Ways of Worldmaking

by Nelson Goodman
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 368

In his first book, The Structure of Appearance (1951), Nelson Goodman puts forward his conviction that there can be no one right way of describing the world, remarking in the introduction that equally correct systems of logical philosophy may be founded on different bases and constructed in different ways. In Ways of Worldmaking, he develops in a less technical and formal manner the thesis that there are multiple worlds, constructed differently according to the categories used by a given observer, and examines the implications of this radical relativism for philosophical discourse as well as for what would traditionally have been considered purely objective discourses, including experimental psychology and scientific theory. Even the most careful observation necessarily entails a creative ignoring of some features and highlighting of others (the whole truth could never be manageably formulated or addressed), and even the most constrained scientific hypothesis inherently demands inductive generalization beyond the observed data. Thus art and science are better imagined as overlapping segments of a continuum rather than rigidly distinguished on such bases as fictionality versus factuality. This does not, however, mean that anything goes. Goodman offers a relativism with restraints that enables him to chart a course between nihilism and absolutism.

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As Goodman notes, Ways of Worldmaking does not run a straight course from beginning to end but instead presents a series of variations on recurrent themes, working through the same topics from different approaches or applying a particular approach to different topics rather than pursuing consecutive steps in an argument. The central focus of the book is Goodman’s fullest and most accessible exposition of his controversial model of “a radical relativism under rigorous restraints, that eventuates in something akin to irrealism.” Goodman’s irrealism does not hold everything or even anything to be unreal but finds that worlds and versions of worlds are inextricably melted into each other. Goodman is interested in exploring the ways in which it is profitable to talk about many worlds rather than one, and his chosen path of investigation is by means of an analytic study of the types and functions of symbols and symbol systems. His model can best be discussed by his own preferred methodology: the use of concrete examples.

Truth and Rightness

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One of the key illustrations in Ways of Worldmaking, returned to at several points throughout the book, is taken from astronomy. Consider the statements “The earth rotates clockwise” and “The earth rotates counterclockwise.” Both of these conflicting statements are equally true from different points of view, depending on whether one imagines looking at Earth from the South or the North Pole. Consider then these two equally conflicting statements: “The earth rotates, while the sun is motionless,” and “The earth is motionless, while the sun revolves around it.” Although one might reconcile these statements by arguing that they amount to “The spatial relationships between the earth and the sun vary with time according to formula f,” Goodman notes that this fifth and final statement—the only one of the series that might be considered technically “true” by an astronomer—is entirely compatible with not only both the third and fourth “false” statements but also with the statement that the earth rotates for a time and then stops while the sun moves around it. The true statement is essentially useless for most purposes, including the astronomer’s. One is severely handicapped if rather than saying whether or how an object moves, one is restricted to describing changes in relative position. Scientists can no more limit themselves to neutral statements such as the fifth one than can creative artists or people in everyday situations. People, in effect, move or stop the earth by the way they conceive its motion, and frames of reference dictate the contexts within which statements such as the third and fourth are, if not true, “right” and provide perfectly reliable descriptions. Within the appropriate system, statements such as “The earth is at rest” and “The earth dances the role of Petrouchka” are also true and meaningful and offer equally right versions of Earth’s motion. Furthermore, people can readily accept all these statements, and many others, by shifting their own cognitive framework back and forth.

Goodman argues accordingly that there is no such thing as the way the world moves but rather many ways in which it moves and that many descriptions of how it moves are equally true. These frameworks are most profitably analyzed as a recognition of different worlds or different true versions of the world (which, for Goodman, amounts to the same thing) and that truth is only one of many considerations in choosing among different versions. Some truths are too trivial or too complex to be guides for behavior or applicable only to a different world version than the one in question. As Goodman remarks, an astronomer who miscalculates the position of a planet probably has a wrong fact under a right framework; when a guard, ordered to shoot any prisoner who moves, immediately shoots them all because they were moving rapidly around the earth’s axis and the sun, one may conclude that the guard probably has a right fact under a wrong framework. However, the astronomer and the guard seem to be using the same framework. Right approximations frequently have more relevance, utility, and coherence than the truth does. Therefore, knowing cannot be exclusively or even primarily a matter of determining what is true. Even for a physicist, light may be thought of as waves or as particles, depending on a number of criteria besides truth. Goodman accordingly argues that truth is best considered as primarily a matter of fit with practice, subject to continual revision on the basis of further practice. Although pure truth may be an unattainable absolute, the long-term acceptability of a version may be taken as a sufficient condition of rightness.

Style, Art, and Perception

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Other chapters in Ways of Worldmaking consider a variety of more specific topics. “The Status of Style,” for example, approaches the problem of defining style in literature (and, by extension, the other arts) by first breaking down the three prevalent dichotomies of form and content, emotion and cognition, and the internal and external, according to which style was an aspect of form, internal to a work, and expressed emotion. Goodman demonstrates that style is also a matter of content, with components external to the work that express cognitive properties. He further shows that style is something not only possessed by or expressed in a work but also exemplified by it, just as a tailor’s sample swatch exemplifies a fabric by standing as a sample of it. Having thus broadened the definition of style, Goodman proceeds to severely limit it by confining it only to those features of the symbolic functioning of a work that are characteristic of author, period, place, or school—in short, only aspects of how and what a work symbolizes. Exactly which aspects these are, according to Goodman, can be determined only within a specific framework by a given critic and depend upon the critic’s purposes and sensitivity, as well as on the power of a genuinely new work, to alter a viewer’s sensibility and create a new sensitivity in its own critics. As with versions of worlds, of course, there can be multiple right versions of art objects. In the related chapter “When Is Art?” Goodman extends this analysis to make the characteristically relativist point that there are also multiple versions of what is or is not an art object: An object may symbolize different things at different times and nothing at other times, thus making the key problem for aesthetics the consideration of how a work functions in a given time and place—what it does, rather than what it is in any timeless or absolute sense.

In an unusual step for a philosopher, Goodman also includes a chapter outlining “A Puzzle About Perception,” in which he discusses psychological laboratory research on motion perception. Studies show that when a light is flashed very briefly, then followed by a second flash a short distance away, most subjects report seeing a single spot actually move from the first position to the second rather than seeing two distinct spots flashed successively. Goodman argues that the facts concerning such “apparent” motion are just as important as those concerning “real” motion, and that “apparent” and “real” here are insidiously prejudicial labels for facts of different kinds. In Goodman’s interpretation, this data suggests another way in which the processes of worldmaking occur at all levels, including the production of “facts” about the physical world by the mechanisms of human visual perception.

Goodman’s Engaging Hybrid

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Goodman’s lucid, engaging prose style and consistently perspicuous examples, together with his wide range of concerns, have earned him a readership well beyond the boundaries of academic philosophy. Like all his books, Ways of Worldmaking has been read with profit and considerable pleasure by nonspecialists and by readers who do not accept some (or any) of his philosophical premises or conclusions but simply see his work as a collection of creative and challenging ideas presented with remarkable clarity and even humor (the book’s name index, by way of illustration, runs from “Allen, Woody” to “Wittgenstein, Ludwig”—with Goodman characteristically approving the comedian’s position and rejecting the philosopher’s).

Goodman’s highly original hybrid, a radical relativism that operates only within rigorous restraints, has offered one way out of the classic dichotomy between nihilism and absolutism. Unlike most other contemporary versions of epistemic relativism, Goodman’s model stresses the role of reconstruction over that of deconstruction and insists upon people’s ability to adjudicate competently among the claims of competing systems and to determine appropriate standards of rightness for given contexts. The admission that there are many right systems does not collapse the distinction between right and wrong but instead makes the careful investigation of that distinction all the more important. One Ways of Worldmaking reviewer remarked that, “Insofar as it deals with art, it struck me as standing in relation to classical aesthetics as relativity theory does to classical physics.” Goodman’s suggestion that understanding rather than knowledge is the key cognitive state to be theorized and that art and science both aim at the same cognitive goals has similarly revolutionary implications for literary theory, psychology, and the sciences that are only beginning to be explored.


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Additional Reading

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.

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

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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