Sunday, August 21, 2011

What colour is a peach with a dark red skin?

Sometimes the answer is ‘white’, and sometimes ‘yellow’.

What I have in mind is a real-life version of a well-known example from the literature on context-sensitivity. It's a recipe, and the ingredients list calls for:

6 large or 12 tiny white or yellow peaches, with dark red skins

This brought to mind the commonly-used example of a red apple. If I tell you I have a red apple, I may mean one that is red fleshed, or one with a red skin (and there are other possibilities). The use of this example in the current debate may be due to Anne Bezuidenhout. The idea that the combination of a modifier like a colour term and a noun does not in itself determine an interpretation, because of variations in the way that the colour applies (to put it vaguely), goes back at least to Charles Travis' work:

Suppose, for example, someone says that the leaves on the tree are green. Fine. We understand what it would be for things to be that way; we grasp the thought expressed. Now suppose someone says that his bedroom walls are green. Again, we grasp that thought; know how things would be according to it. If someone says that the cheese we left in the refrigerator when we went on vacation is green, again, so far, so good. Now suppose someone calls his Uncle Hugo green. Might we not, for all of the above, be baffled as to what is supposed to be so according to that thought, unhelped by our knowledge of what being green is, adequate though it was for grasping those other thoughts? Would we not, for all that, know what being green is? (Travis, 1994, p. 168)

Travis, C. (1994). On constraints of generality. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society New Series, 94, 165–188.

Edited to add: I see that Recanati cites Lahav saying that the ‘red apple’ example comes from Quine:

For a bird to be red (in the normal case), it should have most of the surface of its body red, though not its beak, legs, eyes, and of course its inner organs. Furthermore, the red color should be the bird's natural color, since we normally regard a bird as being « really » red even if it is painted white all over. A kitchen table, on the other hand, is red even if it is only painted red, and even if its « natural » color underneath the paint is, say, white. Morever, for a table to be red only its upper surface needs to be red, but not necessarily its legs and its bottom surface. Similarly, a red apple, as Quine pointed out, needs to be red only on the outside, but a red hat needs to be red only in its external upper surface, a red crystal is red both inside and outside, and a red watermelon is red only inside. For a book to be red is for its cover but not necessarily for its inner pages to be mostly red, while for a newspaper to be red is for all of its pages to be red. For a house to be red is for its outside walls, but not necessarily its roof (and windows and door) to be mostly red, while a red car must be red in its external surface including its roof (but not its windows, wheels, bumper, etc.). A red star only needs to appear red from the earth, a red glaze needs to be red only after it is fired, and a red mist or a red powder are red not simply inside or ouside. A red pen need not even have any red part (the ink may turn red only when in contact with the paper). In short, what counts for one type of thing to be red is not what counts for another.’ (Lahav, 1989 : 264)

Lahav, Ron (1989). 'Against Compositionality: the Case of Adjectives', Philosophical Studies, 57 : 261-79.

Of course there is a significant difference between, on the one hand, the peach example and the recent use of the red apple example, and, on the other hand, Quine and Lahav's point. The recent debate is over the point that (e.g.) 'red apple' may be used to mean different things, while the older quotations argue that 'red' in 'red apple' means something different from 'red' in 'red book' etc.

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