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Is color a characteristic property?

Color is a fascinating aspect of our visual perception. We see objects in a riot of different colors, which allows us to easily distinguish between them. The blue sky, the green grass, the red apple – color helps us make sense of the world around us. But is color an intrinsic or characteristic property of objects? Or is it something that only exists in our minds? This question has been debated by philosophers and scientists for centuries. In this article, we’ll explore the evidence on both sides of the argument.

The intuitive view: color as a property of objects

Our natural intuition is that color is a property of objects – something that objects possess in and of themselves. When we look at a ripe tomato, it just seems self-evident that redness is an inherent characteristic of that tomato, in the same way that its spherical shape and smooth skin are characteristics. This view aligns with our everyday experience of a colorful world filled with objects that have their own distinctive colors.

Philosophers sometimes refer to this as color realism – the view that colors are real, mind-independent properties. If the red tomato were alone in a dark room, it would still be red, even if there were no observers present to see its redness. The color is intrinsic to the object itself. Proponents of this view include philosophers like John Locke, who saw secondary qualities like color as no less real than primary qualities like shape or motion.

The subjective view: color as a construct of the mind

However, an alternative perspective is that color is subjective – it exists only in our minds, not inherent to objects themselves. This view argues that physics tells us objects have no true color – all that exists are colorless molecules reflecting wavelengths of light. Color arises solely from our visual and neural processing of those wavelengths. An object reflects light wavelengths, the light enters our eyes, and our brain interprets the signals as color.

This suggests color depends on the observer; it requires a visual system like the human eye and brain. Indeed, different creatures can perceive color differently based on their visual systems. Bees, for example, see ultraviolet light invisible to humans. If an alien with different visual biology looked at our red tomato, perhaps they would not see red at all. This hints color is not intrinsic to the tomato itself, but rather a construct of our perception.

Scientific evidence against color realism

Modern science provides ample evidence that color is linked to our biology, rather than objective reality. Here are some examples:

  • The perception of color depends on specialized cells in our retinas called cones. Different cones are sensitive to different wavelengths of light – short, medium and long. The pattern of activation across these cones gives rise to our perception of color.
  • Some people are color blind and unable to distinguish certain colors due to cone abnormalities. This shows perception of color is dependent on biology.
  • The same wavelength of light can be perceived as different colors based on context, illumination, nearby colors, etc. For example, a grey patch looks dramatically different on white and black backgrounds. This effect implies color is constructed by our visual system rather than intrinsic to a light wavelength.
  • Colors do not map precisely across species due to differences in cone types, neural processing, etc. For example, some birds and insects can see ultraviolet light, while humans cannot. Again this points to the subjectivity of color.

Such findings lead philosophers like John Locke to concede that secondary qualities like color are mind-dependent, whereas primary qualities reflect objective reality. In this view, objects do intrinsically possess properties like mass, texture, motion and wavelength reflection – but color gets constructed by our minds.

Color as both subjective and objective

While the scientific view persuasively argues that color perception arises in the mind, does this necessarily mean color is not also an inherent property of objects? Perhaps we can find a middle ground where color has both subjective and objective aspects.

We may compare this to other properties like temperature. A scientist might measure temperature based on mean kinetic energy of molecules. But we also ascribe temperature to objects themselves (“the oven is hot”). Both frameworks have validity; temperature is both objective (molecules) and subjective (experiential).

With color, while our perceptual experience is surely shaped by biology, this doesn’t preclude the possibility of colors also being intrinsic characteristics of objects, at least in some sense. While different species see different wavelengths, they often largely agree on basic colors – ripe tomatoes look red to many observers. This suggests a certain objectivity.

Non-reductive color realism

This middle path is sometimes called non-reductive color realism. It proposes that color is indeed produced by our visual systems, but is also a real property of objects. Some philosophers like John Campbell endorse this view.

One way to support it is to recognize that objects have multiple valid descriptions at different levels – physics, chemistry, materials, function, etc. Describing something as red belongs to a different descriptive framework than detailing its molecular structure. Redness is an emergent higher-order property, but still real.

Just as we don’t reduce buildings solely to atoms or temperature solely to molecules, perhaps we should not reduce red solely to light wavelengths. Higher-order color properties exist, just not at the atomic level.

Practical reality of color

Whether or not color is intrinsically real, humans certainly act as if it is in everyday life. Stop signs are red because we process red as signaling danger or importance. We describe hair and eye color to identify individuals. We choose clothing based on aesthetics and color coordination.

So at a pragmatic level, color is undoubtedly real in human society and language. Even if formed in our minds, it has major impact on our behavior and communication. Denying the reality of color would make navigating the world extremely difficult!


The debate over whether color is subjective or objective, mind-dependent or an inherent property, has raged for centuries. Modern science certainly reveals the crucial role of our visual system biology in creating color perception. Yet there are still reasonable arguments around color having intrinsic aspects too, even if not at a core physical level.

Perhaps a pluralistic perspective is needed – color is both a product of our minds and a property of objects, understandable through multiple complementary frameworks. And regardless of its metaphysical basis, color undeniably plays a vital role in human experience. Red means stop for a reason! So while the philosophers continue to debate color’s ontology, the rest of us must live in a world full of color.


Locke, J. (1689). An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.
Byrne, A., & Hilbert, D. R. (2003). Color realism and color science. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 26(1), 3-21.
Chirimuuta, M. (2015). Outside color: Perceptual science and the puzzle of color in philosophy. MIT Press.
Allen, K. (2016). A Naive Realist Theory of Colour. Oxford University Press.
Campbell, J. (1993). A simple view of colour. In Reality (pp. 257-268). MIT Press.