Peirce on Colour (with Reference to Wittgenstein)
Peirce on Colour (with Reference to Wittgenstein)


While Peirce and Wittgenstein are not directly linked in their discussions of ‘colour,’ this paper nevertheless suggests connections between them.

Table of contents


    In my work on colour naming with the indigenous people of North-west Coast Canada - the Kwakwaka’wakw - I found an emphasis on the sfumato of smoke, mist, sea-sky interactions, shifting in-betweeness, luminosity, flickering, brilliance, transformation and constantly changing illumination – but no notion of ‘colour.’ Requesting ‘colour terms,’ I encountered a ‘strange weave of space and time, of distance and proximity, with a form of ‘perception’ that ‘gazed back at me’ (Bratu Hansen 2008:339).

    Clearly, an ‘active vocabulary of ‘colour terms’, was not part of their world.

    In 1990, with members of the Kwakwaka’wakw, on islands, off Vancouver Island, I carried out mainstream Cognitive Science’s colour naming experiments; I applied Berlin and Kay’s (1969) experimental procedure, thereby establishing the ‘evolutionary level’ of their ‘colour naming’ tactics, namely their inability to produce ‘any ‘recognisable colour names.’ B&K concluded that this is empirical ‘evidence’ of the low evolutionary level of colorimetric mentation of the Kwakwaka’wakw. This theory (resonating with Spencer 1857 and Darwin 1871 both on evolution) propounds a universalist theory of seven evolutionary stages of ‘colour naming,’ found the world-over. Deficiencies in colour-naming in the realms of so-called ‘3rd and 4th World’ peoples, confirm their position at the lowest echelon of evolution. The Anglo-American world in contrast, ‘correctly’ names the Munsell Color Chart (a major definition of ‘colour’), thereby confirming its apical evolutionary status.

    In carrying out’ B&K ‘experiments,‘ I merely confirmed their theory – as it is, of course, circular and self-referential in all its presuppositions1. My conclusions, however, were different: I had encountered a powerful instance of 'imperialist scientism' (Dupré 2001), which reduced my own ‘empirical work’ to mere casuistry.2

    To explain this further, I turn to Peirce, and thereafter, offer fleeting comments on Wittgenstein on ‘colour,’ both giving new ground for my rejection of B&K’s work.


    ‘Colour’ for Peirce is is not deterministic, but fluid and variant, in the flux of perpetual change. He contrasts mainstream empiricism, for which ‘colour’ is sentience, with sapience (Brandom 2000 :5). Emphasising sapience, Peirce explains it as a dialectics, exploring the relation of colour to science and metaphysics, to epistemology, to the physical sciences, to a model in framing theories of value, to the development of sociocultural institutions and to intersubjective behaviour (Kevelson, 1996).

    In the realm of ‘colour,’ Peirce is concerned with the phenomenology of ideas, as possibly evolving into the actualbut not necessarily. He abandons the either/or formula of mainstream empiricism, offering a third way - later to become ‘Pragmatism.3 Peirce rejects Kant’s a prior empirical determinism, proposing that organism and environment define one another, a position later asserted by Lewontin (1995:132):

    … just as the information needed to specify an organism is not contained entirely in its genes, but also in its environment, so the environmental problems of the organism are a consequence of its genes.

    Peirce’s approach to ‘color’ is later reinforced by Dewey,4 James, Mead;5 more recently, Putnam, Brandom, and Davidson - especially the latter’s ’On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme’ (1973).6 Hacking (2002:35) too asserts:

    A concept is no more than a word or words in the sites in which it is used.7

    Similarly Peirce argues that perceptual judgment of ‘colour’ is inferred ‘abductively;’ for, in physiological terms, the same stimulus may, depending on the prevailing conditions, give rise to any number of responses.

    Amongst the indigenous peoples of North West Canada, ‘colour’ was first encountered in the C18th by the shipment of intense red-dye pigment imported by traders from China. For indigenous use, this was de-saturated and darkened. Such an instance supports Peirce’s assertion that ‘colour naming’ is no autonomous, empirical process - but a person acting abductively, acquiring further habits by chance.

    ‘Abduction’ in this sense, is the acceptance of a hypothesis, although only probational, and always fallible.8 Following Peirce, Gibson’s version of ‘abduction’ - ‘education of attention’9 - is taken-up in Anthropology by Ingold (2000: 108), stressing ‘no observation without participation.’ And contra B&K’s stasis, Ingold says: ‘movements’ and ‘interactions’ are crucial aspects of ‘habits.’

    Bourdieu’s habitus too presents a version of Peirce. In (1977:87) he says

    … if people from different backgrounds orient themselves in different ways, this is not because they are interpreting the same sensory experience in terms of alternative cultural models or cognitive schemata, but because, due to their previous bodily training, they are differentially attuned to the environment.’

    ‘Differential attuning’ of the habitus, is, as Bourdieu (1999:5; 1988:87) says, a theory of the internalisation of exteriority, and the externalisation of interiority whereby objectivity becomes rooted in unconscious experience, by means of practice.

    These theorists question the empirical notion of ‘conceptuality/categorisation’ - criticising rigid, single-track logicality (logocentrism) and its a priori empiricism. In contrast, in Anthropology, Ingold (2001:243) has posited ‘relational fields’ of which:

    … we need nothing less than a new approach to … the self-organising dynamics and form-generating potentials of relational fields.’10

    And Palsson (2007: 219) proposes ‘genome rhizomics,’ with temporary ‘splits,’ creating the fleeting and variable nature of the cultural world.

    Peirce himself sees ‘the habit-making tendency’ to be part of our response to the ‘complex things that happen to us,’ which impel us to action. Re-casting mainstream empiricism, he asserts that ‘cognition’ arises by a process of becoming - the ‘flow of action and reaction’ - as change comes to pass, in which no ‘first premises’ need be assumed. He says:

    … our very percepts or presentations are the results of cognitive elaboration (5.41).

    This infers percepts emerge from our own complexity, with no pure, unanalysable ‘visuality’ in the background. It implies the inseparability of fact and value, fact and theory and fact and interpretation. Consequently there are no first impressions of sense, no first cognitions, and no individual judgments originating a series of inferred judgments (Brandom 1998). ‘Perceptual judgment’ in the Cartesian, Kantian and Mainstream Empiricist Tradition - the ‘intuitive judgments of experience’ – is what Peirce rejects.11

    This form of argumentation resonates with Peirce’s reaction to the C19th theorist and scientist, Helmholtz, asserting that his theory of colour and the materiality of the world, is the pet petitio principii’ of our time. Peirce is scathing in his criticism of Helmholtz’s adaptation of the theory of the ‘mixture of colours’ ‘borrowed’ from Thomas Young (Kevelson 1996: 116-7).Yet, Peirce’s criticism has generally been ignored, as Helmholtz remains the Father-figure in mainstream ‘colour-science.’

    In contradistinction to Helmholtz, Peirce regards ‘percept’ and ‘perceptual judgment’ as inseparable, blurring distinctions between them. In this way his notion of the ‘intentional multiplicity of meaning’ threatens the credibility of the empirical method, and modes of systematic investigation.

    Peirce on ‘colour,’ is preludial to Einstein, who says:

    As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain they do not refer to reality’ (Feigl & Brodbeck, eds 1953).

    Peirce also counters mainstream notions of ’rigorous determination’ of the ‘sensory core,’ arguing it’s inappropriateness involves ‘the truth’ of statements, that involve ‘the truth’ of others, and so on ad infinitum. In contrast, he proposes the structuring of ‘habit,’ since the character of the sensory core is determined by the generative functioning of habit. Thus practice itself forms the ‘skill’ or ‘mastery’ of colour perception. Peirce’s arguments thereby assert ‘colour, colour naming and categorisation ’ to be socially generated historical prostheses – the production of anexosomatic organ. Thus colour has no ‘immediacy’ or pre-determined givenness, as colour science asserts, but evolves as part of a historic, dynamic, complex ‘sign-system.’

    II. Wittgenstein

    Having pursued the presentiments of Peirce on ‘colour,’ I now turn briefly to Wittgenstein.’

    Wittgenstein’s friend Frank Ramsey (Nubiolo 2009), introduced him to the work of Peirce – especially his work on sign and meaning (or token and type) - a variant terminology of ‘category.’ Ramsey refers to induction as ‘habit’ requiring no formal or logical justification, being more concerned with methods of thought, ‘its reasonableness being pragmatic’ (ibid:7). Especially in On Certainty Wittgenstein approaches Pragmatism and practical dimensions of thought along these lines. As Nubiola (2008:10) says:

    Peirce’s habits and Wittgenstein’s language games turn out to be alternative expressions for a common strategy of resisting the abstract theorising of much traditional philosophy.

    Wittgenstein confirms this with his Remarks on Colour (1977) where he itemises ‘colour-language–games’ as follows:

    4e 14 There is, after all, no commonly accepted criterion of what is a colour, unless it is one of our colours (my emphasis).

    9e I-58 The difficulties we encounter when we reflect about the nature of colours … are embedded in the indeterminateness of our concept of sameness of colour.

    26e 73 There is no such thing as the pure colour concept.’

    35e 142 The various ‘colours’ do not all have the same connexion with three-dimensional vision.

    36e 154 Can’t we imagine that people do not have our colour concepts and that they have concepts which are related to ours in such a way that we would also want to call them ‘colour concepts’?

    (59e III-32 ‘Practices give words their meaning`).

    It’s clear that both Peirce’s and Wittgenstein’s approach to ‘colour’ are complementary - they both contest the notion of eternal ‘categories.’Yet while Peirce presents a radical challenge to the ontology of colour, questioning the very notion of ‘innateness,’ Wittgenstein proposes ‘indefinability‘ but does not challenge the ontology of ‘colour,’ as Peirce does.


    Kay (1999) - and more recently on the Internet - ratifies a fecund theory of colour perception, naming, and categorisation, defined by domain-specificity, modularity and innateness. The models used, deriving from Descartes, Newton and Kant, inherited by Mainstream Cognitive Science, make ‘colour’ a highly artificial, seriously oversimplified and blatantly false situation (as the consequences of the World Color Survey (2005) show). I therefore suggest that B&K’s theory of Basic Color Terms is a scopic regime, that melds together the military, cinematic and techno-scientific logistics of perception. Thus ‘colour’ has become a diffuse mechanism with a network of permanent power, forming a new determinant of ‘Reality.’


    1. Berlin, B. & Kay, P. (1969) Basic Color Terms. Berkeley: U. California Press
    2. Bourdieu, P. (1998) Practical Reason, Polity Press: Cambridge.
    3. Bourdieu, P. (1977) Outline of a Theory of Practice, Cambridge: CUP
    4. Bratu Hansen, M. (2008) Benjamin’s Aura, Critical Inquiry vol. 34 (2): 336-375.
    5. Brandom, R. (1994) Making it Explicit: Reasoning, Representing, and Discursive Commitment, Cambridge MA.: Harvard University Press.
    6. Brandom, R. (2000)Articulating Reasons: An Introduction to Inferentialism, Cambridge MA.: Harvard University Press.
    7. Cook, R.S., P. Kay, and T. Regier (2005) Handbook of Categorisation in the Cognitive Sciences, Elsevier. Cohen, Henri and Claire Lefebvre (eds.)
    8. Daniels, H., M. Cole, and J. V. Wertsch, eds. (2007) Cambridge Companion to Vygotsky. Cambridge: CUP
    9. Darwin, C (1859) On the Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection.
    10. Darwin, C. (1871) The Descent of Man.
    11. Davidson, D. (1973-4) On the very idea of a conceptual scheme, Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, vol 45, pp. 5-20.
    12. Dupré, J. (2001) ) Human Nature and the Limits of Science, Oxford: OUP.
    13. Feigl, H. and M. Brodbeck, eds (1953) Readings in the Philosophy of Science. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
    14. Gibson, J. J. (1988) The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, in James J. Gibson and the Psychology of Perception, ed E. J. Reed, Yale UP, pp 279-295.
    15. Gibson, J.J. (1979) The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
    16. Hacking, I. (2002) Historical Ontology Harvard: HP.
    17. Hadot, P. (2006) The Veil of Isis. An Essay on the History of the Idea of Nature trans. by M. Chase , The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press: Cambridge Mass.
    18. Heelan, P. and J. Schulkin (1998) Hermeneutical Philosophy and Pragmatism: A Philosophy of Science Synthese , Vol. 115, No 3, 1998 , pp. 269-302.
    19. Heller-Roazen, D. (2007) The Inner Touch. Archaeology of Sensation, MIT Press.
    20. Ingold, T. (2001) Evolving Skills, in Alas Poor Darwin. Arguments against Evolutionary Psychology, ed. Rose, H. and S. Rose, Vintage: London, pp. 225-246.
    21. Ingold, T. (2000) The Perception of the Environment. Essays in Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill, Routledge: London/New York.
    22. James, W. (1890) The Principles of Psychology, Vols I and II, Dover (1950).
    23. Kay, P. (1999) ‘Color Categorization’ in R.A. Wilson and F.C. Keil (eds) The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences.
    24. Kay, P. (1999a) Color, in Journal of Linguistic Anthropology ed. A. Duranti, (ed) Language Matters in Anthropology: A Lexicon for the New Millennium, a special issue of the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology vol. 9 (1-2).pp. 32-35.
    25. Kevelson, R. (1996) Peirce, Science, Signs, Peter Lang: New York, Washington.
    26. Kevelson, R. (1987) Charles S. Peirce’s Method of Methods, Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
    27. Lewontin, R. (1975) Genes , Environment and Organisms’ in R.B. Silvers (ed.) Hidden Histories of Science, New York: New York Review Books.
    28. Mead, G.H. (1934) Mind, Self, and Society, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
    29. Misak, C. (ed) (2004) Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914. The Cambridge Companion to Peirce, Cambridge CUP.
    30. Nubiola, J. (1996) Scholarshio on the Relations Between Ludwig Wittgenstein and Charles S. Peirce, in Proceedings of the III Symposium on History of Logic, Gruyter, Berlin.
    31. Peirce, C. P. (1868) On a New List of Categories, Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, pp. 287-298 (commented on by Nabiola (
    32. Peirce, C. P. (1886) The Logic of Relatives: Qualitative and Quantitative, ms 584.
    33. Palsson, G. (2007) Anthropology and the New Genetics, Cambridge: CUP.
    34. Putnam, H. (2000) Pragmatism. An Open Question, Blackwell: Oxford U.K., Cambridge USA.
    35. Rabinow, P. (2004) Assembling Ethics in an Ecology of Ignorance, First Conference on Synthetic Biology, 10-12 June, MIT.
    36. Reed, E. S. (1988) James J. Gibson and the Psychology of Perception, Yale UP: New
    37. Rosenthal, S. (2004) Peirce’s Pragmatic Account of Perception in Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) ed. Cheryl Misak, Cambridge Companions to Philosophy, ch. 8.
    38. Spencer, H. (1857) Progress: Its Law and Causes, The Westminster Review, Vol. 67 (April 1857), pp 445-447, 451, 454-456, 464-65.
    39. Vygotsky, L. (1934/1962) Thought and Language., MIT Press.
    40. Wierzbicka, A. (2008) Why there are no ‘colour universals’ in language and thought, JRAI (N.S.) 14: 407-425.
    41. Wittgenstein, L. (1977) Remarks on Colour, ed. G.Anscombe, Oxford: Blackwell.
    42. Wittgenstein, L.(1969-75) On Certainty ed. G.E.M. Anscomb and G.H.Wright. Blackwell: Oxford U.P.
    Knowledge of ‘facts’ preupposes knowledge of interpretations. Knowledge of interpretations presuposses knowledge of facts. (Putnam 2000 (1995):18).
    ‘Casuistry’ – clever but false reasoning.
    See also Vygotsky and Husserl.
    Vygotsky was possibly influenced by Boas via their joint colleague Dewey at New York University.
    James (1890/1950:104-127) on Habit. Also Lewis (1883-1964) in Rosenthal (2007:75)
    ‘Conceptual schemes … are systems of categories that give form to the data of sensation … (Davidson1984:183-198))
    Peirce too (in 1886) claims ‘My language is the sum total of myself.’
    Its ‘major principles’ being perspectives of theory as ‘explanation,’ and praxis as ‘culture’ (Heelan and Schulkin 1998). It is a basic insight that Pragmatism can be both fallibilistic and anti-sceptical (Putnam 2000:21).
    For Gibson, this is inseparable from a person’s life in the world. He rejects mechanical and mental causality, treating perception as a unified functional activity of observers (Reed 1988:3).
    Rabinow (2004: 9) ‘even ‘ethics is a question of power and rhetorical skills.’
    Cf. Gibson’s ‘ecological optics’ (Reed 1988:241).
    Barbara Saunders. Date: XML TEI markup by WAB (Rune J. Falch, Heinz W. Krüger, Alois Pichler, Deirdre C.P. Smith) 2011-13. Last change 18.12.2013.
    This page is made available under the Creative Commons General Public License "Attribution, Non-Commercial, Share-Alike", version 3.0 (CCPL BY-NC-SA)


    • There are currently no refbacks.