Goodman, Nelson (1906–98)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M045-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved December 04, 2021, from

1. Metaphysics

Nelson Goodman made groundbreaking contributions to aesthetics, epistemology, metaphysics and the philosophy of science. In his youth he ran an art gallery. Throughout his life he was an avid and eclectic collector of art. He founded the Harvard Summer Dance programme and Project Zero, an ongoing research programme in arts education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. As graduate students at Harvard, he and Henry Leonard developed a version of mereology that they dubbed ‘the calculus of individuals’. Elaborated in The Structure of Appearance, it forms the basis for Goodman’s nominalism. As Goodman construes it, the difference between mereology and set theory lies in the sorts of constructions they permit. Set theory admits infinitely many distinct entities – sets of sets of sets of sets... – all composed of the same basic elements. Mereology holds that the same basic elements are parts of but a single whole. Goodman’s nominalism consists in a refusal to recognize more than one entity comprised of the same basic elements. It says nothing about the metaphysical constitution of the elements. The decision of whether to countenance abstract or concrete, immaterial or material, mental or physical entities requires more than a commitment to nominalism.

The constructionalism Goodman espouses in The Structure of Appearance is a methodology for systematizing a body of pretheoretical beliefs. Such beliefs tend to be inchoate, vague, even inconsistent. By devising an interpreted formal system that derives them from or explicates them in terms of a suitable base of primitives, we can bring them into logical contact with each other, eliminate inconsistencies and disclose unanticipated logical and theoretical connections. Were such a system required to reflect all our relevant pretheoretical beliefs exactly, it would simply replicate received errors and confusions. But, Goodman argues, the regimentation constructionalism countenances involves judicious correction, refinement and even repudiation of presystematic convictions in the interests of simplicity, coherence, theoretical tractability, and the like.

Multiple, divergent systems do justice to the same range of pretheoretical beliefs. One system might identify a geometrical point with the intersection of two nonparallel lines. Another might identify it with the limit of a sequence of nested spheres. Neither invalidates the other, for each provides a geometrically acceptable definition of a point. Here lies the root of Goodman’s relativism. Relative to each acceptable system, the constitution of a point is determinate. But absolutely and independently of the systems we construct, it is indeterminate.

In Ways of Worldmaking, Goodman provides a less formal treatment of the same themes. Worlds and the objects that comprise them are made, he contends, not found. The members of any group are alike in some respects, different in others. So mere inspection cannot settle whether two manifestations are of the same thing or of the same kind. To answer such questions we require a category scheme or system of classification that distinguishes differences that matter from differences that do not. Such schemes are not dictated by nature, but are human constructs. We draw the lines. Lines can be drawn in various places, resulting in divergent but equally viable world versions. One person might count a newspaper with a new publisher and a radically revised editorial stance as the same newspaper it always was. Another might count it as a different newspaper. One might classify a black hole as a star, another as the residue of an extinguished star. Relative to its own world version, each is right. Relative to its rival’s, each is wrong. Neither is absolutely right or wrong.

If all overlapping world versions were reducible to or supervenient on a single base, such divergences would be insignificant. But, Goodman insists, such is not the case. In The Structure of Appearance he develops a phenomenalist constructional system whose primitives are qualia – phenomenal individuals out of which enduring perceptibles are constructed. He does not claim that this is the only viable form of phenomenalism and he recognizes that it neither underwrites nor reduces to a physicalist system. But it is none the worse for that. Rather, he urges that physicalist and phenomenalist systems are distinct, valid constructions of independent interest and importance. Neither is parasitic on the other.

If the proliferation derives from the availability of clashing category schemes, why not take it to show simply that there are multiple conceptualizations? Then we could retain our pretheoretical conviction that there exists exactly one world underlying them. Were the analytic/synthetic distinction tenable, such a strategy might work. But as Goodman, W. V. Quine, and Morton White demonstrated, it is not. Although statements depend on both meaning and fact, the dependence on meaning cannot be separated from the dependence on fact. There is thus no way to make sense of the claim that the difference between clashing world versions derives from different ways of conceptualizing the same facts. Category schemes dictate the criteria of identity of their objects, so mutually irreducible schemes do not treat of the same things. Since a world is the totality of things that comprise it, irreducible schemes define distinct worlds. There are, Goodman concludes, many worlds if any.

Still, it is not the case that just anything goes. Goodman describes his position as relativism under rigorous restraints. Consistency, coherence, suitability for a purpose, as well as accord with past practice and antecedent convictions are among the restraints he recognizes. Fitting and working are the marks of a successful version. A world version must consist of components that fit together; it must fit reasonably well with our considered judgements about the subject at hand, and must work to further our cognitive objectives. A version that is internally incoherent, is inconsonant with our antecedent considered judgements or impedes the advancement of understanding is unacceptable. Worldmaking need not be deliberate. Ways of Worldmaking discusses how, with only sparse cues, the visual system constructs the apparent motion it discerns. Nor is worldmaking exclusively the province of science – the arts as well as the sciences make worlds.

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