Do Colours Exist?
A Revisioning of the Understanding of Colours by Diverging from the Subjectivist & Objectivist Views
I would like to begin this Contemplation by sharing the chorus lyrics of Taylor Swift’s famous song “Red”.
Losing him was blue, like I'd never known
Missing him was dark gray, all alone
Forgetting him was like trying to know
Somebody you never met
But loving him was red
Loving him was red
Colour is a phenomenon that transcends the mere visual, interweaving itself into the very fabric of our emotions and experiences. In the lyrics that I quoted above, Taylor Swift expresses the concept of colours as entities that are not just seen but felt, embodying emotions in their most vibrant hues. Such artistic depictions of colour challenge me to ponder: What is the true nature of these hues that so profoundly resonate with our innermost feelings? In other words, do colours exist?
To decipher this, I am will traverse through the contrasting ideas of historical philosophical thought – from the objectivist assertions of Aristotle to the subjectivist interpretations of Locke and Hume in order to define my own views on colour theory.
Aristotelian Objectivist Discourse on Chromatic Existence
Eschewing the notion of colour as a mere perceptual ephemera, Aristotle asserted its existence as an entity independent of observational subjectivity, imbuing it with a causal power to evoke perceptions of its own essence.
This repudiation of a simplistic colour theory posits colour's entirety as being wholly encompassed within the experiential.
In his treatise "On Colours," Aristotle propounds a sophisticated schema wherein all chromatic manifestations are conceived as derivatives from the elemental dichotomy of black and white. This binary serves as the foundational palette from which the entire spectrum emerges, through varying degrees of transparency and opacity inherent in material bodies. It is this gradation in translucence that Aristotle identifies as the progenitor of the perceivable colour spectrum.
Aristotle's exposition on colour, transcending mere sensory experience to a metaphysical plane, significantly shaped colour theory. This Aristotelian conception of colour held sway until the paradigm-shifting prismatic experiments of Isaac Newton. Nonetheless, the Aristotelian perspective endures as a tangible and objective constituent of the universe's fabric.
Lockean Subjectivist Interpretation of Chromatic Perceptions
John Locke explored colour theory in his seminal work "An Essay Concerning Human Understanding." Locke presented a compelling argument regarding the nature of colour, positing it not as an intrinsic attribute of objects, but rather as a secondary quality. His discourse meticulously differentiates between primary qualities – those that are inherently vested within an object, such as shape, motion, and numerical properties – and secondary qualities, which he asserts, arise solely within the perceptual realm of the observer.
Locke's thesis on colour revolves around the interactional dynamics between the object and the perceiver. He contends that colours are birthed from this interplay, a byproduct of the sensory engagement with an object’s primary qualities. This perspective relegates colour to the realm of sensory effects, engendered by the object but not an integral part of its essence.
In explicating his stance, Locke elucidates, "For the power in fire to produce a new colour, or consistency, in wax or clay by its primary qualities, is as much a quality in fire, as the power it has to produce in me a new idea or sensation of warmth or pain, by the same primary qualities, viz., by the bulk, figure, texture, and motion of its insensible parts." Here, Locke accentuates the conceptual distinction, attributing the genesis of colour not to the object itself, but to the sensory experiences it elicits.
Locke's philosophical treatise on colour thus steers the discourse towards a more subjective interpretation, challenging the notion of colour as an objective, inherent characteristic of objects.
Hume's Empirical Discourse on Chromatic Phenomenology
David Hume extended the thread of subjective interpretation of colour, originally woven by John Locke. In his magnum opus, "A Treatise of Human Nature," Hume offers a perspective that further distances colour from being an inherent quality of objects, repositioning it firmly within the mental realm of the perceiver.
Hume’s approach to colour is grounded in the principle that our perceptual experiences are not mere reflections of the external world's inherent properties. Rather, he posits that colour, as we perceive it, emerges not from the object itself but as a construct within the mind, a consequence of the object's interaction with our sensory apparatus. This stance places colour squarely within the domain of perceptual phenomena, dissociated from the physical qualities of the object under observation.
In articulating this perspective, Hume emphatically stated, "Sounds, colours, heat and cold, according to modern philosophy, are not qualities in objects, but perceptions in the mind." This declaration encapsulates his philosophical paradigm, wherein sensory experiences such as colour are not direct representations of an external reality but are subjective interpretations crafted by the mind.
Through his empirical lens, Hume thus reframes the discourse on colour, challenging the notion of its objective existence and emphasising the role of human perception in shaping our understanding of the chromatic world.
The Intrinsic Realities of Objects
In the discourse on the nature of reality, the concept of primary properties are defined as attributes intrinsic to the very essence of an object, independent of the presence or perception of any observer. They are considered the bedrock upon which the physical structure of the object stands.
The characteristics encompassed under primary properties are those that can be quantified and empirically verified – shape, size, motion, numerical count, and spatial extension. These qualities exist in the realm of objective reality, steadfast in their presence, irrespective of human observation or perception. They are the measurable, immutable truths of an object, enduring beyond the subjective gaze.
This philosophical notion of primary properties was brought to the fore by philosophers such as René Descartes and John Locke. These thinkers posited that primary properties constitute the true nature of an object, an unalterable reality that stands firm even in the absence of an observer. They contended that these properties are not mere abstractions but tangible realities that can be uncovered and understood through rigorous scientific inquiry.
The Perceptual Constructs of the Mind
The notion of secondary properties is defined as attributes that do not stand independently of an observer, secondary properties are born from the interaction between the object and our sensory faculties.
The characteristics of secondary properties are those that manifest within the perceptual realm – colour, taste, smell, and sound. Unlike primary properties, which are rooted in the object's intrinsic structure, secondary properties are not inherent qualities of the object. Instead, they arise as perceptual responses within the mind, triggered by the stimulation of the object's primary properties. They are the subjective experiences, the sensory impressions, engendered by our interaction with the world.
This conceptualisation of secondary properties was significantly shaped by John Locke. Locke articulated the view that secondary properties are not embedded within the objects themselves. Rather, they represent the capacities of objects to induce various sensations within us.
My Understanding about the Nature of Colour
In the realm of ontological inquiry, the concept of an object's properties bifurcates into primary and secondary categories, each holding distinct implications for our understanding of perception and reality.
Primary properties are entrenched within the very fabric of an object, encompassing its shape, numerical attributes, and chemical composition. These properties transcend the subjective lens of the perceiver, be they human or otherwise.
In this domain, perception is not a matter of choice but an inevitability, dictated by the inherent qualities of the object and its interaction with light. The visual experience of a red rose, for instance, is not open to interpretative whims. It remains, unequivocally, a red rose, irrespective of the observer’s inclination. The crow perched on a distant bough perceives the rose through its unique visual faculties, yet it is bound to the objective reality dictated by the rose’s intrinsic properties.
Secondary properties, in contrast, are the constructs of the mind, born from the foundations laid by primary properties. They are the subjective layers painted over the canvas of perception. Observing a red rose, one might imbue it with qualities of beauty or romance, but these are not properties of the rose itself; they are the reflections of the observer’s psyche, malleable and fluid, changing with the tides of individual perspective and experience.
While the objective reality of colour is anchored in the chemical composition of objects and the nature of light they reflect or absorb, the experience of that colour is a sensory perception. Different creatures, equipped with varying optical receptors and sensitivities to the electromagnetic spectrum, perceive colours in ways uniquely their own.
Yet, this perception, diverse as it may be, is tethered to the objective truths of the object’s properties and the external conditions of light. In the very act of perception, there lies an objective experience of colour. It is not a subjective construct but a reality experienced through the lens of individual sensory mechanisms.
However, the subjective dimension of this experience emerges in the interpretations and emotional responses it evokes. The 'red' of a rose may be a consistent perceptual experience, but its interpretation – as beautiful, melancholic, or otherwise – is a personal meaning, shaped by the individual’s emotional state, memories, and cultural background. Thus, while the perception of colour may be an objective encounter, the experience of that colour is a subjective personal human experience.
Where I Diverge from Aristotelian Objectivism
In my colour theory, the path diverges from Aristotelian objectivism in two significant dimensions.
Firstly, Aristotle’s discourse on colour, while profoundly insightful for its era, did not account for the role of the perceiver and the unique optical configurations inherent to the act of perception. His focus was riveted on the object's intrinsic properties.
In contrast, my theory integrates this critical aspect, acknowledging the importance of the perceiver's sensory apparatus. This inclusion is not a mere addendum but a fundamental reorientation, made possible by the advancements in our scientific understanding of vision and perception. It allows for a more comprehensive view that considers both the object and the observer in the chromatic experience.
Secondly, where Aristotle viewed the qualities of colour as a singular, unified aspect of objects, my approach aligns more closely with the later philosophical developments introduced by thinkers like Locke and Hume. I embrace the distinction between primary and secondary properties but depart from their conventional definitions.
In my framework, primary properties encompass the inherent physical attributes of an object, including its potential to interact with light to produce colour.
Secondary properties, in contrast, are the subjective interpretations and emotional responses elicited by these primary properties. This divergence from Aristotle is not merely in categorisation but in the fundamental understanding of where the objective ends and the subjective begins in the realm of colour perception.
Departure from Subjectivist Interpretations
In delineating my theory of colour, it becomes imperative to articulate the points of departure from the subjectivist framework, which pivotally hinges on the interpretation of secondary properties.
First and foremost, my contention lies with the subjectivist definition of secondary properties of objects. Contrary to the subjectivist view, which posits secondary properties as direct results of perception, my stance is that these properties are not mere byproducts of perception, but rather the interpretative constructs that orbit around the act of perceiving an object.
Furthermore, I assert that the perception of an object is not a self-constructed reality. The interaction between the object and our sensory faculties is not a matter of volitional control but an objective encounter governed by the immutable laws of physics and biology. Thus, this interaction and the immediate perceptual experience it engenders cannot be relegated to the realm of secondary properties. In contrast, the emotional resonances and symbolic significances that we attach to this perceptual experience rightly belong to the domain of secondary properties. They are the subjective layers, the personal hues we paint over the objective canvas of perception.
To elucidate this distinction, consider the example of a rose:
A Rose: The object in its existential entirety.
A Red Rose: This is a primary property of the rose, an objective reality rooted in the rose's interaction with light, independent of the observer's subjective interpretation.
A Beautiful Red Rose: Here lies the secondary property. 'Beautiful' is a subjective qualifier, an interpretative addition by the observer, layered over the primary perception of the rose’s redness.
This demarcation between primary and secondary properties in my theory offers a more nuanced understanding of colour perception, one that recognises the objective realities of the physical world while also acknowledging the rich subjective human experience of it.
Do Colours Exist?
Finally, my stance on the matter emerges at the confluence of subjectivist and objectivist streams of thought, yet charts a distinct course. This Contemplation leads me to affirm the existence of colours as entities that transcend the realm of mere subjective perception.
My divergence from the purely subjectivist view, which anchors colour solely in the perceptual experience of the observer, and the objectivist perspective, which posits colour as an intrinsic attribute of objects, paves the way for a more nuanced understanding. In this synthesis, I posit that colours do indeed exist as realities that are not entirely contingent upon the observer's gaze.
Colour is not a phantom of perception, fluctuating with the whims of the observer's senses; nor is it a rigid, unchanging facet of objects, impervious to the dynamics of perception. Instead, colour occupies a unique position: it is rooted in the physical properties of objects and their interaction with light, yet it comes to full realisation in the act of perception. This view acknowledges the objective basis of colour while also recognising the subjective experience as a crucial component of its full manifestation.