Victorious Purple

When I was in graduate school one of my colleagues Uwe Fischer was a strict vegetarian who lived very abstemiously.  He rented a single room in a working class neighborhood far from our school and paid for his school by selling gems.  He was doing research on the Inverted Spectrum Problem.

The Inverted Spectrum Problem is an argument against the philosophical view that mental states can be ultimately explained as dispositions to behavior.  The dispositionalist argues in a sense that human beings are robots.  When somebody says “red” all that means is he will point out a red object when he says it.  There is nothing so to speak “happening in his head” other than brain processes.  There is no screen with a red apple on it so to speak.

The Inverted Spectrum Problem asks us to imagine that there could be two people whose spectrums are inverted.  Person A sees green where person B sees red and vice versa.  These two people will both point at a red apple and say “red” but person A has a subjective experience of green while person B has a subjective experience of red.

Uwe argued that the inverted spectrum made no sense because certain colors have extra qualities that cannot be inverted.  Purple is victorious he argued.  It carries over the next hill to glory and dominion.  Yellow is cowardly.  There could be no person who sees the victorious purple as the craven yellow or vice versa.

Every paper he wrote received a failing grade.  None of the professors had any idea what he was talking about.  It was not scholarship to make unverifiable statements about what colors were, what colors made you feel.  There was private speculation amongst the faculty that Uwe was mentally ill.

Uwe owned nothing.  I saw him packing up a few papers and a book by Simone Weill from the philosophy lounge as he was leaving the program.  We said we would keep in touch but in fact I never saw him again.  He is unreachable on the internet although I have searched for him many times.

As he left walking down the stairs of Moses Hall he turned to me and flashed a victory sign.

“Victorious purple!” he said and flashed a glorious smile.


2 thoughts on “Victorious Purple

  1. An interesting story, though I’m never sure with you how much is fact and how much is fiction.

    By coincidence, I (really) discussed the inverted spectrum problem in my philosophy dissertation. I concluded that universals were structures in experience, and that to say things like “X is red” meant “X is *the same color as* {apples, fire engines, etc.},” so that however people privately experienced the color quality, they would still apply “red” consistently with each other.

    Uwe’s big mistake was choosing purple instead of red. I wanted to warn him, but I was too yellow, and now I’m blue about it.

  2. I don’t really get it? For whatever that’s worth. Something to do with how we perceive his position? But he seemed to hold no one could see things differently, so I can’t say I get it.

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