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The Color of a Philosophical Transmission Belt

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If laymen did no more than learn to identify the nature of such fruit and stop munching it or passing it around, they would stop being the victims and the unwary transmission belts of philosophical poison. But a minimal grasp of philosophy is required in order to do it.

The Ayn Rand Letter, Vol. III, No. 9 January 28, 1974, Philosophical Detection


The Reality of Color Is Perception

Philosophers have a bad reputation for casting unwarranted doubt on established facts. Little could be more certain than your belief that the cloudless sky, on a summer afternoon, is blue. Yet we may wonder in earnest, is it also blue for the birds who fly up there, who have different eyes from ours? And if you take an object that shares that color—like the flag of the United Nations—and place half in shadow and half in the full sun, one side will be a darker blue. You might ask, what is the real color of the flag? The appearances of colors are frequently changing with the light, and as we move the objects surrounding them. Does that mean that the actual colors change?


Little could be more certain that your belief that the cloudless sky, on a summer afternoon, is blue.
Well, certainty and beliefs do go hand in hand. Setting aside digging deeper into establishing the objective basis for having certainty in any particular belief, let's press on.

We may wonder if it appears blue for the birds. Placing a shadow over an object alters the appearance of color. Changing aspects of the light, or moving yourself about an object influences the color as well.

Miss Rand had used an old 'optical illusion' as the basis of her salient point that our senses deliver the full context available in any given moment of perception. The stick, appearing bent in water, led to the discovery by Sir Isaac Newton, that light refracts differently thru different mediums.

Far from casting unwarranted doubt on established facts, this was an example of how one might take into consideration how to break down our percpepts aspect by aspect in order to establish a fact, allowing us to differentiate it from a process that results in unwarranted conclusions we might hold.

All these questions point us to the idea that colors are, despite first appearances, subjective and transitory. Color is one of the longstanding puzzles in philosophy, raising doubts about the truthfulness of our sensory grasp on things, and provoking concerns as to the metaphysical compatibility of scientific, perceptual, and common sense representations of the world. Most philosophers have argued that colors are either real or not real, physical or psychological. The greater challenge is to theorize the subtle way that color stands between our understanding of the physical and the psychological.


Color is one of the longstanding puzzles in philosophy, raising doubs about the truthfulness of our sensory grasp on things. Arguably, the author is trying to make a case for truthfulness about color. Before that can be done, it requires the ability to distingush more crucial differences. The failure to make a distinction between a percept and a judgement of the percept blurrs the correspondance between the truthfulness of a conceptual grasp with the metaphysically given percept. With the greater challenge being identified as how to theorize the subtle way the physical and psychological work to influence our understanding of color. Is the the job of philosophers, or should philosophy relegate itself to providing guidance that can be used by physicists and psychologist to navigate their respective sciences?

My response is to say that colors are not properties of objects (like the U.N. flag) or atmospheres (like the sky) but of perceptual processes—interactions which involve psychological subjects and physical objects. In my view, colors are not properties of things, they are ways that objects appear to us, and at the same time, ways that we perceive certain kinds of objects. This account of color opens up a perspective on the nature of consciousness itself.


A stick appearing bent led to a discovery about light and the medium thru which it passed, confirming in the deepest sense that existence is identity and that consciousness is identification Consciousness depends on perceptual processes as well as existence. Ours is a conceptual consciousness. As such, it is important to remember that our concepts, in order to maintain meaning, need to have clear, concise, logical connections back to reality.

The Puzzle of Color


As the author continues to question the ontological nature of color, an example that has been discussed regarding entity comes to mind. Rainbows. They are observed when it is raining or when sprinklers are running while the sun is shining. With a sprinkler running in the afternoon, a rainbow might be visible when viewing it from the west looking east, but not from the east of the sprinkler looking west. Newton's Optiks contrasted the observation of light passing thru a prism producing the various colors along an angular span, and recombined back into white light by using multiple prisms Using this understanding, he projected it onto the effects of rain and sunshine producing the effects of rainbows and double rainbows available to a perceiver.

In The Assayer of 1623, an early Bible of the scientific method and a manifesto for the use of mathematics in understanding the natural world, Galileo writes: “I do not believe that for exciting in us tastes, odours, and sounds there are required in external bodies anything but sizes, shapes, numbers, and slow or fast movement; and I think that if ears, tongues, and noses were taken away, shapes and numbers and motions would remain but not odours or tastes or sounds.”


To cast this in a familiar question, does a tree falling in a forest make a sound, can be addressed by the form/object distinction. Sound is the form a perciever grasps the vibrations, taste is the form we grasp the interaction of foods with the tongue, while odors are the form by which the different molecular structures drifting on the air currents are grasped.

This, however, is not where the author is going here. In The Janus-Facedness of Color, what gets stated is:


Indeed, I argue, colors are not properties of minds (visual experiences), objects or lights, but of perceptual processes—interactions that involve all three terms. According to this theory, which I call “color adverbialism,” colors are not properties of things, as they first appear. Instead, colors are ways that stimuli appear to certain kinds of individuals, and at the same time, ways that individuals perceive certain kinds of stimuli.


Indeed, the conclusion is:


Ultimately, the philosophical tool of color adverbialism suggests a new way to get out of the traditional internalist conception of the mind, making vivid the bridge between our mental lives and the outer world.


From the movie 50 Shades of Gray, one of the lines was about how submission freed the submissive from the responsablity of choice. How many people hearing that thought "oh, how nice. I can relate to that" vs. recoiling from it thinking "how could relinquishing my  power of choice contribute in learning how to gain better control of my life?"

In Philosophical Detection many phrases were provided that illustrated how we pick up ideas along life's way without knowing where they came from. The philosophical transmission belts are an intrical part of our culture. What can make them insidious is that in the cases of education, newspapers, radio, television, internet, etc., the mediums themselves are as much a product of the culture as they are a shaper.

Edited by dream_weaver
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Thanks for your time and effort in the above essay.  A great explanation of a basic, yet derived idea in Objectivism.  If you accept the primacy of existence - of objects, of consciousness, of sense organs, and of the other factors like light/shade/humidity/etc. - you must recognize that the "reality" of many aspects of identity as experienced by humans, things like color/taste/feel/sound, are processes.  The fact that the "reality" is a relationship between an object, the environment, and the sensing subject does not, by itself, imply subjectivity unless you accept the rationalist's or the empiricist's basic premise of the primacy of consciousness.


Subjectivity and skepticism in investigating epistemology, stems from a basic error in metaphysics.  The failure to accept the primacy of existence.

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Big issues tackled in this reflection, DW.


At present I can contribute only an historical point. Newton investigated optical phenomena, but he was not the one who discovered that different media refract differently or that different wavelengths refract differently in the same medium. Aristotle does not seem to have known anything about refraction, but it was known by Ptolemy (c. 100–180), who conducted experiments concerning it. These I describe here. He understood that different media refract differently.


The law of refraction that we call Snell’s Law was discovered by Ibn Sahl (c. 950) and was rediscovered by Snell in 1621.* Color dispersion out of sunlight refracting through globes of water was being investigated in the thirteenth century by al-Shirazi and al-Farisi.* By that time dispersion of colors by refraction from a prism was known to investigators in the Latin West, such as Theodoric of Freiberg.*

Edited by Boydstun
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Thanks for pointing out my miss-attribution of refraction to Newton. He uses angles so extensively in the Optiks that I just made the presumption it was he.


I wasn't actively looking for information on this. What caught my attention was she, outside of materials I've listened to from ARI, is the first one I recall to not firmly put color "out there" or "in here", but an interaction of consciousness and existents.

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