Nelson Goodman

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2385

Article abstract: Goodman’s wide range of interests in the philosophy of art, language, and science has yielded influential studies of logic, epistemology, metaphysics, and symbolic systems, particularly in the realm of aesthetics.

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Early Life

Henry Nelson Goodman was born in Somerville, Massachusetts, on August 7, 1906, to Henry Lewis Goodman and Sarah Elizabeth (Woodbury) Goodman. He attended Harvard University in neighboring Cambridge and received a bachelor of science degree, magna cum laude, in 1928. From 1929 to 1942, he supported himself as part owner and operator of Goodman-Walker, an art dealership and gallery in Boston, while working on his doctoral degree at Harvard, which he completed in 1941. Goodman served in the U.S. Army from 1942 to 1945 as a psychologist and psychiatric assistant in a rehabilitation and training center and married artist Katharine Hosmer Sturgis in 1944. After a year as an instructor of philosophy at Tufts College in Medford, Massachusetts (1945-1946), Goodman was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship (1946-1947) to support his work on his first book. He taught philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia from 1946 to 1964. Goodman was a visiting lecturer at Harvard University in 1951 and also served as the vice president of the Association for Symbolic Logic from 1950 to 1953.

Life’s Work

Goodman’s first book, The Structure of Appearance, developed out of his 1940 doctoral dissertation (eventually published as A Study of Qualities in 1990). In this foundational work, he applies the techniques of modern symbolic logic to the construction of a logical system that addresses a range of philosophical problems in the analysis of phenomena. Although much of the book is difficult for any reader not thoroughly grounded in the methodology of symbolic logic, it does introduce, at least implicitly, a number of important positions developed in Goodman’s later and more generally accessible works. These positions include nominalism, and the refusal to countenance universals or any entities other than individuals; relativism, the conviction that there is no unique system of reasoning that people ought to use but that various systems can be equally valid in different cases; cognitivism, a perspective that emphasizes the cognitive functions of emotional response; and constructivism, the view that both everyday and scientific knowledge are at least in part made by laypersons and scientists rather than strictly determined by the external facts of the world.

A series of special lectures at the University of London given by Goodman in 1953 formed the bulk of his second book, Fact, Fiction, and Forecast, which quickly became one of the most widely read and heatedly debated works of modern philosophy. Through commonplace examples and everyday language, Goodman, building on the foundational analyses of Scottish philospher David Hume, demonstrates that scientific induction, the classical method of generalizing from experience and observation, has no formal logical validity. The most famous illustration of his argument, which he calls “the new riddle of induction,” revolves around his coinage of the term “grue,” which applies to all things examined before a given future time and found to be green or not so examined and blue. Thus, one can say “all emeralds are green” and “all emeralds are grue” with equal logical validity; either label is justified and confirmed by the history of scientific observation. Although no one (including Goodman) believes that emeralds examined in the future will be grue rather than green, the reasons for believing that green is right and grue wrong rest largely on pragmatic factors such as habit and convenience (what Goodman calls the history, or “entrenchment,” of the terms and categories used) rather than exclusively on logic or empirical data. Even the most entrenched hypothesis can, of course, be violated, and nothing in Goodman’s model precludes innovation and change.

Although it is sometimes claimed that such relativism means that all hypotheses are equally valid or invalid and implies a nihilistic rejection of reason as a guide to belief, Goodman’s version of relativism stipulates that the validity of rules and systems can be evaluated. Goodman argues that rules and particular inferences are justified by being brought into agreement with each other; a rule is amended if it yields an inference we are unwilling to accept, and an inference is rejected if it violates a rule we are unwilling to amend. Over the course of time, this process of mutual adjustment produces what some philosophers have labeled a “reflective equilibrium” that produces not absolute truth—an impossibility in Goodman’s view—but rather a set of serviceable approximations that fit different circumstances. His simple but elegant “riddle” has proven remarkably resistant to more traditional solutions, and the resultant destabilization of the logical basis of most rational thinking has had profound implications not only for philosophy but also for psychology and the sciences.

The enormous stir created by Fact, Fiction, and Forecast firmly established Goodman’s reputation, and a number of prestigious invitations and appointments followed, including a stint as a visiting lecturer at Princeton University (1958), the presentation of the Alfred North Whitehead Lecture at Harvard University (1962) and the John Locke Lectures at Oxford University (1962), a year as a visiting research fellow at the Center for Cognitive Studies at Harvard (1962-1963, further evidence of Goodman’s continuing interest in psychology), and the presentation of the Whiton Lecture at Cornell University (1965). His academic employment went through a comparably vertiginous cycle: Goodman left the University of Pennsylvania in 1964 to become the Harry Austryn Wolfson Professor of Philosophy at Brandeis University, then left Brandeis in 1967 to be a research associate in education at Harvard, where he founded and directed Project Zero, a research program in arts education, from 1969 to 1974 at the Graduate School of Education. In 1967, Goodman was elected president of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association. In 1968, he was named the Meriwether Distinguished Visiting Professor at C. W. Post College, delivered the Eisenberg Lecture at Michigan State University, and, finally, became professor of philosophy at Harvard (1968-1977), bringing his academic career and personal life full circle with a return to his alma mater and to his birthplace.

The John Locke Lectures he delivered at Oxford eventually became the core of his third book, Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols, a study of symbol systems and their functioning in psychology, linguistics, science, technology, visual arts, music, literature, and dance—among other fields. Goodman ranges well beyond the usual parameters of aesthetics in his consideration of the symbol, a term he uses to cover not only letters, words, and texts but also such nonverbal systems as musical notation, pictures, diagrams, maps, and models. Goodman argues that aesthetic experience is dynamic rather than static, an active form of cognitive experience with understanding as its dominant goal rather than a passive, predominantly emotional experience with appreciation and evaluation as its goals. From this perspective, aesthetics becomes an integral part of metaphysics and epistemology. In addition, focusing on the cognitive aspects of aesthetics opens the way to a closer alignment of the arts and the sciences, a direction he would pursue in subsequent books. Goodman also offers a threefold revision of the concept of reference, the ways in which art relates to reality: first, in stressing the importance of considering not only denotation but also exemplification as constituting reference (and thus providing a basis for considering that abstract art, though nonrepresentational, is nevertheless referential); second, in arguing that metaphorical reference is just as real as literal reference, and, by extension, that metaphorical truth is real truth; third, that reference may be indirect and complex rather than direct, and that these indirect references (especially in the study of literature) may be more important than the direct ones.

In 1972, Goodman, in collaboration with his wife, the artist Katharine Sturgis, choreographer Martha Gray, and composer John C. Adams, created, directed, and produced a multimedia dance performance entitled “Hockey Seen: A Nightmare in Three Periods and Sudden Death,” which provided, in addition to an aesthetic experience, nonverbal illustrations of the major kinds of reference (denotation, exemplification, expression) described in Goodman’s work. That same year, he published his fourth book, Problems and Projects, which gathers a number of essays, most previously published, on a variety of topics. Some are occasional pieces and others are aimed at clarifying points made in his earlier books or at replying to criticism of those books. While breaking little new ground, the collection frequently provides valuable introductions to and summaries of ideas developed at length elsewhere.

As had been the case with Fact, Fiction, and Forecast and Languages of Art, an invitation to deliver a series of lectures, this time the first Immanuel Kant Lectures at Stanford University, provided the impetus for Goodman’s fifth book, Ways of Worldmaking. In this work, Goodman most fully argues the provocative thesis—implicit throughout his earlier books—that people make their worlds through the construction of symbol systems rather than through the direct perception of a single given reality. Within this framework, he synthesizes and summarizes many of the major themes of his earlier works and pursues a number of the implications of the principles of constructivism and relativism made in these works.

Of Mind and Other Matters, Goodman’s sixth book, gathers together a decade’s worth of papers published separately in journals and collections, most of them aimed at updating various aspects of his other books or at responding to reviews and criticism. Like the similar Problems and Projects, Of Mind and Other Matters may be read as a book of recapitulation and consolidation rather than as a distinct new stage in Goodman’s work. The book also contains the revised text of a television interview conducted in Brussels in August, 1980, by Frans Boenders and Mia Gosselin, in which Goodman offers illuminating commentary on several of his major theses.

Goodman coauthored his seventh and final major book, Reconceptions in Philosophy and Other Arts and Sciences, with Catherine Z. Elgin, Goodman’s primary interpreter and literary executrix. The book usefully summarizes much familiar Goodman territory, offering refinements of and adjustments to his ideas and providing provocative new illustrations of such key concepts as the relation between knowing and making and the nature of artistic representation and variation. Among the more significant of the “reconceptions” is Goodman and Elgin’s replacement of the discussion of truth and acceptability offered in Ways of Worldmaking with a new formulation in which the concept of “knowledge,” traditionally tied to truth, belief, and substantiation, gives way to an approach centered on the notion of “understanding,” which recognizes that statements may be understood regardless of their truth or believability and that much human communication and art is neither true nor false yet clearly comprises key elements in human cognitive activity. “Understanding” is a broader and more inclusive label for the cognitive faculty than is “knowledge,” just as rightness is broader than truth and provisional adoption broader than certainty. The authors also continue Goodman’s career-long practice of extending his earlier ideas to new fields, including, for example, a chapter on architecture, “How Buildings Mean.” In 1990, Goodman’s 1940 dissertation was published in book form as A Study of Qualities. Goodman’s papers have been gathered in the Harvard University Archives.


Goodman’s pioneering books and his more than one hundred published articles have earned him recognition and have been translated into French, German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, and Spanish. His wide range of interests—aesthetics, epistemology, metaphysics, philosophy of education, psychology, and science—is unparalleled among major American philosophers. One of the few modern philosophers who is also a fine prose stylist, Goodman has attracted an extraordinarily large audience of nonspecialists with his humor, concision, and reliance on nontechnical everyday language and commonsense examples, running most of his books through several editions. His accessible style and broad range of interests have helped extend his influence well outside the ranks of his academic discipline, and Goodman is just as likely to be discussed by literary critics, psychologists, and educational theorists as by professional philosophers.

Additional Reading

Elgin, Catherine Z. With Reference to Reference. Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett, 1983. Elaborates and extends Goodman’s theories of reference and the symbol.

Elgin, Catherine Z., ed. The Philosophy of Nelson Goodman: Selected Essays. 4 vols. New York: Garland, 1997. Each volume contains both the general introduction to the series and an introduction to the concerns of the individual volume, all written by Elgin, Goodman’s literary executrix and major interpreter. The first volume examines nominalism, constructivism, and relativism; the second, Goodman’s riddle of induction; the third, his philosophy of art; and the fourth, his theory of symbols. Elgin has gathered several dozen valuable critical responses to Goodman’s work as well as some of his responses.

Hausman, Alan, and Fred Wilson. Carnap and Goodman: Two Formalists. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1967. Hausman’s monograph, “Goodman’s Ontology,” analyzes the ontological position developed in The Structure of Appearance with a view to offering a Platonistic alternative to Goodman’s nominalism.

The Journal of Aesthetic Education 25, no. 1 (Spring, 1991). This special issue contains mostly papers originally presented at a 1990 conference at the University of California, Santa Barbara, on Goodman’s work, especially Ways of Worldmaking. Includes Sigrid Berka’s valuable and comprehensive “An International Bibliography of Works by and Selected Works About Nelson Goodman.”

Rudner, Richard, and Israel Scheffler, eds. Logic and Art: Essays in Honor of Nelson Goodman. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1972. A mixed assortment of essays addressing aspects of Goodman’s earlier works.

Schwartz, Robert. “I’m Going to Make You a Star.” In Studies in Existentialism. Vol. 11 in Midwest Studies in Philosophy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986. A clear and accessible explication of Goodman’s notion of the conceptual construction of multiple worlds by one of his former research assistants.

Schwartz, Robert. “The Power of Pictures.” Journal of Philosophy 82, no. 12 (December, 1985): 711-20. Expands an example from the visual arts (Pablo Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein, briefly discussed in Goodman’s Languages of Art) by explaining Goodman’s provocative claim that works of art not only reflect the world but also play an important role in making it.

Siegel, Harvey. “Goodmanian Relativism.” The Monist 67, no. 3 (July, 1984): 359-75. Presents a brief history of the development of Goodman’s radical relativism, affording special attention to Ways of Worldmaking.

Stalker, D. Grue: The New Riddle of Induction. La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1994. A collection of essays discussing Goodman’s “new riddle of induction.” Contains an annotated bibliography.

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