My Green Isn’t Yours, Although Socially it May Be

Throughout all of the phenomena of the world, there seems to be a handful that cannot be described in a one to one ratio fashion. One of those phenomena seems to be color. Color perception is a well disputed branch of color philosophy. One of the most convincing theories of color perception is the inverted spectrum. However, taking it a step further, the inverted spectrum doesn’t have to be so clear-cut and defining, as a one to one ratio, but that those perceptual inadequacies exist on the translation of color from perception to word.

One of the leading antagonists to the inverted spectrum theory is Hardin. Hardin is, somewhat, of a physicalist who believes that everything should be able to be explained through empirical tests. In his essay, “Qualia and Materialism”, Hardin makes an attempt to illustrate his argument. “…just as the theoretical entities postulated by statistical mechanics were confirmed by independent procedures in physics and chemistry, direct cellular recordings have established the basic opponent process mechanisms. The resulting theoretical picture may be crudely sketched in the following way:’4 Red and green are coded on one chromatic channel, which we shall call the r-g channel, and yellow and blue on another, which we shall call the y-b channel, with black and white represented on a third, achromatic channel.” (Hardin 287)

Hardin’s  view harkens back to the explanation of metamers and how certain cones are excited through seeing certain objects. If one were to see a Macintosh Apple, the red cone cells are activated leaving an impression of ‘red’. Same would go with blue and green, with a combination of cone activation when it comes to in between colors.

In essence, Hardin almost completely rejects the notion of people having their own personal disposition on color perception, and enforces a notion of universal color perception. “Though sensory experience-brain process identity, if it holds, must hold necessarily, our grounds for asserting it or any comparable reductive claim will, in the last analysis, be empirical, and the principles which guide such claims should be quite similar to those which guided the analogous claims in the kinetic-molecular theory of heat.” (Hardin 293) It is easy for one with solely pragmatic thought to completely believe Hardin’s claim. However, with the claim relying solely on the functions of the metamers and cones, Hardin completely ignores the notions of the relational qualities between the receptors and the perception and acknowledgement of the color itself. It is completely acceptable to understand the functions of the different components of color perception, but the physical properties themselves cannot start to explain the reception of the colors, other than the physical qualities of perception are near universal. It is common error to not differentiate between the physical changes that happen due to seeing a color, and the reception and acknowledgement of the colors seen.

One of the theories that start to penetrate the relational aspects between physical changes made and color acknowledged is the theory involving the inverted spectrum, a theory that Hardin tries his hardest to invalidate with his empirical and physical reasoning abilities.  Instead of making a keystone out of the physical properties of the color and the reactions it causes, spectral inversion relies more on the metaphysical perception properties that the color holds, the exact properties that we are looking for. The core theme of spectral inversion states that when the color receptors receive information from an object, a metaphysical process helps to acknowledge that the color is red, or green, or what color have you. This process of color acknowledgment is individual to the person’s own disposition of colors. When one person sees an object and says that it is red, person B could see the same object, say that it is red, but perceive a completely separate disposition from the object that person A sees. Even though both acknowledge that the color is indeed red, and the object has the physical properties of red, causing the reaction in the cones that bring forth redness, there is no say that the physical properties of the object, that cause redness, makes both person A and person B perceive, or see, the same color. For all one could know, a person that is saying that they are seeing red, could indeed be seeing what is perceived as green to another person. However, through social interaction and cultural influences, everyone would acknowledge that a Macintosh apple is red, and a Granny Smith Apple is green, although the phenomenological dispositions of those objects could be separate from person to person.

The spectral inversion theory agrees with the above argument, however only to the point that colors can be inversions, meaning the metaphysical dispositions that one object’s physical disposition could reflect upon the perceiver, is confined to only analogous colors, that is a color and its opposite. It is that very confinement that Hardin uses against this metaphysical theory. “Whatever analogies one tends to use, there is the inclination to see not only resemblance but also polarity, with red and yellow assigned a positive sense whereas green and blue are given a negative sense. If one seizes on the “warm” and “cool” terminology, one is tempted to ascribe the resemblance to obvious environmental associations, but further reflection on the character of the resemblances and differences persuades one that they are, as it were, intrinsic to the perceived colors, and that “warm” and “cool” express, rather, a deeper analogy.’” (Hardin 289) Hardin basically states that since warm colors, yellow, red, etc, cause different physical reactions than cool colors, blue, purple, etc, making it impossible for analogous colors to be able to have the same metaphysical disposition in perceived color.

In a way, everything that Hardin says is true. Objects such as a red Macintosh Apple do cause completely separate reactions within the cones and rods in the retina, but here in his argument we are still relying on the physical properties and reactions, not the perception of the color in the mind. However, what the spectral inversion theory fails to acknowledge is that the perception of the color doesn’t necessarily have to be an inversion of the actual. When person A sees a Macintosh Apple and acknowledges that it is red, person B does not necessarily have to be processing exactly what person A is perceiving. When person A says that they are seeing red, person B may in fact be seeing what person A would consider yellow, but there is a social agreement that the object is indeed red. Once again, the physical properties of the object may be the same and cause similar reactions in person A’s and person B’s eye, but the disposition of person A and B may cause them to see completely different colors, but both could acknowledge that is red. It is the process between the physical reactions in the retina and a person’s own phenomenological disposition that causes the color to be perceived. The metaphysical dispositions do not have to be confined to two analogous dispositions, but rather any separate dispositions from any two spots on the color wheel.

This theory, which I believe is my own, though may have been visited before by philosophers due to its close relationship to the spectral inversion theory, is also proven through Hume’s Missing Blue. Although we are dealing more with physical properties in Hume’s argument, the philosophy behind the argument is the same key ingredient behind my argument of dispositional perception. Basically, out of a line of cars representing every color of blue, one person would be able to come up and easily state that there is a blue missing between this one blue, and the blue beside it. Putting that in terms of metaphysical perception, all of the cars are labeled, socially, as being in the ‘blue’ family, however, might cause different perceptual distinctions within the viewer. The blue for one could be seen as a red for another, in person one’s eyes, but everything seems cohesive, socially and outspokenly. Along comes another person that sees a color that no one else has ever seen. This new person shows a swatch and calls it ‘aging forest mossed green’. From now on, the first two people will regard this new color, no matter how it was perceived intrinsically, as aging forest moss green. There is now an anchor point for this color, even though the color may be perceived differently, depending on the disposition of the individual, for each person. The color is still aging forest moss green, due to the social anchor.

Color is perhaps one of the most enigmatic properties that exist within this world. No one theory, it seems in modern thought, could be used to explain all of its complexities. All we can do is open up color into the realm of possibilities. It is evident that physicalism doesn’t do suit to the  color conundrum, and neither does spectral inversion alone. A step further than spectral inversion, dispositional perspective, seems to explain color philosophy even more. However, the riddle of the color still remains.


Seth Tyler Black Dec. 2010



Filed under Prose

2 responses to “My Green Isn’t Yours, Although Socially it May Be

  1. Il semble que vous soyez un expert dans ce domaine, vos remarques sont tres interessantes, merci.

    – Daniel

    • stblack

      Merci beaucoup!

      I did a lot of research for these two specific philosophy based essays, even though all of the main ideas are original. I hope you return to read more in the future! All of my work, the screenplays, the poetry, and even some of the photos, are very strongly based in my own thoughts on philosophy.

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