Otherworldly

Ways of Worldmaking

by Nelson Goodman
Hackett Publishing Company, 142 pp., $9.95

This book is a congeries. Not indeed an incongruous congeries, as of congers and costermongers, but withal a congeries to conjure with. For all its slenderness it offers us a philosophy of style, a philosophy of quotation, a philosophy of art, a philosophy of optical illusion, and a philosophy of nature. It is this last that packages the lot and gives it a name. The looseness of the package is in keeping with the philosophy that assembles it; for the doctrine is that there are many worlds, none all-embracing.

There is currently a Leibniz revival that has philosophers luxuriating in a continuum of possible worlds. One sterling virtue of Nelson ‘Goodman’s philosophy is that it is no part of that. Goodman means all his worlds to be actual. Proceeding then to try to penetrate what one hopes is a figure of speech, one finds that where the purported multiplicity really lies is not so much in worlds as in versions: world versions. I cannot quite say versions of the world, for Goodman holds that there is no one world for them to be versions of. He would sooner settle for the versions and let the world or worlds go by.

His doctrine rests partly on an appreciation of the creative component in natural science. Even the most rudimentary of scientific laws is a generalization beyond the instances observed. There are divergent ways of generalizing from the same observations; some ways relatively simple, others arbitrarily gerrymandered.

We settle tentatively on the simplest one, but we may be forced off it by later observations. Even in observation itself there is a creative component: we overlook features irrelevant to our concerns, we perceive broad forms and gloss over discontinuities, we round out and round off. And at the other extreme, in the high flights of theoretical physics, man’s creativity is overwhelming. Physical theory is indeed uncannily successful in the corroborations that it predicts and in the power over nature that it confers, but even so it is ninety-nine parts conceptualization to one part observation. May there not be some radically alternative conceptual structure, undreamt of, that would fit all the past observations and all the predicted ones equally well, and yet be untranslatable into our scheme? Our own physical theory and that one would be two world versions, equally sound. Two versions of the world? But what world is that? To describe it we must retreat into one or the other version; they share no neutral description. Recognize the two versions, Goodman says, and leave it at that.

This much will already estrange many of Goodman’s readers. Not me. But then he presses on where I falter. Another world version that he treats with respect is the commonsense one, which depicts a world not of atoms and electrons and nuclear particles but of sticks, stones, people, and other coarse objects. He sees further world versions, more fragmentary, in the styles of various painters. Thus he contrasts the world of Rembrandt …

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Letters

Not to Worry January 25, 1979

In Defense of Irrealism December 21, 1978