Colors, Semiotics, and Constrained Universes of Expression

In reading up on semiotics, I hope to clarify my thoughts on constrained universes of expression (see my summaries of the months July, August, and September), and also to find out onto which established ideas the concept of constrained expressive universes maps. Semiotics is far more general, but I suspect that CUEs could be described very effectively using the language of semiotics.

I’m currently reading, and getting some clues from, Umberto Eco’s essay “How Culture Conditions the Colours We See,” also published in the book On Signs. “Colour is not an easy matter,” Eco begins, and he quotes James Gibson as saying, in his The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems, that “the meaning of the term colour is one of the worst muddles in the history of science.”

Eco goes on to list different cultures and how they categorized color differently (“Egyptians used blue in their paintings but had no linguistic term to designate it,” and so on). He continues:

All of this is highly speculative, but we need not test every case. Let me concentrate on the following passage from Aulus Gellius. […] Gellius is reporting a conversation he had with Fronto, a poet and grammarian, and Favorinus, a philosopher. Favorinus remarked that eyes are able to isolate more colours than words can name. Red (rufus) and green (viridis), he said, have only two names but many species. He was, without knowing it, introducing the contemporary scientific distinction between identification (understood as categorization) and discrimination […]

After having recounted the discussion of these gentlemen, Eco writes that this “puzzle […] is neither a psychological nor an aesthetic one: it is a cultural one, and as such it is filtered through a linguistic system,” through the system of verbal language. We must then, Eco writes, “understand how verbal language makes the non-verbal experience recognizable, speakable and effable.”

This is an interesting example. First, the colors are there in the world. A particular color is the same everywhere in the world, but different cultures name it differently (and sometimes even perceive it differently). Eco writes:

When one utters a colour term one is not directly pointing to a state of the world […], but, on the contrary, one is connecting or correlating that term with a cultural unit or concept. The utterance of the term is determined, obviously, by a given sensation, but the transformation of the sensory stimuli into a percept is in some way determined by the semiotic relationship between the linguistic expression and the meaning or content culturally correlated to it.

Eco looks at verbal language for practical reasons, although, he writes, other systems for signifying color would be possible. Verbal language represents, he writes, “the most powerful and therefore the most familiar instrument people use for defining the surrounding world and for communicating to each other about it.”

To make communication possible, Eco writes after having excused himself for being “outrageously simple,” one needs a signification system. The content of such a system, he continues, “depends on our cultural organization of the world into categories.” Not necessarily the physical world:

Euclid’s world is not a physical one, but a possible universe organized into points, lines, planes, angles, and so forth. It is a self-sufficient universe in which there are […] only cultural units such as the concept of similitude and none such as the concept of love or justice. I can communicate about the Euclidian universe, making true or false assertions […], but the units “triangle” and “line” are, in themselves, neither true nor false. They are simply the pertinent or relevant elements of the Euclidean universe. Thus a signification system allows its possible users to isolate and name what is relevant to them from a given point of view. [Emphasis mine.]

As for constrained universes of expression, this suggests that they would be signification systems. But I’m somewhat confused about this, as I’ve seen, for instance, yo-yo playing as a CUE; yo-yo players express things impossible to express by verbal means. (This reminds me of the quote about how talking about music is like dancing about architecture.)

I’ll get back to this later.

The above was posted to my personal weblog on December 22, 2003. My name is Peter Lindberg and I am a thirtysomething software developer and dad living in Stockholm, Sweden. Here, you’ll find posts in English and Swedish about whatever happens to interest me for the moment.


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