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The philosophy of perception

Parmenides, in the Way of Mortal Opinion, envisions the sensible world to be governed by Fire and Night, understood as cosmic principles. As a consequence, Parmenides conceives of the colors as themselves mixtures of light and dark. Parmenides’ view, here, is in line with an ancient tradition dating back at least to Homeric times. In his notorious study, among the five “signs of the immaturity” of the Homeric color scheme, W.E. Gladstone cites the following: “The vast predominance of the most crude and elemental forms of colour, black and white, over every other, and the decided tendency to treat other colours as simply intermediate modes between these two extremes.” That Parmenides took the colors to be mixtures of light and dark places him squarely within this Homeric tradition. Gladstone took this perceived limitation to the Homeric color scheme to be evidence that the ancient Greeks were color blind. Ironically, Gladstone makes this diagnosis just as archaeological evidence was revealing ancient Greek statuary to be multi-colored. While Gladstone’s study played an important role in the development of ethnolinguistics, Gladstone’s skepticism is no longer widely shared.

One of the most important developments of 5th century BC painting, variously attributed to Apollodorus and Zeuxis, was the development of skiagraphia, shadow painting, or in modern parlance, chiaroscuro. In archaic Greek painting, figures appear outlined and uniformly colored in a two-dimensional pictorial plane. Moreover, the color of the figures tended to complement and support the overall two-dimensional composition. However, in the 5th century BC, the “shadow painters” came to emphasize, instead, lightness and darkness in organizing their compositions. There was less reliance on outlining, figures were no longer uniformly colored as primitive methods of shading were developed, and as a result, the figures began to emerge from the two-dimensional pictorial plane. To emphasize the importance of relative brightness in their composition, the shadow painters worked with a limited palette. Nevertheless, they were able to produce the appearance of a variety of colors by combining the colors of this limited palette.

An ancient viewer of skiagraphia, familiar with Parmenides’ poem, would have seen in these paintings the pictorial realization of Parmenides’ cosmology. Just as the combination of Fire and Night suffices to give rise to the colors of the sensible world, the shadow painters’ combination of light and dark pigments suffice to represent the colors encountered in the sensible world.

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Acrylic spin painting, by Mark Chadwick, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr

These ideas and practices have a remarkable afterlife. In the development of modern chiaroscuro, Renaissance painters reconstructed the practice of skiagraphia from the writings of Pliny and Quintilian. (Alas, the paintings themselves have not survived the ravages of history.) Thus, for example, Titian uses Apollodrus’ four color palette in painting Christ Crowned with Thorns. And Goethe, in his Theory of Colors, will defend the ancient view as a means of attacking Newton’s own theory. White or light, instead of being mixed in various proportions to produce the chromatic hues, is conceived by Newton to be the mixture of all the spectral colors. Newton describes this as “the most Paradoxicall of all my assertions, & met with the most universall & obstinate Prejudice”. This paradoxical assertion is nothing less than the demolition of the explanatory framework of the ancient tradition, and it is this which most likely drew Goethe’s ire.

Newton’s own view, however, has not survived unscathed. Richard Sorabji writes:

“At Cornell, I had heard Edward Land, the inventor of the Polaroid camera, lecture on his discovery that Newton’s theory of colour is wrong. The eye responds not to absolute wavelengths of light, but to the more complicated property of reflectance, which involves the proportions among wavelengths in the available scene. Land was able to cast on the screen at Cornell a slide showing all the colours of the garden, yet he was using wavelengths only from within the yellow waveband.”

Many color realists these days follow Land in thinking of the colors as at least a construction from reflectances, a disposition to reflect a certain amount of light from each of the wavelengths of the visible spectrum. But reflectance theories, themselves, have an ancient heritage. Aristotle, like Parmenides, belongs to this Homeric tradition and inaugurates a certain genus about the metaphysics of color. In De Anima II 7. Aristotle defines colors as ways of affecting light. Only two claims separate a simple reflectance theory from Aristotle’s definition. The first claim is a specification. In maintaining that color is a disposition to reflect, transmit, or emit a certain amount of light, modern reflectance theories specifies the way in which color affects light—by reflection, transmission, or emission. Moreover, the amount of light reflected, transmitted, or emitted just is the mixture of light and dark.

The second claim is that there are different kinds of light. Newton recognized the necessity of distinguishing different kinds of light in the way that Aristotle did not. Though Goethe saw matters differently, the intrusion of the Newtonian distinction between kinds of light, while anachronistic, is nevertheless a consistent extension of Aristotle’s metaphysics. Conjoining the specification of Aristotle’s definition with the Newtonian extension just is a statement of a simple reflectance theory. That colors are ways of affecting light is an important genus in the metaphysics of color, one that Aristotle’s definition of color belongs to, and it is arguable that Aristotle inaugurates this metaphysical tradition.

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