Nelson Goodman Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 2385 words.)