Is it possible that I see color differently; for example what I call 'red' is 'blue' in your vision.


As we know the science of color, nothing is colored. Red is not "in" an apple. The surface of the apple is reflecting the wavelengths we see as red and absorbing all the rest.

Science can answer my question (with probably a ‘no’) but was wondering if there is any different answer in Philosophy. I personally do not believe this is an off topic question here but is subjective to the interpretation of the question.

As suggested in an answer below there was some significant work done by C.L. Harding in his book ‘Color for Philosophers: Unweaving the Rainbow’. Dr Harding is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy in Syracuse University. One interesting line from the book:

For years I had thought intermittently about the nature of phenomenal color and found it to be utterly opaque to my intellect. Then one day I read a passing comment in Sydney Shoemaker's " The Inverted Spectrum" concerning Bernard Harrison's claim that there are empirical grounds for supposing a spectral inversion to be impossible. This elicited from me a Hobbesian "By God, this cannot be!" and I hurried off to the library to see what scientists were saying these days about asymmetries in color perception.

There are quite a few things explained in the book but my question still remains. I really wanted to keep it very simple and let the scholars on this site explain. Let me put my question this way:

When I opened the text book about colors for the first time in my life at the age of 2, my parents pointed at a cherry and said its red but what I saw was more like what you call a blueberry. I see sky as your cherry color and you see sky as my blueberry color but we both call it blue sky. Another way of saying the same thing is my favourite color is red and yours is blue but in ‘reality’ we both have same favourite colors.

Is it possible?

  • I don't see how this is a duplicate of that question. Whether it's possible to see a color differently (while related to the subjective experience of color) could also be said to be a logical or relational question given the networks of relationships that colors enter into and the potential for realizing something is wrong from the areas where mismatches occur.
    – R. Barzell
    Commented Sep 4, 2015 at 14:16
  • This question is a setup for the famous inverted qualia argument, It is not a duplicate. meta.philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/2955/…
    – hellyale
    Commented Sep 4, 2015 at 19:32
  • okay fine, I'll reopen it. I don't see it as meaningfully distinct from the question I closed it as duplicate of, but here's a list of related questions: philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/309/… , philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/7423/… , philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/11554/… ,
    – virmaior
    Commented Sep 5, 2015 at 1:31
  • @hellyale the edit you are proposing might not be identical to the question the OP is trying to ask. I think he's asking that each looks at the light (from your example) and experiences his "Red" but that these are qualitatively different. In your text, they experience different things, 'Red' and 'Blue' (due to some confusion about the use of qualia and phenomenon in your suggested wording).
    – virmaior
    Commented Sep 5, 2015 at 1:34
  • 1
    There was a scientific study done on this a few years ago. The conclusion was that everyone sees the same colors the same way (except of course in color blindness). I unfortunately don't remember where the study was done. It had some interesting ways to prove how the conclusions were reached. Try some google searches or wiki. Commented Sep 5, 2015 at 4:16

6 Answers 6


Assuming this can be made sense of, not only is it possible, there is no conceivable way to prove otherwise at the moment, although pragmatic arguments can be given along the lines of Harding. One reason has to do with a problem called indeterminacy of translation, which applies not just to colors, but to any private "meanings" or "qualia". The meaning of words is severely underdetermined by the finitely many contexts in which a speaker encounters them, so there is no way to correlate them definitively across different speakers. This applies in particular to color red. There are plenty of ways to map color space onto a different one, while preserving all practical and linguistic uses of colors. Coherent usage of "red" by different people only indicates social adaptation in the use of language, not identity of perceptions.

Moreover, there are known individual variations in color perception that are detectable even despite the indeterminacy of translation. For example, Dalton describes his color blindness as follows:

"That part of the image which others call red appears to me little more than a shade or defect of light. After that the orange, yellow and green seem one color which descends pretty uniformly from an intense to a rare yellow, making what I should call different shades of yellow”.

So it would not be surprising if "red" does induce different "qualia" in different people (whatever that means). One way to tell might be to use a brain bridge, as in some conjoined twins, which allows direct sharing of visual input. But even then one can not be sure that perceptions do not diverge afterwards, when the shared input is processed by separate brains.

  • 1
    To my understanding the indeterminacy of translation doesn't refer to Qualia and private meanings in particular. The problem of Qualia was known before. Indeterminacy of translation (according to Quine) says that you can find more than one translation from one language to another one, and there is no way to judge which one is the correct one. Hence, it relates also to "objective" sentences like "this is a rabbit", for example, and not only to subjective sentences like "this is red".
    – Amit Hagin
    Commented Oct 3, 2016 at 6:55

The scenario you describe is sometimes referred to as the inverted spectrum problem.

One method of seeing if it is possible has been explored by C.L. Hardin and Austin Clark.

Their method notes that any particular colour can be given a detailed description in terms of its relation to other colours. When these relations are made explicit, they form an abstract structure called a colour space - a system of relations which give each colour a precise location.

This space features certain asymmetries. For example, the "warmth" of red versus the "cool" of blue; or the number of shades discriminable in red versus the number discriminable in green; etc...

Thus, if you and I were to look at an object that we both called red, but I "see" red while you "see" blue, then you would not, in theory, react as I would. I would declare experiencing the "warmth of red" while you would declare experiencing the "cool of blue". And similar differences in experience would be noted amongst the other asymmetries.

I'm not sure of the outcome of their inquiries, but I believe that we would have heard about it if they showed anything that undermined materialism.


In one sense yes, because one brings different experiences towards colour; a specific colour and texture of red, might evoke fear, say, in one person; and warmth in another; and this can be accounted for in Kants theory of mind, and his notion of the unity of apperception.

But I take it that this is not what the question is about; that it's about whether Mr Jones experiences the colour red as red, but Mrs Jones experiences it as blue; that is we concieve the mind as in Dennets phrase as a private Cartesian theatre.

In which case I'd point to the principle of continuity; in that humans are alike, and thus their capacities are all alike; (I mean alike here, in the sense that all hands are alike - though of course there are differences; but no-one is born with say a mechanical claw, say); and thus the capacity of experiencing red are all alike - this of course barring exceptions and defects like synthesia, or blindness; and this also suggestively ties in with the comment by Swami Vishwananda on experimental verification.


I would like to answer with a question — what does it even mean to see color the same as, or differently than, another person?

Ask yourself what criteria of identity can you employ in such a thought experiment?

Consider this remark from Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations:

“Another person can’t have my pains.” — My pains — what pains are they? What counts as a criterion of identity here? Consider what makes it possible in the case of physical objects to speak of “two exactly the same”: for example, to say, “This chair is not the one you saw here yesterday, but is exactly the same as it”.
In so far as it makes sense to say that my pain is the same as his, it is also possible for us both to have the same pain. (And it would also be conceivable that two people feel pain in the same — not just the corresponding — place. That might be the case with Siamese twins, for instance.)
I have seen a person in a discussion on this subject strike himself on the breast and say: “But surely another person can’t have this pain!” — The answer to this is that one does not define a criterion of identity by emphatically enunciating the word “this”. Rather, the emphasis merely creates the illusion of a case in which we are conversant with such a criterion of identity, but have to be reminded of it. (PI, §253)


Most people's interpretation of seen colours can be mapped perfectly or almost perfectly into the interpretation of other people. I cannot know exactly what you call "red" (it certainly isn't the wavelenght or the frequency), but I can be quite confident that the set of things that you say to be "red" is very similar to the set of things I say to be "red".

  • The problem is that the Wittgensteinian objection would be that even if I would perceive colours totally different from you (which I to some extend do), I would have learnt to refer to a specific perception of mine with e.g. 'violet'. As I have dyschromatopsia, I do see more of a grey-ish blue rather than a violet, but I simply know how to refer to that. This works fine for 99.9% of the cases, as a grey-ish blue looks really shitty and there is no problem for me of confusing the correct perception of grey-ish blue with my perception of violet. Btw. another Gettier-Case.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Oct 8, 2016 at 23:20

This is called subjectivity. In fact, I'm working on a book about it, soon, on ydor dot org, but you have my current book dealing a bit about it (interaction theory).

Nothing exist in nature, everything exists on the brain [George Berkeley: Esse is Percipi, Principle III of his Treatise of Human Knowledge, this line of thinking is also known as solipsism]. The universe is only atoms [Richard Feynman: "Everything is made of atoms", The Feynman Lectures on Physics, Volume I], and we create systems out of them (systems are just groups; therefore they are also groups of atoms) [Most definitions of systems use the word "group"; see System on Merriam-Webster; a tip from mine: a simple definition of a system is just "group"]. Colors are just attributes we give to systems (groups of parts) [C. L. Hardin's, Color for Philosophers].

Objectivity can be considered as an intersubjective agreement [Freeman, Eugene. 'Objectivity as an Intersubjective Agreement'], due to the fact that absolute objectivity excludes the subject. When we say "this object is red", is just an agreement of subjectivities (I may see your green and understand it as your red, and maybe I am). That is called objectivity. Complete objectivity is not really possible, we need to believe on it for surviving, but as it is not absolute (animals should also agree about colors, but many of them cannot distinguish them), it is just an agreement. A subjective agreement.

Does a tree make noise when it falls on a forest, and nobody is there to listen? Is the moon there when nobody sees it? Maybe yes, maybe light does not exist without human eyes, etc., etc.

  • 2
    Welcome to Philosophy.SE! While this answer has something to do with the question, it is not based on any sources at all and most of the statements are simply (heavily discussed!) assertions. As the answer in this Meta question says, you should clearly destinguish between your opinion and supportable views/facts that you should support with references if possible.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Oct 6, 2016 at 14:59

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