Trying To Think
Thursday, November 25, 2004
Languages of Art
An Approach to a Theory of Symbols
- Nelson Goodman, BH301.S8.G6/1976

The artist’s task in representing an object before him is to decide what light rays, under gallery conditions, will succeed in rendering what he sees. This is not a matter of copying but of conveying. (p14)

The measure of realism is habitation, but descriptions do not become descriptions by habitation. The most commonplace nouns of English have not become pictures. (p41)

Representation is thus disengaged from perverted ideas of it as an idiosyncratic physical process like mirroring, and is recognized as a symbolic relationship that is relative and variable. (p43)

With representation and expression alike, certain relationships become firmly fixed for certain people by habit; but in neither case are these relationships absolute, universal, or immutable (p50)

With progressive loss of its virility as a figure of speech, a metaphor becomes not less but more like literal truth. What vanishes is not its veracity but its vivacity. Metaphors, like new styles of representation, become more literal as their novelty wanes. (p68)

In metaphor … a term with an extension established by habit is applied elsewhere under the influence of that habit; there is both departure from and deference to the precedent. When one use of a term precedes and informs another, the second is the metaphorical one. As time goes on, the history may fade and the two uses tend to achieve equality and independence; the metaphor freezes, or rather evaporates, and the residue is a pair of literal uses – mere ambiguity instead of metaphor. (p71)

The shifts in range that occur in metaphor, then, usually amount to no mere distribution of family goods but to an expedition abroad. A whole set of alternative labels, a whole apparatus of organization, takes over new territory. What occurs is a transfer of a schema, a migration of concepts, an alienation of categories. Indeed, a metaphor might be regarded as a calculated category-mistake – or rather as a happy and revitalizing, even if bigamous, second marriage. (p73)

Whatever reverence may be felt for classes or attributes, surely classes are not moved from realm to realm, nor are attributes somehow extracted from some objects and inserted into others. Rather a set of terms, of alternative labels, is transported; and the organization they effect in the alien realm in guided by their habitual use in the home realm. (p74)

The incessant use of metaphor springs not merely from the love of literary color by also from urgent need of economy. If we could not readily transfer schemata to make new sortings and orderings, we should have to burden ourselves with unmanageably many different schemata, either by adoption of a vast vocabulary of elementary terms or by prodigious elaboration of composite ones. (p80)

In effect, the fact that a literary work is in a definite notation, consisting of certain signs or charatacters that are to be combined by concatenation, provides the means for distinguishing the properties constitutive of the work from all contingent properties - that is, for fixing the required features and the limits of permissible variation in each. Merely by determining that the copy before us is spelled correctly we can determine that it meets all requirements for the work in question. In painting, on the contrary, with no such alphabet of characters, none of the pictorial properties - none of the properties the picture has as such - is distinguished as constitutive; no such feature can be dismissed as continguent, and no deviation as insignificant. (p116)

Initially, perhaps, all arts are autographic. Where the works are transitory, as in signing or reciting, or require many persons for their production, as in architecture and symphonic music, a notation may be devised in orider to transcend the limitations of time and the individual. This involves establishing a distinction between the constitutive and the contingent properties of the work. (pg 121)

When there is a theoretically decisive test for determining that an object has all the constitutive properties of the work in question without determining how or by whom the work was produced, there is no requistite history of production and hence no forgery of a given work. Such a test is provided by a suitable notational system with an articulate set of characters and of relative positions for them. (pg 122)

That the characters must thus be disjoint may not seem very important or striking; but it is an absolutely essential and, I think, rather remarkable feature of notations. (pg 133)

The syntactic requirements of disjointness and of finite differentiation are clearly independent of each other. The first but not the second is satisfied by the scheme of classification of straight marks that counts every difference in length, however small, as a difference of character. The second but not the first is satisfied by a scheme where all inscriptions are conspicuously different by some two characters have at least one inscription in common. (pg 137)

A symbol scheme is analog if syntactically dense; a system is analog if syntactically and semantically dense. Analog systems are thus both syntactically and semantically undifferentiated in the extreme: for every character there are infinitely many others such for the some mark, we cannot possibly determine that the mark does not belong to all, and such that for some object we cannot possibly determine that the object does not comply with all. ... A digital scheme, in constrast, is discontinuous throughout; and in a digital system the characters of such a scheme are one-one correlated with compliance-classes of a similarly discontinuous set ... To be digital a system must be not merely discontinuous but differentiated throughout, syntactically and semantically. If ... it is also unambiguous and syntactically and semantically disjoint, it will therefore be notational. (p160-1)

If the subject matter is antecedently atomized, we tend to adopt an articulate symbol scheme and a digital system. Or if we are predisposed to to apply an available articulate symbol scheme to a previously undifferentiated field, we try to provide the symbols with with differentiated compliance-classes by dividing, combining, deleting; the fractional quantities not registered by our meter tend to be disregarded, and the smallest units it discriminates to be taken as the atomic units of what is measured. Should a prior structuring authoritatively resist such surgery, we may lay aside our articulate symbol scheme and turn to an analog system. (p162-3)

You see no experiment can be repeated exactly. There will always be something different ... What it comes to when you say you repeat an experiment is that you repeat all the features of an experiment which a theory determines are relevant. In other words you repeat the experiment as an example of the theory. (Sir George Thomson, quoted on p177)

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