The Invention of Physical Science

Volume 139 of the series Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science pp 147-173

From Psychophysics to Phenomenalism: Mach and Hering on Color Vision

  • Richard L. KremerAffiliated withDepartment of History, Dartmouth College

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At the end of his famous 1672 paper in which he presented his new theory of light and colors, Isaac Newton admitted: “But to determine more absolutely, what light is, ... and by what modes or actions it produceth in our minds the phantasms of colours, is not so easie. And I shall not mingle conjectures with certainties.”1 Although Newton later in the Optics would occasionally “mingle conjectures” about how the human eye “sees” color, his theory was primarily a theory of light, a physical theory with light rays, prisms, angles of refraction, lenses and barycentric diagrams as its chief working objects. Not until the nineteenth century did color become a fully subjective phenomenon, an aspect of nature impossible to consider apart from human verbal reports about visual experience. This shift in the conceptual and disciplinary location of color, from the physical to the physiological and psychological, began perhaps with Johann von Goethe’s Zur Farbenlehre (1810) but it became canonical only with the appearance of the second section of Hermann von Helmholtz’s Handbuch der physiologischen Optik (1860). Yet even after 1860, sorting out the relative roles for physical, physiological and psychological language in describing color experiences and in explaining such experiences remained exceedingly controversial.