Philosophy Color
Berit Brogaard
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 September 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 May 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0021


The nature of the colors—what they are like, whether they are instantiated by objects or are projected by our minds, and whether their nature is revealed to us in color perception—has been one of the central topics in philosophy for centuries. Debates over the nature of the colors, as they appear in contemporary philosophical debates influenced by the Moderns, are driven by a concern to find a place for color within a scientifically respectable ontology. This entry focuses on the contemporary philosophical debates over the nature of color. Issues in the anthropology and semantics of color terms and the historical debate about colors will not be dealt with, except in passing.

General Overviews

Byrne and Hilbert 1997a outlines central debates and positions on color and color perception. Its chapters also contain a bibliography of suggested further readings and a glossary of technical terms. Byrne and Hilbert also have a non-annotated but somewhat outdated bibliography of color and philosophy online. The Byrne entry on color posted on the PhilPapers website is updated regularly, and in some cases abstracts and full texts are provided. Rubenstein 2006 has an older but accessible entry on color in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Maund 2008 provides a good overview of the philosophical literature on color, which includes a detailed discussion of objectivist versus subjectivist theories. Pautz 2009 is an accessible entry on color that includes a discussion of various philosophical theories, including color realism and eliminativism. Cohen 2009a offers a comprehensive and up-to-date overview of the different positions on color, including physicalism, eliminativism, dispositionalism, and primitivism. The first chapter of Cohen 2009b provides criticism of old taxonomies of theories of color and offers a new taxonomy, dividing the various theories into the three main categories “physicalism,” “dispositionalism,” and “primitivism.”

  • Byrne, Alex. PhilPapers: Color.

    This bibliography is updated regularly.

  • Byrne, Alex, and David R. Hilbert. Readings on Color. Vol. 1, The Philosophy of Color. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997a.

    Contains various influential articles on the philosophy of color and color perception from recent years, including papers by Smart and Armstrong defending an older form of physicalism, and Johnston and Peacocke defending dispositional theories. There are two critical papers by Boghossian and Velleman criticizing physicalist and dispositionalist theories, and one by Shoemaker on the nature of color experience. Hardin is critical of ordinary intuitions about spectrum inversions, and Byrne and Hilbert defend reflectance physicalism. See also description.

  • Byrne, Alex, and David R. Hilbert. Readings on Color. Vol. 2, The Science of Color. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997b.

    Focuses on the science of color: physiology, psychophysics, physics, evolutionary psychology, etc.

  • Byrne, Alex, and David R. Hilbert. Bibliography on Color and Philosophy.

    Provides a non-annotated bibliography, most recently updated in 2009.

  • Cohen, Jonathan. “Color.” In Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Psychology. Edited by John Symons and Paco Calvo, 36. London: Routledge, 2009a.

    Good introduction to the contemporary debate, which discusses some of the most popular views about the nature of the colors.

  • Cohen, Jonathan. The Red and the Real: An Essay on Color Ontology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009b.

    A book-length defense of color relationalism, the view that the colors are relational properties—i.e., the property of being red relative to viewing system V.

  • Maund, Barry. “Color”. In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2008.

    Encyclopedia entry with a good overview of the philosophical literature on color and a detailed clarification of the distinction between objectivist and subjectivist theories of color.

  • Pautz, Adam. “Philosophical Perspectives on Color.” In The Oxford Companion to Consciousness. Edited by Tim Bayne, Axel Cleeremans, and Patrick Wilken, 150–155. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    Accessible overview of various philosophical theories of color, including realism and eliminativism.

  • Rubenstein, Eric M. “Color.” In The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by James Fieser and Bradley Dowden. 2006.

    Accessible overview of the main theories of color.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.