Is the red rose still red at night?

Would you say this beautiful red rose is still red at night?

Why shouldn’t it?

Because I don’t see it. There is no light.

How can you tell whether the rose is still red or not, if you don’t see it?

It is nothing to be decided by inspection. It is just a matter of principle.

But the mere fact that you don’t see the rose cannot be a sufficient reason for you to assume that it has ceased being red!

Of course not. But my point is this: Colours do not exist without light. The sensation of colour is caused by the light impinging on the receptors in the retina in our eyes.

So you would rather say that colour is a property of light?

Well, no, not even that, actually. It is something subjective, a sensation ... The ”red” is not out there, it is in my mind.

What does it mean, to be situated “in the mind”? What place is that? Isn’t it simpler to think of colour as being where we see it? In this case, at the rose.

But you must admit that the redness is not a property of the rose as a physical object.

Well that depends... The rose petals have the property of absorbing parts of the sunlight and reflecting the rest. And this spectral reflectance is a physical property, related to the physical and chemical structure of the material. It is certainly measurable. And it is a property that remains in darkness, I am sure. The rose is ”potentially” red in darkness, one could say. Whenever you switch on the light the colour is immediately there. If it were not a property of a red object to be red, why do we perceive it that way? If I loose this red pencil and somebody comes to me with a similar but blue one, I am sure it is not the same pencil. We use colour to identify objects.

Yet it is a property only loosely connected with the object. What you describe is a tentative physical definition of object colour. Maybe the best and only possible one. But it doesn’t do justice to colour as a phenomenon. A perception psychologist as well as any painter, knows that the objects do not show as definite colours as we usually think. The colour of one and the same object varies in different lights and even depends on the neighbourhood of other coloured objects. The so called ”perceptual constancy” of object colours is an abstraction, made possible by inaccurate observation. It is a well-known saying, that you see what you expect to see!

Yes, true, but it seems to me that now we are not speaking of the colour of the rose any longer. We are speaking of ”red” as an abstraction. The red-of-the-rose taken away from the rose. And you must admit: you asked me about the colour of the rose. Perhaps one could say: You prefer to regard colour as something belonging to the optical situation.

At the moment, when I look at the rose, it shows me a beautiful red colour. This is what I mean by the red of the rose. It might be momentary or permanent, it may belong to the rose or to the situation, what do I know, and what do I care. In the evening, at dusk, the red slowly fades away, finally abandoning the rose, which I still see, faintly, as a grey shape.

You have got something there! It is a peculiar experience, to see the colours coming and settle themselves on the objects, and then, again, leaving them. As if the colour was but a temporary guest. A beautiful garment. I have experienced something similar to that, when studying the appearance of colour samples in Sodium light. You know, that yellowish light which makes all colours disappear. You look deadly grey, your lips are black. If you do the experiment in a closed room, with a 90 watts low pressure Sodium lamp as only illuminant, then you cannot, for instance, see any difference between colour photos and photos in black and white. Then, if you open up a little, letting a small amount of daylight into the room – suddenly the colours are there, all the hues, as if out of nowhere.

Goethe says: Colours do not come from somewhere (for instance out of sunlight) and they don’t go anywhere. They are just there, or not there. That is the nature of colour.

I see what you are hinting at: The spectral reflectance of the petals is not a sufficient condition for the rose to be red!

Perhaps not even a necessary condition, under circumstances.

So, the red rose perhaps isn’t red in darkness, after all?! The red is something coming into existence between you and the rose, in the act of seing ...

© Pehr Sällström, febr. 2006