perception if colors were not where they appear to be: but what is the explanation of such an error? Why didn’t nature devise a structure of perception that didn’t commit this error, such as suggested by the pain model (external object triggers a sensation that is not as of an external property of pain)? Fifteenth, perceived color varies with distance and ambient conditions, like perceived shape, and it exhibits the familiar perceptual constancies, which suggests a similar objective status. A projective theory is ill equipped to handle these phenomena, which depend on objective conditions. Sixteenth, if projection were the truth of the matter, wouldn’t we be able to project color onto arbitrary objects, such as areas of space or even other minds? Yet we don’t do that: only ordinary objects are seen as colored. Isn’t this simply because only they are (objectively) colored? And why don’t organisms project colors according to whim, depending on what wells up inside them?  Instead their perceptions follow objective patterns, just as if they are responding to real-world facts. Seventeenth, if colors were really projected, not found, wouldn’t they be like images—products of a creative faculty and not of a passive sensory system? But color perception consists of involuntary impressions not active imagery. We don’t see the world as overlaid by a layer of self-generated color images but as an array of colored external objects externally imposed on us. Nor is color perception anything like seeing-as with its characteristic features. Eighteenth, we have a primitive intuition that colors are located where external objects are, not nowhere at all or inside our minds, and this intuition needs to be respected in any account of the metaphysics of color.
Thus theses (a) and (b) have substantial support from a variety of considerations. The question then is what happens if we combine them, i.e. if we regard colors as both mental and yet features of external objects. For that is a curious combination according to traditional and received thinking: how is it possible for external objects to have properties that are both intrinsic to them and also mental in nature? 
 See my “Another Look at Color”, Journal of Philosophy, 1996.
 The alleged perceptual projection is nothing like Freudian projection, which does consist in arbitrary projections from inner mental states. It is curious that those who advocate projective theories of color and other secondary qualities never enquire very closely into the workings of this allegedly pervasive act of mind.
 This is the subject of my “Mind in World”: the present paper provides some background for the argument developed there, by defending two of the premises involved in that argument. There is a clear tension between theses (a) and (b) and we need a theory that resolves the tension: that theory is that objects themselves contain minds—at any rate, this is a theory that needs to be added to the range of options.