Dispositionalism: Democritus and Colours by Convention

Research output: Chapter in Book/Conference paperChapterpeer-review


Dispositionalism about colours is usually held to be incompatible with Colour Eliminativism: the view that there are no objects that have colours. I think that this common belief is false. There are different forms, both of Eliminativism and Dispositionalism, and that we can mount a combination of two forms of the views, forms that are compatible. The aim of this paper is to support this claim by discussion of the ancient Greek philosopher Democritus. We mostly have only second-hand reports of his thought, some of which ascribe to him, some very ropey arguments in support of his view on colour. (One of these receives heavy emphasis by R.C. Chisholm, in his discussion of perception.) One fragment of his writings we do have is the famous remark: “For by convention colour exists, by convention bitter, by convention sweet, but in reality atoms and the void.” But this remarks suggests that his position is more complex than it is usually considered. If it comprises eliminativism, it is not a bald eliminativism. For in the first part of the fragment, he says “By convention colour exists, by convention sweet exists, …” I suggest that there is a way of understanding Democritus’s position: it comprises a form of dispositionalism, but a special kind: it is one that is compatible with one form of Eliminativism, which can be thought of as Colour-Fictionalism. This suggestion is not meant to be merely of historical interest. It is, I argue, an eminently defensible position to hold about colour.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationHow Colours Matter to Philosophy
EditorsMarcos Silva
Place of PublicationCham, Switzerland
Number of pages22
ISBN (Electronic)978-3-319-67398-1
ISBN (Print)978-3-319-67397-4
Publication statusPublished - 2017

Publication series

NameSynthese Library: Studies in Epistemology, Logic, Methodology, and Philosophy of Science


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