Nat's Reviews > Blue: The History of a Color

Blue by Michel Pastoureau
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's review
Aug 13, 09

Read in August, 2009

The author begins this history with audacious claims about the irrelevance (p.10) of human biology to the "process of ascribing meaning to color", insisting instead that color is a "social phenomenon". The author does a fine job illustrating the second claim throughout the book, showing how attitudes towards colors change over time with changes in religious belief and social practices. But the first, audacious claim has to be false. There is ample evidence that the structure of color perception is dependent on the fact that humans are trichromats, and that facts about color opposition (red is opposed to green, blue to yellow) are due to the role of opponent-processes in the human visual system. And biological facts, like genetic color deficiencies, surely affect the "meaning" of colors for those with the deficiencies.

There are other weird gaps in the book's scholarship as well. There are brief discussions of opinion polls that try to determine what our "favorite color" is, but there is no discussion of Komar and Melamed's famous "Most Wanted" survey of world aesthetic tastes, which concluded that blue was the favorite color of majorities in most countries.

The book offers evidence that black, white and red were the primary color categories of the ancient world, with blue not figuring in treatises on color, even when describing the colors of the rainbow. That interestingly confirms the famous claims by anthropologists Berlin & Kay (and Kay & McDaniel) that there is a specific pattern to the development of color vocabulary whereby "blue" is always a later basic color term than "black", "white" and "red". But there is no mention of Kay & Berlin's work in relation to the interesting historical fact about ancient color terms.

There is also a near-total focus on European, and in the post-medieval period, French, attitudes and practices with regard to color (the author is French). During an extended discussion of the significance of different colors during the French Revolution, and in particular the tricolor, the author says:

"It is easy to imagine that if the British flag had not been red, white, and blue, that of the American Revolution would not have been either, and therefore neither the French Revolution, nor the Empire or Republic that followed, would have used these colors. To understand the American and French flags, then, WE MUST GO BACK TO THE ORIGINS OF THE BRITISH FLAG, which was already red, white, and blue in the early seventeenth century..." (p.148).

But then the author only spends TWO sentences explaining the origins of the British flag, before returning to an extended discussion of the color of cockades in the French Revolution. I thought the British flag was important, because the author just told me it was!
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Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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message 1: by Ben (new)

Ben I'm glad I don't have to get *you* to sign off on my dissertation.

message 2: by Nat (new) - rated it 2 stars

Nat When are you done?

message 3: by Ben (new)

Ben next week.

message 4: by Ben (new)

Ben waiting for signatures at the moment.

message 5: by Simon (new)

Simon I see you're practicing for one of those withering TLS reviews. Nicely done.

message 6: by Nat (new) - rated it 2 stars

Nat Ben wrote: "waiting for signatures at the moment."

Well, congratulations.

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