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This month, we talk to Zed Adams (New School for Social Research) about colors like red, blue, and green. Click here to listen to our conversation.

What is the color red? Is it a physical property of certain chemicals–the fact that they tend to reflect light with a wavelength of about 670 nm and absorb the rest? Or does the subjective experience of seeing something that looks red figure somehow into the definition of what it is to be red? Believe it or not, it is possible to produce a painting that looks like a blank red canvas in daylight but a big X in artificial light, because of the different ways slightly different shades of red paint respond to different kinds of light. So are the two reds in the painting the same or different? Kind of hard to say, since the both conditions are considered equally ‘standard’ or ‘normal.’

In this episode, Zed Adams argues that cases like this seem mysterious to us because we’re working with two inconsistent definitions of what color is. They were inherited from two different historical periods, but now we intermix them. And since we got into this mess by intertwining different notions of what color is from different historical periods, the best way out of it is to study where those different notions came from and understand their historical evolution. Join us as our guest walks us through the history of color concepts!

Matt Teichman