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  • Writer's pictureLiesbeth van Moorsel

Is color a 'real thing' in the world?

In 2021 I started studying philosophy at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam. In my work as an artist, I try to discover the 'visual world of language'. I consider art as the world of representations of objects, language gives meaning, emotions, and context. Philosophy can be considered the 'world in language'. The concepts and ideas of who we are as humans and what the world is, arises in language. These two worlds of language and representations are the perfect starting point for my creative explorations. In November 2022 I wrote a mini-essay on the topic of color. It was part of the course I took: Thought experiments. In this essay, I try to reflect on the views of the ontic status of color and which of these theories seems most promising to me: wavelength-physicalism, reflectance-physicalism, eliminativism, dispositionalism, or primitivism. What do you think, is color a 'real thing' in the world, or is color purely a subjective phenomenon?

The ontic status of color

A few years ago, an abstract painting of the color blue divided by a white stripe, by artist Barnett Newman was sold for 43.8 million dollar

s. In this day and age there are many more examples of monochromatic art sold for small fortunes. Does this imply that color, as an object, is a real thing in the world and that color is not only used to express or represent something? For instance, think of Mark Rothko and his famous paintings of different colors and the spiritual effect it supposed to have on people. People would sit still for hours in front of his paintings, some of them in tears.

Because I am an artist myself, I have a personal interest in trying to analyze what color really is, therefore I chose to write my essay on what views, of the ontic status of color, seem most promising to me. It might even enlighten me in a way that has a positive effect on the way I perceive color and work with it in the future!

What do we mean by ontic?

To come to any meaningful analyses of the ontic status of color, my first instinct is to deep-dive into the lexical definition of ontic. The lexical definition of ontic is described as follows:

“philosophical ontology, ontic (from the Greek ὄν, genitive ὄντος: "of that which is") is physical, real, or factual existence” (

Two words that interest me in this definition are factual existence and physical. To start with the latter. The general idea of physicalists about color is that colors are physical properties of objects and surfaces we perceive in the world. As such, colors do not include our mental states or perceptual responses in any way. I will start with two absolute color physicalists theories, reflectance- and- wavelengths physicalism.

Reflectance- physicalism

The view of Byrne and Hilbert, two wavelength-physicalists, is the idea that colors are identical to types of surface reflectance. According to this view, objects have their color independently of perceiving subjects and circumstances of perception. One of the main objections to this view is that of metameric stimuli. Empirical data indicate substantial individual differences of color perception. How is this possible?

In an abductive thought experiment, Byrne and Hilbert compare the perception of shape and the individual differences in shape perception to that of individual differences in color perception. They explain that these differences should not undermine the objectivity of shape and therefore also not the objectivity of color.

But you could argue that there is a relevant difference between the perception of shape and color. The difference is that you can actually test the correctness of the perception of shape. You can measure the shapes. For color perception, there is no test yet available. Reflectance measurements do not incorporate whose perception of color stimulus is the right one.

In color perception, qualia seem to play a more important role, than in the perception of for instance shapes. The absence of a trustworthy system of measuring such qualia and therefore the inability to conclude a certain absolute property of color, makes me believe that reflectance- theory does not provide absolute proof of the existence of color as a purely physical entity.

Wavelength- physicalism

The view of wavelength-physicalism states that colors are the property of light. The human eye distinguishes light waves of different frequencies and wavelengths as colors. So, can we know colors by distinguishing the different wave lengths of colors and the interaction these wave lengths have with our eyes and brains?

The thought experiment Mary’s room, by Frank Jackson, gives a good insight into the difference between knowledge of colors and the experience of colors. Can we say that the physical knowledge of color is color, or do we need more? This is explored in the case of Mary who has never experienced color, but she knows everything about it. She knows how color frequencies are processed in our brains and how it is possible to perceive an endless variety of colors by creating patterns of neurological activity. The question is whether Mary will learn something new when she experiences colors for the first time. If the answer is yes, then we can conclude that there are non-physical properties and that certain knowledge is only possible through conscious experience.

So, in both cases of the reflectance and the wave-length physicalism view, the ontic status of color is not conclusive because it excludes the conscious experience that people have of color. Of course, we could try to generalize the human experience, like the argument by Byrne and Hilbert for the observer independence of shapes but this does not support an automatic generalization to the observer independence of color. Color cannot be mere physical knowledge; hence the Rothko experience some people have.


So now what arguments are left for the physical or factual existence of color? Eliminativists, eliminate the qualia argument of color by saying that there is no such thing as a mental state. In a mature science of the mind, there is no room for folk theories. Our ordinary understanding of the mind is wrong. All common knowledge points to that what is not real. The explanation of what color is and the reasons why there are differences in experiencing color becomes purely physical, in terms of the interaction of parts of the brain that interact within a certain ratio of stimulation of the three types of cones.

Mabey eliminativists are right, that we are nothing more than biochemical entities. But this also sounds very much like the skeptical argument of the BIV (brain in a vat). The question here is, are we able to know that we are more than a vat for neural activity and therefore can exclude mental states as illusions? I dare to say yes because firstly what relevance in human life does it have to perceive existence in this way and secondly isn’t the presupposition that common sense is not valid a type of mental state itself?


By dismissing pure materialist views up till now, dispositionalism might be a candidate to explain color. As argued in the reflectance theory, color cannot be purely perceived as we perceive shapes. This very much resembles the view of Locke with his theory of primary and secondary qualities. We have the ability to immediately extract information from forms and shapes (extensions in space) and to reliably check them by measuring them objectively. But when it comes to perceiving color it becomes more complex, colors do not inform us directly. There’s no test available for color perception. The dispositional qualities of color only manifest themselves under certain conditions in response of cognitive agents.

This realistic view of color seems most promising. We do know that there are objects in the world and we perceive them as colored. But the exact color does not exist, it is agent dependent. Also, this could explain why certain people like bold-colored paintings and others like more muted colors, or why some people like bananas because they like the taste of sweetness in enables in them and in the case of a painting the pleasure a certain color gives them.


Can we reduce the existence of color to one single phenomenon or is color overdetermined? We have seen in all the former theories that by trying to reduce color to a single phenomenon we are left with questions about the conscious experience of color. Theories that are overdetermined, caused by external and intrinsic factors, seem more promising. But I would not opt for a primitivist view because by denying that we cannot reduce color we also give up the never-ending exploration of the subject that stimulates us in creative and inventive thinking.


It is interesting to explore color from different perspectives. The absolute materialistic views are too narrow and explain only one part of color. Any explanation of color cannot be not related to the relationship we have to it as humans and therefore also the conscious experience. I’m very interested in what happens in the field of quantum theory. As we learn more about the behaviour of very small particles, the less we seem to know about what matter is and how it comes to be. It might be that quantum theory will provide us with insights into how we perceive reality and within that, color. For now, the best theories about the ontic status of color are those that combine facts and qualia.

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