On Describing Color



Defne Doken, Staff Writer

Language is a wonderful tool; we can seemingly turn the raw thoughts in our minds into beautifully flowing sentences. Still, aren’t there those thoughts which escape the dry-bristled brush of language? For example, what if you endeavored to describe so vividly the color yellow to a blind person so that they may be able to see and understand the color yellow as it really is? A picture is worth a thousand words, after all.

Furthermore, if we are able to accomplish this, how will that person express to us that they have indeed seen and understood color in the same way that we understand it? How do we know that we all understand color in the same way? Language does not let us fully express these things. What if our picture of the world, filtered through our senses, deceives us? If the reader has read my previous article on Parmenides, these ideas may sound familiar. Perhaps, since we cannot properly convey our perception of the world to others, we will never know how differently we all perceive the color yellow.

You may say, “I can try to describe color to a blind person. See! I will tell him that yellow is sunny and fire is hot and blazing and blue is icy and calm.” Do these adjectives truly paint a picture of the color, or are they somewhat biased in their own right? See, to describe the color yellow, we cannot use words like “sunny” and “buttery” because those descriptions are derived from empirical observations of physical phenomena on earth such as the fact that the sun is yellow and butter is yellow. What of a planet (in our same universe) in which the sun is green and butter is pink; would our description or perception of color change? You may start describing pink as soft and buttery, and would that be alright? 

Now you may understand that these descriptions are not related to any inherent quality of the color produced by the physical wavelength of light. Thus, we must venture further into this cave of ponderance. You may say, “Our language works fine for most things! Why are you so fussy about describing color?” It is true that the most glaring benefit of being able to truly describe color may be its effect on the blind. Yet, it may also help us understand if our worldviews are the same. If we are able to describe the reality of color by means of language, think of how many other things we may be able to describe with ease. Surely this would increase the efficiency of our society.

We have stepped away from the fallacy of believing empirical evidence can be used to describe color. Still, what can we use to describe color? Can theoretical scientific knowledge be used to express color? Math is the language of the universe, and thus any description based on math or science would be constant and true. Yet, how would we go about such a thing?

If you aim to write about such a topic as this, you may fall prey to the myriad of question marks that seem to litter your article. Yet, these question marks represent a greater hunger for knowledge and curiosity about the commonly agreed upon. We should always question everything, even if it is commonly agreed upon. You may still not care about the dilemma of truthfully describing color; yet if I have made you at least QUESTION it, that is enough.