Languages of art

Languages of art

"Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols" is a book by American philosopher Nelson Goodman. It is considered one of the most important works of 20th century aesthetics in the Analytic tradition. Originally published in 1968, it was revised in 1976. Goodman continued to refine and update these theories in essay form for the rest of his career.

A General Theory of Symbols

"Languages of Art" ostensibly concerns only the philosophy of art, but in the book's introduction, Goodman says that by the "languages" in the book's title, he means "symbol systems" in general. Central to the book's thesis is the concept of "reference".

"Resemblance" vs. "Representation"

Goodman tries to demonstrate the absurdity of the common assumption that something must resemble another thing to represent it. He compares an object with itself: "An object resembles itself to a maximum degree but rarely represents itself [...] while a painting may represent the Duke of Wellington, the Duke of Wellington doesn't represent the painting." (4) For one thing to represent another object, its must not resemble but refer to that thing.

"Denotation" vs. "Exemplification"

"Denotation" and "exemplification" are both types of reference. Goodman calls denotation the "core of representation." (5) Something is denoted when it is referred to by a label but does not "possess" it.

Exemplification is possession plus reference. "While anything may be denoted, only labels may be exemplified." (57)

Authenticity: "Autographic" vs. "Allographic"

Goodman defines a forgery of as work of art as, "an object falsely reporting to have a history of production requisite for the (or an) original of the work." (122)

"Autographic": "even if the most exact duplication of it does not count thereby count as genuine." (113) This includes paintings sculptures. "Allographic" works like scores for musical and theatrical performance are impossible to forge.

Theory of Notation

The essential feature of a character in a notation is that "its members may be freely exchanged for one another without any syntactical effect." (131)

Score, Sketch, and Script

Goodman evaluates the common notational methods of musical and theatrical performance, drawing and painting, dance and architecture. None of the art forms adhere to his ideal notation, but they are nonetheless sufficient for their purpose. Despite the critiques Goodman makes of the common vocabulary of art discussion, he does not believe that, "the exigencies that dictate technical discourse need govern our everyday speech." (187)


*Goodman, Nelson. Languages of Art. Hackett Publishing Company, 1976.

External links

* [ "Goodman's Aesthetics"] at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

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