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November 25: Nelson Goodman and the Grue Paradox

Lawrence Bush
November 25, 2016
Philosopher Henry Nelson Goodman, who taught at Harvard from 1968 until 1977, where he founded Project Zero to develop arts learning as a serious cognitive discipline, died at 92 on this date in 1998. Goodman's chief contributions came in the fields of logic, the philosophy of science, and the philosophy of art. He is perhaps best known for his "grue-paradox," proposed in his Fact, Fiction, and Forecast (1955), in which the hypothesis, "All emeralds are green," is posed against a rival hypothesis, "All emeralds are grue" -- "grue" meaning "green before the year 2100 and blue afterwards." Since all observational evidence comes from before the year 2100, the grue hypothesis is confirmed exactly as much as the green hypothesis — which is evidence that the difficulty in determining what constitutes truth is profound, and that, in his words, "anything can confirm anything." Goodman's Languages of Art (1968) has, "amongst its merits," according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, "that of having broken, in a non-superficial and fruitful way, the divide between art and science. Goodman's general view is that we use symbols in our perceiving, understanding, and constructing the worlds of our experience: the different sciences and the different arts equally contribute to the enterprise of understanding the world." In his preface to Problems and Projects (1972), he wrote: “The more problems the more projects; the more projects the more problems. Yet if there are more beginnings than endings in my work, I hope that the reader may now and again have an intimation that not all problems of philosophy are immortal.” "Nelson Goodman broke through a barrier that had separated art from science and logic. Many had struggled with the question: What is Art? None of their answers satisfied Goodman, who asked a different question: When is Art? In his view, asking when something functioned as art could be given a satisfactory answer." --Alistair MacFarlane, Philosophy Now

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.