Black Dress? White dress? Ayer’s Logical Positivism kicks your stupid newsfeed about dresses in the balls.


It’s time we aDRESSed this once and for all. It’s high time that the media was given a DRESSing down for this shoddy story about the colour of a dress that’s DRESSED up as ‘journalism.’

Okay, now that the pun’s are over, let’s do some philosophy!

Here’s the quick version you lot: your perception of colour is fine. The resolution and contrast of the images are different on your respective screens. That’s all.

Of course, this is the internet and nothing is ever that simple. People are now freaking out across the globe that they are living in the colour edition of the matrix.

So, here are the cliff notes to why you should relax:

If you did see white your entire life, when all everyone else saw was black, you’d still call it black – in spite of the fact that all you see is white.

Why? Great question hypothetical reader!

The reason why is simple:  You were told that it was black.

So… (pause for dramatic effect) you call it black. And therefore, for you, that ‘white’ would only ever be determined as black.

‘But’ you may ask, ‘how is this possible Jack Lonsdale? The amazing humorist who proved Douglas Adams wrong, who wrote that really great series on Descartes that you can check out here. How can I lead a functional life when my entire perception of colour is out of whack! Damn it man! How is that possible?!’

Short version? Because Ayer said so.

Ayer, for those of you who don’t know, was the MI6 agent-turned-philosopher of Oxford, who, if Wikipedia is to be believed, was also the stepfather of celebrity chef Nigella Lawson (to be fair, England is a rather small island).

Amongst his other brilliant achievements, Ayer pointed out that words for colour don’t really have much to do with the actual ‘colour’ properties that you and I could see. In his book Language, Logic and Truth Ayer states:

‘It may be objected that the fact that two people classify colour expanses in the same way proves only that their colour worlds have the same structure, and not that they have the same content; that it is possible for another man to assent to every proposition which I make about colours on the basis of entirely different colour sensations, although, since the difference is systematic, neither of us is ever in a position to detect it. But the answer to this is that each of us has to define the content of another man’s sense-experiences in terms of what he can himself observe. If he regards the experiences of others as essentially unobservable entities, whose nature has somehow to be inferred from the subjects’ perceptible behaviour, then, as we have seen, even the proposition that there are other conscious beings becomes for him a metaphysical hypothesis. Accordingly, it is a mistake to draw a distinction between the structure and the content of people’s sensations – such as that the structure alone is accessible to the observation of others, the content inaccessible.’ [p 87]

Or, to put that another way, presuming you don’t actually have a colour blindness problem, all you’re arguing about tonight on your twitter feed is the choice of words. Your personal vision of the world is just as opaque to me or anyone else, as mine is to you. You’ll never truly know what someone else sees in terms of vision.

So relax. Spend some time with your family. Go for a walk. Enjoy your weekend.

Jack Lonsdale

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