Dibner Library Lecture: Color in the Scientific Image

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Zur Farbenlehre [Theory of Colors]. Tübingen: J.G. Cotta'schen Buchhandlung, 1810

Please join the Smithsonian Libraries on Friday, January 13, 2017 for our 23rd Annual Dibner Library Lecture featuring Mazviita Chirimuuta, Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Pittsburgh

6:00pm, Friday, January 13, 2017
Warner Bros Theater at the National Museum of American History
12th Street and Constitution Ave NW
Washington, DC

This event is free. RSVP is requested. Please click here to RSVP or contact us at 202.633.2241 or silrsvp@si.edu.
For access services, please contact us at silrsvp@si.edu or 202.633.2241, preferably two weeks prior to the program.

Color in the Scientific Image
Mazviita Chirimuuta, 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 stem back to the so-called 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 (amongst others) formed a new metaphysical picture which stripped colors away from objective nature.

In this lecture, Dr. Chirimuuta will 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 spelled out the problem of the impossibility of a scientific understanding conscious experience, one which philosophers of mind still grapple with today. As I will argue, the questioning of the reality of color is one pathway towards this infamous explanatory gap. In the 19th century, which was a great age for unificatory projects in the natural sciences, the methodological concerns of neurophysiologists became yoked to the conception of mind which we rely on to account for visual experience. Hence, we might say, color and the brain became mutually inexplicable.