Would Wittgenstein Buy a Color Kindle?

For decades, television commercials hawking colortelevisions have attempted to accomplish a task that is logically impossible.They purport to show you the vibrant, fantastic, super-sharp colors you’remissing by not owning the state-of-the-art Babbitron 3000. The problem being,of course, that there’s no way to display these fabulous colors to you throughthe limitations of your crappy old set; if you could see them, there would beno need for the Babbitron 3000. (The same is true for more recent ads abouthigh-definition TVs.) Inadvertently, these ads support an argument made byLudwig Wittgenstein in a challenging, fragmentary essay called Remarkson Color –namely, that despite centuries of science and philosopherstreating color as a fixed, empirical quality, we can’t fully understand color withoutreference to a series of linguistic relationships.

This came to mind reading an article in today’s New York Times Sunday business section,about the imminentarrival of color e-reader devices . On a Kindle or similar device, writesAnne Eisenberg, “color is still supplied the old-fashioned way–not by filteredpixels, but by readers’ imaginations.” That will change soon, as Sharper Imageand Pandigital introduce color e-readers over the next few weeks. Illustratingthe article are two color e-reader displays, one from E Ink and one fromQualcomm.

If you read the Times article online, these pictures show up in color. But if you read them in theprint edition of the Times –whichstill, perhaps anachronistically, feels like the “original” version of any Times story–they are in black and white.The degree to which they represent any change is purely in the reader’s mind!Somewhere Wittgenstein is laughing.