by David Lomely
Labels and concepts are powerful tools for self-expression. But what happens if we have limited access to those tools? We lose not only the ability to express ourselves and to influence and educate others, but we also lose so much more. As I attempt to explain what else we lose, I may just happen to explain why the Greeks and Romans failed to invent calculus and why Homer, author of the Odyssey, was colorblind. As odd as it sounds, these questions all have the same basic answer.
First, let’s look at the ancient Greeks. They were titans of intellect, pundits of philosophy, and savants of scholarship. Men such as Euclid, Pythagoras, and Archimedes laid the framework for much of Western thought, such as mathematics and geometry. However, I’ve always wondered why they didn’t invent calculus. They came so close! It’s as if they opened a door but did not walk through. Though they had a love of geometry, they almost seemed to disdain algebra. Why?
While reading The Clockwork Universe by Edward Dolnick, I finally came across an answer. Ideas of perfect, unchanging, idealized concepts were at the center of philosophy in ancient Greece. The ideal circle, the perfect square, and the eternal forms dominated their worldview—they saw the world and the things of this world as mere shadows of these perfect, unchanging ideas. But calculus is, at its core, the mathematics of change. In the mind of the ancient Greek philosophers, change was by definition a sure sign of imperfection. Why study the imperfect when they could study the perfect world of idealized cubes, spheres and triangles?
To return to my earlier question, What do we lose if we limit our acess to labels and concepts? It cost the Greeks the discovery of calculus. They chose to discard the ideas and concepts that were necessary to make that mental leap into calculus, and instead they limited themselves by their narrow worldview.
Now let’s look at the Romans. They were master machinists, consummate constructors, and gladiators of design. Unlike the Greeks, they had no disdain for an imperfect world. Yet they did not develop calculus either. What went wrong? Their hindrance lay in their numeric system. Have you ever tried multiplying 79 by 23 in Roman numerals? It’s not easy. Despite the Romans’desire for kowledge, they lacked a number system that made math easy. Numbers are to math what words are to sentences, and the Romans effectively didn’t have the right words to express themselves. So, again, what do we lose if we limit our access to labels and concepts? Like the Greeks, it cost the Romans the discovery of calculus.
Now let’s go back to the leisurely shores of ancient Greece once again. We sail serenely on the wine-colored seas of the Aegean. Wait a second. Did I just say wine-colored seas? Aren’t the seas blue? Not according to Homer. In the Odyssey, his standard description for the sea was “wine-colored.” The 1858 book Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age by William Ewart Gladstone, a four-time Prime Minister of Great Britain, analyzed Homer’s strange use of colors. He discovered that neither the sea nor the sky were ever “blue” for Homer, and in fact he never described anything with the Greek word for blue. This raises the question, was Homer colorblind? Perhaps—but other scholars have noticed that nearly every ancient text, regardless of culture and location, used colors strangely. Was every author of the ancient world color blind? This is unlikely. What, then, explains the ancient color confusion?
Research has shown that across cultures, words for colors appear in stages, and blue usually comes last. How can this be? While listening to a Radiolab podcast called “Why isn’t the Sky Blue,” I heard a possible explanation. Ask yourself, for a moment, what blue really means. Blue is label we give to a certain part of the light spectrum. But what happens if we don’t have a label to describe the particular color we want to describe? The answer is odder than you think.
Studies of cultures whose language have few color terms show that people in these cultures tend to have difficulty seeing colors for which they have no names. For example, people in cultures without a single word for orange and yellow do not see a difference between orange and yellow when questioned—but they can be taught to see the colors if they are given labels for those colors. This is because the brain has difficulty interpreting what the eye sees without appropriate labels. This principle is true across cultures and times, and applies to our current culture—people today with greater color vocabulary actually see more colors than do people who have fewer color terms. By learning a greater color vocabulary, a person can eventually begin seeing subtle distinctions in colors that they had not noticed before. Here we are again: what do we lose if we limit our access to labels and concepts? It cost Homer a blue sky and blue ocean.
Some of these ideas may be controversial, especially the idea about Homer and the color blue. I have simplified these subjects for the sake of a brief overview. My purpose here is not to analyze in depth why the Greeks didn’t invent calculus or why Homer was colorblind. Rather, my goal has been to illustrate the cost of not having adequate labels and concepts at hand to express ourselves.
I ask you to consider this question: what things can’t you understand or express because you do not have the words or—what’s worse—because you have purposefully closed your mind to a new idea. Though it may not cost you or I something as world-changing as the discovery of calculus, there’s still a price to pay. What skies will you not see, and what oceans will you not behold? I challenge you to be
open to new ideas. I challenge you to put a little more blue in your life. Who knows what discoveries await you?
Originally published on 8/2/2013 on former website
Sonja – 9/27/2013
But does labelling everything not put “things” into boxes? Does that limit the “things” ability to grow and mature? Does that not limit in people’s eyes what that “thing” can do?
Anna – 10/4/2013
That is a good point, Sonja. I agree with you in part, but I also think that the process of labeling is essential to maturity and growth. The more we learn about ourselves and our world, the more we clarify our understanding, separate things into categories, put names on things, and make connections between things. I think this is one of the ways Aristotle was so important to Western thinking–he put a high priority on classifying and clarifying ideas. In my own life I’ve found many ways in which clarity has empowered me where I had before been crippled by vagueness.