aesthetics blue

Of The Blue Color of the Sky

6:00:00 AMAlexander S. Anderson


I recently listened to a fascinating Radiolab podcast on color. Near the end of the podcast, the hosts talk about ancient descriptions of color. Specifically, and well, bizarrely, the ancients don’t seem to have the same understanding of colors as we do today. Or even the same colors. Homer describes both honey and “faces pale with fear” as “green.” Sheep are violet. The sea, in one of his most famous phrases, is “wine-dark,” but it isn’t blue.

In fact, nothing is blue. 

William Gladstone, a 19th Century British Prime Minister and lover of classic literature, noticed that in all of The Iliad and The Odyssey, not a single thing is described as blue! To try and explain this odd phenomenon, Gladstone suggested that all the Ancient Greeks were, in fact, colorblind.

The German philologist Lazarus Geiger took this project even further, analyzing a broad cross-section of ancient texts, from the Bible to the Koran to ancient Chinese stories, to ancient Vedic scriptures. Of the latter, he said:

These hymns, of more than ten thousand lines, are brimming with descriptions of the heavens.  Scarcely any subject is evoked more frequently.  The sun and reddening dawn's play of color, day and night, cloud and lightning, the air and ether, all these are unfolded before us, again and again ... but there is one thing no one would ever learn from these ancient songs ... and that is that the sky is blue. (1)  

He proposed that all cultures develop the words for colors in generally the same order: first black and white, then red, followed by yellow and green.  Blue comes late in nearly every culture.  This happens for many reasons.  Blue is rare in nature.  Most blue flowers are bred artificially and blue is one of the hardest dyes to make. 

It seems that in some cases, cultures without a word for blue don't even really "see" blue. (2) Or rather, they see it as green, or another color for which they do have a name.  

How can this be?  Is the color blue not objective? 

As Dietrich von Hildebrand puts it in the Aesthetics, "The beauty of marvelous weather, when the sky is a blue vault above us, and the splendor of the light, are objective data." (3)  And again: "If we see the color of a green meadow or the yellowish-white color of travertine, this color does not imply a live relationship with our eyes ... [it] communicates to us something about the object, not about our eyes." (4) 

How do we reconcile our clear experience of seeing color as saying something about the object and not about our eyes with the fact that other pairs of eyes clearly  do not see what we see? Is the sky really blue even if Homer could not see it? 

I think it is, and I think the answer lies in training and learning.  As odd as it may seem, we may be able to see something more about the sky than Homer could see because we've been trained by our parents or brothers and sisters or someone else to really see the blue in a way that the Greeks of Homer's time were not.  Of course, this assumes first, that the Greeks had the same physical capacities that we have and second that physical color-blindness can only be overcome in the most limited way by training.

However, this theory may help to explain one of the biggest problems about beauty.  Is a masterpiece work of art beautiful in its own existence even if I don't experience it as such? Is it just a matter of taste? Maybe the beauty of art is just like the blue that the authors of the Vedic scriptures couldn't see: it's there, I just have yet to be trained to see it. 
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Alexander Anderson 

Dietrich von Hildebrand's thought, like the philosophy of the Catholic Worker movement, is deeply rooted in personalism.  It's this aspect that drew me to philosophy.  Hildebrand understands deeply that philosophy begins in wonder, which is something rather important to me.  

   





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(1) Kevin Loria, "No one could see blue until modern times," Business Insider UK, Feb 27, 2015. 
(2) Loria, "No one could see," 
(3) Dietrich von Hildebrand, Aesthetics, 122. 
(4) Hildebrand, Aesthetics, 120-121. 

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