Early Modern Color Theory

LECTURE – Dr. John Casey, Novembre 21, 2019, 2-3:30 pm, Centre for Expanded Poetics, LB 681, Concordia University. John Casey recently received a PhD from the Department of English at Brown. His work has appeared (or is forthcoming) in Early Modern Culture and ARCADE.

Pink is a Kind of Yellow: Making Sense of Early Modern Color and Color Terms

Ideas about what color  is  and what color terms  mean  developed along diverging paths during the seventeenth century. As natural philosophers became increasingly committed to the notion that colors were mere “Phantasms” of the senses divorced from the material world, lexicographers became increasingly committed to the notion that color terms were stable, rigid words that could be defined by reference to the material world. We encounter, then, a curious situation where Milton’s mention of “the uncolored sky” and Phillips’ gloss of “Azure” as “a sky-color” both, in a manner of speaking, say something true. What, though, are we to make of colored abstractions in poetry like “a green thought”? Or sumptuary laws that involve colors like “Carnation” vaguely defined as “flesh color”? Or seemingly erroneous descriptions of natural objects like “onyx” which (we are told) is “a whyte stone, lyke to a mannes nayl”? Making sense of early modern color and color terms prompts us to ask how historical sociolinguistics inform and are informed by historical ontologies. More broadly, the problem of reconciling the seeming disjunct between how early modern color and color terms were understood forces us to ask whether semantic claims can, should, or must be squared with metaphysical ones.