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.
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.