The Blue Dress: On The Phenomenology of Color Perception

In the first psychology class, taught by William James at Harvard in 1872, the psychological perception of reality was demonstrated with a fascinating experiment. James arranged three buckets of water on a table; one hot, one room temperature, and one ice-cold. He then asked a student to hold their left hand in the hot water while holding their right hand in the ice-cold water. After a few minutes, James instructed the student to place both hands in the room-temperature bucket. What the student felt was astounding, to the left hand the water felt ice-cold, and to the right hand the water felt hot. Although both hands were in the same bucket of water, each hand experienced something entirely different.
This experiment in perception illustrates the precedence of context in our experience of reality. Every quality that we experience, be it temperature, color, flavor, odor, or tone, is a result of the contrast between it and what precedes it, or what it is enframed in. Take for example the traditional rules of wine tasting. When we are tasting wines, it is customary to begin with dry wines and then proceed to sweet wines. The result in violating this rule is that a dry wine tastes extremely dry if preceded by a sweet wine. It is also convention to “cleanse the palate” between tasting different wines with water or bread, which acts to establish the same contextual transition between wines. In other words the new wine is always introduced with the same flavor (water or bread). This prohibits the wines from interfering with each other.

In color perception the case is similar. The color that we perceive is always dependent on the context within which that color exists. Take for example these three images. The color in the center (we call this the figure) seems to change depending on the context which surrounds it (called the ground). Although in isolation the center color is stable, in the framed with a different context, the color itself changes. In psychology we call this enframing gestalt.

In music a tone takes on meaning depending on the key in which it played. For example, the tone “C” (do) takes on different perceptual meanings in the key of C major than in the key of F major. The tone itself takes on meaning in the context of the key in within which it exists. In this way, we come to understand that the perceptual meaning of a stimulus is always enframed and never in isolation. Even in isolation, the note is preceded by silence, which is the context. Perception and meaning is always contextual.

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This week’s Internet craze is the “blue” dress. Debates are taking place as to whether the dress in the picture is really blue or gold. Taking the Gestalt principle of enframing into consideration, we understand that the color of the dress is a perceptual phenomenon dependent on the context within which it exists.

Beyond the question of the dress color is a deeply rooted debate in the philosophy of science. It is the debate between the views of universalism and relativism in human experience.
The belief that we see the world as it is, and that we can arrive at some objective, quantitative, categorization of stimulus is called naive realism. This is the view of empirical science, which holds that all stimulus can be measured and categorized.
The opposing view is that of phenomenalism. This view holds that experience might be quantifiably measurable in isolation, but its meaning is always dependent on the context within which it exist (time context and space context), as well as the context of the biology and life experience (history) of the viewer. For the phenomenologically oriented, reality is always a participatory experience of a perceiver and the perceived. 
Immanuel Kant made the distinction this way: The thing as it exist in itself he called the noumenon. The perceptual experience that we have of the thing he called the phenomenon. For universalists the noumenon is studied empirically through measurement. For phenomenologists the important thing to study is the phenomenon.
Sir Isaac Newton laid out an objective theory of color which most research in psychophysics is based on. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe disagreed with Newton and proposed a theory of contextual experience, which is often favored by phenomenologists.
Take for example the experience of temperature. Two people are in the same room, but one is cold and the other is warm. The empirical or quantitative researcher would be interested in the quantitative temperature of the room; what the thermometer says. The deference to measurement, the empiricist says, will tell us what the “objective” reality of the room temperature is.
The phenomenologist points out that regardless of the quantitative measurement of temperature, what is truly important is each individual’s experience of the room, it is a qualitative (comfortable or uncomfortable) experience that matters most. 
The same experience holds true for time. Depending on what we are focusing on (our intentionality) we experience time differently. This is why “time flies when we’re are having fun,” the phenomenological perception of time is dependent on the context of the individual’s intention.
The ancient Greeks made a distinction between chronos time and kairos time. Chronos time is the time on your watch; the quantitative measurement of time. Kairos is time as experienced. If you are dating someone new and wondering how many dates should pass before you have your first kiss, you are thinking in chronos time. If you just allow the kiss take place at the “right time,” you are living in kairos time.
The German philosopher Martin Heidegger pointed out that to fully embrace the world, we must consider both the objective view (he called this ontic) as well as the phenomenological view (he called this ontological). Those who prefer to view perceptual experience as something objective to measure typically embrace the quantitative, scientific view. Others, who prefer to understand the world phenomenologically, become artists, poets, and writers–Sometimes psychologists.
And then there is the question of language and culture. It turns out that “blue” is just a signifier for a signified. But we will save that for another day. In the final analysis we accept the wisdom of the Surangama Sutra, “Things are not what they appear to be, nor are they otherwise.”