What we talk about when we talk about color


The most recent issue of Nautilus focuses on color. As everyone who was anywhere near the internet in February knows, color is not some immutable property of the world but is instead produced through perception. Color perception is a reaction to the world we experience – but then this feeds back to shape the world itself:

Minions are the first animated characters to have their own Pantone color. Why aren’t there others?

You have to be cautious of cultural trends and meaning: They change; they are mutable. Some colors, like Chinese Red, will forever be seen in the cultural view. But today, even Chinese Red is not as pervasive as it was before. If you go to China now, people are wearing very westernized colors and clothes because that is what has currency now. When it comes to the world of entertainment, these trends change far more quickly. Several years ago, we were naming a purple, and Barney the dinosaur [from the children’s television show Barney & Friends] was very popular. Someone said, “Let’s name it Barney! It’s such a popular show, everyone will recognize it.” And I said, “I don’t know if you want to go there. What you need to consider is, 15 years from now, will people know what Barney Purple is?” If kids no longer watch Barney, that puts a “datedness” on the color.

Do people’s responses to color ever surprise you?

A great example is the color brown. Years ago, in word association tests, when we showed people different browns they would invariably say “it is dirty,” “it is soiled,” “it is unpleasant.” But then came what I like to call the Starbucks Phenomenon. Suddenly brown evokes some exotic coffee drink many of us are committed to on a daily basis.

Despite blue representing sadness in the anglosphere, it is still generally a positive color:

“For blue, most of the things that we associate with it are positive,” she says, including clear skies and clean water. Schloss found this to be the case in the United States, Japan, and China. In their U.S. study for example, 72 participants were shown a color on a neutral background and were asked to write as many descriptions of objects that were typically associated with the color before them. Then 98 different participants were shown each of the 222 descriptions written in black text on a white background, and they were asked to rank how positively or negatively they felt about each. Finally, 31 new participants were shown the color along with the associated description, and asked to rate the strength of the match between the color and description. Schloss and her colleagues found a strong, positive association between blue and clean water. Other studies support this finding. A 2013 study found major cultural differences in the color associations among the British and the Himba, a semi-nomadic group in Namibia. Yet these groups still associated blue and clean water.

Here is a philosopher’s take on color (read through for some of the history and the realist and anti-realist arguments). Hint: she thinks vision is inference.

My response is to say that colors are not properties of objects (like the U.N. flag) or atmospheres (like the sky) but of perceptual processes—interactions which involve psychological subjects and physical objects. In my view, colors are not properties of things, they are ways that objects appear to us, and at the same time, ways that we perceive certain kinds of objects. This account of color opens up a perspective on the nature of consciousness itself.

Indeed, I argue, colors are not properties of minds (visual experiences), objects or lights, but of perceptual processes—interactions that involve all three terms. According to this theory, which I call “color adverbialism,” colors are not properties of things, as they first appear. Instead, colors are ways that stimuli appear to certain kinds of individuals, and at the same time, ways that individuals perceive certain kinds of stimuli. The “adverbialism” comes in because colors are said to be properties of processes rather than things. So instead of treating color words as adjectives (which describe things), we should treat them as adverbs (which describe activities). I eat hurriedly, walk gracelessly, and on a fine day I see the sky bluely!

I have posted many of these before, but here are some pictures I have collected showing how color is affected by culture:

Words affect the colors we talk about

color words by language

Crayola is trying to name all of the colors


Color in movie posters through time


Color in paintings through time


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