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Summary Dispositionalist theories of color identify colors with psychological dispositions, disposition to produce certain psychological effects in certain perceivers. For example: redness = the disposition to look red to normal perceivers in normal conditions. Dispositionalist theories descend from the discussion of primary and secondary qualities in John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689). One objection to dispositionalist theories is that the notion of a "normal perceiver" cannot be specified in a principled manner; another is that the account is not phenomenologically adequate because colors do not look like dispositions.
Key works McGinn 1983 sets out the (then) received view of colors as dispositions, later revised in McGinn 1996. For other defenses of the dispositionalist theory, see Peacocke 1984 and Johnston 1992. For criticism, see Boghossian & Velleman 1989 and Byrne & Hilbert 2011.
Introductions For short overviews of the competing theories of color, see the introduction to Byrne & Hilbert 1997, Hilbert 1998 and Byrne & Hilbert 2002. For a more substantial introduction see Maund 2008. A useful annotated bibliography is Brogaard 2010.
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  1. Keith Allen (2012). Colour Relationalism, Contextualism, and Self-Locating Contents. Croatian Journal of Philosophy 36:331-350.
    In addressing the metaphysical question of what colours are, a consideration that is commonly appealed to is how colours are represented—typically in perceptual experiences, but also in beliefs and linguistic utterances. Although representations need not accurately reflect the nature of what they represent—indeed, they need not represent anything that actually exists at all—the way colours are represented is often taken to provide at least a defeasible guide to the metaphysics: all else being equal, it seems we should prefer a theory (...)
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  2. Keith Allen (2010). In Defence of Natural Daylight. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 91 (1):1-18.
    Objects appear different as the illumination under which they are perceived varies. This fact is sometimes thought to pose a problem for the view that colours are mind-independent properties: if a coloured object appears different under different illuminations, then under which illumination does the object appear the colour it really is? I argue that given the nature of natural daylight, and certain plausible assumptions about the nature of the colours it illuminates, there is a non-arbitrary reason to suppose that it (...)
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  3. Keith Allen (2010). Locating The Unique Hues. Rivista di Estetica 43 (43):13-28.
    Variations in colour perception have featured prominently in recent attempts to argue against the view that colours are objective mind-independent properties of the perceptual environment. My aim in this paper is to defend the view that colours are mind-independent properties in response to worries arising from one type of empirically documented case of perceptual variation: variation in the perception of the «unique hues». §1 sets out the challenge raised by variation in the perception of the unique hues. I argue in (...)
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  4. Keith Allen (2009). Being Coloured and Looking Coloured. Canadian Journal of Philosophy 39 (4):pp. 647-670.
    What is the relationship between being coloured and looking coloured? According to Alva Noë, to be coloured is to manifest a pattern of apparent colours as the perceptual conditions vary. I argue that Noë’s ‘phenomenal objectivism’ faces similar objections to attempts by traditional dispositionalist theories of colour to account for being coloured in terms of looking coloured. Instead, I suggest that to be coloured is to look coloured in a ‘non-perspectival’ sense, where non-perspectival looks transcend specific perceptual conditions.
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  5. Paul A. Boghossian & J. David Velleman (1989). Color as a Secondary Quality. Mind 98 (January):81-103.
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  6. Alex Byrne (2001). Do Colors Look Like Dispositions? Reply to Langsam and Others. Philosophical Quarterly 51 (203):238-245.
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  7. Jonathan Cohen (2009/2011). The Red and the Real: An Essay on Color Ontology. Oxford.
    The space of options -- The argument from perceptual variation -- Variation revisited : objections and responses -- Relationism defended : linguistic and mental representation of color -- Relationism defended : ontology -- Relationism defended : phenomenology -- A role functionalist theory of color -- Role functionalism and its relationalist rivals.
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  8. Jonathan Cohen (2003). Color: A Functionalist Proposal. [REVIEW] Philosophical Studies 113 (1):1-42.
    In this paper I propose and defend an account of color that I call color functionalism. I argue that functionalism is a non-traditional species of primary quality theory, and that it accommodates our intuitions about color and the facts of color science better than more widely discussed alternatives.
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  9. Fabian Dorsch (2009). The Nature of Colours / Die Natur der Farben (in German). Ontos.
    Farben sind für uns sowohl objektive, als auch phänomenale Eigenschaften. In seinem Buch argumentiert Fabian Dorsch, daß keine ontologische Theorie der Farben diesen beiden Seiten unseres Farbbegriffes gerecht werden k ann. Statt dessen sollten wir akzeptieren, daß letzterer sich auf zwei verschiedene Arten von Eigenschaften bezieht: die repräsentierten Reflektanzeigenschaften von Gegenständen und die qualitativen Eigenschaften unserer Farbwahrnehmungen, die als sinnliche Gegebenheitsweisen ersterer fungieren. Die Natur der Farben gibt einen detaillierten Überblick über die zeitgenössischen philosophischen und naturwissenschaftlichen Theorien der Farben und (...)
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  10. Kathrin Glüer (2007). Colors Without Circles? Erkenntnis 66 (1-2):107--131.
    Realists about color, be they dispositionalists or physicalists, agree on the truth of the following claim: (R) x is red iff x is disposed to look red under standard conditions. The disagreement is only about whether to identify the colors with the relevant dispositions, or with their categorical bases. This is a question about the representational content of color experience: What kind of properties do color experiences ascribe to objects? It has been argued (for instance by Boghossian and Velleman, 1991) (...)
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  11. Ian Gold (1999). Dispositions and the Central Problem of Color. Philosophical Studies 93 (1):21-44.
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  12. Mario Gomez-Torrente (2011). Kripke on Color Words and the Primary-Secondary Quality Distinction. In Alan Berger (ed.), Saul Kripke. Cambridge University Press. 290-323.
  13. C. L. Hardin (1983). Colors, Normal Observers and Standard Conditions. Journal of Philosophy 80 (December):806-13.
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  14. J. Harvey (2000). Colour-Dispositionalism and its Recent Critics. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 61 (1):137-156.
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  15. Gary Hatfield (2003). Objectivity and Subjectivity Revisited: Colour as a Psychobiological Property. In Rainer Mausfeld & Dieter Heyer (eds.), Colour Perception: Mind and the Physical World. Oxford University Press. 187--202.
  16. Gary Hatfield (1992). Color Perception and Neural Encoding: Does Metameric Matching Entail a Loss of Information? Philosophy of Science Association 1992:492-504.
    It seems intuitively obvious that metameric matching of color samples entails a loss of information, for spectrophotometrically diverse materials appear the same. This intuition implicitly relies on a conception of the function of color vision and on a related conception of how color samples should be individuated. It assumes that the function of color vision is to distinguish among spectral energy distributions, and that color samples should be individuated by their physical properties. I challenge these assumptions by articulating a different (...)
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  17. Benj Hellie, Justin Fisher's 'Color Representations as Hash Values'.
    Justin makes a novel case, based on reflection on the “telos” of color vision, for a dispositional theory of colors. Justin’s case is highly suggestive, and comes tantalizingly close to resolving the debate in the metaphysics of color. But I have a few questions which I would like to see answered before I am converted.
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  18. Scott Huettel (2003). In Favor of an Ecological Account of Color. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 26 (1):33-33.
    B&H understate the difficulties facing their version of color realism. We doubt that they can fix reflectance types and magnitudes in a way that does not invoke relations to perceivers. B&HÂ’s account therefore resembles the dispositional or ecological accounts that they dismiss. This is a good thing, for a dispositional account is promising if understood in an ecological framework.
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  19. Colin McGinn (1996). Another Look at Color. Journal of Philosophy 93 (11):537-53.
    In The Subjective View,' I defended (unoriginally) a dispositional theory of color and drew out some consequences of that theory. The dispositional theory (DT) maintains, roughly speaking, that for an object to instantiate a color property is for it to have a disposition to cause experiences as of an object having that property in normal perceivers in normal conditions. This theory has notable merits in capturing (assuming one wants them captured) the subjectivity and relativity of ascriptions of color, while allowing (...)
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  20. Nenad Miscevic (2007). Is Color-Dispositionalism Nasty and Unecological? Erkenntnis 66 (1-2):203 - 231.
    This article is a brief presentation and defense of response-dispositionalist intentionalism against a family of objections. The view claims that for a surface to have an objective stable color is to have a disposition to cause in normal observers a response, namely, intentional phenomenal-color experience. The objections, raised recently by M. Johnston, B. Stroud, and by Byrne and Hilbert, claim that any dispositionalist view is unfair to the naive perceiver-thinker, saddles her with massive error and represents her as maladaptated to (...)
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  21. Bence Nanay (2011). Do We Sense Modalities with Our Sense Modalities? Ratio 24 (3):299-310.
    It has been widely assumed that we do not perceive dispositional properties. I argue that there are two ways of interpreting this assumption. On the first, extensional, interpretation whether we perceive dispositions depends on a complex set of metaphysical commitments. But if we interpret the claim in the second, intensional, way, then we have no reason to suppose that we do not perceive dispositional properties. The two most important and influential arguments to the contrary fail.
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  22. Christopher Peacocke (1984). Colour Concepts and Colour Experience. Synthese 58 (March):365-82.
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  23. Tony Pitson (1997). The Dispositional Account of Colour. Philosophia 25 (1-4):247-266.
    The dispositional account of colour has recently come under fire from a number of different directions (reflecting the various alternative options mentioned at the beginning). I believe that in the above I have dealt with the principal objections raised against this account by those who reject it. I cannot pretend to have established that the account is true; but if I am right about the failure of the objections I have discussed, and the difficulites of alternative accounts of colour, then (...)
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  24. Ralph Schumacher (ed.) (forthcoming). Theories of Color Perception. Kluwer.
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  25. Barry G. Stroud (2007). Dispositional Theories of the Colours of Things. Erkenntnis 66 (1-2):271 - 285.
    Dispositional theories of the colours of objects identify an object’s having a certain colour with its being such that it would produce perceptions of certain kinds in perceivers of certain kinds under certain specified conditions. Without doubting that objects have dispositions to produce perceptions of certain kinds, this paper questions whether the relevant kinds of perceptions, perceivers, and conditions can be specified in a way that (i) does not rely on acceptance of any objects as being coloured in a non-dispositional (...)
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  26. Barry G. Stroud (2004). Unmasking and Dispositionalism: Reply to Mark Johnston. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 69 (1):202-212.
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  27. Robert J. Swartz (1967). Color Concepts and Dispositions. Synthese 17 (June):202-222.
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  28. Evan Thompson, A. Palacios & F. J. Varela (1992). Ways of Coloring. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 15 (1):1-26.
    Different explanations of color vision favor different philosophical positions: Computational vision is more compatible with objectivism (the color is in the object), psychophysics and neurophysiology with subjectivism (the color is in the head). Comparative research suggests that an explanation of color must be both experientialist (unlike objectivism) and ecological (unlike subjectivism). Computational vision's emphasis on optimally prespecified features of the environment (i.e., distal properties, independent of the sensory-motor capacities of the animal) is unsatisfactory. Conceiving of visual perception instead as the (...)
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