PRINT May 1999


Nelson Goodman

NELSON GOODMAN’S WORK touched on so many fields—philosophy, of course, but also the arts, the sciences, and psychology—that it is difficult for anyone to appreciate, much less summarize, what it has all meant for us, or even to specify the “us” that will continue to have some stake in his work. More appreciated in Europe than America, invoked as an authority in fields from cognitive science to artificial intelligence to art criticism to analytic philosophy, Goodman has had a massive yet unobtrusive influence on contemporary thinking in a wide variety of disciplines. He never achieved the kind of cult status sometimes accorded to philosophers in the art world. His thought moved with quiet wit and authority, rarely engaging in the pyrotechnics that make a philosopher quotable and therefore reducible to a few slogans. Goodman does not leave behind an industry built on key words like “differance” or “episteme” or “mirror stage.” The vocabulary of his theory of symbols is austere and technical. Terms like “compliance,” “inscription,” “character,” “replete,” “articulate,” “exemplification,” “denotation,” the distinctions between a symbol “scheme” and a symbol “system,” between “autographic” and “allographic” inscriptions do not set one’s pulse to pounding. They are clearly and rigorously defined concepts within an analytic framework of remarkable breadth, embracing both the arts and the sciences, the symbols of mass media and the artifacts of the plastic arts. Goodman’s only concessions to stylistic flashiness appeared in pithy, often alliterative phrases like “score, script, and sketch,” which condensed an entire theory of notation, conundrums like “the sound of pictures,” which crystallized a theory of expression, or dialectical pairings like “pictures and paragraphs,” which adumbrated a wholesale reorientation of the classic differentiations of verbal and visual symbols.

For me, Goodman was always first and foremost the author of the 1968 Languages of Art. His project as the most rigorous philosophical nominalism since that of Thomas Hobbes, his work as the “irrealist” epistemologist of Ways of Worldmaking left me impressed but not transformed, except perhaps in ways that are too subtle to measure. I suspect that my experience is not untypical, and that this is why there are not many card-carrying “Goodmanians” in the academy or the art world. But Languages of Art was to me a revelation. It took on the great, central questions of aesthetics and the theory of representation and produced a novel and systematic critique of the differentiations among media, symbolic forms, sign types, modes of expressivity, and referentiality. Perhaps the most dazzling thing about this book was its refusal to enter into an Oedipal relationship with its philosophical predecessors (chiefly C.S. Peirce and Ernst Cassirer), much less to troll through contemporary theories of representation looking for rivals and competitors, of which there would have been no lack among structuralist and poststructuralist theorists.

For Goodman, this sort of thing would have been of “merely historical interest.” He concentrated on the main task, a “general theory of symbols” that “ranges beyond the arts into matters pertaining to the sciences, technology, perception, and practice.” One could feel in his text a convergence of the Barthian triad, “Image/Music/Text,” staged as a dialogue between structural linguistics and theories of nonverbal representation. He tacitly resisted the linguistic imperialism of semiotics, taking pains to insist that the word “language” in Languages of Art was merely a vernacular convenience (the precise word would have been “symbol”). His theory paid as much attention to musical and dance notation as to linguistic signs, and it was centered, most famously, on the notoriously difficult question of the visual image.

Goodman’s account of pictorial representation is among the most radical and innovative treatments of the subject in modern philosophy or criticism. Decisively refuting “copy” theories of representation based in likeness, resemblance, similitude, or “iconicity,” he seemed to flirt with the reduction of pictures to just another form of language. More than one unwary commentator was taken in by his stress on the “analogy between pictorial and verbal description,” which he saw as merely a “corrective and suggestive” move. His real aim, however, was to redescribe the difference between “depiction” and “description,” “paintings” and “poems,” as the distance between what he called “dense” and “differentiated” symbol systems. A differentiated system is one with a finite number of characters (such as an alphabet or a graduated thermometer); it is also “disjunct” and “discontinuous” in that there are no meaningful signs in the “gaps” between two characters—no letters between a, b, and c in the alphabet, for instance. A dense system, by contrast, is one in which there are an infinite number of characters or meaningful marks, and every tiny variation in the inscription of a mark is potentially significant. The letter “A” designates the same thing no matter how it is written; a drawing of an A-frame house, on the other hand, takes its significance from the innumerable details of its graphic execution. Every difference makes a difference.

My account runs the risk, of course, of drastically oversimplifying Goodman’s elaboration of this distinction in numerous domains. (See my Iconology for a more detailed treatment.) His theory goes on to distinguish semantic and syntactic features, symbol “systems” and symbol “schemes”; it maps out “routes of reference,” notions of “compliance,” and a variety of criteria for notational systems, as distinct from linguistic and representational systems. Several things are striking about the results of this endeavor. Many possible worlds are constructed by the fabric of conventional signs we weave about ourselves in both the arts and the sciences. There is no one single world that is absolutely right, true, or correct. At the same time, despite what appears to be the embrace of laissez-faire relativism, not all representations are equally true or useful. Truth and rigor, precision and accuracy don’t dissolve into a mindless subjectivism or indeterminacy. Scientific truth and aesthetic “rightness” do not disappear. Their criteria, limits, and systematic features simply become much clearer, and the structure of nonsense, error, or self-contradiction also becomes more perspicuous.

From the standpoint of one who is interested in the relations of verbal and visual symbols, the most notable consequence of Goodman’s theory is that the old binary oppositions of semiotics (natural and conventional signs, icon and symbol, motivated and arbitrary signs) seem to dissolve and reemerge in surprising new ways. Instead of being opposed to pictorial representation, language begins to appear as a mixed and middle region between the realm of rigorously rule-bound notation systems and the relatively anarchic sphere of the image. Differences among art forms and media cease to be “essential” or “natural” (as they had been in neo-Kantian aesthetics, for instance) and become functional, operational distinctions among ways of perceiving and manipulating symbols. Within Goodman’s framework, one can look at a diagram, a map, a line drawing, an engraving, a photograph, a painting, and a Rauschenberg combine and work toward a precise description of the multifarious distinctions and intersections among these forms. Goodman’s theory of symbols has a curiously liberating effect on the range of aesthetic apprehensions available to a beholder. It frees one from a gamut of prejudices that tell us in advance what a picture must do or be, how a text can mean, how a score or script can be realized, what the ontology of “the” photograph is.

But perhaps the most important gesture of Goodman’s theory is its explicit refusal to traffic in value judgments. Despite his reputation as a connoisseur and art collector—and he was,indeed, a serious patron of the arts whose interests ranged from old masters to modernist abstraction to the primitive and exotic—Goodman sequestered his “general theory of symbols” from the task of evaluation, just as he refused to engage in historical debates or genealogies. This (along with his technical difficulty) may be another reason for his lack of cult status. Goodman left no canonical series of texts or masterpieces, no lineage of precursors overcome. What he bequeathed us instead was something more subtle and perhaps more precious: a system that opens the cognition of works of art to more capacious and discriminating descriptions and frees it from certain predictable rituals. I think here of Foucault’s famous refusal to resort to the closure of “proper name” and the discipline of historical reference in his analysis of Las Meninas. Foucault insists on “the medium of” a “grey, anonymous language” that will permit the painting to “little by little, release its illuminations.” Goodman’s vocabulary for the arts has a similar kind of grey anonymity. It seeks a certain wise passivity in the presence of the nonverbal symbol, a suspension of evaluation and even interpretation in favor of a long pause, a breath-taking prolongation of the “merely” descriptive moment. Not for him the instantaneous perception of aesthetic value, the flash of conviction to be enforced with every weapon in the arsenal of philosophical authority. He even invites us to substitute our own examples for his, but above all to play a different game of noticing when art is occurring (not “what it is”), how art is making meaning (rather than “what it means”), where its routes of reference lead us (not “what it stands for”).

Goodman had an extraordinarily wide range of interests as a collector and patron of the arts. He founded Project Zero at Harvard, an interdisciplinary center for the study of aesthetic education, and he was a frequent visitor to and commentator on art museums of all sorts. He also worked with dancers, choreographers, musicians, composers, and filmmakers, producing innovative performance events and video documentation. Hockey Seen (1972), Rabbit Run (based on the Updike novel), and Variations: An Illustrated Lecture Concert (1985, based on Picasso’s variations on Las Meninas) exemplified his abiding interest in composite arts and intermedia. These works often served as illustrations or case studies in the theoretical principles of his aesthetic philosophy, but they did not constitute a “canon” to establish a set of value judgments. Or if they did, Goodman never made explicit any theory of taste that would have led ineluctably to these choices. I’m not sure that means that his aesthetic judgments were purely “private.” There clearly is some kind of pattern of consistent preferences across the many kinds of objects and images that caught his attention. Perhaps it comes to no more than a kind of taste for the elegant formal solution that manages to render complexity in a terse, simple (but not simplistic) formulation—something very like his own writing style, a bit austere and clipped, but always resonant.

Did Goodman attain the Holy Grail of aesthetics, a “general theory of symbols” that will endure for all time, providing a stable framework for any future comparative study of the arts and media? The question puts us, I think, on the wrong track. Goodman effected a remarkably powerful intervention in aesthetics and symbol theory, a novel and rigorous one that cut across the whole tradition of philosophical reflection on language and representation. His system does not explain everything, nor was it meant to. It could only work by virtue of its rigorous refusals of value and history, and that meant that it left out all the messy, intractable issues that concern art criticism. This may explain its curiously equivocal reception. When Goodman’s symbol theory was first being absorbed by the art world in the ’70s and ’80s, it was out of step with the increasingly political ambitions of art in what we now recall as the “postmodern” era. Yet when I lectured on his aesthetics at places like Cal Arts in the mid-’80s, the audience was packed with young artists who found something strangely empowering about his disruptions of traditional aesthetic categories, his undermining of received notions about the essential features of the various media. If Goodman’s system helped to free the beholder from certain prejudices, perhaps it was also having this effect on the producers of art as well.

Goodman’s strengths, then, are inseparable from his self-imposed limitations. My own interest in him ultimately came to focus on precisely that interface between what lay inside and outside his system—let us call this the boundary between form and ideology. For Goodman, formalism, the structural analysis of what he called the “routes” (rather than the “roots”) of reference, required a rigorous bracketing of ideological issues—questions of political, ethical, and even aesthetic value. He wanted to suspend these issues in favor of a kind of pure epistemology of signs and symbols. Deeply contested notions such as “realism,” for instance, which seem irrevocably linked to “roots” in something beyond symbols, he hoped to redescribe in purely formal terms (see my “Realism, Irrealism, and Ideology: After Nelson Goodman” in Picture Theory for further discussion). The interesting consequence of this bracketing is that it emerges as one of the most fascinating “border” areas in the further exploration of Goodman’s philosophical territory. His reformulation of the venerable “word and image” question in semiotics, aesthetics, and artistic practice helped me, paradoxically, to see more vividly what was at stake in the traditional formulations of this issue from Plato’s Cratylus to Georg Lessing’s Laocoon to Peirce’s and Barthes’s semiotics, as if the best way to confront a philosophical tradition is to turn strategically away from it. In his bracketing of history and value, perhaps Goodman put himself on the road to being a kind of Saussure of aesthetics (a comparison I am pretty sure he would not appreciate). In any case, it was Goodman who, strangely enough, helped me achieve some clarity about the ideological underpinnings of traditional theories of “word and image”—as sensory distinctions (the ear versus the eye), as metaphysical categories (Lessing's “time and space”), and as semiotic figures (the raw icon and the cooked symbol).

I first met Goodman in the mid-’80s, having made the pilgrimage to Cambridge to discuss with him the chapter of Iconology that deals with his work. I was scared to death. Goodman’s own writing, and his reputation as one of the most demanding, formidable characters in the Harvard philosophy department, was intimidating enough. Then there were the stories of how notoriously difficult he was on doctoral exams. I knew that he did not suffer fools gladly, and I was pretty sure atthat moment that I had been a fool to take on the task of expounding his relation to the traditional problem of word and image. His appearance—bald, a massively sculpted head with prominent nose and jaw—and his gruff, peremptory tone of voice only reinforced my terror. Then he laughed and said my chapter on him was “not bad.” We sat down to dinner in a Cambridge restaurant with his former student and protégé, Catherine Elgin, and went through the fine points of the chapter. He pointed out a number of errors and I gratefully took notes. At one point I asked him what he thought about the relation of density and autographic inscriptions and he turned to Catherine and said: “What do we think about that?”

For me this story illustrates, not Goodman’s forgetfulness, but the public, shareable quality of his thinking. What do we think about the symbols we use to construct our worlds? I now shift the emphasis to the “we” because that is the terrain on which Goodman’s thought has disseminated itself. No cult or philosophical charisma attaches itself to him, but something perhaps more durable. Shelley eulogized Keats by saying he had become part of the loveliness he helped to make more beautiful. Perhaps we can say of Goodman that he is now part of the structures he helped to make more intelligible.

W.J.T. Mitchell is Gaylord Donnelley Distinguished Service Professor in the Departments of English and Art History at the University of Chicago.