I've always been of the view that color is essentially a human representation. That is, the production of the sensation of color is done in the brain and the particular wavelengths of light have little to do with the color sensation beyond keeping them consistent (so, the same ones map to the same colors). In that view, I even believed orange light could be seen as purple light if you had a different brain structure.

But now I wonder, if there is actually color "out there"? Are purple objects actually purple to the point that any organism that ever ends up perceiving the world through vision will have to see purple? Sure, an object may look different to a colorblind person or to people who pick up UV wavelengths, but that is a 'vertical' difference in the quality with which one views the object.

  • Is color fundamentally different than shape in this regard? Do people who think that color is in the eye of the beholder also feel the same way about shape? Or do people think that color is subjective but shape objective? Aug 18 '13 at 15:59
  • This topic is raised in this short video, made by Vsauce, Is Your Red The Same As My Red? It goes into quite a lot of detail, answering this exact question as well as the other questions raised around this topic. I hope this helps! Aug 19 '13 at 13:29

10 Answers 10


Colour is not an intrinsic property of an object because it is a function of the method by which it is examined. Colour happens because certain objects absorb a certain portion of the visual spectrum of light and reflects others. It would be more accurate to say that the method by which colour is absorbed and refracted by the object is an intrinsic property.

I lack the vocabulary to express myself better, but in terms of sound, an object's sound isn't an intrinsic property, but its resonance frequency is.

  • Ah, well that is is more-or-less what I meant. I suppose it would be more accurate to say that color is an intrinsic property of the frequency of light. Thinking about light was actually what inspired my thought. We say that black is a color but it is the absence of almost all visible light. How could black be perceived in any other way than how humans do? (unless it has some black body radiation you can pick up) Jul 1 '13 at 17:48
  • @anonymousanonymous: Have a look at Impossible Colours: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impossible_color Black is not technically a colour, it's a shade. Everything above absolute zero has black body radiation, though it may get lost in the 'noise' of brighter things. See 'Could color be a fundamental thing about the universe?' philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/73253/…
    – CriglCragl
    Sep 2 at 23:24

Short answer, no.

First of all, I would distinguish at least three parts: the interpretation of color by the brain, how can we assign a color to light and how that light is emmited by objects. I'll briefly comment the first one and concentrate on the rest.

Color interpretation clearly depends on the observer: I don't even know whether we see the same colors, some animals have more primary colors and other spectrum range, etc. The rest of the answers explain this quite well.

Let's go to the physical aspects and some common misconceptions:

  • Color is usually associated to a particular wavelength of light, (it would be more correct to say frecuency because it's what the eye detects), but this is not completely accurate:

  • Magenta, for instance, doesn't correspond to any wavelength. This is because we detect color magenta when both green and violet are "mixed" in the eye.

  • Black color is the absence of visible light, so it's also a color without a frecuency.

Moreover, color doesn't depend only on the wavelength but on intensity too. Orange-yellow at low intensities will be detected as brown.

If we consider how "colored" light is emmited by an object before it reaches our eyes there are several possible ways.

When they don't emmit light by themselves:

Since color also depends on what light you illuminate the object with, we can't say that X has color Y unless we say how we iluminate it. It's a convention to use white light (blackbodyt at 6500K). But light's intensity is not specified, although it's modifies the color we see (if you use too much light you'll see it completely white).

It's important to say that not always an object absorb some frecuencies and reflect others. There is an important phenomenom, iridiscence which is a combination of interference and diffraction. In this case the color depends on the angle (like CD's and butterfly wings).

Opaque materials may reflect light in the same angle it hits, it is the case of mirrors. Since "perfect" mirrors reflects all frecuencies, so a mirror is white (because we are using white light).

We could say that "perfect" transparent materials have no color at all or that they are white. But in most cases there is some color due to scattering and partial reflection, which causes interference. This will also depend on how much material we have, small volume of air is colorless but the atmosphere is blue.

When they emmit light by themselves:

This depends on the temperature (blackbody radiation), chemical reactions, electric currents, etc. So in this cases color will also depend on time.

Other problems would arise for single particles, like electrons (we could associate some color using Compton's scattering)...

There are many more subtleties, but I'd say we can conclude that color is not a fundamental property of objects, only an useful characteristic in some cases.

Note: I think I use too many parentheses.


Colour is both intrinsic to an object & extrinsic to it.

It is intrinsic to it simply because when you look at a purple cabbage the colour purple inheres in that cabbage. One might call this disparagingly the common-sense view. Nagarjuna, the Buddhist philosopher would call it the conventional view or reality.

Starting with Aristotle attributes of an object were distinguished - primary & secondary. Colour is a secondary characteristic & mass for example is primary. This is all really about the theory of substance starting from Aristotle but going back to the line of investigation started by Milisian materialists as how to account for change & stability.

Colour is a secondary characteristic because when I boil a cabbage the colour leaks away, but the mass of cabbage remains - it is primary; or when I view through blue glass the colour changes but the mass again remains the same.

(Arguably, the very nomenclature here priviliges the discourse of no-change of Parmenides, for Heraclitus one could speculate would have the named them oppositely; change being primary, and no-change secondary).

In modern science, the idea of colour is fractured. It is the response of the colour cones in the retina of your eye that stimulates your colour response. Or perhaps its that particular frequency of light that enters your eye. But that particular frequency of light has been modified by being reflected & scattered from the surface of the purple cabbage. Finally, when you dream or hallucinate of purple cabbage are your colour cones being stimulated? Is then not colour your own mental response?

Science examines the mechanism of colour, and mechanisms have many parts. Where you focus your examination biases ones view as to it being intrinsic or extrinsic.

Is colour is a priori? Although we are primed to experience colour we cannot experience colour or know of it until we know of the world. In this sense again colour appears to be a secondary phenomena. Kant I suppose would call this an empirical concept of the understanding in its objective sense and possibly a priori synthetic in the intuitive faculty.

  • I see your point about color being a dual aspect. Nonetheless, do you think it is conceivable that another human with regular human eyes might see green where others see orange because of different processing in the brain? Jul 1 '13 at 18:18
  • yes, that is possible. Jul 1 '13 at 19:48
  • Well, mass may also vary when temperature is increased, like in a box with photons.
    – jinawee
    Jul 3 '13 at 0:17

Is color actually intrinsic to the object?

The question hinges on whether color is a product of the mind or an inherent property of objects. Another way to look at this question is whether blue must be blue for all people, or whether the perception of that particular color is assigned by the mind. For example, someone has learned to associate the word "blue" with what his mind sees as green, and so he calls the sky "blue", because for him the color green has the name "blue." This extends to all areas of the physical reality, where the outside world we perceive is merely a representation of what is impressed upon the senses.

Why will never be known if the colors and forms experienced perfectly match between person to person? Color is representation, cannot to be intrinsic to object. Can we select one among perceptual variants that should be regarded as veridically representing the color of the object? There are analogies. Magnetoception is a sense which allows many animals to detect a magnetic field to perceive direction, altitude or location. How pigeons represent magnetic fields is not intrinsic to magnetic fields. We cannot know how does it feel to bees to see UV wavelengths representation and bat feel echolocation representation. Instead of a reductive physicalist account of color what we can do is to define in behavioral functional ways, comparative studies, so that it applies to honey bees, humans, pigeons, and so on.

The question is akin with “Is there a world independent of human beliefs and representations? Is such a world empirically accessible, or would such a world be forever beyond the bounds of human sense and hence unknowable? Can human activity and agency change the objective structure of the world?”

The question presupposes that it makes sense without a reference framework. If there are no mind independent properties that satisfy the requirements for being color, how did the ordinary concept develop? Through practical results of equivalence of representations.

Some paraphrases from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Wikipedia

  • Well that is actually almost exactly what I'm talking about. The idea that colors might vary in different conditions, most prominently, among different perceivers. But I wonder if this variation is not entirely arbitrary. I would like to make the analogy to linear algebra here. If you try to represent a vector in a higher dimensional space with an orthogonal basis for a lower dimensional space, you will get an incomplete answer. But you also get the best possible answer given your limitations. So that there is no other vector that better approximates the higher dimensional vector. Jul 1 '13 at 18:10
  • So I might say the "true" color of the object is that higher dimensional vector and our limited perception of it in the visible spectrum is the best approximation we can get. So when we see something as red, we might not be perceiving the fullness of its color across all spectra, but what we see is not a convenient human illusion, it is the way the thing appears in the visible spectrum. Jul 1 '13 at 18:11
  • There is a difference between to be not an illusion and to be intrinsic to the object.The problem is that no satisfactory account as been provided of a viable naturalistic account of how visual experiences carry representational content. We have the problem of saying what exactly it is for something to be blue correspond to any objective properties that are independent of perceivers. A best possible answer is best for what? What is veridical, what mental reconstruction? Jul 1 '13 at 19:15
  • I changed the answer. Jul 2 '13 at 12:47

if the object(solute) is in a "vacuum" the energy of the wave form that resonates in the visible spectrum is intrinsic or a brute fact . The light must travel through a medium as well as refract through the object or reflect off of the object so will be modified by the RI of the medium (see metamerism)http://www.colormatters.com/.

If an object and light that resonates has influence of the energy of other substances ie medium,solvent sphere and free solvent the the Light spectrum which resonates reflect the modified energy interactions. The solution has an intrinsic colour.

The receptor in nature of a viable organism for colour is intrinsic in response, it fires or it doesn't whether a rod(colour) or a cone(shade).

The agreement of the label for the response is cultural and intrinsic to the culture in a given time frame, but can be modified after new experience by concensus inter-within the culture and intra - with the another culture. I think the label by consensual agreement(ie is blue) is called a predicate.

The object is not in a vacuum so it contributes to the perception of the color.

  • What do you mean by resonate.
    – jinawee
    Aug 12 '18 at 18:04

Is color actually intrinsic to the object?

  1. For Timothy H. Goldsmith ( http://www.ler.esalq.usp.br/aulas/lce1302/visao_aves.pdf ): It is true, as many youngsters learn in school, that objects absorb some wavelengths of light and reflect the rest and that the colors we perceive “in” objects relate to the wavelengths of the reflected light. But color is not actually a property of light or of objects that reflect light. It is a sensation that arises within the brain.
  2. Tommy Edison, who has been blind since birth, talks about describing colors to blind people: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=59YN8_lg6-U "So, being blind since birth, I've never seen color. I don't have any concept of what it is. I mean, I've never seen anything. But there's this whole part of vocabulary, of language that doesn't mean anything to me...."
  3. The correlation between wavelength and perceived color is imperfect. Similar perceptions of color can be associated with various mixtures of light of different wavelengths and intensities. There is no conceptual connection, no passage, between a wavelength and what it is like to experience redness or blueness.
  4. Chromesthesia or sound-to-color synesthesia is a type of synesthesia in which heard sounds stimuli automatically and involuntarily evoke an experience of color.
  5. Benham's Disk - Color Illusion: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9_0Z4Bi3JQo

So, color as first person experience is not "something": neither an object, nor a property, nor even a phenomenon. But color is not nothing!

  • I made some edits mainly for formatting the numbered list. You may roll these back or continue editing if you choose. Welcome. +1 Aug 12 '18 at 13:13

Color is part of the electromagnetic spectrum between uv and infra red. It can be detected by a spectrophotometer as absorbance at a particular wavelength or by a diffuse reflection sphere which discovers which wavelength is not reflected off the particle. Two ways of seeing. The detection is through resonance. You can also resonate the corresponding magnetic spectrum. If the particle has no wave properties ie is a perfectly elastic particle, It has no color to detect as resonance cannot occur. So color is intrinsic to the object and can be measured objectively. The naming of the colour as red or orange depends on the human beings experience of colour and social learning. Perception of colour changes with physical conditions,and aging of receptors, then we have the shade factor ie the black or white background perceived, in color science the colour is Described by a colorimeter machine as "Lab" coordinates in a 3 dimensional sphere see http://www.konicaminolta.com/instruments/knowledge/color/part3/01.html mind you I haven't used one in the visible spectrum for ages i last used it in UV properties measurement of sunscreendepending on whether it was an absorber or a reflector(stealth/invisible)micronised TiO2 or ZnO2. A red apple belongs to the domain red and the domain apple. I coloured listick and red was orange-red, true red or blue-red. Colour is an effect of the resonance structure of the organic molecule ie the higher the conjugation the colour shifts from yellow through red-blue. in coorditation chemistry it depends on the solvent and the ligands. Some colours change depending on the pH ie indicators. fascinating really. Some colourants have uv energy fade them ie tumeric and paprika are not light stable. Gems are different depending on the element doped into the structure. If the solvent structure is disturbed by microwaves the colour of the solution changes. Then we have depth of color, I had to match the colour at different dimension containers or different emulsions. Is it orange because I have used an orange dye or because I have blended a red and a yellow dye?

Is colour a property, a perception or a concept? Is "intrinsic" a property or an evaluation? If colour is a concept it must be agreed upon. The perception is intrinsic to the person.The detection reflects the medium and object unless the extinction coefficient for the medium is known.

  • 1
    This really does need editing.
    – iphigenie
    Aug 18 '13 at 16:06

I am surprised nobody has yet explicitly mentioned the inverted spectrum scenario, where my phenomenal experience of blue is the same as your phenomenal experience of green and yet we will never know because we still call the same things in the world blue. Even if we observe exactly the same light and neither of us is color blind, for all we know this could happen because for some reason our brains represent the input from our eyes differently. In a more extreme version of the scenario still, we might imagine this somehow happening even when our neural representations are exactly the same! Is that possible at all, and in what sense of possibility? Even this we do not know how to answer decisively, because we still don't understand how the brain can generate qualia. (Of course, if we assume qualia are deterministically generated by neural representations, then this would not be possible.)


How could color be a property of an object? Physical objects reflect certain lightwaves under certain conditions. If the conditions change the color of the objects change. Which color is the objects real intrinsic color? The one under white light at 12 noon or the one under a cloudy sky? What if it gets dark. Is the object loosing its color? What about the blue lagoon does the water have color and if you separate the water from the lagoon it looses its color?

Actually the formulas of the standard model of particle physics do not contain anything describing color experiences. Concerning visual properties they only have values describing waves and frequencies.

Actually it would be absurd to immagine the light transporting the color itself through the air to our eyes. The light would not be transparent. The light still has no color when it contacts the eyes.

These lightwave correspond to the color experience in sentient beings depending on the sense apparatus they have. So this must work properly otherwise there is no or an altered color experienced by that being.

But the inputs still do not generate color. Actually our brains generate color, form, movement etc. Although we now know which brain regions activate in certain situations, we have no idea how the subjective perception is generated in the end. We do not know how the inner movie comes about at all. We don't even have candidate theory, nothing.

We do not see through our eyes like windows into an outside world, although conventionally it feels that way. Actually we see a world generated by our brains depending on the reflective properties of the object, the surounding light conditions, our physical bodies and even our culture. E.g. some societies still exist, which do not have a word for blue, just like the ancient greeks at the time of Homer did not know the color blue as a concept. People of these societies describe a blue dot as kind of dirty green.

Why do we all see the same color on the same objects? Because as a member of the same species the rules how we generate these images under similar conditions are roughly the same. Other animals see the same objects in more or less different ways. They might have a larger spectrum of visible light, or they might process it completely different and see a different image of the world. And who is justified to say that our image is the real one?

The perception is not an illusion. There is someting out there which generates the conditions for seeing. If you step in front of a bus it will still push your particles around even if you dont see the bus. It just does not necessarily look like we perceive it.

Perception is now often compared to a computer desktop. It hides the complex reality from you by showing intuitive symbols. The representation is more or less arbitrarily shaped by evolution to help you survive and manipulate the world, but it does not show reality as it is, even though it is related to some property of this hidden world.

If you think it through it could be that our minds exist in a dark, wet and silent skull or body which itself exists in an dark, silent and cold universe and color, sound, taste, smell and body sensation is an experience made from physical objects comming into contact with our consciousness. There would be no intrinsic color, no intrinsic sweetness, no intrinsic sound, and less likely there would be intrinsic pleasantness, cuteness or sexyness of anything in the outside world. Just wavefunctions comming in contact with your senses.


In the mid 1800's Sir Isaac Newton penned that the relationship between wavelength and color is arbitrary. There is nothing intrinsically blue about light with a short wavelength. This has been confirmed by the discovery of the exact location in the brain where color is created. Perception occurs in the brain as a result of physical waves or particles which are captured by our sense organs and converted into electrical impulses. These electrical impulsed travel along our nerves to various centers of the brain such as the visual and auditory centers where they are converted into images and sounds.

That being said, when we see an object, for example an orange, we are actually seeing a visual representation which exists only in our head. Although the orange in reality has no objective color, the image we perceive does not exist in reality. It exists in our head and that orange does have color. We can only ever presume to know what really exists out there beyond our perceptions.

  • 1
    While the content may be correct to some extend (the problem of emergence of color between the scientific and the manifest world à la Sellars), I think this answer is severely oversimplifying (in what sense are objects existing in our heads??!) and lacks any reference. This turns it from "could be quite good" to "is bad".
    – Philip Klöcking
    Feb 16 '16 at 12:24
  • What you see is a visual representation of what exists in reality. Some things we see exist in reality, for example trees, mountains, the sun, etc. But some things exist only in our perception, for example, shadows, reflections, rainbows and colors. Do not confuse them with imaginary things such as hallucinations though as they are the result of physical phenomena. Feb 20 '16 at 17:38

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