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50 SHADES of meaning!

The Definition of Colour: A Classically inspired Critical Thinking Exercise

“Colour is an effluence from shapes which is commensurate with sight and perceptible.”

What is colour? The above definition is put into the mouth of Socrates in Plato’s dialogue, Meno. Is this a good definition?

Definitions always make a good critical thinking exercise as long as they don’t descend into quibbly hair-splitting, e.g., minor tweaks to the definition through a flurry of new examples. This is more about whether finding a definition is a plausible venture and what makes a good one if it is indeed achievable. It’s about the process, not who comes up with the best definition, hey, even Socrates didn’t manage that.

So, back to colour. How would you unpick/critique the above definition? Several ways. One interesting avenue was whether colour was perceivable only by sight, as Plato’s definition assumes. This may sound a little mad. But I once came across an article about a woman who was blind but said that she could ‘feel’ colour. How would you test this? What implications does it have for our understanding of and assumptions about colour? What can a knowledge of colour-related synaesthesia add to our understanding? Mahler saw colours when he composed. Are the senses as ‘distinct’ or ‘disconnected’ as we might assume?

This has the potential to become an epistemology, or ‘how do we know’ debate.

Another way colour can offer interesting and critical food for thought is the question of whether colour is an absolute, or whether it is something we perceive and interpret, or which possesses degrees and nuances. Have a look at the following quotation from Homer:

gazing into the distance, as far as any can see across the wine-dark water.’

(Iliad, 5.770-2).

Hmmm, water is not the same colour as wine. Had Homer had too much of said beverage when he wrote that? No. There is the argument that humans did not perceive blue at an earlier time. Or was it that they perceived it in a different way and defined the same colour in a different way?

The questions of cultural variation in perceptions of culture is one that ought to make us stop and think. Do we conceive colour too narrowly?

I have to say that one night, gazing out on the sea in my hometown, the incredible depth of the sea’s darkness brought Homer’s description to life. The swirling dark water, almost without distinct hue, did indeed remind me of a swirling glass of dark red wine that is so dark the red colour is not apparent unless swirled.

Is Homer unaware of ‘blue’ or just trying to capture the opaque and rich darkness of the ocean?

A further example is the Greek xanthos. It is often translated as ‘yellow’, ‘blonde’, or ‘golden’, the latter ranging from light sun gold to the tawny gold of a lion. But then our own ‘yellow’ covers a huge range of shades.

I once asked a pupil: ‘you say the grass is green, I say it’s yellow. Argue your case.’

I wish you a happy and COLOUR-ful debate. Sorry!

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