Theory of Colours

Theory of Colours

Infobox Book
name = Theory of Colours
title_orig = Zur Farbenlehre
translator = Charles Eastlake []

image_caption = Light spectrum, from "Theory of Colours" – Goethe observed that colour arises at the edges, and the spectrum occurs where these coloured edges overlap.
author = Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
illustrator =
cover_artist =
country =
language = German
series =
subject =
genre =
publisher = John Murray
pub_date = 1810
english_pub_date = 1840
media_type =
pages =
isbn = 0-262-57021-1
oclc =
preceded_by =
followed_by =

"Theory of Colours" (original German title, "Zur Farbenlehre") is a book by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe published in 1810. The work comprises three sections: i) a didactic section in which Goethe presents his own observations, ii) a polemic section in which he makes his case against Newton, and iii) a historical section. It contains some of the earliest and most accurate descriptions of phenomena such as coloured shadows, refraction, and chromatic aberration.

Its influence extends primarily to the art world, especially among the Pre-Raphaelites. J. M. W. Turner studied it comprehensively, and referenced it in the titles of several paintings (Bockemuhl, 1991 [cite book | last = Bockemuhl | first = M. | title = Turner | publisher = Taschen, Koln | year = 1991 | isbn = 3-8228-6325-4] ). Wassily Kandinsky considered Goethe's theory, "one of the most important works.". [cite web | last = Rowley | first = Alison | title = Kandinskii's theory of colour and Olesha's Envy | work = | publisher = LookSmart FindArticles | date = September-December 2002 | url = | accessdate = 2007-07-14 ]

Although Goethe's work was never well received by physicists, a number of philosophers and physicists have been known to have concerned themselves with it, including Arthur Schopenhauer, Kurt Gödel, Werner Heisenberg, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Hermann von Helmholtz. Mitchell Feigenbaum had even convinced himself that 'Goethe had been right about colour!' (Ribe & Steinle, 2002 [cite journal | last = Ribe | first = Neil | coauthors = Steinle, Friedrich | title = Exploratory Experimentation: Goethe, Land, and Color Theory | publisher = Physics Today | month = July | year = 2002 | year = 2002] ).

In his book, Goethe provides a general exposition of how colour is perceived in a variety of circumstances, and considers Isaac Newton's observations to be special cases. [ [ Physics Today July 2002 ] ] Goethe's concern was not so much with the analytic measurement of colour phenomenon, as with the qualities of how phenomena are perceived. Science has come to understand the distinction between the optical spectrum, as observed by Newton, and the phenomenon of human colour perception as presented by Goethe.

Goethe's theory

It is hard to present Goethe's "theory," since he refrains from setting up any actual theory; "its intention is to portray rather than explain" ("Scientific Studies" [cite journal | last = Goethe | first = Johann | editor-last = Miller | editor-first = Douglas | title = Scientific Studies (Goethe: The Collected Works, Vol. 12), p.57 | publisher = Princeton University Press | month = October | year = 1995 | year = 1995] ). For Goethe, "the highest is to understand that all fact is really theory. The blue of the sky reveals to us the basic law of color. Search nothing beyond the phenomena, they themselves are the theory." [Quoted in translation in: cite journal | last = Hughes | first = Peter | title = Performing Theory: Wittgenstein and the Trouble with Shakespeare | journal = Comparative Criticism | year = 1992 | volume = 14 | pages = 85 | accessdate = ]

"The crux of his color theory is its experiential source: rather than impose theoretical statements, Goethe sought to allow light and color to be displayed in an ordered series of experiments that readers could experience for themselves." (Seamon, 1998 [cite book | last = Seamon | first = David | editor-last = Seamon | editor-first = David | editor2-last = Zajonc | editor2-first = Arthur | title = Goethe's Way of Science: A Phenomenology of Nature | State University of New York Press | place = Albany, NY | year = 1998] ). As such, he would reject both the wave and particle theories because they are conceptually inferred and not directly perceived by the human senses. According to Goethe, "Newton's error... was trusting math over the sensations of his eye." (Jonah Lehrer, "Goethe and Color", December 7, 2006 [] )

Goethe outlines his method in the essay, "The experiment as mediator between subject and object" (1772). It underscores his experiential standpoint. "The human being himself, to the extent that he makes sound use of his senses, is the most exact physical apparatus that can exist." (Goethe, "Scientific Studies" [cite journal | last = Goethe | first = Johann | editor-last = Miller | editor-first = Douglas | title = Scientific Studies (Goethe: The Collected Works, Vol. 12), p.57 | publisher = Princeton University Press | month = October | year = 1995 | year = 1995] )

Historical background

In 1740, Louis Bertrand Castel published a criticism of Newton's spectral description of prismatic colour, [cite book | title = L'Optique des couleurs | publisher = Paris | year = 1740 | author = Louis-Bertrand Castel] where he observed that the colours of white light split by a prism depended on the distance from the prism, and that Newton was looking at a special case; an argument which Goethe later developed. [cite book | title = Instruments and the Imagination | author = Thomas L. Hankins and Robert J. Silverman | publisher = Princeton UniversityPress | year = 1995 | ibsn = 0691005494 | url =,M1 ]

It was in the 1780s when Goethe was asked to return a prism which had been on loan from the Privy Councillor Buettner in Jena. As he did so, he paused to take a look "through" the prism – and what he saw led him to a comprehensive study of light phenomena, culminating in "The Theory of Colours". [cite book | last = Steiner | first = Rudolf | title = First Scientific Lecture-Course, Third Lecture, Stuttgart, 25th December 1919, GA320 | year = 1919]

:Along with the rest of the world I was convinced that all the colours :are contained in the light; no one had ever told me anything different, :and I had never found the least cause to doubt it, because I had :no further interest in the subject. (Goethe)

At the time, it was already known that the prismatic phenomenon is a process of splitting up the colourless (white) light into colours. Newton's theory stated that colourless light already contains the seven colours within itself – and when we direct this light through a prism, the prism separates what is already there in the light – the seven colours into which it is analyzed.

Goethe's reasoning

Goethe reasoned: In such way the phenomena are interpreted, but this is not the primal or complete phenomenon. A look through the prism shows that we do not see white areas split evenly into seven colours. Rather, we see colours at some edge or border-line.

:"If we let light pass through the space of the room, we get a white circle on the screen... Put a prism in the way of the body of light that is going through there – the cylinder of light is diverted (Figure I), but what appears in the first place is not the series of seven colours at all, only a reddish colour at the lower edge, passing over into yellow, and at the upper edge a blue passing over into greenish shades. In the middle it stays white."

:"The colours therefore, to begin with, make their appearance purely and simply as phenomena at the border between light and dark. This is the original, the primary phenomenon. We are no longer seeing the original phenomenon when by reducing the circle in size we get a continuous sequence of colours. The latter phenomenon only arises when we take so small a circle that the colours extend inward from the edges to the middle. They then overlap in the middle and form what we call a continuous spectrum, while with the larger circle the colours formed at the edges stay as they are. This is the primal phenomenon. Colours arise at the borders, where light and dark flow together." (Steiner, 1919 [cite book | last = Steiner | first = Rudolf | title = First Scientific Lecture-Course, Third Lecture, Stuttgart, 25th December 1919, GA320| year = 1919] )

Goethe therefore concluded that the spectrum is a compound phenomenon. Colour arises at light-dark boundaries, and where the yellow-red and blue-violet edges overlap, you get green.

Experiments with turbid media

Goethe's studies of colour began with subjective experiments which examined the effects of turbid media on the perception of light and dark. He observed that lights seen through a turbid medium would appear yellowish, and darkness seen through a turbid medium that had been lightened would appear blue.

:"The highest degree of light, such as that of the sun... is for the most part colourless. This light, however, seen through a medium but very slightly thickened, appears to us yellow. If the density of such a medium be increased, or if its volume become greater, we shall see the light gradually assume a yellow-red hue, which at last deepens to a ruby colour." (ToC, 150)

:"If on the other hand darkness is seen through a semi-transparent medium, which is itself illumined by a light striking on it, a blue colour appears: this becomes lighter and paler as the density of the medium is increased, but on the contrary appears darker and deeper the more transparent the medium becomes: in the least degree of dimness short of absolute transparence, always supposing a perfectly colourless medium, this deep blue approaches the most beautiful violet." (ToC, 151)

Starting from these observations, he began numerous experiments, observing the effects of darkening and lightening on the perception of colour in many different circumstances.

Darkness and light

For Goethe, light is "the simplest most undivided most homogenous being that we know. Confronting it is the darkness" (Letter to Jacobi). Unlike his contemporaries, Goethe didn't see darkness as an absence of light, but rather as polar to and interacting with light; colour resulted from this interaction of light and shadow.

:"...they maintained that "shade is a part of light". It sounds absurd when I express it; but so it is: for they said that "colours", which are shadow and the result of shade, "are light itself"." (Johann Eckermann, Conversations of Goethe, entry: January 4, 1824; trans. Wallace Wood)

Based on his experiments with turbid media, Goethe characterized colour as arising from the dynamic interplay of darkness and light. The editor of the Kurschner edition of Goethe's works gives the following analogy:

:"Modern natural science sees darkness as a complete nothingness. According to this view, the light which streams into a dark space has no resistance from the darkness to overcome. Goethe pictures to himself that light and darkness relate to each other like the north and south pole of a magnet. The darkness can weaken the light in its working power. Conversely, the light can limit the energy of the darkness. In both cases color arises. " (Steiner, 1897 [cite book | last = Steiner | first = Rudolf | title = Goethe's World View, Chapter III The Phenomena of the World of Colors | year = 1897] )

Goethe writes:

:Yellow is a light which has been dampened by darkness; :Blue is a darkness weakened by the light. (Goethe, "Theory of Colours" [cite book | last = Goethe | first = Johann | title = Theory of Colours, paragraph #502 | year = 1810] )

Boundary conditions

When viewed through a prism, the orientation of a light-dark boundary with respect to the prism is significant. With white above a dark boundary, we observe the light extending a blue-violet edge into the dark area; whereas dark above a light boundary results in a red-yellow edge extending into the light area.

Goethe was intrigued by this difference. He felt that this arising of colour at light-dark boundaries was fundamental to the creation of the spectrum (which he considered to be a compound phenomenon).

Light and dark spectra

Since the colour phenomenon relies on the adjacency of light and dark, there are two ways to produce a spectrum: with a light beam in a dark room, and with a dark beam (i.e. a shadow) in a light room.

Goethe recorded the sequence of colours projected at various distances from a prism for both cases (see Plate IV, "Theory of Colours"). In both cases, he found that the yellow and blue edges remain closest to the side which is light, and red and violet edges remain closest to the side which is dark. At a certain distance, these edges overlap. When these edges overlap in a light spectrum, green results; when they overlap in a dark spectrum, magenta results.

With a light spectrum, coming out of the prism, one sees a shaft of light surrounded by dark. We find yellow-red colours along the top edge, and blue-violet colours along the bottom edge. The spectrum with green in the middle arises only where the blue-violet edges overlap the yellow-red edges.

With a dark spectrum (i.e. a shadow surrounded by light), we find violet-blue along the top edge, and red-yellow along the bottom edge – where these edges overlap, we find magenta.

Goethe's colour wheel

Goethe anticipated Ewald Hering's Opponent process theory [] by proposing a symmetric colour wheel. He writes, "The chromatic circle... [is] arranged in a general way according to the natural order... for the colours diametrically opposed to each other in this diagram are those which reciprocally evoke each other in the eye. Thus, yellow demands violet; orange, blue; red, green; and vice versa: thus... all intermediate gradations reciprocally evoke each other; the simpler colour demanding the compound, and vice versa. (Goethe, "Theory of Colours" [cite book | last = Goethe | first = Johann | title = Theory of Colours, paragraph #50 | year = 1810] ).

Newton and Goethe

Due to their different approaches to a common subject, many misunderstandings have arisen between Newton's mathematical understanding of optics, and Goethe's experiential approach.R. H. Stephenson, "Goethe's Conception of Knowledge and Science" (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1995)]

Because Newton understands white light to be composed of individual colours, and Goethe sees colour arising from the interaction of light and dark, they come to different conclusions on the question: is the optical spectrum a primary or a compound phenomenon?

For Newton, all the colours already exist in white light, and the prism merely fans them out according to their refrangability. Goethe sought to show that, as a turbid medium, the prism was an integral factor in the arising of colour.

Whereas Newton narrowed the beam of light in order to isolate the phenomenon, Goethe observed that with a wider aperture, there was no spectrum. He saw only reddish-yellow edges and blue-cyan edges with white between them, and the spectrum arose only where these edges came close enough to overlap. For him, the spectrum could be explained by the simpler phenomena of colour arising from the interaction of light and dark edges.

Goethe's reification of darkness has caused almost all of modern physics to reject Goethe's theory. Both Newton and Huygens defined darkness as an absence of light. Young and Fresnel combined Newton's particle theory with Huygen's wave theory to show that colour is the visible manifestation of light's wavelength. Physicists today attribute both a corpuscular and undulatory character to light, which is the content of the so-called Wave–particle duality. Curiously, since the crux of Goethe's theory is tied to what is experiential, he would reject both the wave and particle theories since they are conceptually inferred and not directly perceived by the human senses.

"Newton explains the fact that all the colors appear only when the prism is at a certain distance from the screen, whereas the middle otherwise is white... [by saying] the more strongly diverted lights from the upper part of the image and the more weakly diverted ones from the lower part fall together in the middle and mix into white. The colors appear only at the edges because there none of the more strongly diverted parts of the light from above can fall into the most weakly diverted parts of the light, and none of the more weakly diverted ones from below can fall into the most strongly diverted ones." (Steiner, 1897 [cite book | last = Steiner | first = Rudolf | title = Goethe's World View, Chapter III The Phenomena of the World of Colors | year = 1897] )

Table of differences

Current status

Today, Goethe's "Theory of Colours" is still remarkable for its phenomenological observations.

:"Most of Goethe's explanations of color have been thoroughly demolished, but no criticism has been leveled at his reports of the facts to be observed; nor should any be. This book can lead the reader through a demonstration course not only in subjectively produced colors (after images, light and dark adaptation, irradiation, colored shadows, and pressure phosphenes), but also in physical phenomena detectable qualitatively by observation of color (absorption, scattering, refraction, diffraction, polarization, and interference). A reader who attempts to follow the logic of Goethe's explanations and who attempts to compare them with the currently accepted views might, even with the advantage of 1970 sophistication, become convinced that Goethe's theory, or at least a part of it, has been dismissed too quickly." (Judd, 1970 [cite book | last = Judd | first = Deane B. | title = Introduction by Deane B. Judd, Goethe's Theory of Colours | publisher = MIT Press | place = Cambridge | year = 1970 | url = | accessdate = 2007-09-14] )

His claim that colour arises from the interplay of light and dark has caused almost all of modern physics to reject Goethe's theory as unscientific – yet Goethe was consistent in his approach.

:"As Feigenbaum understood them, Goethe's ideas had true science in them. They were hard and empirical. Over and over again, Goethe emphasized the repeatability of his experiments. It was the perception of colour, to Goethe, that was universal and objective. What scientific evidence was there for a definable real-world quality of redness independent of our perception?" (James Gleick, "" [cite book | last = Gleick | first = James | title = Chaos, pp. 165-7 | publisher = William Heinemann Publishers | place = London | year = 1988] )

Developments in understanding how the brain interprets colours, such as colour constancy and Edwin Land's retinex theory bear striking similarities to Goethe's theory (Ribe & Steinle, 2002 [cite journal | last = Ribe | first = Neil | coauthors = Steinle, Friedrich | title = Exploratory Experimentation: Goethe, Land, and Color Theory | publisher = Physics Today | month = July | year = 2002 | year = 2002] ).

As a catalogue of observations, Goethe's experiments are useful data for understanding the complexities of human colour perception. Whereas Newton sought to develop a mathematical model for the behaviour of light, Goethe focused on exploring how colour is perceived in a wide array of conditions.


:cquote|As to what I have done as a poet... I take no pride in it... but that in my century I am the only person who knows the truth in the difficult science of colours – of that, I say, I am not a little proud, and here I have a consciousness of a superiority to many.|20px|20px|Johann Eckermann|Conversations of Goethe, (tr. John Oxenford), London, 1930, p.302

: [Goethe] delivered in full measure what was promised by the title of his excellent work: data toward a theory of colour. They are important, complete, and significant data, rich material for a future theory of colour. He has not, however, undertaken to furnish the theory itself; hence, as he himself remarks and admits on page xxxix of the introduction, he has not furnished us with a real explanation of the essential nature of colour, but really postulates it as a phenomenon, and merely tells us how it originates, not what it is.:(Schopenhauer, "On Vision and Colors")

:Goethe's theory of the origin of the spectrum "isn't" a theory of its origin that has proved unsatisfactory; it is really not a theory at all. "Nothing" can be predicted by means of it. It is, rather, a vague schematic outline, of the sort we find in James's psychology. There is no "experimentum crucis" for Goethe's theory of colour.:(Wittgenstein, "Remarks on Colour")

:Can you lend me the "Theory of Colours" for a few weeks? :It is an important work. His last things are insipid.:(Ludwig van Beethoven, "Conversation-book", 1820)

:Should your glance on mornings lovely:Lift to drink the heaven's blue:Or when sun, veiled by sirocco,:Royal red sinks out of view -:Give to Nature praise and honor.:Blithe of heart and sound of eye,:Knowing for the world of colour:Where its broad foundations lie.:(Goethe)

On the catalytic moment

:"Aber wie verwundert war ich, als die durch's Prisma angeschaute weiße Wand nach wie vor weiß blieb, daß nur da, wo ein Dunkles dran steiß, sich eine mehr oder weniger entschiedene Farbe zeigte, daß zuletzt die Fensterstäbe am allerlebhaftesten farbig erschienen, indessen am lichtgrauen Himmel draußen keine Spur von Färbung zu sehen war. Es bedurfte keiner langen Überlegung, so erkannte ich, daß ein Gränze notwendig sei, um Farben hervorzubringen, und ich sprach wie durch einen Instinkt sogleich vor mich laut aus, daß die Newtonische Lehre falsch sei."

:But I was astonished, as I looked at a white wall through the prism, how it stayed white! That only there where it came upon some darkened area, it showed more or less some colour, then at last, around the window sill all the colours shone, in the light grey sky outside there was no colour to be seen. It didn't take long before I knew here was something significant about colour to be brought forth, and I spoke as through an instinct out loud, that the Newtonian teachings were false. [rough translation by user: johnrpenner]

:("Goethes Werke", Weimar: Hermann Böhlau, 1887–1919, II. Abtheilung: Naturwissenschaftlichte Schriften, Bd. 4, pp 295–296)

Notes and references


*Goethe, "Theory of Colours", trans. Charles Lock Eastlake, Cambridge, Massachusetts: The M.I.T. Press, 1982 ISBN 0-262-57021-1
*Bockemuhl, M. 1991. "Turner". Koln: Taschen. ISBN 3-8228-6325-4.
*Duck, Michael, "Newton and Goethe on colour: Physical and physiological considerations", Annals of Science, Volume 45, Number 5, September 1988 , pp. 507–519(13). [ Taylor and Francis Ltd.]
*Gleick, James "Chaos", pp. 165–7; William Heinemann Publishers, London, 1988.
*Proskauer, "The Rediscovery of Color", Steiner Books, 1986.
*Ribe, Neil; Steinle, Friedrich, Physics Today, [ Exploratory Experimentation: Goethe, Land, and Color Theory'] , Volume 55, Issue 7, July 2002.
*Schopenhauer, "On Vision and Colors", Providence: Berg, 1994 ISBN 0-85496-988-8
*Sepper, Dennis L., "Goethe contra Newton: Polemics and the Project for a New Science of Color", Cambridge University Press, 2007 ISBN 0521531322
*Steiner, Rudolf, " [;mark=156,43,56#WN_mark First Scientific Lecture-Course] ", Third Lecture, Stuttgart, 25th December 1919; GA320.
*Steiner, Rudolf, " [ Goethe's World View] ", Chapter III The Phenomena of the World of Colors, 1897.
*Wittgenstein, "Remarks on Colour", Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1978 ISBN 0-520-03727-8

ee also

* Color
* Color theory
* Prism (optics)
* Same color illusion
* Visible spectrum
* "On Vision and Colors"

External links

* [ Complete book content in German language]
* [,M1 Scanned copy of English translation as a Google book]
* [ Physics Today – Exploratory Experimentation: Goethe, Land, and Colour Theory]
* [ Goethe's Prismatic Experiments; Fotos by Sakae Tajima]
* [ Light, Darkness and Colour, a film by Henrik Boëtius (1998)]
* [ Connections That Have a Quality of Necessity: Goethe's Way Of Science As a Phenomenology of Nature]
* [ Colour Mixing and Goethe's Triangle (Java Applet)]
* [ Critical review of Goethe's Theory of Colours]
* [ A list of links relating to Goethe's investigation of colour]
* [ Essay discussing color psychology and Goethe's theory]
* [ Google Scholar: Works citing "Theory of Colours"]

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