In the 80s, Israel Scheffer and Nelson Goodman engaged in a long polemic about Goodman’s anti-realist claims. Goodman was a robust relativist, Scheffer, a pluralist-realist. Scheffer asked how it was possible, in Goodman’s schema, to account for stars, for instance, which long preceded the existence of man. Did men make up stars? Goodman, in “Starmaking” replied:
“Let's begin by acknowledging that a right version and its world are different. A version saying that there is a star up there is not itself bright or far off, and the star is not made up of letters. On the other hand, saying that there is a star up there and saying that the statement "There is a star up there" is true amount, trivially, to much the same thing, even though the one seems to talk about a star and the other to talk about a statement. What is more important, we cannot find any world-feature independent of all versions. Whatever can be said truly of a world is dependent on the saying - not that whatever we say is true but that whatever we say truly (or otherwise present rightly) is nevertheless informed by and relative to the language or other symbol system we use. No firm line can be drawn between world-features that are discourse-dependent and those that are not. As I have said "In practice, of course, we draw the line wherever we like, and change it as often as suits our purposes."
And a few paragraphs later: “Scheffler contends that we cannot have made the stars. I ask him which features of the stars we did not make, and challenge him to state how these differ from features clearly dependent on discourse. Does he ask how we can have made anything older than we are? Plainly, by making a space and time that contains those stars. By means of science, that world (indeed many another) was made with great difficulty and is, like the several worlds of phenomena that also contain stars, a more or less right or real world. We can make the sun stand still, not in the manner of Joshua but in the manner of Bruno. We make a star as we make a constellation, by putting its parts together and marking off its boundaries.”
I’ve always loved Goodman’s insouciance. He is touching here on a hidden semiotic that, as a matter of fact, has much to do with the human limit: one of the crucial binaries in the life of the educated class in the West is that of making/discovering. Discovery, as I have mentioned before, oddly escaped the epistemic grid that Foucault uncovers in early modernism. Goodman is, of course, correct that science is made. But science is made to discover. The realism of the scientists is the realism of the Atlantic voyagers – it is the realism of discovery. Goodman’s notion that the star in the sky or the movie star on the screen is relative to the frame of reference is, I think, easy to mischaracterize. We are drawn by tradition into thinking that making comes entirely from the maker – but this is not Goodman’s idea. Indeed, the maker is continually resisted in the making, which is why we can talk of right versions, of rightness with regard to the frame of reference. A frame of reference will forever be both made and beyond the power of the maker. It doesn’t refer to any particular cogito – geometry is not Euclid’s secret autobiography.
Scheffer, in an essay entitled Plea for Plurarealism (2000) – so many kinds of realism! – returned to this controversy. Goodman, he claimed, was strongly motivated by the idea that there are many worlds. He was in revolt against the idea that all worlds could be reduced (theoretically) to the picture given by physics. Scheffer contends that this is not a feature that is intrinsic to realism (and confesses that he has been influenced, on this point, by Goodman). And he brings up the example of the arche-fossil:
“In a third anti-realistic argument, Goodman denies that there can be perception without conception, concluding as follows, "Although conception without perception is merely empty, perception without conception is blind (totally inoperative). Predicates, pictures, other labels, schemata, survive want of application, but content vanishes without form. We can have words without a world but no world without words or other symbols". Now the final sentence just quoted seems paradoxical as it stands. For it seems to imply that there was no world prior to human speech or symbolism.” And, taking this a step further:
“In defending the "no world without words" doctrine, Goodman argues that "talk of unstructured content or an unconceptualized given or a substratum without properties is self-defeating; for the talk imposes structure, conceptualizes, ascribes properties". But if we assert the existence of trees in the primordial past, we are affirming trees after all, not a bit of unstructured content or an unconceptualized given. Those ancient trees that we now describe by using the word "tree" surely did not require this word in order to have arisen and flourished. It is of course self-defeating to call something a wordless word or a non-descriptive description, but it is not self-defeating to describe something in words which neither contains nor is a product of words.”
It is interesting to see how this dispute – without, as far as I can tell, being specifically referred to – has been recoded in the continental idiom recently by the Speculative Realism school. There, the key binary (independence vs. dependence) is, again, an idiom that returns us to the trans-atlantic world in which one nation “made” itself through a declaration of independence. I’ll do another post about the role of 'independence' in the SR discourse.