The Plasticity of Categories: The Case of Colour

Abstract
Probably colour is the best worked-out example of allegedly neurophysiologically innate response categories determining percepts and percepts determining concepts, and hence biology fixing the basic categories implicit in the use of language. In this paper I argue against this view and I take C. L. Hardin's Color for Philosophers [1988] as my main target. I start by undermining the view that four unique hues stand apart from all other colour shades (Section 2) and the confidence that the solar spectrum is naturally divided into four categories (Section 3). For such categories to be truly universal, they have to be true for all peoples and in Section 4 I show that Berlin and Kay's [1969] widely quoted theory of basic colour categories is not sufficiently supported to lend it any credibility. Having disposed of the view that inspection of language or 'pure' perception unveils the universal colour categories, I turn to neurophysiological and psychophysical theories of colour vision to see whether they provide a more solid basis for deciding what the innate response categories are. In Section 5 I show that Hardin's account of the opponent-process theory neither supports his view that 'colour-coding' takes place early in the visual neural pathway, nor his view that knowledge of colour vision science will help us solve many philosophical mysteries about colour. In Section 6 I give a more detailed review of what is known today about the neurophysiology of colour vision and I show that there's nothing in the brain which could be called a colour module, let alone a module with homunculi for particular basic colour categories. In Section 7 I show that psychophysical models do not support such rigid constraints on category formation either. Hence (Section 8), at least in the case of colour, current science supports a plasticity in the formation of categories that goes far beyond the requirements of those naturalistic philosophers who would like to ground primitive concepts in biology.
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