Roses are red, violets are blue ... maybe

Editor's note: Last semester, Jim Ducibella and David Williard of the Office of University Relations issued a challenge to students in one of English Professor Joanne Braxton's classes: Find people on campus, faculty or staff, that you feel are "unsung." Explain why you feel that way and, if approved, write a profile of that person for publication on this website. This is the fifth, and final, installment in the "Behind the Bricks" series.Wlliam Waters '13


What if red apples are not actually red? What if that apple looked red to one person, but appeared green to another?

What if (the property referred to as) color does not exist? What if color is a property projected by your mind? Could color be a totally physical phenomenon? Or is there some subjectivity inherent in, say, orange?

Last semester, for the first time, William & Mary offered a philosophical seminar on color, taught by Professor Joshua Gert. Gert came to W&M in 2010, after nine years at Florida State.

The field of color philosophy is small. A philosophy-of-color conference is almost always attended by the same, select group of philosophers, who despite their differing views, have mostly become friends. 

“The philosophy of color is certainly not a common course to offer,” Gert said. “But it is not wildly uncommon, either.  More often than not it is taught as a graduate seminar, and it is almost always taught by one of the leading members of the field.”Joshua Gert

Students in Gert’s seminar heard him relate, complete with flamboyant gestures, that “Color is the key to all philosophy. That’s a little bit of a joke, but it is amazing how often a knowledge of the philosophy of color can help you understand some other philosophical issue.”

Gert claims color is the cross section of many philosophical pursuits: ethics, philosophy of mind and value theory, among others. He theorizes that what is rooted in human nature can still be a fact, from color to the concepts of good and evil.

“Conclusions about color don’t always translate,” Gert said.

Another conspicuous aspect of Gert’s seminar on color was the presence of a second professor: Associate Professor Timothy Costelloe. He teaches aesthetics and existentialism, as well as the introduction to philosophy and ethics courses the philosophy faculty share.

But Costelloe was not offering professorial assistance to Gert; he was just sitting in on the seminar.

“It is a subject and literature about which I know very little,” Costelloe admitted, “and it is also one of the smaller sub-disciplines of philosophy, so one rarely has a chance to read the literature with somebody who works in the area.”

Costelloe took advantage of Gert’s expertise, and his interest in color may parallel the beginning of Gert’s interest.

“More substantively,” Costelloe said, “I was curious whether there were any connections between the current work on color and issues in aesthetics, including a number of 18th century writers who discuss color as part of their treatment of beauty.” 

“It’s flattering, of course,” said Gert of Costelloe’s attendance. “Other faculty say they will sit in on your class all the time.  Rarely does one actually do it, though.”

Despite his demanding workload, Costelloe didn’t miss a single meeting of Gert’s seminar – and he actively participated in class discussion.

In addition to the philosophy of color, Gert’s areas of specialization are ethical theory and meta-ethics.  Originally constructing arguments for his other areas of specialization, Gert said he employed secondary qualities such as “simpler analogies for more complex and confusing properties such as goodness and badness.”Is this really red?

Reading up on color science and color philosophy, Gert was hooked, and found a new area in which to specialize.

“It’s hard to specialize in more than two areas,” Gert said.

But the philosophy of color itself helps explain how someone like Gert can specialize in ethics and be professionally competent in fields of philosophy ranging from the philosophy of language to the philosophy of mathematics. 

Prior to coming to W&M, Gert had not taught the philosophy of color in nine years. It is a very specialized philosophical topic, and, as such, its importance is not found in an undergraduate philosophy curriculum.

In Gert, William & Mary has someone whose speciality is so unique that students pondered questions they may never have pondered before. For example, what if, in an absence of red, blood exposed actually is green and gold?