Remarks on Colour: 30th Anniversary Edition Paperback – 4 May 2007
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About the Author
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) was arguably the most influential philosopher of the twentieth century. He was born in Vienna, but studied and practiced philosophy in Great Britain. He was a professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge from 1939 until 1947. He worked in and transformed the fields of logic, the philosophy of mathematics, the philosophy of mind, and the philosophy of language.
Anscombe (1919 2001) read classics and philosophy at St Hugh's College, Oxford from 1937 to 1941 in which year she married the philosopher Peter Geach. She subsequently researched in philosophy at Newnham College, Cambridge where she became a student and friend of Ludwig Wittgenstein. One of his literary executors, she played a large part in editing his unpublished works and was their principal English translator. In 1946 she returned to Oxford as a University Lecturer in 1951. From 1970 until her retirement in 1986 she held the Chair of Philosophy at Cambridge.
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Top Customer Reviews
Unsurprisingly, the remarks concentrate on how visual experience can be named and the problems of translation into words. This is Wittgenstein's world. Perhaps an artist will know that we can sense visual experience and translate that experience in a richer fashion? The use of colour has considerable potential and, simply, Wittgenstein has not explored that potential it these remarks.
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Color had at one time been a kind of standard philosophical topic. The empiricists had deemed color a "secondary quality" of objects, something that arises and is dependent on our perceptual interaction with objects rather than a "primary" quality of objects themselves. Goethe's Theory of Color, in the context of advances in optical theory, had provoked the question of how physical explanations of color relate to the experience of color.
What especially interests Wittgenstein is what always interests him -- what is the status of our color concepts? Is the fact that white is not included among the primary colors, or that we never speak of "bluish yellow" reflective of facts in the world, or are they more like the logic of our linguistic behavior? If the latter, are they changeable? The Remarks on Color come from the same time as the remarks in On Certainty, just before Wittgenstein's death from prostate cancer. Those questions about the grounding of apparently empirical statements were very much on his mind.
One of the discussions reading the book stimulated for me goes against the idea that precision is a requirement for "understanding" or for competence, as if the application of concepts (like our color concepts) were governed by rules held up against our experience of reality. People are generally very competent at telling the colors of objects, but very few could give you definitions of colors or say precisely where one color ends and another begins. And even the definitions and boundaries that some could give would be questionable. Defining a color in terms of a wavelength of light, for example hardly captures what is meant by the color. Pointing to a spot along a spectrum and saying, "Here is where orange ends and yellow begins" will always seem declarative, not factual.
Surely some of this is what the empiricist philosophers were getting at by treating color as a "secondary quality" of objects . But it won't do just to say that, well, color is an imprecise thing because it isn't completely objective. Other qualities -- hardness, softness, slickness, . . . we operate confidently with all of these but we can't set boundaries to them or recite confident definitions.
All of this has to do with a kind of autonomy of speech, something overdone in the postmoderns, maybe, but valid nevertheless. The application of terms (or better maybe, the practice of language) isn't bound by objects and their properties in any simple way.
But then some (thank God, only some) will see all of this as a "problem" -- confusion, disorder, imprecision, lack of clarity. And they will propose to solve the problem with precise definitions and strict boundaries. Such things, they say, are needed for clarity and accuracy in our concepts. All that precision and clarity are really needed only in extraordinary circumstances, as when a painter color-matches paints. The extraordinary circumstances don't reveal a flaw in the ordinary circumstances.
Worse yet, others (like traditional AI researchers) will say that, whether we can articulate it or not, we do have an implicit, precise understanding of what colors are and where one color stops and another begins. It's as though it must be that way because they can only imagine it that way. Failures of the imagination are hardly the key to truth.
Wittgenstein also discusses color-blindness, and since I am color-blind, I always get caught up by the topic -- people who are curious about color-blindness often ask me "what do you see?" as if that were a question I could make sense of in a way that would make them understand something. Suppose I ask them "What do you see?" They say, "I see red." So do I . . . when I see red.
Here's one way to explain it, maybe. Suppose you are sitting with an artist, one with a great sensitivity to colors, and you have a bunch of red color samples in front of you. The artist sees many different reds, while you see red in each one. To you they just seem so close together as to be indistinguishable. To her, they seem different. Then imagine it's you and me sitting in front of the color samples, but this time they aren't all red. To you, they seem different. To me, they don't. It's not a matter of seeing something different from color-sighted people; it's a matter of not seeing distinctions that others see, just as you don't see distinctions that the artist sees. Don't know if that works, but . . . wth.
The book is quite repetitive and very out of date - there are many things that physics at its current level of development could have clarified for W. One interesting bit: W says that people on the street often took him to be blind, which I guess one can sort of see in his gaze in the cover portrait of him.
The edition featured here, like the Basil Blackwell one I read (I think the content is the same; the translators are Linda L. McAlister and Margarete Schättle), is a German-English bilingual edition, a definite convenience, since I could always look back on the original German when either the English was ambiguous, or there was some unusual term for which I wondered what the German was. The English translation is overall very well done and faithful to the original. I finished the whole book since it is short and I am interested in color theory, but I can't say I really recommend the book unless you're a die-hard Wittgenstein fan. I haven't read much W, and this book has not succeeded in motivating me to try anything else by him for now.
--Remarks on Colour-- is the last fruit of one of the greatest intellectuals of the XXth century. It is a book that allows a most clear view of how intuitively brilliant Wittgenstein is; but in more than one sense, it is disappointing. Above all because he writes it largely on the shoulders of Goethe's --Farbenlehre-- and Runge's observations, without dedicating a single comment to him who has been increasingly disclosed as his mentor and master of youth: the unsurpassed creature of insight named Schopenhauer.
As a whole, Wittgenstein's book can be considered a bundle of topic additions and observations to the Farbenlehre. As everything he wrote, it is extremely sharp and illuminating, indeed of inestimable value. However, it lacks what Goethe's readers would be expecting to see: a personal position on those which were Goethe's main aims; firstly, the critique of Newton's famous spectrum of colors: two centuries ago, Goethe brilliantly challenged the Newtonian notion, still held in utmost esteem in our days, that white is composed by a melange of seven colors through a prism. Secondly, an appreciation of Goethe's attempt to postulate what he intuited as the original phenomenon, Urphaenomen, without being able to explain why: colors complement each other qualitatively in pairs - the most important examples would be orange and blue; yellow and violet; and, above all else, green and red.
Wittgenstein is also unfair to Goethe: criticizes him for not having presented a finished theory (III, 125) as if he had ambitioned that; whereas Goethe expressly states in his work that what he has to offer is but "Data zu einer Theorie der Farben". In fact, to translate --Farbenlehre-- in any language as "Theory" of Colors would be a similar mistake. The gap between Goethe's objective observations and subjective self-awareness is bridged precisely by Schopenhauer's treatise of 1816, --On Vision and Colors--, an attempt to account for the subjective forms of colours; Wittgenstein does not mention it once.
Maybe one could, very scholarly speaking, call this a case of bad bibliographical review by a genius thinker. For --Remarks on Colour-- does bring the impression that Wittgenstein did not really know Schopenhauer's treatise at all. But this can only bring astonishment to the reader: the same astonishment that arises when one sees how unnoticed the book has slipped through almost 200 years; for example by Rudolf Steiner, the brilliant thinker who prepared and commented the intents of Goethe in the present edition of the Farbenlehre (3 vols. Verlag Freies Geistesleben). In the case of Wittgenstein, this is especially striking when one considers how much he dwelled with the philosopher's works as he prepared his earlier projects, particularly as the Tractatus was written (a good account can be found at Bryan Magee's --Philosophy of Schopenhauer--, 2nd. ed.). Had Wittgenstein read --On Vision and Colors--, things would have been a lot different, and maybe this entire book would have followed a completely alternate path, since it would have to rise up to the task of judging the treatise of 1816. A sad instance of his neglect can be seen when, at page III-26, Wittgenstein makes comments which he does believe are quite decisive and original, and which would be indeed, had Schopenhauer not already explained why. Witty writes: "Blue and yellow, as well as red and green, seem to me to be opposites - but perhaps that is simply because I am used to seeing them at opposite points on the colour circle". It is something to be truly mourned that a man with such a marvelous intuitive grasp of this fact has missed the chance to meditate the theory that seeks to account for his perceptions. Because they bring no novelty to whomever has had the chance to read Schopenhauer's thoughts of why colors are qualitatively complementary.
At the end, the general impression that remains is that, theoretically, Wittgenstein's comments about colors stand one step below Schopenhauer's treatise, corroborating and indeed confirming it; exactly in the same way in which the --Tractatus-- stands one step below the --Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason--, corroborating and confirming it; and, likewise, not mentioning it.
Schopenhauer's treatise has been for many years out of print in English. Shouldering and even surpassing the Farbenlehre, it is perhaps the most important but, at once, the least read human study of the borderline where philosophy and physiology meet. Which is where Wittgenstein also stands with this little red book, so acclaimed by his own fans.
"If you are to clear about the role of logic in color concepts, begin with the simple case of,e.g., a yellowish red. This exists, no one doubts that. How do I learn the use of the word "yellowish"? Through language-games in which, for example things are put in a certain order."
Would Wittgenstein have made a good interior decorator? Probably not. This is an alchemical book without intending to be; as though someone had dyed Merleau Ponty with hypnagogic food coloring. Recommended to any student of the human condition.