Thursday, 15 May 2014

The Discovery of Blue

Around a year ago I spoke with several painters about my hunch that it would never have occurred to ancient peoples to say that distant mountains "look blue". They were unconvinced, "Everyone sees distant mountains just like we do," they told me, "so there is no reason why distant mountains wouldn't have been described as looking blue." I argued that, whilst our sensory capacities have indeed remained the same, we can only say that distant mountains look blue because we are acquainted with pictorial techniques (and their associated terminology) that were completely unknown to our distant ancestors and even to recent cultures unfamiliar with these innovations. I had nothing to back up my claims except further argument and the near certain knowledge that there is no evidence anywhere in the world of ancient depictions of hazy blue mountains. 

Last week, with the help of another friend, I came across some very persuasive evidence in support of my claims.

In 2010 the linguist Guy Deutscher, published a book entitled "Through the Language Glass" which discusses the research of W. E. Gladstone, who in 1858, a decade prior to taking up office as British Prime Minister, published a 3 volume study of the work of Homer. Gladstone noted that Homer's entire oeuvre contains not a single mention of the colour blue. Hundreds of references are made to other colours but blue is entirely absent. Soon after the publication of Gladstone's work, a German philologist by the name of Lazarus Geiger, discovered that this absence of blue is characteristic of ancient texts the world over and is a notable instance of many similar cultural variations in the description of colours. Following Geiger's discoveries, the most obvious explanation — that the cause was attributable to colour-blindness — was immediately ruled out. Even Gladstone had initially concluded that this was the case but to his credit he also offered another more insightful explanation:
"The art of painting was wholly, and that dying was almost, unknown...The artificial colours with which the human eye was conversant, were chiefly the ill-defined, and anything but full-bodied, tints of metals. The materials, therefore, for a system of colour did not offer themselves to Homer's vision as they do to ours. Particular colours were indeed exhibited in rare beauty, as the blue of the sea and of the sky. Yet these colours were, so to speak, isolated fragments; and, not entering into a general scheme, they were apparently not conceived with the precision necessary to master them. It seems easy to comprehend that the eye may require familiarity with an ordered system of colours, as the condition of its being able closely to appreciate any one among them."
Deutscher describes several 20th Century anthropological studies in which many indigenous cultures have been found to have similarly limited vocabularies of colour. He discusses the commonplace theoretical explanations for these findings and how that mistakenly assumed various forms of physiological cause. Only very recently has it been confirmed that Gladstone's alternative explanation was correct: differences in the vocabulary of colour across cultures are the result of cultural developments (of acquired skills, tools and materials), not biological changes.

In order to elucidate the issues Deutscher invents a brilliant fantasy that deserves to be quoted at length:
"Imagine we are sometime in the distant future when every home is equipped with a machine that looks a bit like a microwave but in fact does far more than merely warm food up. It creates food out of thin air-or rather out of frozen stock cubes it teleports directly from the supermarket. Put a cube of fruit stock in the machine, for example, and at the touch of a few buttons you can conjure up any imaginable fruit: one button gives you a perfectly ripe avocado, another button a juicy grapefruit.
      But this is an entirely inadequate way to describe what this wonderful machine can do, because it is by no means limited to the few “legacy fruits” that were available in the early twenty-first century. The machine can create thousands of different fruits by manipulating the taste and the consistency on many different axes, such as firmness, juiciness, creaminess, airiness, sliminess, sweetness, tanginess, and many others that we don’t have precise words to describe. Press a button, and you’ll get a fruit that’s a bit like an avocado in its oily consistency, but with a taste halfway between a carrot and a mango. Twiddle a knob, and you’ll get a slimy lychee-like fruit with a taste somewhere between peach and watermelon.
      In fact, even coarse approximations like “a bit like X” or “halfway between Y and Z” do not do justice to the wealth of different flavors that will be available. Instead, our successors will have developed a rich and refined vocabulary to cover the whole space of possible tastes and consistencies. They will have specific names for hundreds of distinct areas in this space and will not be bound by the few particular tastes of the fruit we happen to be familiar with today.
      Now imagine that an anthropologist specializing in primitive cultures beams herself down to the natives in Silicon Valley, whose way of life has not advanced a kilobyte beyond the Google age and whose tools have remained just as primitive as they were in the twenty-first century. She brings along with her a tray of taste samples called the Munsell Taste System. On it are representative samples of the whole taste space, 1,024 little fruit cubes that automatically reconstitute themselves on the tray the moment one picks them up. She asks the natives to try each of these and tell her the name of the taste in their language, and she is astonished at the abject poverty of their fructiferous vocabulary. She cannot comprehend why they are struggling to describe the taste samples, why their only abstract taste concepts are limited to the crudest oppositions such as “sweet” and “sour,” and why the only other descriptions they manage to come up with are “it’s a bit like an X,” where X is the name of a certain legacy fruit. She begins to suspect that their taste buds have not yet fully evolved. But when she tests the natives, she establishes that they are fully capable of telling the difference between any two cubes in her sample. There is obviously nothing wrong with their tongue, but why then is their langue so defective?
      Let’s try to help her. Suppose you are one of those natives and she has just given you a cube that tastes like nothing you’ve ever tried before. Still, it vaguely reminds you of something. For a while you struggle to remember, then it dawns on you that this taste is slightly similar to those wild strawberries you had in a Parisian restaurant once, only this taste seems ten times more pronounced and is blended with a few other things that you can’t identify. So finally you say, very hesitantly, that “it’s a bit like wild strawberries.” Since you look like a particularly intelligent and articulate native, the anthropologist cannot resist posing a meta-question: doesn’t it feel odd and limiting, she asks, not to have precise vocabulary to describe tastes in the region of wild strawberries? You tell her that the only things “in the region of wild strawberry” that you’ve ever tasted before were wild strawberries, and that it has never crossed your mind that the taste of wild strawberries should need any more general or abstract description than “the taste of wild strawberries.” She smiles with baffled incomprehension.
      If all this sounds absurd, then just replace “taste” with “color” and you’ll see that the parallel is quite close. We do not have the occasion to manipulate the taste and consistency of fruit, and we are not exposed to a systematic array of highly “saturated” (that is, pure) tastes, only to a few random tastes that occur in the fruit we happen to know. So we have not developed a refined vocabulary to describe different ranges of fruity flavor in abstraction from a particular fruit. Likewise, people in primitive cultures-as Gladstone had observed at the very beginning of the color debate-have no occasion to manipulate colors artificially and are not exposed to a systematic array of highly saturated colors, only to the haphazard and often unsaturated colors presented by nature. So they have not developed a refined vocabulary to describe fine shades of hue. We don’t see the need to talk about the taste of a peach in abstraction from the particular object, namely a peach. They don’t see the need to talk about the color of a particular fish or bird or leaf in abstraction from the particular fish or bird or leaf. When we do talk about taste in abstraction from a particular fruit, we rely on the vaguest of opposites, such as “sweet” and “sour.” When they talk about color in abstraction from an object, they rely on the vague opposites “white/light” and “black/dark.” We find nothing strange in using “sweet” for a wide range of different tastes, and we are happy to say “sweet a bit like a mango,” or “sweet like a banana,” or “sweet like a watermelon.” They find nothing strange in using “black” for a wide range of colors and are happy to say “black like a leaf” or “black like the sea beyond the reef area.”
      In short, we have a refined vocabulary of color but a vague vocabulary of taste. We find the refinement of the former and vagueness of the latter equally natural, but this is only because of the cultural conventions we happen to have been born into. One day, others, who have been reared in different circumstances, may judge our vocabulary of taste to be just as unnatural and just as perplexingly deficient as the color system of Homer seems to us."
Cyanometer, 1789, for measuring the colour of the sky by Swiss physicist
 Horace-Bénédict de Saussure and German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt


Simon said...

Fascinating... Apart from the change over time, he difference in breadth of vocabulary between contemporaries is also intriguing - I have a friend who is a professional perfumer, and have begun to glimpse a whole universe of descriptors for smells you and I may be able to differentiate, but not put words to.

As in the Deutsch fantasy, there are various subtle dimensions to this smell space, as well as legacy smells and synthetic, impossibly pure components.

There is also a step by step process by which one becomes literate - by memorizing basic lists of ‘typical’ smells for each dimension, and then branching out from there.

In other cases, it may be quite unclear what comes first - the increased sophistication in technology/analysis, or the more precise vocabulary/sensitivity to differences (Example: Learning to perceive and describe the difference between fossil specimens vs generating a model of interrelated species).

Jim Hamlyn said...

Wow Simon, that's incredible. On your last point - I wonder though, is it really unclear what comes first (innovation or language)? I think this is partly what I'm trying to question. If we say that language is necessary then we bar the possibility that non-language users could ever perceive such things and that seems extremely unlikely to me. Don't we just make up terms for things we discover?

Simon said...

But doesn't the language scaffolding encourage us to look for certain things we might never have noticed otherwise?

Jim Hamlyn said...

Do you mean like discriminating subtleties in a vintage wine?

Simon said...

That would be learning to see differences which others can already see. But I wonder if a system of description could also lead you to look in places no one ever has - for example by extrapolating from known sensations.

In his book ‘The secret of scent’, the perfumer Luca Turin describes how a new theory about how olfaction works enabled him to develop synthetic compounds with novel smells.

Or think of mathematics: Newton describes the laws of motion, then you know where to look for new planets that were there all along.

Jim Hamlyn said...

Yes, I wondered whether you might be thinking about the postulation of previously unseen planets. You're right of course that concept manipulation (language) allows us to calculate and postulate and discover all kinds of amazing things. But, this doesn't mean that such things are *in principle* beyond the realms of our being capable of noticing them. If it is possible to represent something by nonverbal means then, in principle, it is possible to notice that thing without language.

Simon said...

I’m uncertain - what if the discovery needs a concerted, directed effort (a telescope, a Large Hadron Collider etc) in order to become accessible to our senses? You would never stumble over the Higgs Boson, if you didn’t set out to find it.

But maybe I shouldn’t have confused the matter by bringing science into it - we were talking about simple colour and smell perception after all.

But let’s say someone stumbles over a colour or smell which is new to them - they could

a) come up with a new word for it, thereby sharpening their ability to differentiate future perceptions.


b) ‘lump’ it in with similar perceptions they’ve had in the past, thereby missing out on the novelty of the perception.

Even if they do the former, the people around them may argue that the difference is only imagined / brought about by a kind of self-hypnosis. Imagine the reactions to the first ever attempts to define ‘blue’ as an independent colour...

I am still struggling with the idea of non-verbal representation. As I see it, an image doesn’t really represent anything, until someone looks at it and starts to make sense of it (presumably using language) - even if you stare at something absent-mindedly or with a draughtsman’s eye for form - where is the representative aspect at that moment?

Jim Hamlyn said...

Yes, but note—the stumbling comes before the naming, not the other way round.

Technologically assisted perception is a different matter because imperceptible things aren't perceptible, by definition.

I think you're right though that concept formation allows us to conceive of things that are currently imperceptible and to seek ways to make them perceptible. But if something is perceptible then we don't necessarily need language to bring it to our attention.

You write: "As I see it, an image doesn’t really represent anything, until someone looks at it and starts to make sense of it (presumably using language)." I take the opposing view I'm afraid. Symbols and pictograms do need to be interpreted but photographs are by no means dependent upon symbolism or language use. We don't need to "make sense" of photographs for them to be recognised as representations. We can show photographs to infants before they can speak and they can recognise them. Set up the photographic presentation in the right way and we'll find it impossible to discriminate between representation and reality. And surely we don't need language to perceive reality?
Pictures look like the things they represent and they do this instantaneously. They don't gradually come into view as we find words to describe them any more than the world gradually comes into view as we look at it. We look, we see - no interpretation or making sense or understanding or judgement necessary. These come later.

Simon said...

I think there isn’t really a disagreement between our positions. You’ve definitively convinced me that we don’t need language to ‘recognize’ something in an image (the fact that under closely controlled circumstances images can be taken for reality seems proof enough of that).

But although the act of recognition can be nonverbal and seems immediate - it is still a representation of sorts (taking an arrangement of shapes to be an entity we already know). Making sense of raw input is something we seem to learn as newborns - it becomes so automatic that we no longer notice.

Continued exposure to similar sense impressions starts to wear deep channels, so that when something new comes along which vaguely fits, we’ll again see it as entity XY. For the most prominent of those typical cases, we’ll tend to come up with words. Of course, this makes it harder and harder to see things which previous experience didn’t lead us to expect.

Jim Hamlyn said...

That's art — things (skills in fact) which previous experience didn't lead us to expect!

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