Dates: 1906-1998

Nationality: American

Henry Nelson Goodman (August 7, 1906– November 25, 1998) was an American philosopher, known for his work on counterfactuals, mereology, the problem of induction, irrealism and aesthetics. Goodman graduated from Harvard University in 1928. During the 1930s, he ran an art gallery in Boston, Massachusetts, while studying for a Harvard Ph.D. in philosophy, which he completed in 1941. His experience as an art dealer helps explain his later turn towards aesthetics, where he became better known than in logic and analytic philosophy.

Wikipedia contributors, ‘Nelson Goodman’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 12 December 2010, 10:06 UTC, <>

Most of Goodman’s aesthetics is contained in his Languages of Art (which he republished, with slight variations, in a second edition in 1976), although what is there presented is clarified, expanded, and sometimes corrected in later essays. As its subtitle, An Approach to a General Theory of Symbols, indicates, this is a book with bearings not only on art issues, but on a general understanding of symbols, linguistic and non-linguistic, in the sciences as well as in ordinary life. Indeed, Languages of Art has, amongst its merits, that of having broken, in a non-superficial and fruitful way, the divide between art and science. Goodman’s general view is that we use symbols in our perceiving, understanding, constructing the worlds of our experience: the different sciences and the different arts equally contribute to the enterprise of understanding the world. As in his works in epistemology, metaphysics, and philosophy of language, Goodman’s approach is often unorthodox and groundbreaking, and yet never in a way that fails to be refreshing and suggestive of future developments (some of those developments were pursued by Goodman himself in later essays and, most notably, in his last book, co-authored with Catherine Elgin, Reconceptions in Philosophy and Other Arts and Sciences [1988]).

With respect to art in particular and to symbolic activities in general, Goodman advocates a form of cognitivism: by using symbols we discover (indeed we build) the worlds we live in, and the interest we have in symbols—artworks amongst them—is distinctively cognitive. Indeed, to Goodman, aesthetics is but a branch of epistemology. Paintings, sculptures, musical sonatas, dance pieces, etc. are all entities composed of symbols, which possess different functions and bear different relations with the worlds they refer to. Hence, artworks require interpretation and interpreting them amounts to understanding what they refer to, in which way, and within which systems of rules.

Since symbolizing is for Goodman the same as referring, it must also be emphasized, first, that reference has, in his view, different modes, and, second, that something is a symbol, and is a symbol of a given kind, only within a symbol system of that kind, a system governed by the syntactical and semantic rules distinctive of symbols of that kind. Of course, natural languages are examples of symbol systems, but there are many other, non-linguistic systems: pictorial, gestural, diagrammatic, etc.

Giovannelli, Alessandro, “Goodman’s Aesthetics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>

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