Nelson Goodman

Nelson Goodman
Nelson Goodman
Full name Nelson Goodman
Born August 7, 1906
Died November 25, 1998(1998-11-25) (aged 92)
Era 20th-century philosophy
Region Western Philosophy
School Analytic
Main interests Logic, Induction, Counterfactuals, Mereology, Aesthetics, Philosophy of science, Philosophy of language
Notable ideas New Riddle of Induction

Henry Nelson Goodman (7 August 1906, Somerville, Massachusetts – 25 November 1998, Needham, Massachusetts) was an American philosopher, known for his work on counterfactuals, mereology, the problem of induction, irrealism and aesthetics.



Goodman graduated from Harvard University, A.B., magna cum laude (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. During World War II, he served in the US Army.

He taught at the University of Pennsylvania, 1946–1964, where his students included Noam Chomsky, Sydney Morgenbesser, and Hilary Putnam. He left Penn because he was not granted the control he desired over the philosophy department. He was a research fellow at the Harvard Center for Cognitive Studies from 1962 to 1963 and was a Professor at several universities from 1964 to 1967, before being appointed Professor of Philosophy at Harvard in 1968.

Induction and "grue"

In his book Fact, Fiction, and Forecast, Goodman introduced the "new riddle of induction", so-called by analogy with Hume's classical problem of induction. He accepted Hume's observation that inductive reasoning (i.e. inferring from past experience about events in the future) was based solely on human habit and regularities to which our day to day existence has accustomed us. Goodman argued, however, that Hume overlooked the fact that some regularities establish habits (a given piece of copper conducting electricity increases the credibility of statements asserting that other pieces of copper conduct electricity) while some do not (the fact that a given man in a room is a third son does not increase the credibility of statements asserting that other men in this room are third sons). How then can we differentiate between regularities or hypotheses that construe law-like statements from those that are contingent or based upon accidental generality?

Hempel's confirmation theory argued that the solution is to differentiate between hypotheses, which apply to all things of a certain class, and evidence statements, which apply to only one thing. Goodman's famous counterargument was to introduce the color grue, which applies to all things examined before a certain time t just in case they are green, but also to other things just in case they are blue and not examined before time t. If we examine emeralds before time t and find that emerald a is green, emerald b is green, and so forth, each will confirm the hypothesis that all emeralds are green. However, emeralds a, b, c,..etc. also confirm the hypothesis that all emeralds are grue.

Goodman's example showed that the difficulty in determining what constitutes lawlike hypotheses is far greater than previously thought, and that once again we find ourselves facing the initial dilemma that "anything can confirm anything".

Despite these difficulties however Goodman acknowledged that claims could be deliberately limited to avoid creating or seeming to create a "class" or "type" of things, though this is not ordinarily avoided in everyday language there are some disciplined contexts (law, medicine, politics, and so on) in which the hypotheses are extremely narrow and judgements limited and contingent only on evidence available and acted upon only to the limits the evidence seems to very firmly support. These disciplines, professions or practices can continue to operate, and do, but run into difficulties if asked to assess truth rather than merely the next step to take, after which the situation can be reassessed.

Nominalism and mereology

Goodman, along with Stanislaw Lesniewski, is the founder of the contemporary variant of nominalism, which argues that philosophy, logic, and mathematics should dispense with set theory. Goodman's nominalism was driven purely by ontological considerations. After a long and difficult 1947 paper coauthored with W. V. O. Quine, Goodman ceased to trouble himself with finding a way to reconstruct mathematics while dispensing with set theory - discredited as sole foundations of mathematics as of 1913 (Russell/Whitehead).

The program of David Hilbert to reconstruct it from logical axioms was proven futile in 1936 by Gödel. Because of this and other failures of seemingly fruitful lines of research, Quine soon came to believe that such a reconstruction was impossible, but Goodman's Penn colleague Richard Milton Martin argued otherwise, writing a number of papers suggesting ways forward.

According to Thomas Tymoczko's afterword in New directions in the philosophy of mathematics, Quine had "urged that we abandon ad hoc devices distinguishing mathematics from science and just accept the resulting assimilation", putting the "key burden on the theories (networks of sentences) that we accept, not on the individual sentences whose significance can change dramatically depending on their theoretical context." In so doing, Tymoczko claimed, philosophy of mathematics and philosophy of science were merged into quasi-empiricism: the emphasis of mathematical practice as effectively part of the scientific method, an emphasis on method over result.

The Goodman–Leonard (1940) calculus of individuals is the starting point for the American variant of mereology. While the exposition in Goodman and Leonard invoked a bit of naive set theory, the variant of the calculus of individuals that grounds Goodman's 1951 The Structure of Appearance, a revision and extension of his Ph.D. thesis, makes no mention of the notion of set. Simons (1987) and Casati and Varzi (1999) show that the calculus of individuals can be grounded in either in a bit of set theory, or in monadic predicates, schematically employed. Mereology is accordingly "ontologically neutral" and retains some of Quine's pragmatism (which Tymoczko in 1998 carefully qualified as American Pragmatism).


Click here for information about translations of Goodman's books.

  • "The Calculus of Individuals and Its Uses" (with Henry S. Leonard), Journal of Symbolic Logic 5 (1940): 45-55.
  • A Study of Qualities. Diss. Harvard U., 1941. Reprinted 1990, by Garland (New York), as part of its Harvard dissertations in Philosophy Series.
  • Steps Toward a Constructive Nominalism , co-authored with W.V.O. Quine, Journal of Symbolic Logic, 12 (1947): 105-122, Reprinted in Nelson Goodman, Problems and Projects (Bobbs-Merrill, 1972): 173-198.
  • The Structure of Appearance. Harvard UP, 1951. 2nd ed. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966. 3rd ed. Boston: Reidel, 1977.
  • Fact, Fiction, and Forecast. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1955. 2nd ed. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965. 3rd. ed. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1973. 4th ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1983.
  • Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1968. 2nd ed. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1976. Based on his 1960-61 John Locke lectures.
  • Problems and Projects. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1972. Currently unavailable.
  • Basic Abilities Required for Understanding and Creation in the Arts: Final Report (with David Perkins, Howard Gardner, and the assistance of Jeanne Bamberger et al.) Cambridge: Harvard University, Graduate School of Education: Project No. 9-0283, Grant No. OEG-0-9-310283-3721 (010), 1972.
  • Ways of Worldmaking. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1978. Paperback: Indianapolis: Hackett, 1985.
  • Of Mind and Other Matters. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1984.
  • Reconceptions in Philosophy and other Arts and Sciences (with Catherine Elgin). Indianapolis: Hackett; London: Routledge, 1988. Paperback Edition, London: Routledge, Indianapolis: Hackett, 1990.

See also

  • American philosophy
  • List of American philosophers


  • Casati, R., and Varzi, A., 1999. Parts and Places: the structures of spatial representation. MIT Press.
  • Simons, Peter, 1987. Parts: A Study in Ontology. Oxford Univ. Press.

External links

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