Color and Contingency in Robert Boyle’s Works

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This essay investigates the relationship between color and contingency in Robert Boyle’s Experiments and Considerations Touching Colours (1664) and his essays on the unsuccessfulness of experiments in Certain Physiological Essays (1661). In these two works Boyle wrestles with a difficult practical and philosophical problem with experiments, which he calls the problem of contingency. In Touching Colours, the problem of contingency is magnified by the much-debated issue of whether color had any deep epistemic importance. His limited theoretical principle guiding him in Touching Colours, that color is but modified light, further exacerbated the problem. Rather than theory, Boyle often relied on craftsmen, whose mastery of color phenomena was, Boyle mentions, brought about by economic forces, to determine when colors were indicators of important ‘inward’ properties of substances, and thus to secure a solid foundation for his experimental history of color.

  • 1

     Peter R. Anstey“Philosophy of Experiment in Early Modern England: The Case of Bacon, Boyle and Hooke,” Early Science and Medicine19 (2014) 103–32. For biographical information see Michael Cyril William Hunter Boyle: Between God and Science (Cambridge 2009).

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  • 3

     William Eamon“New Light on Robert Boyle and the Discovery of Colour Indicators,” Ambix27 (1980) 204–209. See also Allen G. Debus “Solution Analysis Prior to Robert Boyle” Chymia 8 (1962) 41–61. On Newton as a reader see Richard S. Westfall “The Development of Newton’s Theory of Color” Isis 53 (1962) 339–58; Alan E. Shapiro ed. The Optical Papers of Isaac Newton: Volume 1 The Optical Lectures 1670–1672 (Cambridge 2012) 4–6.

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  • 5

     BoyleTouching Colours6.

  • 8

     BoylePhysiological Essays38; 67.

  • 11

     BoyleTouching Colours387.

  • 13

     BoylePhysiological Essays86–7.

  • 16

     Hunter and Littleton“The Workdiaries of Robert Boyle” 143.

  • 17

     BoyleTouching Colours222–3. On pigments and color terms used in painters’ shops as well as a comparison with the terms used by druggists see ibid. 283.

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  • 20

     BoyleTouching Colours7. See also 333; 343.

  • 21

     BoyleTouching Colours115; 218­–9; 223–4; 344; 355; 360.

  • 22

     BoyleTouching Colours171–2.

  • 24

     BoyleTouching Colours257.

  • 25

     BoyleTouching Colours220.

  • 27

     BoyleTouching Colours232. On the particulate nature of painters pigments and thus that color mixture by painters was known to be the effect of juxtaposition see the contribution from Barbara Berrie in this volume.

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  • 30

     BoylePhysiological Essays84.

  • 31

     BoylePhysiological Essays84.

  • 32

     BoylePhysiological Essays49.

  • 34

     BoylePhysiological Essays86–7. Emphasis in original.

  • 35

     BoylePhysiological Essays106.

  • 36

     BoylePhysiological Essays68; 114.

  • 37

     BoylePhysiological Essays89–90.

  • 40

     BoylePhysiological Essays67. Note that Boyle believed that the yellow “tincture” of gold was separable from it and that “Silver may have in it a Sulphur (to speak the Chymists Language) which Maturation is capable to graduate into a Golden one.” Ibid. 76.

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  • 41

     BoylePhysiological Essays109–10.

  • 44

     BoyleTouching Coloursii.

  • 45

     BoyleTouching Colours89. At the beginning of the work Boyle writes “I should do that which might prevent my own design if I should here attempt to deliver you an accurate and particular Theory of Colours; for that were to present you with what I desire to receive from you; and as farr as in mee lay to make that study needless to which I would engage you.” Ibid.1–2. Boyle frequently uses theory and hypothesis interchangeably here but neither should be interpreted as something like the notion of a working hypothesis in modern science. See Anstey and Hunter “Robert Boyle’s ‘Designe about Natural History’” 103.

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  • 46

     BoyleTouching Colours90.

  • 48

     BoyleTouching Colours5; 75–84.

  • 50

     BoyleTouching Colours10.

  • 51

     BoyleTouching Colours76.

  • 52

     BoyleTouching Colours76.

  • 55

     BoyleTouching Colours109.

  • 56

     BoyleTouching Colours110.

  • 57

    BoyleTouching Colours110.

  • 61

     Daniel Sennert“De visu,” in Epitome Naturalis Scientiae Editio tertia (Wittenberg 1633) 6: 565–73. Sennert’s account of apparent colors among other views in this chapter is in most respects a condensed version of Zabarella’s. The first edition was published in 1618 although it was based on a collection of disputations Sennert published between 1599–1600 under the same title. See Christoph Lüthy and William R. Newman “Daniel Sennert’s Earliest Writings (1599–1600) and Their Debt to Giordano Bruno” Bruniana & Campanelliana 6 (2000) 261–79. Unfortunately disputations XXII and XXIII in which Sennert most likely treated vision at present appear to be lost.

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  • 62

     Jacopo Zabarella“De visu libri duo,” in De rebus naturalibus libri XXX (Venice 1590) 604–40. Note that it is species of color not light that become darkened by mixture in the atmosphere.

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  • 66

     BoyleTouching Colours82–3.

  • 67

     A. Mark Smith“Reflections on the Hockney-Falco Thesis: Optical Theory and Artistic Practice in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries,” Early Science and Medicine10 (2005) 163–86. Idem From Sight to Light: The Passage from Ancient to Modern Optics (Chicago 2014) 367–72.

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  • 68

     For one example see NewmanAtoms and Alchemy194–225.

  • 70

     Gary C. Hatfield“The Cognitive Faculties,” in The Cambridge History of Seventeenth Century Philosophyeds. by Daniel Garber and Michael Ayers (Cambridge1998) 2: 953–1002. Alison Simmons “Explaining Sense Perception: A Scholastic Challenge” Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition 73 (1994) 257–75.

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  • 71

     BoyleTouching Coloursii 117–32. Even in his account of the colors white and black the only colors for which he provides a tentative explanation Boyle writes: “For I am yet so much a Seeker in this Matter and so little Wedded to the Opinions I have propos’d that what I am to add shall be but the Beginning of a Collection of Experiments and Observations towards the History of Whiteness and Blackness without at present interposing my Explications of them that so I may assist your Enquires without much Fore-stalling or Biassing your Judgment.” Ibid. 132.

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  • 73

     ShapiroFits6–8; 98–100.

  • 76

     BoyleTouching Colours6–7.

  • 77

     BoyleTouching Colours8.

  • 78

     BoyleTouching Colours387–8.

  • 79

     BoylePhysiological Essays86–7.

  • 80

     R. L. Lee“American Cochineal in European Commerce, 1526–1625,” The Journal of Modern History23 (1951) 205–24.

  • 82

     Hunter and Littleton“Workdiaries” 143–4.

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    Tempering colors in steel. Verhoeven identifies the following temperatures (in C) and colors: pale yellow, 220°; golden yellow, 240°; brown, 255°; purple, 280°; bright blue, 290°; dark blue, 315°. (Verhoeven, Steel Metallurgy for the Non-Metallurgist, [Materials Park, 2007], 99). Photograph: Zaereth, accessed July 7, 2015, .

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