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Department of History and Philosophy of Science


PhD student

College: Selwyn
Supervisor: Richard Staley
Thesis topic: Colour and colour vision in late nineteenth century British sciences



My research explores how and why a concept of "colour vision", and its cognate nexus of scientific practices and theories, managed to negotiate its place within an older family of "colour" related sciences, in 19th century Britain.

Colour has had a more complicated relationship with science than is generally assumed. On the one, hand colour experience has been used instrumentally as an experimental means of acquiring knowledge about both its own relational principles, and about other domains, such as light. On the other hand, after Thomas Young's (1801) Bakerian lecture, colour experience increasingly became an object of knowledge itself, and it was not clear if the appropriate instrument for deriving knowledge about colour experience should remain phenomenological colour (the subjective experience of colour), or if the science of colour experience should rely on some other mode of inquiry that bypasses colour phenomenology. Should "colour" be used as an instrument for revealing the hidden truths about itself, in the same way it was believed to have revealed hidden truths about light, or should colour's own hidden truths be subject to a more fundamental "achromatic" mode of scientific inquiry?

At stake in this question was not only the British understanding of colour experience, but also how all the types of physical knowledge that rely on colour experience should be understood. If our knowledge of otherwise hidden truths about the physical world was accessed through colour experience, then should our fundamental knowledge about such things rest with the sciences of colour perception, or with the sciences of the underlying physical causes of colour? This prompted a further question of whether epistemic priority in understanding colour, and the knowledge it reveals beyond itself, should reside with our knowledge of nature outside our body and mind, or with our knowledge of the nature of (within?) our body and mind?

As disciplines began to emerge around these two modes of researching colour, and understanding colour perception became a question for "physiology" and "psychology" while understanding light became a question for "physics", the questions of epistemic priority and instrumentality surrounding phenomenological colour became even more contentious. In a world of different disciplines, the question of when phenomenological colour should be an instrument, and when it should have epistemic priority in establishing knowledge about both itself and other domains, became not only a question about the fundamental reality of colour. It also became a question about which discipline's chosen target of research and institutional practices provided them with the authority to describe that fundamental reality.