Aristotle on color

Here I will present Aristotle conception on color through giving my interpretation of his short and explicit sentence in the seventh chapter of the second book of On the Soul.

   Aristotle introduces his definition of color not in itself but within the broader context of his theory about visual sense perception. For him, each specific sense perception has three main interlinked components: sensible object; proper medium; and pertinent sense organ. Therefore, when we want to understand the vision of color by the visual sense, we should consider interplays of its three relevant components. It means that when we want to see any color as normal human beings,we should have healthy eyes; existence of sensible colored object; and specific medium.

          With regard to this visual background, we consider his brief definition of color: Any color is what is capable of moving the transparent according to actuality, and this is the nature of it” (πᾶν δὲ χρῶμα κινητικόν ἐστι τοῦ κατ' ἐνέργειαν διαφανοῦς, καὶ τοῦτ' ἐστὶν αὐτοῦφύσις 418a31-b2. Ronal Polansky 2010, 266). By exploring the key terms of this formal definition, we can reach to Aristotle conception of color’s nature within discussion on visual sense in On the Soul in distinction of the other writings such as De coloribus; and De sensu that contain remarks about color.

         According to his definition, it seems that it is in nature of any color / πᾶν δὲχρῶμα and more correctly colored things to move / κινητικόν or act upon something else that is transparent according to actuality. Therefore, function of colored objects is moving, acting upon, alteration and changing of something else that receives and accepts such an action. For him, kinesis is the actualization(entelecheia) of a potentiality (dynamis) qua potentiality. It occurs as metabole, i.e., a change in the category of quality, quantity, or place (Peters 1967, 103 under the entry of “kinesis). Without going into his detailed theory about movement and mover, in relation to our intended sentence, we say that colored things function as “external” cause and agent in moving - changing something else. Thus, the essence of color is agency or moving ability and as such it should act upon something other than itself. And according to the selected sentence, it seems that before the vision of the color by human eyes (as the main theme of his discussion in this chapter) there is something between that is acted upon by the movement of the colored things. He calls this in-between or “medium” “transparent according to actuality”. Before describing his account of this key category, I give my justification for the term “medium”. The use of medium as a complexity denotes to the existence of two ordered, distinct and interrelated entities that something related and necessary for both comes between and conveys in one direction something from one to the other. According to Aristotle definition of color in the field of vision, beforereaching the color to eyes and perceiving it, the colored object should move something that is mediated between color and eye and is acted on and at the same time conveys and affects the eyes. And it seems that transparent according to actuality has the quality of a visual medium because it works as an in-between through which impressions of colored things are transmitted to the visual organ that is at distance. This actual transparency that is colorless, illuminated, and neutral is “light” and is capable of receiving and conveying any color to the eyes that receive and perceives the form of color without its matter.    

Author: Mostafa Yunesi

Published: 11.8.2018

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