universal reality (almost): the case of categories and colors
I’m interested in the nature of reality and particularly the boundaries and scope of the social construction of reality. I think social construction clearly plays an important role, but the question is, how “strong” is that role? For example, I think the performativity argument (and associated “strong programme”) pushes the social construction argument way too far.
But let’s get more specific: what role do categories, language and naming play in the construction of reality?
One empirical setting for actually studying this question is the case of color categories and color naming, an active area of research in linguistics, computer science and psychology. Scholars in this space have looked at whether the extant categories and names of colors of particular languages impact what individuals actually see and remember. The famous Sapir-Whorf thesis of course argued, broadly, that language, categories and culture strongly determine perception and reality. But, the color research shows otherwise. Languages with highly fine-grained distinctions for individual colors, as well as languages with relatively few (or even no!) distinctions and names for color, lead to the same perceptions and experiences of color. (Check out the citations below to see the clever way in which this is empirically tested.)
Well, almost. Recent work is making some important qualifications to the argument (articulating a middle ground, of sorts, between universality and strong construction), and there clearly is a very active debate in this space.
Here are some links to this literature:
- Berlin & Kay. 1991 (2nd edition). Basic color terms: Their universality and evolution. University of California Press.
- Lindsey & Brown. 2006. Universality of color names. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 103: 16608-16613.
- Terry Regier, Paul Kay, Aubrey Gilbert, and Richard Ivry. 2010. Language and thought: Which side are you on, anyway? In B. Malt and P. Wolff (Eds.), Words and the Mind: Perspectives on the Language-Thought Interface. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Ke Zhou, Lei Mo, Paul Kay, Veronica P.Y. Kwok, Tiffany N.M. Ip, & Li Hai Tan. 2010. Newly trained lexical categories produce lateralized categorical perception of color. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107: 9974-9978.
- See Paul Kay’s web site.
- Also check out the World Color Survey @ Berkeley.
Now, I don’t, by any means, think that the color research necessarily is a knock-down argument against social construction. But I do think this research definitely questions the “strong” form of construction — I have opportunistically cited and referred to these and other findings to make that point. And another, perhaps unfair, knockdown argument is that no matter what linguistic categories a color-blind person has, it simply won’t matter in the perception of color.
There is of course much debate in the color literature as well and some of the work points toward a particular, softer form of construction. And, the color research of course is just one setting, and the findings may not generalize to other settings. But I do like the fact that the color research actually allows us to more rigorously say some things — with the usual qualifications and questions — about the specific role that language (as well as categories, culture etc) plays in the way we perceive the world.