Lazarus Geiger

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Lazarus Geiger (1829–1870) was a German philosopher and philologist who took a historical-comparative approach to questions around colour perception and colour terminology. He was one of the first people to raise the debate around whether colour perception is anatomically determined or a matter of cultural convention. He developed a universal sequence in the acquisition of basic colour terms which he arrived at through analyses of the colour terminologies of ancient texts.


He was born on May 21, 1829 to a Jewish family in Frankfurt-on-Main, and died there on August 29, 1870. His father was Solomon Michael Geiger, the eldest brother of Abraham Geiger. Eliezer Geiger began the study of Hebrew at a very early age, under the guidance of his father. Not originally devoted to a literary career, he spent several years as a bookseller's apprentice at Mayence, but soon showed a great dislike for business life. His thirst for knowledge overcame all obstacles. He returned to Frankfurt, graduated from the gymnasium, and then went to the universities of Marburg, Bonn and Heidelberg to study classical philology.

In 1851 he took up his permanent abode in his native town, and devoted himself principally to linguistic and philosophic studies. His first publication bears the title "Uber Umfang und Quelle der Erfahrungsfreien Erkenntniss" (Frankfurt-on-the-Main, 1865). But as early as 1852 he had begun his chief work, to which his whole life was devoted: "Ursprung und Entwickelung der Menschlichen Sprache und Vernunft" (vol. i. Stuttgart, 1868). From 1861 until his sudden death in 1870, he occupied a position as teacher in the Jewish high school (Philanthropin) of Frankfurt.

Geiger began publishing the principal results of his studies in the more popularly written "Der Ursprung der Sprache" (Stuttgart, 1869, 2d ed. 1878). Before he was able to finish his great work, however, he suddenly developed a heart problem which ended his life. The second volume was published in a fragmentary condition by his brother Alfred Geiger (ib. 1872; 2d ed., 1899). The papers he had read on different occasions were also published by Alfred Geiger under the title "Zur Entwickelungsgeschichte der Menschheit" (ib. 1871; 2d ed., 1878), and were translated into English by David Asher ("History of the Development of the Human Race," London, 1880). Geiger's bust has been placed in the entrance-hall of the public library of his native town.

Philosophy of language[edit]

Even before Darwin's publications, Geiger had become convinced that evolution reigned in all nature. He was the first to apply this doctrine to reason and language and his chief aim was to prove that the evolution of human reason is closely bound up with that of language. He saw in language the source of human reason. He viewed language not as degeneration, but as evolution. It begins with the most insignificant and trifling expression (a mere cry, which Geiger calls "Sprachschrei") and is the source of reason. In it and from it, according to the universal law of causality, reason has developed itself, being the offspring, not of sound and the ear, but of light and the eye. The sound of the word and its meaning have, without purpose or consciousness, for a long time varied and differentiated until they have become quite independent of each other. Man's growing familiarity with the world, and his heightened sensibility to pain, have by degrees sharpened his faculty of distinction and comprehension. The history of that evolution leads with certainty back to a state of things in which man, as yet, did not think. At one time the race must have been in a condition similar to that of animals—speechless, helpless, without religion, art, and morals. Geiger's theories on language won a certain amount of contemporary approval, but his conclusions were rejected by subsequent scholarship. Geiger further maintained that the origin of the Indo-Germanic language is to be sought not in Asia but in central Germany. The philosopher of language Ludwig Noiré maintained a great respect for Geiger and provides a sympathetic and lucid exposition of Geiger's theory of the priority of language over thought while gently critiquing his position.

Psychology of colour[edit]

Intrigued by William Gladstone's work on colour in Homer's work, Geiger was fascinated by the idiosyncrasies of the language of colour in ancient texts and was convinced that colour perception was an acquired faculty that could be retraced through the use of ancient works including Greek literature, the Vedic hymns, the texts of the Avesta, and other writings. Influenced by his evolutionary leanings, he posited that the human eye must have evolved to see colors over time, since every language he studied showed the same dawning of color language in the same order. At a meeting of German naturalists in 1867, Geiger asked "Were the organs of man's senses a thousand years ago in the same condition they are in now, or can we perhaps prove that at some remote period these organs must have been incapable of their present function?" (1880:48). Geiger proposed that the order of acquisition of colours always follows the same hierarchy which mirrors the order in which they appear on the spectrum - "in conformity with the scheme of the colour spectrum, the sensibility to yellow was awakened before that to green" (1880:52). He was also aware that the recognition of neutral colours appears early and noted that "language...does not acknowledge the proposition that black is no colour; it designates it at a very early period as the most decided contrast to red (ibid.). After intense study, he posited several stages in the development of colour terminology. Initially, the dualism of black and red stands the first and most primitive period of colour sense" (1880:61), followed by yellow. Geiger suggested that man derived this tripartite nomenclature from his primitive encounters with night, dawn and sun. White subsequently emerges with Geiger stating "Democritus and the Pythagoreans assumed only four fundamental colours black, white, red and yellow". The next colour to be given a separate word by cultures is green, followed by blue, the most difficult to acquire. Geiger noticed this in the Hindu Vedas: "These hymns, of more than ten thousand lines, are brimming with descriptions of the heavens. Scarcely any subject is evoked more frequently. The sun and reddening dawn's play of color, day and night, cloud and lightning, the air and ether, all these are unfolded before us, again and again... but there is one thing no one would ever learn from these ancient songs... and that is that the sky is blue." Furthermore, the Icelandic sagas and the Koran contain similar colour confusion and even though the heavens play a considerable role in the Bible there is no word for blue in Biblical Hebrew.

He noticed that languages even developed words for distinct colors in the same order. The simplest colour lexicons (such as the Dugum Dani language of New Guinea) distinguish only black/dark and white/light. The earlier 'black-red-gold' stage would correspond to the colour terms in the Rigveda followed by the 'white-yellow-red-black' stage which relates to colour perception in the time of Ionian philosophy. In his lecture, Geiger asked "What could the psychological state of a people be that describe the sky only as black? Can the difference between them and us be only in the naming or in perception itself?" He concludes it is unlikely that differences were purely linguistic and suggests that they have an anatomical basis in the evolution of the perceptual system. This work subsequently influenced Hugo Magnus, a Prussian ophthalmologist at the University of Breslau, who came up with a full theory of the evolution of the color sense in 1877. Lazarus’s colour hierarchy was forgotten until restated in almost the same form in 1969 by Brent Berlin, an anthropologist, and Paul Kay, a linguist, when it was hailed as a major discovery in modern linguistics. It showed a universal regularity underlying the apparently arbitrary way language is used to describe the world.

Religious views[edit]

Unlike his uncle, Abraham Geiger, a pioneer of Reform Judaism, Geiger was a stanch opponent of religious reforms, and fought valiantly on many occasions against the leaders of rationalism. When the venerable and ancient synagogue of Frankfurt was sacrificed in favor of a more modern building with an organ, Geiger published a pamphlet, "Terzinen beim Fall der Synagoge zu Frankfurt-am-Main" (Frankfurt, 1854), in which he gave expression to his grief.

His pamphlet, "Uber Deutsche Schriftsprache und Grammatik, mit Besonderer Rückricht auf Deutsche Schulen" (ib. 1870), contains his views on certain pedagogical questions.

A chance reading of Der Ursprung der Sprache stimulated the psychologist Max Meyer's interest in mind and behaviour.


  • Geiger, L. (1880). History and development of the Human Race. London: Tubner and Company.
  • Geiger, L. (1878). Uber den Farbensinn der Urseit und seine Entwicklung.
  • Geiger, L. (1871). Zur Entwicklungsgeschichte der Menschheit. Vorträge. Stuttgart: Cotta.



Further reading[edit]

  • Keller, J. (1883). L. Geiger und der Kritik der Vernunft. Wertheim.
  • Keller, J. (1883). Der Ursprung der Vernunft. Heidelberg.
  • Peschier, E. (1871) L. Geiger, sein Leben und Denken.
  • Rosenthal, L.A. (1883). Lazarus Geiger: seine Lehre vom Ursprung d. Sprache und Vernunft und sein Leben.Stuttgart.

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