The Quest for Reality. By BARRY STROUD. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Pp. xv + 228. Price 19.99.)

The goal of ‘the quest for reality’ is to discover ‘what the world is really like, or how things really are’ (p. 3). This stimulating and thoughtful book is devoted to the particular case of colour.
Stroud begins by trying to clarify the quest’s ‘philosophical’ character: ‘Philosophical questions about reality can look and sound exactly like familiar ordinary or scientific questions about reality...But the two must be distinguished, however difficult it is to say what the difference is’ (p. 4). So the ‘everyday’ question ‘Are lemons yellow?’ is apparently to be distinguished from the ‘philosophical’ question that is ‘expressed in the very same words’ (p. 4). But surely the ‘philosophical’ question, ‘Are lemons yellow?’, is the ‘everyday’ question–and many passages in the book just don’t make sense if the questions are different. The fact that they are the same question is the reason that ‘philosophical’ theories of colour are interesting. The difference between asking whether lemons are yellow in everyday life as opposed to the seminar room is not in the question asked, but in the acceptable ways of answering it. In everyday life, examining a lemon in good light is sufficient. In the seminar room, where we wonder whether our perceptions of colour are ever veridical, it isn’t.
There are two central strands of argument. Stroud tries to show, first, that colours are not ‘secondary qualities’ and, second, that the error theory–the view that no material objects are colored–involves a kind of incoherence. He clearly thinks that these two positions are importantly alike: the claim that the colors are ‘unreal or "subjective"’ (p. 60) is repeatedly contrasted with some sort of ‘objective’ or primary quality view. Although historically motivated, this is an odd way of dividing the contemporary territory. The primary and secondary quality theorists agree that lemons are yellow, which the error theorist denies. Further, although an error theorist might hold that colours are somehow ‘subjective’ (she might think they are properties of sense-data), she doesn’t have to. More fundamentally, the secondary quality theory does not imply that colours are in any philosophically interesting sense less than fully ‘real’. Let it be granted that colours are constitutively connected to minds, and that shapes aren’t. Let it even be granted that objects are not coloured in worlds with no minds. This doesn’t show that colours enjoy a kind of second-class ontological status. Mental properties are trivially ‘subjective’ or ‘not independent of us’, but are not thereby less qualified to be part of reality. Why is it any different with colour?
The first strand of argument–against the secondary quality theory–has some peculiarities. Take, for example, Stroud’s distinction between two versions of the view that yellow is the disposition to produce a ‘perception of a certain property or thing’ (p. 114). Either ‘the "objects" of these perceptions are the same properties that can also be ascribed in thought and belief to physical objects’, or else ‘they are not perceptions of the same properties that it is intelligible to think of physical objects as having’ (p. 116). According to this second ‘indirect’ view, ‘in thinking that physical objects are coloured, the properties we ascribe to those objects are not the properties we see when we see colours’ (p. 117). According to Stroud, a proponent of the ‘indirect’ view has to embrace the implausible position that ‘yellow’ in ‘Jones sees yellow’ means something different from its occurrence in ‘Jones sees a lemon to be yellow’ (pp. 103-17). Specifically, the first occurrence picks out the ‘perceived property’ that physical objects cannot have, and the second occurrence picks out the disposition that physical objects can have. However, it is quite unclear why the ‘indirect’ theorist must agree. Offhand, she could suppose that ordinary talk completely ignores these ‘perceived properties’ that physical objects cannot have. And in any case the source of the ‘indirect’ view is a bit of a mystery. Stroud seems to have Peacocke in mind (see p. 119. and p. 162, fn. 9), but Peacocke himself would not characterize his position in these unfriendly terms.
In his examination of the error theory, Stroud considers at length the traditional argument that objects have no colours because colour properties are not required to explain our perceptions–only physical properties are. One response is simply to claim that colours are physical properties. A rather striking lacuna in Stroud’s book is the omission of this view–at any rate in its contemporary versions (see, for example, David Hilbert, Color and Color Perception, CSLI, Stanford, 1987; and Frank Jackson, ‘The Primary Quality View of Color’, Philosophical Perspectives 10, 199-219, 1996). Perhaps he thinks it obviously false, or unintelligible, but we aren’t told. Anyway, Stroud does make the excellent point that the argument’s proponent must have found, somehow, a place in reality for our perceptions of colour, for these are the things that are supposed to be explained (p. 80). Stroud links this point with his master argument against the error theory.
The master argument tries to show that ‘it [is] a necessary condition of our acknowledging the presence in the world of perceptions of and beliefs about the colours of things that we believe that some objects are coloured’ (p. 157). If correct, this is an astonishingly strong result. It would show that error theorists who were not also eliminativists about color-psychology have an unstable position: one could not rationally maintain that people have colour perceptions and beliefs without affirming that some objects are coloured. Stroud does not pretend to offer a ‘conclusive proof’ (p. 157), but does think he has ‘a very strong case’ (p. 149). The argument, as Stroud says, is Davidson-inspired. The basic claim is that if I am to interpret another as having a perception of yellow or as believing that lemons are yellow, I cannot ‘identify the property in question’ (p. 158) unless I myself believe that some (material) objects are (were?) yellow. The colour realist can ‘identify the property’ thus: ‘I know what perceptions of yellow are because I know what yellow is. It is the colour of yellow objects. I believe that many objects are yellow’ (p. 160). But if this is deemed adequate, I do not see why the error theorist cannot ‘identify the property’ in a similar fashion: ‘I know what perceptions of yellow are because I know what yellow is. It is the colour that lemons appear to have. By the way, I do not believe that any objects are yellow’.
Suppose, though, that Stroud is right: colours are not secondary qualities, and the error theory is incoherent in the way explained. One might think the quest for reality has ended in a pretty satisfactory fashion: the most promising way of being a colour ‘subjectivist’ doesn’t work, and there is no good argument against the testimony of our senses that objects are coloured. Colours, we may fairly conclude, are ‘real’ and ‘objective’. Anyone familiar with Stroud’s work on scepticism will doubt that matters could be this simple, and so it proves.
Stroud admits there is ‘a temptation to conclude that objects really are coloured after all’, but says that this is ‘worth resisting’ (p. 192). On the next page, however, Stroud says that he does ‘not mean to suggest that perhaps those beliefs [that lemons are yellow, etc.] are not true or that there is reason to doubt them’ (p. 193). Indeed, Stroud asserts that lemons are yellow, and that ‘we do know that objects are coloured’ (p. 205, my italics). So why hasn’t Stroud just succumbed to the ‘temptation’ that he claims must be resisted?
I’m not confident of the answer, but it is evidently connected with the master argument’s limitations. The master argument only purports to show that if one of the error theorist’s premises is acceptable, then her conclusion must be rejected; and it doesn’t follow from this that her conclusion is false. So, despite the fact that we have an ‘ everyday life that objects are coloured’, we cannot say that the answer to the ‘metaphysical question’ is: ‘Yes. Objects are really coloured’ (p. 208). If we foist on Stroud the view that the ‘metaphysical question’ is simply the ‘everyday question’ with much higher standards attached, then he is saying that although we know that objects are coloured, we do not have an incontrovertible proof that they are, which is ‘disappointing’ (p. 209).
This interpretation of Stroud may well be incorrect, however. First, it is difficult to see why the lack of an incontrovertible proof is at all disappointing, given that only someone overimpressed with the power of philosophy would expect otherwise. Second, the interpretation fits poorly with other formulations of the ‘disappointing’ upshot, for instance that we do not have the right kind of ‘understanding of our position in the world’ (p. 209). If the disappointment were due to the missing incontrovertible proof, this remark would be misplaced. Incontrovertible proofs are not required–I hope!–in order to achieve a philosophically satisfying understanding of what the world is really like.
So there is much to dispute in Stroud’s book. However, this should not obscure the fact that it is an admirable contribution to metaphysics.[1]

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

[1] Thanks to Martin Jones, Sarah McGrath, Susanna Siegel, and Robert Stalnaker.