Understandings of Colors: Varieties of Theories in the Color Worlds of the Early Seventeenth Century

in Early Science and Medicine
Restricted Access
Get Access to Full Text
Rent on DeepDyve

Have an Access Token?

Enter your access token to activate and access content online.

Please login and go to your personal user account to enter your access token.


Have Institutional Access?

Access content through your institution. Any other coaching guidance?


In the early seventeenth century, there existed a myriad of theories to account for color phenomena. The status, goal, and content of such accounts differed as well as the range of phenomena they explained. Starting with the journal of Isaac Beeckman (1588–1637), this essay inquires into the features and functions of conceptual reflections upon color experiences. Beeckman played a crucial role in the intellectual development of René Descartes (1596–1650), while at the same time their ideas differed crucially. Early corpuscular conceptions of colors cannot be reduced to the mechanistic variety of Descartes. Moreover, the optical rather than corpuscular features of Descartes’s understanding of colors were essential. A stratification of conceptualizations is proposed that is grounded in various problem contexts rather than philosophical doctrines, thus opening a way to interpret the philosophical parts of color worlds in a more diverse way.

Early Science and Medicine

A Journal for the Study of Science, Technology and Medicine in the Pre-modern Period




 Fokko Jan Dijksterhuis, “Labour on Lenses. Isaac Beeckman’s Notes on Lens Making,” in The Origins of the Telescope, ed. Albert van Helden, Sven Dupré, Rob van Gent and Huib Zuidervaart (Amsterdam, 2010), 257–70.


 John Schuster, Descartes-Agonistes. Physico-mathematics, Method & Corpuscular-Mechanism 1618–33 (Dordrecht, 2013). See also John Schuster, “Descartes and the Scientific Revolution 1618–1634: an Interpretation” (PhD diss., Princeton, 1977). The main conclusion about Beeckman’s significance is shared by Stephen Gaukroger, Descartes: an Intellectual Biography (Oxford, 1995).


 Beeckman, Journal, 1: 129, 287; 2: 238.


 Beeckman, Journal, 1: 287; 3: 18.


 Beeckman, Journal, 1: 98–9; 2: 76, 85, 361; 3: 237, 317.


 Berkel, Beeckman, 53–5.


 Beeckman, Journal, 2: 251; 317; 329. According to the editor, Cornelis de Waard, the reference is to page 224 in original edition of Francis Bacon’s Instauratio Magna (London, 1620). Beeckman also refers to Ficino later on.


 Beeckman, Journal, 2: 228, 232, 234, 317.


 See also Dijksterhuis, “Labour on Lenses”, 261–3.


 Beeckman, Journal, 1: 28.


 Beeckman, Journal, 1: 100; 2: 299, 317.


 Beeckman, Journal, 2: 343. I thank Tawrin Baker for this elucidation.


 Beeckman, Journal, 2: 158.


 Beeckman, Journal, 3: 105–6.


 Berkel, Beeckman, 76–92; Schuster, Descartes-Agonistes, 390–4; 471–5.


 David Lindberg, ‘‘Kepler and the Incorporeality of Light,’’ in Physics, Cosmology and Astronomy, 1300–1700, ed. S. Unguru (Dordrecht, 1991), 229–50; David Lindberg, ‘‘The Genesis of Kepler’s Theory of Light: Light Metaphysics from Plotinus to Kepler’’ Osiris,2 (1986), 5–42.


 Richard Sorabji, “Aristotle on Colour, Light and Imperceptibles,” Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies 47 (1) (2004), 129–40; Rein Ferwerda, ‘Aristoteles’ over Kleuren (Budel, 2001), 27–8.


 Beeckman, Journal, 3: 123–214; 4: 149–51: “Parhelia sive soles iv apparentes circa solem verum, Romae observati Anno 1629 die 20 Martij ab horâ astronomicâ pomeridianâ 2a ad 3am, seu Italicâ 20a ad 21am et paulò plus.” For the exact date, see Sassen, Reis, 39.


 Schuster, Descartes-Agonistes, 390–4.


 Gaukroger, Descartes, 217–22; Claus Zittel, Les Météores/Die Meteore (Frankfurt, 2006), 13–8.


Descartes, Dioptrique, 1–12.


 Descartes, Dioptrique, 250–75.


 Fokko Jan Dijksterhuis, “Jeu de Paume & Jeux de la Raison in Seventeenth-Century Optics,” Nuncius, 28 (2013), 115–41.


 Neil Ribe and Friedrich Steinle, “Exploratory Experimentation: Goethe, Land, and Color Theory,” Physics Today, 55 (7) (2002), 43–9; Sarah Lowengard, The Creation of Color in Eighteenth-Century Europe (New York, 2006).


 Schuster, Descartes-Agonistes, 471–5.


 Margaret Garber, “Chymical Wonders of Light: J. Marcus Marci’s Seventeenth-century Bohemian Optics,” Early Science and Medicine, 10 (2005), 478–509.


 Fokko Jan Dijksterhuis, ““Will the Eye Be the Sole Judge?” ‘Science’ and ‘Art’ in the Optical Inquiries of Lambert ten Kate and Hendrik van Limborch around 1710,” Netherlands Yearbook for History of Art,61 (2011), 308–31.


Content Metrics

Content Metrics

All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 10 10 3
Full Text Views 2 2 2
PDF Downloads 0 0 0
EPUB Downloads 0 0 0