Nelson Goodman, ‘Languages of Art’ (1968); or, The Disappointment of Philosophy

In my younger and more vulnerable years, before finding time to study certain works of philosophy, these books would glow with a mystic aura upon my mental, indeed upon my physical, shelves. They offered the promise of definitive, clear answers to questions that lay (and still lie) behind my intuitions about the value and function of art. One of these intuitions concerned aesthetic cognitivism, the thesis that artworks provide exclusive access to certain modes of knowledge. I wanted (and still want) to elaborate the ways in which artworks do this. Nonetheless, the bits of Wittgenstein, Kant, Adorno and Gadamer picked up during my English BA never cohered into the revelation I was seeking. That revelation, I was convinced, would be made by a proper study of certain works that I knew to lie in the canon, but had failed to really read.

Amongst these was Nelson Goodman’s Languages of Art (1968), a classic of analytic aesthetics. (Some of the others would be Philosophy and The Mirror of Nature, The Claim of Reason, and Wahrheit und Methode.) The book’s aura was enhanced by the emotional circumstances in which I acquired it – at the Librairie philosophique J. Vrin on the Place de la Sorbonne, whilst taking the ENS entrance exams. I shan’t go into detail about the concours, but it was an immensely stressful week, and somewhat eye-opening, given the variety of people who presented themselves. Trying to get on with all these people, against whom I was effectively in competition, added to the intensity of the experience, but I had some wonderful discussions in doing so, particularly with a philosophy student who recommended the Goodman book to me.

Now, having relieved many of my philosophical books of their aura, I can see that Goodman and I would never get on. He doesn’t come close to answering the questions I hoped he would. I’m not sure any other books that I itched to read do either, but I at least feel I can now formulate my questions more coherently, that I have a clearer view of the general landscape surrounding them. From a vantage point within this landscape, I finally got round to reading Languages of Art last year.

Languages of Art gained an aura because of its version of the aesthetic cognitivism thesis – concomitantly for its attempt to decouple truth from simple propositionality. The book’s discussion is in fact more wide-ranging than this. Whilst Goodman’s main theses all concern the nature of artworks as symbol systems, he also spends a significant amount of time on issues such as the status of forgeries and offers a nominalist theory of the work-concept within music. Goodman basically claims that a musical work does not exist apart from its score, and hence only a sufficiently ‘correct’ execution, totally isomorphic with that score, is a genuine performance of a work. Lydia Goehr’s Imaginary Museum of Musical Works (1992) offers a great take-down of this questionable position from a historical perspective, a theme I will return to later.

In what follows, I will offer an exposition of the main elements of Goodman’s book, which deals with the nature of artistic symbol systems, hoping to tease out the problems and limitations of his approach. For one thing, the idea of an artwork as a symbol system ties Goodman to a notion of reference, which seems ill-suited to a description of abstract works. More fundamentally, however, Goodman fails to offer an account of the way in which symbol systems acquire their ability to refer. He gestures vaguely at “conventions” without realising that these conventions are the essential matter he means to treat. Ultimately, Goodman brackets both the subjective and intersubjective domains of aesthetic experience, which leaves his account of the logic of artistic symbols impoverished. Nonetheless, I mean also to point to a couple of surprising places in Languages of Art where Goodman appears to be aware of, and to address, these issues, despite failing to adapt his theoretical account to these insights. References are to Languages of Art, 2nd edn (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1976).

hokFor Goodman, artworks are symbol systems, which means that they ultimately refer to something: “a symbol system consists of a symbol scheme correlated with a field of reference” (134). Goodman’s taxonomy of symbol systems falls into four parts. Firstly, he distinguishes between denotation and exemplification. Under denotation, an object corresponds to a symbol. Under exemplification, a symbol corresponds to a predicate that could itself be used to denote the symbol. (This will become clearer shortly.) Denotation and exemplification in turn are each divided into two. The two forms of denotation are description and representation; the varieties of exemplification are literal exemplification and metaphorical exemplification.

Let us first consider the two forms of denotation: description and representation. Goodman writes at the beginning of Languages of Art that “[d]enotation is the core of representation and is independent of resemblance” (5). His main thesis is that, within a symbol system, one thing represents another. Nonetheless, these things need not resemble each another. Indeed, Goodman writes of “a symbolic relationship that is variable and relative” (43): everything depends upon the conventions of a system, and resemblance is only one possible convention amongst many.

The difference between description and representation is that the symbolic scheme of representation is far denser than that of description. An example of the former could be a digital watch, and of the latter, an analogue watch. Description is “articulate” and unambiguous, whereas representation is ambiguous and “replete” – it is syntactically and semantically dense. Goodman writes that a system is syntactically dense “if it provides for infinitely many characters so ordered that between each two there is a third” (136). In other words, the medium (the symbol scheme) of representation is a continuum, which does not consist of discrete entities. Likewise, a system is semantically dense if it “provides an infinite number of characters with compliance-classes so ordered that between each two there is a third” (153). By “compliance classes”, Goodman simply means the objects referred to by a symbol scheme. In the case of representation, these objects themselves constitute a continuum. A system is thus ambiguous if a sign within the system could refer to more than one “compliance class”.

The examples of digital and analogue watches should hopefully clarify this distinction further. A digital watch describes a time, whilst an analogue watch represents it: the first is unambiguous, whereas the second consists of a continuum. This does not, of course, help us in distinguishing the denotative practices of artworks from those of, say, scientific diagrams. To deal with this point, we should also consider one more criterion, mentioned by Goodman in the final chapter: “repleteness”. The issue here is the syntactic importance of signs. On an electrocardiogram, it is only the height of a line that is important; on the other hand, every quality of an artistic representation (for example, Hokusai’s views of Fujiyama) is of syntactic importance. According to Goodman, this syntactic “repleteness” – alongside syntactic and semantic density – characterizes aesthetic representation.

We should now consider the two modes of exemplification. At first blush, this seems rather more complex than denotation: in exemplification, a symbol corresponds to a predicate that could itself be used to denote the symbol. Just as in denotation, a symbol refers to something, but in this case, the referent is a predicate that belongs to the symbol itself.  To put it differently, the symbol possesses the qualities to which it refers. Goodman thus offers as an example of literal exemplification a tailor’s swatch: “Exemplification is possession plus reference […]. The swatch exemplifies only those properties that it both has and refers to” (53). The specific qualities to which the symbol refers are determined by the symbol system in which it is used (conventionally, the swatch acts as an example of the texture of a particular material, and not of the property of rectangularity). Thus, the difference between exemplification and denotation is that the former deals only with predicates. As Goodman writes, “anything may be denoted, only labels may be exemplified” (57).

Exemplification becomes relevant to art as soon as we determine the category of “metaphorical exemplification” and distinguish it from the “literal” variety. We could, in fact, equally speak of “literal denotation” and “metaphorical denotation”: to say that “the room is cold” means, literally, that the room is at a low temperature, whereas, metaphorically, it could be a comment upon its decoration. In this case, a predicate is transferred from a “home realm” to an “alien realm”, aiming at “the sorting and organizing of [this] alien realm” (72). The exact effect of this transfer is determined by the customary usage of the predicate in its “home realm”.

In metaphorical denotation, an arbitrary symbol is used to describe an object. Metaphorical exemplification, on the other hand, means that a predicate is attached to a symbol that possesses this predicate itself. This allows us to talk of a “sad picture”, for example. The picture “metaphorically exemplifies sadness if some label coextensive with ‘sad’ is referred to by and metaphorically denotes the picture” (85). Metaphorical denotation is thus also a part of metaphorical exemplification, in that this second moment relates the predicate ‘sad’ to the picture.

At this point, Goodman names the category of metaphorical exemplification “expression”, and continues to discuss the connection between art and emotion. He is keen to underline the theoretical neatness of his definition when he writes that

what is expressed is possessed, and what a face or a picture expresses need not (but may) be emotions or ideas the actor or artist has […] or thoughts or feelings of the viewer or of a person depicted, or properties of anything else related in some other way to the symbol. (85)

This is, of course, correct, as far as being an accurate description of Goodman’s understanding of art as a symbol system goes: in expression, the symbol possesses, albeit metaphorically, the predicate being expressed, and expression is a matter of that symbol system alone, not of anything that could be associated to it.

Yet, in making this point, Goodman also speaks with a baffling degree of objectivity:

That the actor was despondent, the artist high, the spectator gloomy or nostalgic or euphoric, the subject inanimate, does not determine whether the face or picture is sad or not. The cheering face of the hypocrite expresses solicitude; and the stolid painter’s picture of boulders may express agitation. The properties a symbol expresses are its own property. (85-6)

This is where my most fundamental problem with Goodman (or at least his discussion of art and emotion) lies. He believes that the symbolic order demanded by his theory is totally transparent. Goodman writes as if it is totally clear whether a picture is ‘sad’ or not. Theoretically, this is all neatly packaged: “if a expresses b then: (1) a possesses or is denoted by b; (2) this possession or denotation is metaphorical; and (3) a refers to b” (95). This is a nice enough way to illuminate a certain aspect of artistic expression, built on the foundations of Goodman’s general taxonomy of symbolic schemes: whilst denotation can employ any arbitrary symbols, an expressive symbol must (1) possess the quality that it possesses (2) in a “metaphorical” way. But what is a valid metaphorical transfer in this case? Can we really ever agree over the precise qualities expressed by an artwork? Is it not too great a stretch to say that a Bach prelude possesses a particular quality, when it is a piece of absolute music, referring directly to nothing?

Now we do, of course, talk in our everyday language about the emotional character of artworks. Emotional responses to artworks are undeniable and a central part of art’s cognitive value. Yet, the complexity of these phenomena is totally lost by Goodman’s theory, which reposes upon (implicit, unexamined) “conventions” that would allow us to correlate, say, a certain way of painting boulders with agitation, or a minor chord on the subdominant with an exquisite if saccharine melancholy. It just does not suffice, philosophically, to say that a certain symbol possesses a certain predicate. How? Not only is Goodman’s theory unsatisfying philosophically, as it leaves this question hanging, but it also does a woeful disservice to its object: artworks themselves. Goodman both ignores the constitutive role of individual subjectivity in response to artworks and, by skimming over the centrality of “conventions” in the way he does, represses the dimension of intersubjectivity, which is in turn constitutive of art itself.

The (inter)subjective hole in Goodman’s theory marks the entire final chapter of Languages of Art, ‘Art and the Understanding’, which discusses more overtly the thesis of aesthetic cognitivism. Here, Goodman names four “symptoms of the aesthetic”: semantic and syntactic density, syntactic repleteness and “exemplificationality” (252-5). These symptoms should all be clear in light of the foregoing discussion, and serve to distinguish artworks from other symbol systems. According to Goodman, they “call for maximum sensitivity and discrimination” (252). He thus characterizes aesthetic experience as an active process that demands specific abilities, in order to develop a particular kind of knowledge. On this basis, Goodman attempts to demolish the dichotomy separating art from natural science: “aesthetic and scientific experience alike are […] fundamentally cognitive in character” (245).

Goodman’s argument for aesthetic cognitivism is founded on the rather vague idea of “discrimination” mentioned above. Whilst art is not necessarily emotional (and is better distinguished by its possession of the four symptoms Goodman names), artworks with an emotional character can have a specific cognitive function. Goodman points out that aesthetic experiences arousing emotion are very different from ‘real life’ experience. This leads him to claim that “in aesthetic experience the emotions function cognitively”; we should place these aesthetic emotions in new relations and make judgements about them “in order to gauge and grasp the [artwork] and integrate it with the rest of our experience and the world.” (248)

This idea of gauging and grasping in relation to emotion is extended to art’s cognitive value as a whole, which Goodman sees as fundamental to determining the worth of artworks. All symbolism “is to be judged fundamentally by how well it serves the cognitive purpose: by the delicacy of its discriminations and the aptness of its allusions; […] by how it participates in the making, manipulation, retention, and transformation of knowledge” (258). These criteria are also valid for natural science. As Goodman says (262-3), simple truth is not necessarily of value: multiplication tables can produce an endless stream of truths without meaningfully transforming our knowledge. Rather, truth should always be placed in relation to knowledge that we already possess, in order to transform and develop it. Goodman names this criterion “appropriateness”. Nonetheless, in doing so, he shies from assigning truth to artworks in the same way that he assigns it to scientific theories: “Truth and its aesthetic counterpart amount to appropriateness under different names.” (264)

These rather hasty arguments about “discrimination”, which leave Goodman sounding like Martha Nussbaum, are not terribly satisfying and lack the rigour and systematic exposition provided elsewhere in the book. But they also seem to cry out for the intersubjective hole marking Goodman’s account of emotion to be filled. The ‘transformative’ effect of a work on already-existing knowledge implies a dialectical (both dialogic and historical) engagement with artworks, the like of which Goodman’s theory precludes by seeing the conventions that determine symbol systems as ahistorical and transparent. When Goodman begins to talk about the transformative power of art as central to its cognitive worth I am totally sympathetic, but am astounded at how he comes to speak in these terms given the analytic procedures he employs elsewhere, which care only about the theory of symbolic systems, not the practices that instantiate them. Nevertheless, it seems that, in spite of itself, the book is heading in the right direction.

Indeed, there are a couple of other points in Languages of Art that strike me for exactly the same reason: they point towards more sophisticated arguments about artworks that, on account of Goodman’s analytic and taxonomical goals, he never quite gets around to enunciating. One of these comes at the very beginning:

The eye comes always ancient to its work, obsessed by its own past and by old and new insinuations of the ear, nose, tongue, fingers, heart, and brain. It functions not as an instrument self-powered and alone, but as a dutiful member of a complex and capricious organism. Not only how but what it sees is regulated by need and prejudice. It selects, rejects, organizes, discriminates, associates, classifies, analyses, constructs. It does not so much mirror as take and make; and what it takes and makes it sees not bare, as items without attributes, but as things, as food, as people, as enemies, as stars, as weapons. Nothing is seen nakedly or naked. (7–8)

This passage is explicitly historical. Implicit in it is the subjectivity of the gaze and its intersubjective constitution – everything missing from Goodman’s account of art and the emotions. Yet what function does it have in Languages of Art? A very modest one: mediating in a discussion of the artistic ‘copy’. Goodman launches into this passage in response to the “simple-minded injunction” that “[t]o make a faithful picture, come as close as possible to copying the object just as it is” (6). This is, of course, a profound theme that could send us down many a Kantian highway, but Goodman is not deeply concerned with the way in which categories mediate our knowledge. Rather, this passage serves to deflate the naïve ‘copy-theory’ of representation, whose paradigm of resemblance will be replaced by the arbitrary, free-floating conventions of symbol systems. All the same, it is interesting to find such a passage in a text that otherwise shies from the domain of convention and praxis.

More intriguing, however, are Goodman’s brief remarks on the purely abstract movements of modern dance. Indeed, his theory, dependent as it is on the correlation of symbol schemes and referents, seems to flounder when faced with abstract art: the expressive power of such art must be understood in terms of metaphorical exemplification. This is not, however, the line that Goodman takes with regard to abstract art:

Some elements of the dance are primarily denotative, versions of the descriptive gestures of daily life (e.g., bowings, beckonings) or of ritual (e.g., signs of benediction, Hindu hand-postures). But other movements, especially in the modern dance, primarily exemplify rather than denote. What they exemplify, however, are not standard or familiar activities, but rather rhythms and dynamic shapes. The exemplified patterns and properties may reorganize experience, relating actions not usually associated or distinguishing others not usually differentiated, thus enriching allusion or sharpening discrimination. To regard these movements as illustrating verbal descriptions would of course be absurd; seldom can the just wording be found. Rather, the label a movement exemplifies may be itself; such a movement, having no antecedent denotation, takes on the duties of a label denoting certain actions including itself. Here, as often elsewhere in the arts, the vocabulary evolves along with what it is used to convey. (64-5)

This rings, to my ears, like a fairly convincing account of the self-reflective nature of modernist (and abstract) art – the kind of account more thoroughly elaborated by Cavell, on Caro, in ‘A Matter of Meaning It’. Yet, Goodman does not really draw out the implications of self-reflexivity in the way Cavell does (viz., the condition of modernity implies that all art is meta-art, all philosophy meta-philosophy). Instead, within the framework of his theory, this account of abstract art threatens to strip it of its expressive power. If a movement simply exemplifies itself, then how is this anything but literal exemplification? Do we not potentially reduce abstract forms to the level of a tailor’s swatch?

Goodman does not touch on the metaphorical in this passage, but strives to claim a cognitive importance for the literal exemplification of abstract art that his theory fails to sanction. He anticipates the language of the final chapter (“enriching allusion or sharpening discrimination”), a move that, as we have seen, implies the relation of a symbol system to something outside of itself in a way not elaborated in the text. And this something in fact constitutes nearly all that is important about art, omitted from Goodman’s theory. Furthermore, his final injunction that “the vocabulary evolves along with what it is used to convey” just does not stand up within the framework Goodman has erected. If these movements merely exemplify themselves, then how do we pass from this purely self-referential system, a wholly autological vocabulary, to a rich, heterological vocabulary? And what is being ‘conveyed’ here? Goodman’s own logic forces him back into a reference-based account of artistic meaning, a notion that does not really square with the idea of enhanced “discrimination” as a basis for art’s cognitive value.

Lydia Goehr sums up the problem of Goodman’s cut-and-dried analysis as follows:

The fact that analysis has been designed not to treat different sorts of subject-matter, but rather to capture only the pure ontological character—the so-called ‘logic’—of any given phenomenon, turns out to be the source of all its trouble. For this design has created an irresolvable conflict between theory and practice. While the analytic method has given theorists a way to account for the logic of phenomena, this has not been true for their empirical, historical, and, where relevant, their aesthetic character.

The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works, 2nd edn (Oxford: OUP, 2007), p.86

Whilst there is a great deal of admirable logic-chopping in Languages of Art, Goodman ultimately fails to provide a theory that allows any profound understanding of aesthetic phenomena. Sure, symbol schemes are arbitrary – but what about the conventions that bind them to referents? And for all this talk about “discrimination”, where is the robust account of art’s relation to conceptuality? By foreclosing the domain of (historical) intersubjectivity, Goodman cannot even pose these questions coherently, let alone answer them.

This entry was posted in aesthetics, language, Lydia Goehr, Nelson Goodman, philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Nelson Goodman, ‘Languages of Art’ (1968); or, The Disappointment of Philosophy

  1. ovaut says:

    it is a simple principle of the world to accommodate the question and to belie the answer

  2. lexipenia says:

    True, but Goodman is not even hospitable to the question.

  3. Pingback: Languages of Art – Nelson Goodman (1981) | M Salt Research Journal

  4. Justin Scheibel says:

    I enjoyed your close reading of Goodman. I recently finished reading this work and found a lot of similar problems. I do appreciate his ‘logic chopping’ regardless, it was refreshing.

    John Cage’s “I have nothing to say / and I am saying it / and that is poetry / as I needed it” continuously echoed through my head the entire time I was reading “Languages of Art”. Aleatory is utterly incomprehensible in Goodman’s account. Besides, much of Cage’s work questioned the authenticity of true performances of a score…reveling instead in particularity. This being the point.

    The expressiveness of ultimate particularity would be necessarily antithetical to an account of artwork as symbol system evidently grounded in convention, since experience of such within the mindset suggested is attempting to unknit mereological and ontological conceptual distinction for the sake of what, I suppose, would be a ‘non-cognitive aesthetic experience’, ‘zen’?… And the treatment of stochastic particularity as symbol after-the-fact reveals the requirement of intentionality of interpretation not inherent to the work’s organization and generation…the art object itself seems to remain ineffably veiled to the interpreter…

    I found it kind of amusing that Goodman brought Cage into all this briefly in discussion of autographic and allographic work at all given that all of Cage’s counterarguments were sitting right there in the midst of Goodman’s misinterpretation of him. It seemed to be there only to take a potshot “this is not music since there can be no true performances of it”.

    But, a performance of another composer’s scored work as Cage’s 0’00” would be an ‘authentic’ performance of 0’00” (provided no one else has done that particular work before and was doing so under maximal amplification–the ambiguity of both author and opus being central to its intended conceptual implications, even if these are possibly inaccurate). Cage would likely say there is no ultimate distinction because the works interpenetrate.

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