An Introduction to the Aesthetics of Nelson Goodman – Part One: When Is Art?

This is the first in a series of posts introducing the aesthetic philosophy of Nelson Goodman, which has been extremely influential in my thinking.

The Problems and Potential of Aesthetics

Much philosophical aesthetics is terrible. Frequently, philosophers who take any interest in art at all (a depressingly small minority) do it scant justice, obsessing over stale questions (“What is beauty?”), reinforcing false dichotomies (“art is emotional, while science is rational!”) or attributing to art almost magical powers in order to safeguard its specialness (“art speaks to the soul!”). This is unfortunate, because art is profoundly important in our lives: few of us leave the house now without a personally-curated selection of music to fit any mood and enliven any journey, and our culture venerates artists – musicians, actors, film-makers etc. – to a high degree. While some forms of art are struggling to maintain a foothold in culture, one could argue that the new digital media have given people the world over a suite of tools to create artworks which would be the envy of any traveler from the past. Human beings can’t get enough of art, and yet philosophers frequently fail to help us understand it.

Enter Nelson Goodman. Goodman’s philosophy of art (which we’ll get to in a moment) is extremely generative both because it helps us understand artforms and artworks, and because it helps us understand how art is not in fact as different to science or, indeed, to philosophy itself as we might think. By looking at art as a series of “languages” which operate through complex forms of symbolism, Goodman demonstrates that the arts can advance understanding, as the sciences can, and that they are an important part of our epistemic repertoire. In so doing, he also demonstrates that good philosophy can itself enhance our understanding – showing that progress can indeed be made on philosophical questions, and that the practice of philosophy is extremely valuable if we care about  understanding our experience better. Therefore, Goodman’s aesthetics has great potential to improve our insight, and is worthy of investigation.

When is Art?

Goodman, at the start of his influential work in aesthetics When is Art, makes an elegant intellectual move. He refuses to obsess over the question which has stymied philosophers for centuries – ‘What is Art?’ – noting that artists are a bloody-minded lot who routinely develp new works which, while undeniably “art”, fail to conform to a philosopher’s proud definition. Instead he deftly sidesteps, asking instead ‘When is Art?’ It is an illuminating change of focus, which allows him to conclude that a stone “picked out of a driveway”, when exhibited in a museum, is ‘functioning as art’, whereas while it is in the driveway it is not. In Goodman’s scheme, art is defined in terms of how it functions rather than in terms of what it is.

While initially this may seem confusing, we often define things by how they function. Think, for example, about the difference between the word “chair” and the word “seat”. What makes a chair a chair? To answer that question (which is more difficult than it might appear!) we would have to identify a set of characteristics common to all or most chairs, perhaps, or identify a set of objects which uncontroversial count as chairs and ask what they have in common with each other while differing from other classes of object. But what of the word ‘seat’? What makes something a ‘seat’? We might be able to agree that the chair below counts as a seat, but what about the boulder next to it? Is it a seat? Well, we would probably accept it as one if someone was sitting on it.

Likewise, we probably wouldn’t normally consider a table a seat. But, when someone sitting on the table, we might have to concede that, while they are sitting on it, it is indeed a seat because it is functioning as a seat at the time. In fact, we might conclude that what we call a seat is defined by how it functions rather than what it is.

In Languages of Art Goodman is making a similar claim for art: something can be termed ‘art’ if it so functions at a particular time. In his essay When is Art?” he says: “just by virtue of functioning as a symbol in a certain way does an object become, while so functioning, a work of art.” (p.67) This may seem simply to be a tricky way of avoiding the question: by determining “when” art is, we do not necessarily determine “what” art is. And this is true. But Goodman’s position here is stronger than simply an avoidance of a difficult question: he is claiming that for centuries philosophers have been asking the wrong question regarding art and that, since “art” is a term more like “seat” than one like “chair” asking “what” it is is likely to be less helpful (if it is helpful at all) than asking “when” it is.

But what does it mean for something to ‘function as art’? It’s one thing to shift to a different question, but another thing entirely to answer that new question. Well, that is the subject of the next post in this series!

About James Croft

James Croft is a Humanist activist and public speaker who has swiftly become one of the best-known new faces in Humanism today. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently studying for his Doctorate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. As a leader in training in the Ethical Culture movement – a national movement of Humanist congregations – he is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.

  • Craig Volpe

    When are you going to do part 2?


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