Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Seeing Is Knowing: The Metaphysical Significance of Color Phenomenology

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Seeing Is Knowing: The Metaphysical Significance of Color Phenomenology

Article excerpt

I

THERE IS A WELL-KNOWN tradition of thinkers who have argued that philosophical reflection on the lived character of everyday experience can reveal significant and sometimes surprising insights into the nature of things. Philosophers as diverse as William James, Edmund Husserl, and Ludwig Wittgenstein have all suggested that first-person experience can play an important, if not definitive, role in structuring our philosophical accounts of the world. One deep source of opposition to this tradition is the worry that first-person experience simply cannot do this kind of work, that mere armchair reflection on the lived character of everyday experience is an unreliable guide to the real natures of things. (1) In this paper, I defend this tradition from this worry, but not by showing that everyday experience is infallible. There are, of course, many features of everyday experience that are deeply misleading: the earth does not feel like it is moving, after all. (2) Rather than attempting the impossible--to defend the infallibility of everyday experience, or common sense more generally--I am going to adopt a different route. I will focus on a particular type of everyday experience and argue that armchair reflection upon it reveals serious constraints on what would count as an adequate account of the nature of the objects of that experience. The example on which I will focus is color. What, exactly, does the first-person experience of color reveal to us about the nature of color?

Many find it intuitive to say that seeing a color tells us what it is to be that color. How else would we teach people what it is for something to be red, for instance, than by getting them to look at red things? And how else would we discover if something really is red other than by looking at it in the right conditions, the conditions in which we can see it for what it is? Bertrand Russell provides us with a characteristically blunt formulation of this sort of view when he says that,

   [T]he particular shade of colour that I am seeing ... may have many
   things to be said about it.... But such statements, though they
   make me know truths about the colour, do not make me know the
   colour itself better than I did before: so far as concerns
   knowledge of the colour itself, as opposed to knowledge of truths
   about it, I know the colour perfectly and completely when I see it,
   and no further knowledge of it itself is even theoretically
   possible. (3)

One might summarize this sort of view by saying that, when it comes to colors, seeing is knowing. (4)

But what, exactly, does one come to know in seeing the colors of things? Even Russell himself grants that simply seeing a color does not reveal everything there is to know about it. As he puts it, seeing a color just reveals knowledge of the color itself. Sadly, he does not elaborate on the distinction presupposed by this claim: between knowledge of a color itself and knowledge about a color. Neither does he give any examples of knowledge about a color. Finally, he does not spell out what knowledge of a color itself involves, what sort of knowledge is revealed by the visual experience of colors. Here is a list of the possible things that the phenomenology of color experience might be taken to reveal:

(1) how to identify colors;

(2) knowing that how colors look is a way to identify them;

(3) knowing that how colors look is the best way to identify them;

(4) knowing that how colors look is the only way to identify them;

(5) the nature of color.

This paper is an attempt to show how one might get from (1) to (5): that is, how reflection upon the phenomenology of color experience might allow us to go from the visual experience of color to an understanding of the nature of color itself. I proceed as follows. First, I present a prominent line of thinking about the phenomenology of color experience, one that I will call "The Oxford View," insofar as it has a long history of advocates at Oxford. …

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