Academic journal article Trames

Light and Color from a Philosophical Point of View

Academic journal article Trames

Light and Color from a Philosophical Point of View

Article excerpt

1. What are light and color?

In Confessions, Augustine (1991:230) ponders time:

   What is time? Who could explain this easily and briefly? Who can
   comprehend this even in thought so as to articulate the answer in
   words? Yet what do we speak of, in our familiar everyday
   conversation, more than of time? We surely know what we mean when
   we speak of it. We also know what is meant when we hear someone
   else talking about it. What then is time? Provided that no one asks
   me, I know. If I want to explain it to an inquirer, I do not know.

Augustine's difficulties with time are similar to the problems we encounter when we discuss light and color. Like time and space, light and color are not specific objects in the world. Rather, they define the qualitative and sensual entirety of the visible world that surrounds us. Everything that we see is somehow lit and colored. For that matter, we must be somehow 'in light' (i.e. in a lit and colored world) in order to see anything at all.

At the same time, we cannot see light directly without being blinded by it; to us, pure light means the same as darkness. We can only perceive it indirectly when it lights a space and makes objects visible to us in their coloredness. In his Farbenlehre (Color Theory), Goethe recommends that we think of light and color as "belonging to the whole of Nature: through them, Nature in its entirety wants to reveal itself specifically to our sense of sight" (Goethe 1966a:315).

If light and color are such omnipresent factors in our lives, why is it so difficult to answer the questions: What is light? What is color? We are helpless when faced with these questions because we relate to light and color in an especially familiar way. They are basic traits of our environment to which we pay no attention until their presence is disturbed. In the same way that we first become conscious of our health once we have become sick, we begin paying attention to light and color only after we notice that the lighting is too dim or that colors are too faded to serve their practical purposes as signals and differentiators. The other qualities of objects (their form or material characteristics, for example) are usually more interesting from a practical perspective. For the most part, light and color interest us explicitly in regard to aesthetics and fashion, when designing our environment, or in art.

2. What answer can science offer?

Augustine went to the trouble of trying to understand the essence of time by reflecting on familiar basic traits of temporal experience. We, on the other hand, tend to choose easier methods. We turn to 'experts' who we think are qualified to answer our questions, try desperately to remember what the physics teacher told us in grade school, or check the encyclopedia.

The amount of knowledge the sciences have collected about the physical, chemical, and biological aspects of light phenomena and their perception is impressive. This progress of knowledge allows us to research new options for artificial lighting and to manufacture natural and synthetic dyes and paints. We see its effects in architecture, in the textile industry, and in the media. Neurophysiological and sensory research allows modern medicine to treat people with eye problems that cause them to see light and color abnormally. Psychology examines how light and color phenomena relate to emotions, linguists compare the expressions used to describe them in various languages. The humanities address their symbolic meanings in art and literature. Anthropology does the same for religion and culture.

The variety of information about light and color, which has been incorporated in a variety of color theories, is interesting and useful for many purposes. But it is only confusing if one is looking for a total orientation in this area--in old-fashioned terms, looking for an answer to the questions about the essence of light and color. …

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