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History Of Colour

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Philosopher Gernot Böhme once remarked: “Because of his polemic against Newton, Goethe’s theory of colours represents a scandalous episode in the history of science. The reaction today is formulated: “How could a mind so great, so all encompassing, be so wrong?” (Böhme 1987, 28)

If Goethe was wrong then he failed to complete the most important task of his life. He once himself said: “… in my century I am the only person who knows the truth in the difficult science of colours …” (Goethe 1970, 267)

What can we say about the subject of their discrepancy now after so much time had passed and science insists on having correct and tested answers on the problem of colour? And how could art help us in revealing the nature of colour? The task of this essay is to explore this issue and try to come to a clearer vision of the problem.

Isaac Newton (1642-1727) carried out an extensive research into the properties of light. After experiments Newton established that white light is a mixture of different colours. He found that a beam of white light passing through a prism was split into beams of different colours. Red light is followed by orange, yellow, green, blue indigo and violet light. This was the initial brick in what became a thorough theory augmented later by explanation of light as composed of electromagnetic waves which human eye sees. The colours in what was called a spectrum were seen as a sequence of electromagnetic waves with different wavelengths.

The criticism of Newtonian physics of colour was made by the German thinker Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832). In studying phenomena Goethe aimed to perceive ideas behind them without making hypotheses. Therefore Goethe’s way of looking at the world is different from classical physics. For him, identical laws acted in nature and in art, the senses of human beings constituted the perfect physical apparatus and the fact that physics had separated experience from man was for Goethe the worst of evils. Goethe’s method is close to phenomenology which is a study of beginnings with an in-depth investigation of the phenomenon, which must be described as accurately as possible.

Indeed, Goethe`s aim was to make experience the basis for interpretation of subject studied. So Goethe took opposition to Newton and postulated – in contrast to Newton, for whom colours merely arise out of light – that colours were manifestations of tension between light and dark. In his colour theory empirical source was emphasized: Goethe claimed that if one conducts certain experiments he or she will discover the processes which produce colours.

For Goethe such experiments show an essential aspect of human seeing: darkness produces in the eye inclination to light; light, inclination to darkness. The eye “shows its vital energy, its fitness to receive the impression of the object, precisely by spontaneously tending to an opposite state.” (Goethe 1970, 159) Darkness diluted by light leads to the colours of blue, indigo, and violet; light dimmed by darkness creates the colours of yellow, orange, and red.

However, Goethe’s ideas have not played a big role in success of official science in large part due to this very success. On the other hand, the situation nowadays is even worse than it was during Goethe’s time. There is a tendency in physics to deduce everything from presupposed theoretical models. But such models can contain uncertain assumptions and disregard certain observations.

And this is the opposite of the Goethean approach! Other Goethean-like challenges to modern science also have not had much of an influence either, maybe due to their inability to explain from simple assumptions different phenomena. Physics students are still taught this approach. However, in case of our colour issue they are also taught that the colour as perceived by human beings is something outside physics and is associated with sensory perception. Although biology is responsible for exploration of human sensory perception phenomenon, it is still mostly dealing with problems too basic to provide detailed notion of human sensory mechanism.

So the Goethe’s science, which dropped a quantitative approach to things in nature and emphasized an encounter between student and subject studied, could possibly play a role of supplier of material for such research. But even this role aside, Goethe`s phenomenology is about our everyday experience and can be considered interesting and valuable as such. In fact, it could be said that phenomenology is directed to the things themselves in a way as human beings see them. Science of Goethe is an early example of a phenomenology of the natural world in which he tried to open himself to the things of nature and to identify their core aspects.

Now this sounds very much like one of tasks and purposes of art. Moreover, Goethe confirms his attention to artistic aspect of colour problem and puts sign of equality between laws in nature and art and even evaluates artistic creations as those of the higher level. Indeed, it is known to all who study art that colour theory plays an essential role in the understanding of the subject. It is an eternal study as all artists look at works of those before them and, additionally, the world of art has been enriched by the numerous chemists, psychologists and physicists who contributed to the colour theory.

Goethe wanted to be an artist. In his strong opinions about the aesthetics of colour he was poetic, saying that, “Yellow in its highest purity always carries with it the nature of brightness, and has a serene, gay softly exciting character … Hence in painting it belongs to the illuminated and emphatic side.” (Birren 1981, 80) Of red he wrote, “It conveys an impression of gravity and dignity, and at the same time of grace and attractiveness.” (Birren 1981, 80) Of blue, “This colour has a peculiar and almost indescribable effect on the eye. As a hue it is powerful, but it is on the negative side, and in its highest purity, as it were a stimulating negation.” (Birren 1981, 80)

Similar poetic approach to colour was taken on by many artists. For example the idea that colour has intrinsic meaning was promoted by Wassily Kandinsky of whom Birren says: “All artists are indebted to him for inspiring interests and speculations that go far beyond mere naturalistic phenomena.” (Birren 1981, 89)

Kandinsky spent his life as an artist searching for the connections between the senses and the soul. For him colour has an immediate influence on the soul: “Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings.” (Kandinsky, 2004, 22)  He believed that shapes and properties can be associated with colours:

Yellow Red Blue
Triangle Square Circle
Highest Intellect Pride, Avarice, Anger and Sensuality High Spirituality, Devotion to Noble Ideals and Religious Feeling

This approach represents a significant shift to subjective experience. How can it be at all reconciled with strict scientific approach? Maybe the partial answer lies in the definitions of Newton’s laws which – in the beginning of modern science – introduced the concept of primary and secondary physical qualities. The former include distance, time, mass, force and relate directly to the world of physics.

Qualities such as colour, taste, smell are supposed to arise as result of how the human body perceives phenomena and so to be outside physics. In this way the physical reality separated itself from usual human experience. This duality is confirmed by Heisenberg: “We can perhaps best describe the difference between the Goethean and Newtonian theory of colours if we state that they deal with two entirely different levels of reality.” (Heisenberg 1984, 303) But as both theories claim to be valid, does saying that they are both acceptable mean avoiding the problem?

If we put the question this way then it must be pointed out that the principal objection of Goethe against Newton was Goethe`s different notion of factuality.

Goethe blamed Newton for presenting as fact what was a hypothesis. For Goethe the knowledge of the connections was the real task of science, not their explanation, so for him light and colour are as objective as the waves and movements taken into account by physicists. Still, physics at the end of the 19th century held the notion of primary-secondary qualities. For that reason Goethe`s approach was excluded from a mechanical science for which Goethe’s science was the study of subjective effects of objective causes without knowing these causes.

However, currently an approach to colour is slowly emerging which views colours as neither objective nor subjective but as a mixture of both factors. It might even seem that there is no more conflict between Goethe’s science and modern science. Once quantitative theories soften their claims, Goethe’s and Newton’s theories are indeed simply two points of view. If we put these claims aside, however, Goethe deserves to take the prize, as his understanding of the limits of theory was deeper than that of Newton.

Finally, it seems impossible to disagree with Goethe when he points out that we live in a world of colours and few other phenomena affect us more deeply. Indeed, putting the controversial nature of the debate aside, we are all somewhat indebted to Goethe for his courage and insight that help us see the beauty of the world with our own eyes.


Birren, Faber. 1981. History Of Colour in Painting. Van Nost. Reinhold.

Böhme, Gernot. 1987. Coping with Science. Towards a new theory of science. Univ. of

Linköping Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal 1:1-48.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang. 1970. Theory of Colours. The MIT Press.

Heisenberg, Werner. 1984. Collected Works: Scientific Review Papers, Talks, and Books.

Springer-Verlag Telos.

Kandinsky, Wassily. 2004. Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Kessinger Publishing.

Newton, I., I. B. Cohen, A. Einstein, and E. Whittaker. 1952. Opticks: Or a Treatise of the

Reflections, Refractions, Inflections & Colours of Light-Based on the Fourth Edition

London, 1730. Dover Publications.

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