Some of the last thoughts by the metaphysical logician Wittgenstein were on the mystical nature of color. He asked whether color was imbued in physical substance, or is an artifact of our perception, to which he it may be said he did not reach any final answer. In his earlier thought, that would have been all that could be said. But in his later thought, the discussion of color becomes meaningful when we wield the concept like a tool. So to pursue Wittgenstein's thought, is his a valid question? If so, what other answers are there? If not, what is the true nature of color?

The Amazing Color in Monet's Haystacks is Meaningful but Unreal
The Amazing Color in Monet's Haystacks is Meaningful but Unreal


What is Color, and why Think about it?

While many have scoffed at the ridiculousness of considering something like color in so much depth, consumerism has indubitably transformed color into a commercial tool. One may only witness the incredible number of packages and brands distributing lipstick and eye makeup colors at the entrance of any local pharmacy, where once there were medicines and common household goods.This proliferation of 'color for sale' inside the caverns of our stock houses gas too much replaced appreciation of the natural colors around us, and their sensitive purpose.

A Scientific Perspective of the Colors we Perceive

Primary in the perceptible electromagnetic spectra is the color of the chloroplast's photosynthetic mechanism. We are attuned to see this vivid green most of all, because that mechanism is how plants create and sustain all life on the surface of this planet. The hues around the green of growth are therefore most frequently easiest for animals' eyes to see, and nature is therefore dominated by peculiar evolutionary developments, such as flowers and fruits with tones around the color of chloroplasts, to attract and encourage animal life in the most bizarre forms of symbiosis, to propagate the seed of the sedentary plant.

The visible spectrum centers on the color of the photosynthetic organelle, the chloroplast
The visible spectrum centers on the color of the photosynthetic organelle, the chloroplast

A special wrinkle on perceived color is that objects do not appear to be the same hue and brightness in different lighting conditions, because of their different qualities of light absorption, reflectivity, specularity, opacity, and detail resolution at different distances. If the object also emits light, its color changes under different lighting conditions in an entirely different way, because the primary colors are different—Green instead of yellow for emitted light. Yet we normally are unaware of how objects change color in different conditions and unconsciously project whatever we know the color would be under uniform light without optical-processing artifacts, unless we consciously make the effort to consider environmental conditions. Additionally we don't actually see color at all if is dark, and instead slowly see monochromatic shadows with a secondary light-preceptor protein in the eye, commonly called visual purple; but we do not think the objects are different colors when it is night, even though that's what we actually see. Monet's Haystacks play with the changing of color's appearance at different times of day by emphasizing those tonal variations, engendering a dynamism to the paintings that might explain their meaningfulness to us. Moreover, the eye's edge-perception mechanism enhances nearby neighboring colors along their borders, but merges them depending on distance and lens focus in amazing ways that fauvists, pointillists, and other modern-art schools explore with rather more brute force than renaissance masters such as Michelangelo and Van Dyck.

Some, such as Randian objectivists, believe any argument on the nature of color should end there, unless it serves some material purpose, such as selling lipstick, to which the limited effectiveness of our visual range is only an irritation. Yet most complain not of the massive act of domination on our visual perception by our association with Regnum Plantae, instead considering the visual spectra only with pleasure, for of all the benefits that plants engender to animal life and human experience, color perception is one of particular delight. Such delight may or may not be a property of the object, depending on one's metaphysical view, so scientific explanation alone is not sufficient (for those who say delight is obviously not a property of the object, that's not what a buyer thinks at an art auction, so it's not so simple).

Cultural Interpretations of Color

From the primary purpose of color perception, which is to find food as described above, each culture has attached its own secondary associations. For example, in the West, scarlet is associated with danger, and forbidding of action; whereas in the East, scarlet is the color of parties and festivities, across cultural, familial, and political realms.

The subtlety of Wittgenstein's thought was to identify that association as being arbitrary, or rather, without logical necessity, yet still existent and powerful enough to be a causal agent. We are influenced by color, both by deep evolutionary forces, and by abstract cultural associations; yet the colors themselves possess no intrinsic properties to cause such influence. The colors themselves are no more than labels we apply to a physical phenomena (parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, in this case).

Colors and Mystical Symbolism

Yantric diagrams are said to define links between color and symbols within the mind during meditation. During tantric meditation on such diagrams, we are encouraged to perceive beyond the direct physical manifestation, and to discover the strange and illogical passions to which such phenomena can bend our unconscious will. To the insights from such introspection the tantric gurus attach the names of Gods and forces to which they claim direct and irrefutable knowledge. It is the path of Wisdom to pass by such exaggerations without verbal debate; for if some person becomes convinced of a supernatural connection at the borders of perception, there is no verbal dissuasion possible from the delusion.

Chakric colors called 'auras' are said to be perceptions of the Mystic Absolute, attained through tantric meditation
Chakric colors called 'auras' are said to be perceptions of the Mystic Absolute, attained through tantric meditation

The irresolvable question to Wittgenstein nonetheless remained: we have the capacity to consider the nature of experiencing a color, such as the paradoxical nature of scarlet, without connection to any physical object directly, but merely as a property of itself. The word 'merely' is in this case no diminishment, but rather remarkably, in some ultimately unknowable absolute sense, a humble portal to a deeper understanding of conceptual reality. If colors are connected to objects, then it is still reasonable to say any claims to exclusive understanding of some Mystic Absolute are definitely dubious. If colors are properties of objects, it is also reasonable to question whether colors of such obhjects as 'auras' always have the same meaning. So either way, the tantric meditator has some more convincing to do. /p>

How Much can we ever Truly Appreciate the Nature of Color?

In some respects, our understanding of color must always be limited, for, how much can we truly appreciate the different associations of any particular color to different cultures? It even remains perplexing to those who share in communal joy, for example, this picture of haystacks by Claude Monet, even while others pass it by in disdain and scornful abjuration of those who find peaceful appreciation within it. Of course, empirically, we know Monet's haystacks are loved by many, because he painted the same subject many dozens of times.

Monet painted haystacks a lot
Monet painted haystacks a lot

For any introspective insight we obtain, no matter how wise it may be to ourselves, remains only for ourselves, if we find no way to apply that insight for the omniversal influence of society. From our insights we may choose sides, and argue for example that such concepts as color could exist without any contemplation of such concepts by any thinking being. If so, we may pause to consider what concepts remain yet to be considered. For if there exist concepts by themselves, not in the thoughts of any conscious entity, then there might remain concepts of reality as yet unknown by any person at all.

If you look again at Monet's painting, perhaps now the striking scarlets in the haystack appear in new shades of our imagination. In the distant hazy cottages we may infer, from this color, the joyful and industrious party of farmers embarked on celebration of their haymaking. We may infer, from this color, the warmth inside the haystack itself, lingering more slowly inside the straw bundles, during the twilights of sunset. Others may share the imagination and inference of Monet's intent. But within Monet's own silence, we find no confirmation of our speculation, and our insights persist only as hypothetical inferences of his intent. Those who claim some perfect understanding of reality may have deep contributions to make on its underlaying precepts, but for most of our knowledge of others' experience, the veil of postulation is too impenetrable to remove the bias of personal perspective.

Alternative Views: Leibniz versus Reductionists

We may also choose to believe there are no abstractions beyond those conceived by conscious entities. Leibniz argues that we see imperfectly that which is totally and perfectly understood by God, from which our own abilities of understanding and imagination propagate. Modern thinkers prefer to remove more majestic conceptions with Occam's razor, diminishing us further into the effervescent randomness of physical events.

Yet no matter how much the nihilists and cynics scoff, too many are struck by the beauty of material order and fantastic structures of rational thought, leading to mathematics and the physical sciences. Too many find something more in such as a painting by Monet; a sense of wonder, undeniable in strength, somehow demanding finer resolution of our own understanding, within the passing of days, and seasons, and eras of our civilizations.

Alternative Views: Buddhism

From a Buddhist perspective, how should we consider this desire to infer deeper forces as work? is this desire itself a desire for more karmic delusion, or is this a desire for dharmic understanding? Contemplation of the question remains as its own answer, from the Buddhist perspective. But to understand what I mean by that, you would have to read my long blog here, Can Formal Logic Win the War on Truth?, to which this essay is only a footnote signifying that, like Wittgenstein, I am late in years :)

About the Author

Ernest Meyer is a retired Oxford philosopher and US citizen now living in Chico, CA. Due to spam registration is required for contact via this server. Then after login there is a contact form in the top menu. You may also reach the author on Facebook, here.