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Goodman's Semiotic Theory of Art

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

Markus Lammenranta*
University of Helsinki, Unioninkatu 40 B, SF-00170, Helsinki, Finland


In 1968, Nelson Goodman published his Languages of Art which became one of the most important works on aesthetics in the tradition of analytical philosophy. Goodman offered there a semiotic theory of art, the purpose of which was to explicate our concept of art in terms of different symbolic or referential functions; the theory was further developed in his subsequent book Ways of Worldmaking. Though it is a very subtle and sophisticated theory, I will argue that it is not adequate, that it doesn't even satisfy Goodman's own requirements for a theory of art. Traditionally, the aim of a theory of art has been to capture the essence of art, to describe what is common to all works of art and at the same time distinguishes them from everything else. As a nominalist, Goodman does not, however, believe that there is any essence of art that we can discover.

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Copyright © The Authors 1922

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1 Nelson, Goodman Languages of Art (Brighton: Harvester Press 1981)Google Scholar

2 Nelson, Goodman Ways of Worldmaking (Indianapolis: Hackett 1978)Google Scholar

3 Nelson, Goodman Of Mind and Other Matters (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1984), 198-9Google Scholar

4 Goodman speaks about constructional definitions; see his The Structure of Appearance (Dordrecht: D. Reidel 1977), 3-23.

5 Ways of Worldmaking, 66-7

6 The theory is given in Languages of Art; for a summary, see Of Mind and Other Matters, 55-70.

7 Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking, 67-70, and Of Mind and Other Matters, 135-8. Goodman doesn't thus give a complete definition of art that specifies necessary and sufficient conditions. He gives just one necessary property and a cluster of typical properties of art. This may, however, be taken as an early stage in a search for a definition (Of Mind and Other Matters, 135). And it can be evaluated in terms of the same criteria that are appropriate for a complete definition. His one necessary condition makes it possible to look for counterexamples, and, of course, we can assess how illuminating it is. See also n. 11.

8 I don't want to deny that there are some buildings and musical works that denote and represent something. Some musical events may represent e.g. a gunshot or singing of birds. Goodman notes himself that some buildings contain statues that represent and that even a whole building may sometimes represent something. E.g. Jom Utzon's Opera House in Sydney represents sailboats, though even in this case we are more interested in the form it exemplifies. See Goodman, 'How Buildings Mean,' Critical Inquiry 12 (1986)Google Scholar, reprinted in Nelson, Goodman & Catherine, Z. Elgin Reconceptions in Philosophy & Other Arts & Sciences (London: Routledge 1988) 31-48Google Scholar. These are all quite exceptional cases. For my purposes, it is enough that there are typical cases of paintings, buildings, and musical works that do not denote anything.

9 Goodman, Of Mind and Other Matters, 84

10 Goodman, Problems and Projects (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill 1972), 126Google Scholar

11 One of the referees of the Canadian Journal of Philosophy made the point that it is quite inappropriate to concede that functioning as a symbol is a necessary condition of art but to complain that it is not an interesting or illuminating necessary condition. Not all necessary conditions are expected to be interesting. There may be other necessary conditions which together with this one make the theory illuminating. This is a good general point, but it doesn't save Goodman's theory. First of all, Goodman gives only one necessary condition of art. So it is expected that it does some work in the theory. Second, if one still insist that this doesn't need to be so and that all the illumination comes from the symptoms of the aesthetic that are supposed to distinguish artistic functioning from other symbolic functioning, I can deny this, too. If we understand 'exemplification' in the broad sense and concede that tools exemplify their properties, the symptoms of the aesthetic doesn't help us at all. This is because tools would also satisfy most of the symptoms: at least (1) syntactic density, (2) semantic density, (3) relative repleteness, and (4) exemplification. The only symptom about which I hesitate is (5) the multiple and complex reference. So, the symptoms would not help us to distinguish art from ordinary tools, like hammers and axes, and tell us anything that is specifically illuminating about art. I can't explain here what Goodman means by his symptoms because of the technicalities involved, but I urge interested readers to study Goodman and confirm my point themselves. See Goodman, Languages of Art, 127-73, Ways of Worldmaking, 67-8, and Of Mind and Other Matters, 135-8. One might suggest that tools would thus be a counterexample to Goodman's theory. This is not so, however, because Goodman does not want to claim that the symptoms are even conjunctively sufficient for something to function as art (Goodman, Of Mind and Other Matters, 135).

12 Goodman, Languages of Art, 258

13 In Ways of Worldmaking, Goodman speaks often about a world instead of the world. Because he now thinks that there are many worlds if any and that they are all made by us with symbols, it would be misleading to speak about the world out there waiting to be found. I will, however, go on speaking about the world, too, because I think that Goodman's theory of art is quite compatible with a realistic view about the world out there. See Markus, Lammenranta 'Do We Make Worlds With Symbols?' Semiotica, 86 (1991), 277-87.Google Scholar

14 According to Goodman's antirealism, knowing and making go on together. See Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking, 21-2.

15 Some aestheticians seem to interpret Goodman as claiming that mere making of works of art would count as worldmaking. This is a gross misunderstanding. Works of art are not worlds; they ―like other symbols― are the means to making worlds. This misunderstanding may be encouraged by Goodman's broad notion of exemplification. Neither would the making of imaginary or fictive worlds count as worldmaking in Goodman's sense. There are no fictive, merely possible, worlds. Only making actual worlds counts as worldmaking.

16 I am indebted to Dr. Joseph Tolliver, Dr. Josef Tarnowski, and the editor and the anonymous referees of Canadian Journal of Philosophy for their helpful comments on the earlier versions of this article.

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