Colour – Documents of Contemporary Art. Vital passage

I’m currently reading Colour – Documents of Contemporary Art, Edited by David Batchelor.


  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Whitechapel Art Gallery (1 Oct 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0854881603
  • ISBN-13: 978-0854881604

I found this parts of the text by Ludwig Wittgenstein totally resonated with my own thinking on colour.

56. But what if no such sample is part of the language, and we bear in mind the colour (for instance) that a word stands for? – ‘And if we bear it in mind then it comes before our mind’s eye when we utter the word. So, if it is always supposed to be possible for us to remember it, it must be in itself indestructible.’ – But what do we regard as the criterion for remembering it right? – When we work with a sample instead of our memory there are circumstances in which we say that the sample has changed colour and we judge of this by memory. But can we not sometimes speak of a darkening (for example) of our memory-image? Aren’t we as much at the mercy of memory as of a sample? (For someone might feel like saying: ‘If we had no memory we should be at the mercy of a sample.’) – Or perhaps of some chemical reaction. Imagine that you were supposed to paint a particular colour ‘C’, which was the colour that appeared when the chemical substances X and Y combined. – Suppose that the colour struck you are brighter on one day than on another; would you not sometimes say: ‘I must be wrong, the colour is certainly the same as yesterday’? This shows that we do not always resort to what memory tells us as the verdict of the highest court of appeal.

57. ‘Something red can be destroyed, but red cannot be destroyed, and that is why the meaning of the word ‘red’ is independent of the existence of a red thing.’ – Certainly it makes no sense to say that the colour red is torn up or pounded to bits. But don’t we say ‘The red is vanishing’? And don’t clutch at the idea of our always being able to bring red before our mind’s eye even when there is nothing red any more. That is just as if you chose to say that there would still always be a chemical reaction producing a red flame. – For suppose you cannot remember the colour any more? – When we forget which colour this is the name of, it loses its meaning for us; that is, we are no longer able to play a particular language game with it. And the situation then is comparable with that in which we have lost a paradigm which was an instrument of our language. […]

272. The essential thing about private experience is really not that each person possesses his own exemplar, but that nobody knows whether other people also have this or something else. The assumption would thus be possible – though unverifiable – that one section of mankind had one sensation of red and another section another.

273. What am I to say about the word ‘red’? – that it means something ‘confronting us all’ and that everyone should really have another word, besides this one, to mean his own sensation of red? Or is it like this: the word ‘red’ means something known to everyone; and in addition, for each person, it means something known only to him? (Or perhaps rather: it refers to something known only to him.)

274. Of course, saying the word ‘red’ ‘refers to’ instead of ‘means’ something private does not help us in the least to grasp its function; but it is the more psychologically apt expression for a particular experience in doing philosophy. It is as if when I uttered the word I cast a sidelong glance at the private sensation, as it were in order to say to myself: I know all right what I mean by it.

275. Look at the blue of the sky and say to yourself ‘How blue the sky is!’ – When you do it spontaneously – without philosophical intentions – the idea never crosses your mind that this impression of colour belongs only to you. And you have no hesitation in exclaiming that to someone else. And if you point at anything as you say the words you point at the sky. I am saying: you have not the feeling of pointing-into-yourself, which often accompanies ‘naming the sensation’ when one is thinking about ‘private language’. Nor do you think that really you ought not to point to the colour with your hand, but with your attention. (Consider what it means ‘to point to something with the attention’.)

276. But don’t we at least mean something quite definite when we look at a colour and name our colour-impression? It is as if we detached the colour-impression from the object, like a membrane. (This ought to arouse our suspicions.)

277. But how is it even possible for us to be tempted to think that we use a word to mean at one time the colour known to everyone – and at another the ‘visual impression’ which I am getting now? How can there be so much as a temptation here? – I don’t turn the same kind of attention on the colour in the two cases. When I mean the colour impression that (as I should like to say) belongs to me alone I immerse myself in the colour – rather like when I ‘cannot get my fill of a colour’. Hence it is easier to produce this experience when one is looking at a bright colour, or at an impressive colour-scheme.

278. ‘I know how the colour green look to me‘ – surely that makes sense! – Certainly: what use of the proposition are you thinking of?

279. Imagine sometime saying: ‘But I know how tall I am!’ an laying his hand on top of his head to prove it.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 1945-49. P104-6

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