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American Pragmatism

Art & Science Reconciled

Nikolaos Gkogkas on the aesthetics of Nelson Goodman.

Nelson Goodman (1906-98) was one of the best-known American philosophers of the twentieth century. One of his main philosophical objectives was clarity of the ideas and concepts employed by philosophy. But his work also dealt extensively with aesthetics and the arts. And, being pragmatically-oriented, he thought that theory and practice are worth pursuing so long as they help us produce a coherent or right version of what works for us in the sciences and the arts.

It is true that we don’t normally associate the realms of culture and art with matters of utility and science. However, Goodman undertook to do precisely that. He didn’t think that works of art are somehow indistinguishable from scientific theorems; only that we can explain the reasons why both might be appealing to us in terms of fundamental principles applicable to both.

Aristotle (384-322BC), to name but one, explained the aesthetic feeling of gratification as an expression of the joy of learning which is inherent in humans. He, too, wished to provide a link between knowledge and aesthetic pleasure. Goodman’s effort was similar in spirit, but executed in a wholly different manner.

A Good Man in the Arts

On a personal level, Goodman’s active preoccupation with art and applied aesthetics had been constant throughout his life. Following his BSc degree at Harvard in 1928, he was director of the Walker-Goodman Art Gallery in Boston from 1929 until 1941 – while simultaneously working on his doctoral dissertation in philosophical logic. And during his later academic career, he consistently promoted education in the arts, while assisting young artists and students of aesthetics. His wife was the painter Katharine (Kay) Sturgis Goodman, who died in 1996.

Goodman’s philosophy of the arts was comprehensively set out in his Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols, a highly influential monograph first published in 1968. But how are the ‘arts’ related to ‘languages’? Goodman warns us not to confound ‘languages’ with language as we normally conceive it – i.e. our natural way of verbal communication. He explicitly says that the arts do not constitute languages belonging to the same category as English, Latin and Greek. The fundamental difference between these natural languages and the ‘languages’ of the arts can easily be illuminated. Natural languages consist of vocal sounds and written letters, interconnected according to specific rules of grammar; the ‘language’ of an art, on the other hand, doesn’t involve any of the above elements – it is not made up of alphabets, words, and sentences.

But this is just as far as the difference goes, and where the similarities begin: we can still describe the arts as ‘languages’ not of alphabets and grammar, but of particular building blocks or ‘elements’, put together according to particular ‘construction manuals’. For instance, in the case of painting our ‘elements’ are the different painted images, while our ‘construction manual’ consists of the rules necessary for producing a meaningful image; in the case of music we have a whole variety of works on one side, and their harmonic or rhythmic specifications on the other; literature still uses the ordinary alphabet as its source of ‘elements’, but it sometimes defies ordinary rules of grammar and usage, expanding the expressive potential of everyday speech.

Therefore, the ordinary, natural languages and the ‘languages’ of the arts, can all be explained as ordered constructions – or systems – of elements – or symbols. That is, symbols interconnected in certain ways make systems, or else, codes for the interpretation of what they convey. We readily codify what we want to express in our own mother tongue, but the importance of learning new systems and codes becomes evident when we venture to learn a foreign language, for example. The case is similar with the arts: our success at understanding the arts depends on our familiarity and practice with their diverse codes.

Spot the Differences

But the problem now is this: how are we going to differentiate among the various symbol systems – the dissimilar ‘languages’ of the sciences and the arts? Saying that they are similar in functioning as symbol systems or codes, does not really explain their differences, of which we are all still convinced. The overall gist of Goodman’s response is that, as long as the sciences and the arts alike constitute symbol systems, the differences must be in the way these systems are internally structured. Goodman often describes these differences in a highly technical terminology, but they generally boil down to the following four points:

1. A most prominent feature of an artwork is the fact that it can itself be what it is supposed to represent: painted sky can be blue, like perceivable sky; the size of an architectural edifice may directly reflect the power and status of its inhabitants. This characteristic is what Goodman calls exemplification, i.e. the power of some artworks to function as examples of that to which they refer. The painted blue sky and the grandiose building are instances of literal exemplification; but it can also be metaphorical. Consider, in a drawing, a person with a blue-coloured face; or imagine a pompous singer as an opera hero: in both cases we have attempts at expressing something different – sadness, greatness of character – through something else which metaphorically serves as its example – blueness, stateliness. In the sciences it is not easy to identify instances of exemplification, either literal or metaphorical: the sky over the curve of the horizon in a book of physics doesn’t need any colouring; and the words ‘sad person’ in a psychological treatise (or even in this essay) cannot have anything sad about them.

2. A work of art – but not an achievement of science – more often than not employs symbols that refer to other objects, matters of fact, or states of mind on multiple and complex levels. A fierce dance movement, for instance, may signify the personality of the hero within the play, while at the same time referring to the rest of the plot, to violent behaviour in general, to its possible causes, to possible reactions towards it within the plot but also within our world as spectators, and so on. As opposed to this, a treatise on what kinds of movement are associated with violence would not succeed in exciting our imagination in the same way.

3. The curve on a scientific graph conveys data according to its co-ordinates on a graded two-dimensional scale, but the visible qualities of the actual line demarcating this single curve (colour, thickness, shadow and combinations thereof) are of no interest in themselves. In contrast, a similar looking curve that someone has drawn in order to depict a mountain makes full use of all these visible qualities, acquiring different significance and pictorial value depending on every minute detail of pigmentation. (This was one of Goodman’s favourite examples. In his terminology, the scientific curve is described as attenuate, the mountain drawing as replete.)

4 (a). Concerning the way symbols are structured into systems, painting is a symbol system whereby its elements (the individual paintings) can never be completely identified and isolated in every detail of their lines and colours. We can always have a new painting so similar to an already existing one that it is almost impossible to specify the difference. However, this is not the case with a script or a musical score: different words or musical notes are relatively easy to point out, and the result is that we have different works in each case. (In Goodman’s jargon, drawings are syntactically dense, as opposed to novels or symphonies.)

(b). Concerning the way symbol systems convey meaning – the way they refer to what they signify – it is plain that, for instance, the same pencil lines can have multiple meanings depending on their context. The same is true of words: that is why it is difficult to discriminate the meaning of synonymous words and phrases outside their context. Musical notes, however, have a fixed pitch and their relative position in respect of the surrounding tones can always be calculated, at least theoretically. (In Goodman’s jargon again, drawings and novels are semantically dense, as opposed to symphonies.)

But Does it Work?

How successful is Goodman in clarifying the above features, or symptoms as he calls them? They are supposed to distinguish – but not cut off – the artistic from the scientific. As outlined here, these criteria are certainly not referring exclusively to the distinction between art and non-art, but also to the ways the arts themselves differ from each other (see especially points 4 a & b above). This is not problematic. Nevertheless, one might object that Goodman’s criteria don’t separate the aesthetic and the non-aesthetic in a sufficiently clear way. All he tells us is that some features pertain to art more often than not. So has Goodman ‘cheated’ in promising something he has not delivered? Perhaps his programmatic intention to unify art and science has led him too far to be able to keep them separate.

His own response, though, is that there simply is no strict ‘dividing line’; it isn’t just that we are unable to specify it. Our initial mistake lies precisely in thinking that the realms of art and science are inherently separate, whereas the fact is that differences run continuously from one symbol system to the other, pretty much in the same way that we cannot define a specific height that marks short people off from tall ones. In this case, as in many others, the limits for the distinctions we casually make are vague. And, again, this is not because we do not know them, but simply because no limits exist, or they exist only in a figurative way. The important thing is that we are applying some measure (for example, of height) to perceivable real characteristics, and this yields practical knowledge of the world surrounding us.

In a quite similar but potentially far more complicated way, all symbol systems – our natural languages, the strictly structured languages of our sciences, and the more elusive languages of the arts – constitute attempts at assimilating and comprehending what appears as real but diverse and opaque. It is only accidental that in some cases this assimilation can be more specific, articulate and quantifiable – as in the natural sciences. In the case of the traditional fine arts, measures and referents are more qualitative and more densely structured. We cannot calculate them, but they are still ‘structured’, in Goodman’s sense, within diverse systems of symbolization.

In effect, Goodman equates this pervasive symbolizing process with knowledge and understanding. We cannot be said to know something unless we have incorporated it into some kind of systematic account, describing the ways it resembles, or differs from, everything else. This is precisely the point of incorporating it into a ‘language’ – by, say, working out a mathematical equation or writing a poem about it. For what lies in the outside world is internalized and made intelligible through our concepts, our ideas and our practices. We come to know the world’s shapeless features by perceiving, or talking about, or measuring, or handling, or imagining them; that is by shaping them in one way or another. This simple idea pretty much summarizes Goodman’s philosophical programme in this respect, provided that we take heed of what exactly he means when he uses the term ‘language’.

And it is not an idea totally alien to our everyday intuitions. Only conventionally speaking is scientific ‘truth’ opposed to artistic ‘beauty’. Otherwise, we accept that great scientific breakthroughs are born out of ‘irrational’ inspiration and feeling (as well as coincidence); and that great art is frequently the product of careful calculation and scrutiny on the part of its creator (although the spectator might not readily recognize it). There are no ‘purely’ scientific or artistic minds. We individually pursue our professions, inclinations, and favourite pastimes, and thus we try to comprehend the world more or less fully by interpreting and expanding the symbol systems we come across.

Rather than trying to discover an alleged point of separation between what is ‘true’ and what is ‘beautiful’, Goodman is emphasizing the manner in which everything is more or less aesthetic – and, conversely, more or less scientific – depending on our needs, our interests, our interpretative tools and circumstances of life.

Art and Science United?

To sum up, Goodman sets out to propose a daringly general account of what makes science as well as art essential to our way of living. He does this by adopting a so-called semiotic method, i.e. one that makes theoretical use of symbol systems. He defines some properties which help us identify the degree in which things and practices fall under the one or the other symbol system (or ‘language’), because there can be no definitive rules for fixed categorization. Despite this, he is able to find identifiable patterns in the ways the arts and the sciences differ; he does not generalize by oversimplifying, which would imply that the differences are artificially and mistakenly levelled. In other words, the aesthetic and the scientific do not exist in isolation, for Goodman – but they are not identical, either. In the analogy already mentioned, it would be a contradiction to say that “a tall person is short”, or vice versa; instead, the point here is that both ‘tall’ and ‘short’ are to be defined in terms of each other, and for this they both require each other (there would be no ‘tallness’ without ‘shortness’, and vice versa).

For Goodman, then, the aesthetic and the scientific are intricately bonded, but at the same time they acquire an enriched meaning – not the narrow, conventional one. And this re-definition only goes to show that certain classifications in our languages are unmade as easily as they are established.


Nikolaos Gkogkas is a PhD student at the University of Liverpool, and is sponsored by the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation.

• For a full list of Nelson Goodman’s works, see http://gkogkas.topcities.com/nelson_goodman_works.htm

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