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on October 20, 2003
--Remarks on Colour-- is the last fruit of one of the greatest intellectuals of the XXth century. It is a book that allows a most clear view of how intuitively brilliant Wittgenstein is; but in more than one sense, it is disappointing. Above all because he writes it largely on the shoulders of Goethe's --Farbenlehre-- and Runge's observations, without dedicating a single comment to him who has been increasingly disclosed as his mentor and master of youth: the unsurpassed creature of insight named Schopenhauer.
As a whole, Wittgenstein's book can be considered a bundle of topic additions and observations to the Farbenlehre. As everything he wrote, it is extremely sharp and illuminating, indeed of inestimable value. However, it lacks what Goethe's readers would be expecting to see: a personal position on those which were Goethe's main aims; firstly, the critique of Newton's famous spectrum of colors: two centuries ago, Goethe brilliantly challenged the Newtonian notion, still held in utmost esteem in our days, that white is composed by a melange of seven colors through a prism. Secondly, an appreciation of Goethe's attempt to postulate what he intuited as the original phenomenon, Urphaenomen, without being able to explain why: colors complement each other qualitatively in pairs - the most important examples would be orange and blue; yellow and violet; and, above all else, green and red.
Wittgenstein is also unfair to Goethe: criticizes him for not having presented a finished theory (III, 125) as if he had ambitioned that; whereas Goethe expressly states in his work that what he has to offer is but "Data zu einer Theorie der Farben". In fact, to translate --Farbenlehre-- in any language as "Theory" of Colors would be a similar mistake. The gap between Goethe's objective observations and subjective self-awareness is bridged precisely by Schopenhauer's treatise of 1816, --On Vision and Colors--, an attempt to account for the subjective forms of colours; Wittgenstein does not mention it once.
Maybe one could, very scholarly speaking, call this a case of bad bibliographical review by a genius thinker. For --Remarks on Colour-- does bring the impression that Wittgenstein did not really know Schopenhauer's treatise at all. But this can only bring astonishment to the reader: the same astonishment that arises when one sees how unnoticed the book has slipped through almost 200 years; for example by Rudolf Steiner, the brilliant thinker who prepared and commented the intents of Goethe in the present edition of the Farbenlehre (3 vols. Verlag Freies Geistesleben). In the case of Wittgenstein, this is especially striking when one considers how much he dwelled with the philosopher's works as he prepared his earlier projects, particularly as the Tractatus was written (a good account can be found at Bryan Magee's --Philosophy of Schopenhauer--, 2nd. ed.). Had Wittgenstein read --On Vision and Colors--, things would have been a lot different, and maybe this entire book would have followed a completely alternate path, since it would have to rise up to the task of judging the treatise of 1816. A sad instance of his neglect can be seen when, at page III-26, Wittgenstein makes comments which he does believe are quite decisive and original, and which would be indeed, had Schopenhauer not already explained why. Witty writes: "Blue and yellow, as well as red and green, seem to me to be opposites - but perhaps that is simply because I am used to seeing them at opposite points on the colour circle". It is something to be truly mourned that a man with such a marvelous intuitive grasp of this fact has missed the chance to meditate the theory that seeks to account for his perceptions. Because they bring no novelty to whomever has had the chance to read Schopenhauer's thoughts of why colors are qualitatively complementary.
At the end, the general impression that remains is that, theoretically, Wittgenstein's comments about colors stand one step below Schopenhauer's treatise, corroborating and indeed confirming it; exactly in the same way in which the --Tractatus-- stands one step below the --Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason--, corroborating and confirming it; and, likewise, not mentioning it.
Schopenhauer's treatise has been for many years out of print in English. Shouldering and even surpassing the Farbenlehre, it is perhaps the most important but, at once, the least read human study of the borderline where philosophy and physiology meet. Which is where Wittgenstein also stands with this little red book, so acclaimed by his own fans.