PHIL 467W Seminar II: The Philosophy and Science of Colour Vision

Summer Semester 2011 | DAY


INSTRUCTOR: Kathleen Akins, WMC 4614


  • We will be using electronic articles where possible, plus photo-copies of articles that are available only in paper form. A nice text of philosophical articles (although now a bit dated) is the Byrne and Hilbert, Readings on Colour , vol. I (MIT Press), which will be available as suggested reading only.


Although the topic of colour may seem like a highly specialized and narrow topic, the debate around colour is a microcosm of contemporary debates in epistemology, metaphysics and the philosophy of science. For example, if you have ever read an article on consciousness, and the author wishes to introduce the notion of “qualia”, the first example any philosopher gives of a pure sensation, “a purely subjective mental state”, a phenomenal feel, etc., is colour — “the very blue of the Adriatic” and so on. Similarly, colour is the example of choice for many debates about objectivity versus subjectivity, our epistemic access to mental states of others, the limits of scientific reduction, the nature of intentionality (i.e. colour states are prototypical examples of non-intentional states), and the reality of dispositional properties. Now, add to the current philosophical debates an immense body of scientific research on the colour vision that is both surprising and puzzling—because colour vision is, if nothing else, a truly strange and unexpected sensory capacity. What one gets is a very rich philosophical problem, tied to a body of intriguing scientific research—i. e. a very nice test case for many debates in philosophy as well as a rich body of scientific data against which to test one’s philosophical theories.
This course will NOT be a survey course through a great swath of colour literature, scientific and a philosophical. Rather we are going to start with a quick historical-to-contemporary survey of philosophical views about the nature of colour and colour experience, to set up the background landscape. The focus of the class will be the presentation of a new theory of colour, “spectral theory”. This is the topic of a series of papers, written by myself, and co-authored with Martin Hahn and Lyle Crawford. Presenting this view will necessitate an introduction to the basics of colour vision science that will be presented at a level appropriate to any student who has a rough understanding of physiology of mammalian vision. (If you are science adverse, this is probably not the class for you. But students are not expected to have an extensive background in the neuroscience of vision.) In other words, the seminar will be an idiosyncratic path through a large literature, but by the end of it, students should be well-prepared to investigate other views/research about colour for themselves.


  • Class Requirements. This class will be conducted as a seminar, with the assumption that students will be prepared to discuss the weekly readings. In fact, in my view, understanding the weekly readings is the greatest challenge of an upper level undergraduate/graduate seminar.
    I.  To facilitate understanding of the readings, students will be given about 3-4 questions with each week’s readings that they should use to guide their reading. All students—even very, very shy students—must be prepared to answer these questions in class (although each student will be allowed to say “pass” a certain number of times, given that I don’t expect you to be prepared every single class.) Class participation: 20%
    II.  To foster group research skills, students, in groups of about 3 will present to the class their findings on a research question chosen from a set list of topics. 30%.
    III.  Final Project. 50%.