Notes from the underground
barang dot sg
Updated 2 December 2023
desktop view
About this site

A philosophy site by Mark in Malaysia.

My real interest is the mind-body problem and I’m gradually trying to figure out what I want to say about this.

Meanwhile, here’s some other stuff that I’ve found to be more tractable over the years, hard as they are in themselves.

Wittgenstein’s grave in Cambridge receives more than a hundred visitors every year, not that there’s a contest.
Rememberably, I used to teach logic and philosophy in a local university, but I now enjoy messing with this site and trying to figure stuff out. There is too much of it. Apart from mind and body, there is probability, and colour, and causation, and time, and existence, and money, and people, and power, and counterfactual conditionals, and why the packet nasi lemak nowadays got no timun. Why?

I discovered philosophy when I was twenty-one and never looked back. Duck finally found water and I cannot even begin to describe what the subject did for me. If you’re looking for a good introduction to the subject, this one did something for me.

I also had many reliable teachers at all levels to whom I am very grateful. I hope that some people will find this site useful in return.
“Is red” and “Looks red”

There is a neat little puzzle about the everyday phrases ‘is red’ and ‘looks red’ that is easy to state but not so easy to resolve. (The colour red is incidental – any other colour would do.)

Consider the phrase ‘looks red.’ When we say that something looks red, we mean (presumably) that the thing in question looks as if it is red. If so, then to grasp what it is for something to look red, one must already grasp what it is for something to be red – talk of something’s looking red is parasitic on talk of its being red.

From this point of view, the concept of being red seems to be logically prior to the concept of looking red.

But now consider the phrase ‘is red.’ When we say that something is red, we seem at bottom to be saying something about how that thing would look (to normal people, under normal lighting conditions). This is because a colour term like ‘red’ is essentially an observational term: the criterion for whether an object is red is ultimately whether it (normally) looks a certain way – “looks red,” essentially.

From this point of view, talk of something’s being red is parasitic on talk of its looking red and the concept of looking red now appears to be the logically prior one.

Which is really logically prior – ‘is red’ or ‘looks red’?

A pioneering, early discussion of this puzzle occurs in Wilfrid Sellars’s 1956 essay, ‘Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind.’ There, Sellars upheld that ‘is red’ was the logically prior notion and essentially endorsed the first line of thought above.

As for the opposing (second) line of thought, Sellars conceded that red things are pretty much bound to look red (under normal conditions) but “accounted” for this by suggesting that it was only because “normal conditions” just means conditions under which things look as they do.

This cuts a long story short – the full discussion is in sections 12 to 20 of Sellars’s essay. All the same, I don’t seem to find Sellars’s resolution of the puzzle very satisfying. I don’t really “get it” to be honest – there was no eureka moment, unfortunately. So what if “normal conditions” just means conditions under which things look as they do? This doesn’t explain the conceptual connection we instinctively discern between something’s being red and its looking red. After all, round things look round (to normal people, under normal conditions) as well, but nobody would suggest that when we speak of something being round, we are essentially speaking of how it would look (to normal people, under normal conditions). The criterion for something to be round makes no essential reference to how the thing in question looks – unlike with the case of a red thing.

So something seems to be missing from Sellars’s “resolution,” though I’m not sure what, but he doesn’t seem to satisfactorily address the second line of thought above.

A number of other philosophers have offered somewhat different resolutions of this same puzzle, e.g., Christopher Peacocke in ‘Colour Concepts and Colour Experience’ (1984) and Frank Jackson in ‘Colour for Repesentationalists’ (2007), not to mention various others that I’m discovering by the day.

Another paper I’d like to read is Barry Stroud’s ‘Dispositional Theories of the Colours of Things’ (2007). But look how much the horse entity Springer would charge me for it:

40 US dollars to read Barry Stroud’s thoughts on whether looking red is prior to being red? Which moon are you from? Buy now, it seems. Barry Stroud would give this stuff away for free.

Never mind. When I get to proper grips with the puzzle, I’ll write something up and explain what I think. The puzzle lies at the intersection of the problems of consciousness and colour and is particularly interesting for that reason.

Different people have different ideas of what philosophy is. To my mind, the above is a paradigm example of a “philosophical” problem – and a very nice one too!

[January 2016]

Older entry