In recent days, the tremendous buzz online regarding the Color of The Dress indicates how oblivious we are to how our color perceptual system works. Granted, it is very surprising when two people looking at the same photo on the same device have different judgments on the color of the dress, even if the phenomenon can be explained.
The excitement around the issue of The Dress has drawn people’s attention to color vision, and, yet again, a strong, misinformed, linguistic relativism made its way in the media. Business Insider published a piece the title of which says it all: “No one could see the color blue until modern times”.
The article primarily rests on old 19th century literature, from Gladstone, to Geiger, and concludes with remarks pertaining to the existence of color. At least four points need to be clarified in the piece published by Business Insider.
These points can be summarised as follows:
(1) Gladstone is known for his work on Homeric texts from which a term for blue is missing, and his (false) conclusion that Greeks in ancient times must have not perceived blue. Business Insider thus concludes along with Gladstone
“It seemed the Greeks lived in murky and muddy world, devoid of color, mostly black and white and metallic, with occasional flashes of red or yellow”
What goes on in the minds of people of ancient Greece when they describe sheep as being purple, wonders the author? No one knows, of course. In search of evidence, the author refers (2) to an “experiment”, where a child was asked to name the color of the sky. Having never been told its color, she starts by saying it has no color, before saying it is white, and finally that it is blue. Another sort of evidence is taken from the work of renown color psychologist Prof. Davidoff on categorical perception. Prof. Davidoff says that in discrimination tasks people do not notice the difference between colors that they do not name differently. (3) Yet noticing is here interpreted as seeing, (4) and the article concludes by questions on the existence of color:
” So before blue became a common concept, maybe humans saw it. But it seems they didn’t know they were seeing it. If you see something yet can’t see it, does it exist?”
To answer these points:
(1′) Inferring from Gladstone’s work on Homeric lexicon showing the absence of a term for “blue”, that the color blue was not perceived is fallacious. While it may be true that we can tell how people organize their experience of colors by the way they name them, the way they name colors doesn’t say anything about how people see color. Therefore, claiming that “no one could see blue until modern times” on the basis of lexicon is simply ungrounded. It is also wrong, because we know that people in Ancient Greece and people today cannot be biologically different.
(4′) So working with the assumption that we are all wired up in the same way, do we all see color in the same way? This is a different question which has been at the heart of philosophical discussions for centuries. Color experience (like experience of flavor, odor or sound) is utterly subjective. There is no way one can access another person’s experience of a given object’s color. This object looks blue to me, it may look different to you, although you name it “blue”. In principle then, there is no way to prove that different individuals have similar color experiences of the same object. And some philosophers have concluded from this observation that colors were mind-dependent — or in a certain sense, “that they did not exist”.
Nevertheless, the problems in (1) and (4) are quite different. Claim (1) assumes that color naming gives us access to the way people see, while claim (4) is precisely about how nothing gives us access to the way people see. In the way it is framed in this article, (4) cannot be derived from (1), they are incompatible claims.
(2′) Although most researchers in color perception agree that there is no access to the way this object looks to you, what makes color perception research even thinkable is the working assumption that if people are wired up in the same way, they have to experience color roughly in the same way. In fact, The Dress episode can be seen as a kind of an involuntary experiment illustrating one of the possible outcomes of a world where people did not see colors in the same way most of the time. It also confirms that there are some specific differences among people. But we have to be careful with how we use the term “experiment”. Not telling a child the color of the sky, and asking her what color it is does not count as an experiment, and is certainly not an evidence of the fact that she does not see the sky as blue, at least for the reasons explained in (1′). Also, to put it briefly: children famously have difficulties acquiring color terms, and the child in this “experiment” might have simply not learned how to use color words, or not even understand what was meant by “color of the sky”. Not because she didn’t see color, but because she didn’t understand the abstract concept of color that adults in most parts of the world take for granted.
(3′) In the same way, what experiments tell you should also be understood and interpreted carefully. “Noticing” is not “seeing”, and there is discussion in the scientific literature as to whether in tasks such as the one conducted by Prof. Davidoff and described in Business Insider, people see the difference between two colors they name “blue” and “green” as being bigger than it objectively is, rather than simply being better at judging the difference between these colors, with the help of lexicon.
To conclude, it is true no one knows what Homer was thinking of when he described the sheep as being purple. Perhaps the description was meant to be poetic and express the purplish color of the sheep at dusk, or under a particular lighting. But one thing is fore sure: Seeing blue has nothing to do with modern times or language.