Colors and Languages

  • Wolfgang Wenning


Colors are unsettled entities suspicious to exist in the mind as well as in the world outside. It is hard to say what they “really” are. If they are in the mind, how do they find their place in the world and if they are in the world how do they enter into the mind? If colors “really” are physical states of the brain (or Platonic ideas), how are these related to mental states of color experiences? Much progress has been achieved in understanding color vision as a neural information processing system obeying psychophysical laws. No comparable progress occured — since Plato — in the philosophy of mind. There is much truth in Sokrates’ mythological allusion — in the dialogue Theaitetos — that the goddess of the rainbow, Iris, is in fact known to be the daughter of Thaumas, that is, of somebody who is puzzled. Meanwhile the rainbow is not a puzzle anymore for the physicist, yet it became a puzzle for the linguist. If the stripes of the rainbow — the veils of Iris so to speak — are counted using color terms in different languages, one gets different numbers. For instance in Tzeltal there is only one term for both blue and green. That is why linguists came to believe, that speakers of different languages perceive the rainbow in different ways. If, what is a continuum in physics, is — initially — also a continuum in perception, structure appears to become a matter of linguistic convention.


Color Vision Color Naming Basic Color Color Category Opponent Color 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1985

Authors and Affiliations

  • Wolfgang Wenning
    • 1
  1. 1.Berlin 31Germany

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