As those of you who read my blog know I two great loves: color and aesthetics. So it is only natural that I would passionate about the metaphysics of color, which is basically the joining of these two fields. Interestingly enough, the majority of people writing and talking about the philosophy of color are scientists and philosophers. There are very few artists who actively engage in the debates outside of practical applications (for example, how to mix the perfect green.) For several years I have been grousing about the philosophers writing about color when they don't live with it as a language the way that artists do. I finally decided to stop my grumbling and begin having a larger conversation about it. I hope that you will find it interesting and informative.
Today, I thought I'd start by explaining what metaphysics is, what the central questions color metaphysics grapples with as well as a quick sketch of the four different primary schools of thought. I will go into greater detail in following posts. But I wanted you to have a handle on what the scope is before I get too crazy on the details.
So what precisely is metaphysics anyway? According to Webster's Dictionary it is:
a (1) : a division of philosophy that is concerned with the fundamental nature of reality and being and that includes ontology, cosmology, and often epistemology (2) : Ontology 2 b : abstract philosophical studies : a study of what is outside objective experience.
What fascinates me about this definition is the second part--because what they're saying is that metaphysics is the study of that which does not actually exist.
Now at this point you might be doing your Mr. Spock impersonation and raising your eyebrow at that. It seems to fly in the face of all logic. Because color is real, we can see it, and talk about it in a way that others understand, we can even reproduce it.
Just look at the above color. You can see it is real. Such foolishness--colors aren't real--humph. It even has a name, Neptune Green, so ergo it must exist. Why it even has a Hex code--so its easily reproducible. And if you were to name the color to a person who couldn't see it they would know exactly the shade you were describing, even if they'd never seen it before, because it simply exists, right?! Just look and see: so easy to find the Neptune green:
All joking aside, you begin to see the problem. This color has many different names--none of which are wrong. I say that because they is no definitive RIGHT name for a color, therefore if I call this Neptune green, that's not wrong; but its not wholly correct either. And you might look at this and see a gray or a blue. Again, not wrong, just also not right. And in case you were wondering, all of these colors were found under the name "Neptune green" so they're all Neptune green.
The above example highlights the first two problems--not everyone sees color the same. And names are arbitrary at best and name associations are tenuous. This is why philosophers argue about weather or not color even really exists. Even though we can see it, touch it, talk about it, it remains, oddly enough one of the few areas of philosophy that is simultaneously concrete and abstract. Language would be the second philosophical arena that is much the same and since many would argue that color is a language it makes sense they would share this oddity.
Another big question that color metaphysics grapples with is about meaning of colors. How constrained are we by our culture? Or are we even constrained by our culture? How aware are we even of those constraints--if they do in fact exist? What does the above color mean to you? And do you think it means the same to everyone all over the world? Does it even matter if its cultural associations are different? Does meaning influence the way we see the color in anyway?
Lastly, there's science. Which has played an ever increasing role in the debate. There are some color theorists that frankly, could give a flying Picasso what scientists have to say about physics and the visual process. There are others that grapple with the processing of meaning that has deeper implications for what colors are to us. Many of those folks prefer to relegate color to a purely metaphysical conversation and leave science out of the equation. As our scientific knowledge grows the conversation naturally changes but, it can still be a very contentious one. I've seen people almost come to blows over this difference in ideology; the divide can be that strong. There are, of course, the moderates that draw from both science and philosophy--and in turn draw ire from the other two camps. So basically, as in all things philosophical, no one is safe from an argument!
Here are the four basic schools we have--over the next few posts I'll address how each of these schools tackle the above questions as well as dive a little deeper into my own thoughts. You'll notice that each of these categories are plural--that's because every single one of these arguments have different sub-schools that have grown out of them.
- Subjective-relational theories: theories that say that the colors are understood in terms of relationships. This can also be called 'subjectivity theory' or 'secondary quality theory'. For our purposes I will always use the relational label for it since that's really what's at the crux of the argument.
- Reductive physicalist thoeries: theories that say the colors are specific in physical terms without any mention of actual color properties.
- Primitive realist theories: theories that say colors are simply properties of objects that defy further analysis.
- Eliminativist theories: theories that say objects do NOT have innate color properties but are instead a concrete representations of an abstract idea. In metaphysical terms we call these instantiate properties.
I know this seems a little overwhelming, but never fear! Over the next few weeks I will be breaking this down for you in ways that will make it more digestible. As always, if you have any questions please post them. There is nothing I love more than a rousing debate about color!