Goodman, Nelson (1906–98)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M045-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 22, 2024, from

2. Aesthetics

Works of art, Goodman contends, are symbols. As such, they require interpretation. The aesthetic attitude, then, is not one of passive contemplation, but of active cognitive engagement; its main goal is understanding, not pleasure. Aesthetics, as Goodman conceives it, is a branch of epistemology.

Languages of Art characterizes a range of symbol systems used in the arts and elsewhere, and identifies the syntactic and semantic structures that give rise to their powers and limitations. The basic modes of reference are denotation and exemplification. Denotation is the relation of a name to its bearer, a predicate to the members of its extension, a picture to its subject. ‘Charles I’, ‘the father of Charles II’ and a Van Dyck portrait all denote Charles I. Fictional symbols lack denotata. Their significance, Goodman maintains, derives from symbols that denote them. Although the term ‘unicorn’ fails to denote, the terms ‘unicorn-description’ and ‘unicorn-picture’ denote a variety of symbols that collectively constitute the meaning of the term ‘unicorn’. Many works of art – abstract art, most instrumental music, and much dance – do not even purport to denote. They refer, Goodman maintains, by means of exemplification. In exemplification, a symbol points up and hence refers to features it serves as a sample or example of. Thus, a commercial paint sample exemplifies its colour and sheen; a late Mondrian painting exemplifies squareness. Exemplification is widespread not only in the arts but also in science, commerce and pedagogy – indeed wherever samples and examples are used.

Denotation and exemplification are not mutually exclusive. Denoting symbols in the arts typically also exemplify. A portrait by Whistler denotes his mother and exemplifies a seemingly infinite spectrum of shades of grey. Seventeenth-century Dutch still lifes denote opulent arrangements of flowers and fruit and exemplify ambivalence about worldly success. Symbols, particularly aesthetic ones, often perform a variety of interanimating referential functions.

Symbols normally do not operate in isolation. They belong to schemes that collectively sort the objects in a realm. In metaphor a scheme that normally sorts one realm is imported to effect a re-sorting of another. New groupings emerge as items that belong to disjoint literal categories are classed together under a single metaphorical label and affinities between literal and metaphorical referents of a term are brought to light. In calling a plumber a virtuoso, for example, we import a scheme that literally sorts musicians to effect a sorting of crafts people. New patterns and distinctions emerge as we recognize the delicacy, dexterity and skill displayed by some few members of the several crafts. Because they draw their lines where no literal label does, metaphors resist paraphrase. No literal label quite captures what all and only the virtuosi in the building trades have in common with one another or with literal virtuosi.

Figurative reference is real reference, Goodman maintains, and figurative truth is real truth. ‘Feline cunning’ genuinely if metaphorically denotes some scheming politicians. ‘The walls of the Alhambra are made of lace’ is genuinely if metaphorically true, and Michelangelo’s Pietà genuinely if metaphorically exemplifies incalculable sorrow.

Expression, he contends, is metaphorical exemplification by a work of art functioning as such. The Pietà then expresses the incalculable sorrow it metaphorically exemplifies. But expression is not limited to emotions. A work of art, functioning as such, expresses any feature it metaphorically exemplifies. Thus, for example, Brancusi’s Bird in Space expresses fluidity and flight. There is, evidently, no limit on the range of features that works of art can express.

Reference is not always direct. In indirect reference, one symbol refers to another by means of a chain consisting of denotational and exemplificational links. Rembrandt’s Night Watch alludes to the history of the militia it depicts by portraying its subjects wearing costumes that exemplify important periods of the militia’s history. In Reconceptions Goodman construes variation as a form of indirect reference, where a variation must in some respects resemble its theme and must differ from it in others. But every two passages do that, and not every passage is a variation on every other. A symbol functions as a variation on a theme when it uses the resemblances and differences as routes of reference to the theme. It exemplifies features it shares with the theme, contrastively exemplifies features it does not share with the theme, and effects reference back to the theme via both exemplification and contrastive exemplification. On Goodman’s analysis, variation is not restricted to music. Nor need a variation occur in the same work as the theme on which it is a variation.

Scientific symbols tend to be attenuated, symbolizing along comparatively few dimensions, whereas aesthetic symbols are relatively replete. For example, the same configuration might serve as an electrocardiogram or a line drawing. In an electrocardiogram, only its shape is significant, whereas in a line drawing, the exact colour and thickness of the line, the precise shade of the background, the size and shape of the paper, the position of the line on it and even the texture of the paper may be significant. The electrocardiogram is referentially austere denoting a pattern of heartbeats and perhaps exemplifying a certain symptomatology. The drawing, however, is apt to perform a variety of interanimating referential functions.

Whether the symbol is an electrocardiogram or a drawing depends on its function. It counts as a work of art as long as it functions as an aesthetic symbol. And it may do so intermittently. The crucial question for Goodman is not ‘What is art?’ but ‘When is art?’, that is, ‘Under what circumstances does an object function as an aesthetic symbol?’ He gives no criterion, but identifies five symptoms of the aesthetic: syntactic density, semantic density, relative repleteness, exemplification and complex and indirect reference. A symbol system is syntactically dense when the finest differences between signs constitute a difference between symbols, that is, when it can mark the finest differences between items in its domain. Symptoms, Goodman acknowledges, are neither necessary nor sufficient conditions. But they are good, if defeasible, indications of the presence of a condition.

Interpretation requires discovering what symbols constitute a work, how they function, what they refer to and what they achieve. The richness and complexity of aesthetic symbols means that the task may be interminable and that multiple, irreconcilable interpretations may be correct. But not every interpretation is correct. Only those that make maximally good sense of the work’s symbolic functions are to be accepted. Goodman’s pluralism consists in his recognition that more than one interpretation can often do so.

Citing this article:
Elgin, Catherine Z.. Aesthetics. Goodman, Nelson (1906–98), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M045-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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