Assistant Professor, Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Pittsburgh
Do colors exist or are they merely an illusion? The posing of color as a challenge to our habitual belief in the reality of the visual world is commonly thought to go back to the scientific revolution of the 17th century. Between the wars of the last century historians and philosophers like Burtt, Husserl, and Whitehead gave us highly influential narratives in which the mathematized and mechanical physical sciences of Galileo and Newton (among others) formed a new metaphysical picture that stripped colors away from objective nature.
In this talk I reconsider the narrative, suggesting that the puzzle of fitting color into the scientific image really took shape in the 19th century, with the appearance of a mechanistic science of the brain and nervous system. In 1872 the pioneering neurophysiologist Emil du Bois Reymond lectured on the “limits of our knowledge of nature.” He described the impossibility of a scientific understanding of conscious experience, a subject that philosophers of mind still grapple with today. As I argue, the questioning of the reality of color is one road to this infamous explanatory gap. In the 19th century – a great age for unificatory projects in the natural sciences – the methodological concerns of neurophysiologists became yoked to the conception of mind that we rely on to account for visual experience. Hence, we might say that color and the brain became mutually inexplicable.
Mazviita Chirimuuta is an assistant professor of history and philosophy of science at the University of Pittsburgh. She received her Ph.D. in vision science from the University of Cambridge in 2004, and is the author of Outside Colour: Perceptual Science and the Puzzle of Colour in Philosophy (2015).