Jerry A. Fodor (1935 – 2017)
The death of Jerry Fodor at the age of 82 was a great loss to philosophy in more ways than one. As a professional philosopher he managed to combine a clear-eyed commitment to the highest standards of argument and clarity with the sheer sense of the fun of engaging in philosophy and arguing for what one believes. At the same time, he never lost sight of the human shortcomings of the profession’s practioners; himself included. During one memorable passage from LOT2, his 2008 sequel to his 1975 groundbreaking book, The Language of Thought, he alludes to Plato’s arguments in the Meno for our innate knowledge of mathematical concepts, and he parodies Socrates interrogating the slave boy, managing to bring out our lurking suspicions that Socrates could be a bit overbearing. In response to Socrates’ persistent hectoring that his interlocutor must see that intentionally distinct concepts could be coextensive, Fodor has the interlocutor politely agree, “Yes Socrates” many times and finally, “Yes, Socrates. Can I go home now?”
Jerry Fodor was as witty in life as he was on the page. He said and wrote deeply funny things, which also made you think. A passionate advocate of the computational theory of mind, he wrote that it was the only game in town, and you can’t see the game without a program. The program was of course a series of computational operations performed over the internal symbolic code he called the Language of Thought. This code was a series of internally represented symbols that had causal and semantic powers. Their shape properties engaged the casual wheels in the way a programming language does, while they also had semantic properties in virtue of symbols standing in certain head-world relations. The internal symbol for horse was causally tokened by the presence of horses and could be tokened accidentally but other things too, such as muddy zebras. However, muddy zebras wouldn’t token the symbol for horse unless horses did, and that’s what made the symbol mean, or be about, horses. In this way, he could account for mental representations in the heads of thinkers that played a role in the internal computational architecture of the mind. The doctrine came to be known as Psychosemantics, the title of his 1987 book, subtitled The Problem of Meaning in the Philosophy of Mind.
His defence of the computational theory of mind was not due to a reductive urge to treat as people as machines. Fodor wanted to vindicate our commonsense psychology as the view that our purposive behaviour could be rationally explained by our beliefs and desires: by what we believed would secure our fondest wish, given what else we believed and what else we desired. The thought that such an idea could be made scientifically respectable was unpopular to say the least when Fodor was developing his views as a young professor at MIT. In psychology, behaviourism held sway because it focused on what could be measured; while in philosophy Wittgenstein and Ryle had chipped away at the idea that the mind consisted of a set of internal mental states hidden from view. Fodor wanted to make a scientifically respectable case for a neo-Cartesian view of the mind stripped of the commitment of dualism.
Instead, Fodor’s rationalist vision was of a representational theory of mind where people acted on states of belief and desire in accordance with law-like generalisations of intentional psychology. If these generalisations are true and govern our actions, this is because they are implemented by the laws of a computational psychology, described by what Fodor called a special science, in which the laws are approximately true of human agents. In computational psychology, propositional attitudes, like belief and desire, are stances or attitudes to propositions, where the propositions are expressed by internal sentences in the language of thought, while the attitudes to those propositions are computational relations defined over those propositions that determine our subsequent thoughts and actions in relation to one another.
But how are the propositions in the language of thought arrived at? For Fodor they are determined syntactically in a compositional way from symbols expressing concepts, which when broken down into their simplest parts, leave us with atoms of thought, and these simple concepts are innate. The claim for innateness, even for concepts like doorknob, is pretty hard to swallow, but Fodor presented a battery of arguments showing why you have to start with something written on the blank slate or you will end up with nothing definite enough to think with.
In 1998 the book Concepts: Where Cognitive Science Went Wrong, which were Fodor’s John Locke Lectures at the University of Oxford, he makes out the case that what we interact with in the world, including doorknobs, could not trigger the concept doorknob, unless its potential form was already there to lock onto just those and not other objects. It’s as always a direct and bracing read in service of a daring thesis.
While giving the Locke Lectures, Fodor was hosted by All Souls College, where he often felt too shy to go into dinner with the dons. Instead he stayed in his lodgings and made himself tomato and mayonnaise sandwiches. A colleague of Fodor’s, Ernie Lepore from Rutgers University, called me up one day to ask if we could invite Jerry to London so that he would have company and eat properly. We did and he was very appreciative. The meals were opportunities to tease out his witty but forceful insights, always delivered at rapid speed in his shy way between forkfuls of food.
One of Jerry Fodor’s great achievements as a philosopher was to show how the discipline could exert significant influence on the sciences. As a philosopher of mind, his work spawned large tracts of empirical research as psychologists looked for ways to prove or disprove aspects of his theory in The Modularity of Mind; the thesis that the mind’s architecture consisted of a central system of thoughts fed bottom-up by a series of input modules for perception. Published in 1983, this slim book became a key focus for research into how the mind worked and led to numerous findings in the fields of audition, visual perception, psycholinguistics, and pragmatics. It’s hard, now, to remember how novel it was to speak of domain-specific mental modules or to argue for or against a modular view of the mind.
Fodor wasn’t always in tune with the science of his day. As an early opponent of connectionist modelling of the mind, he was always skeptical of the brain sciences, and remained staunchly resistant to fMRI findings in neuroscience. I think he was wrong about this, but his scepticism was a healthy corrective to much of the unfortunate hype about neuroscience.
He fell out badly with much of the scientific community in 2010 when he wrote, with the biologist Massimo Palmerini-Piattelli, What Darwin Got Wrong. The howls of outrage at his criticism of the natural selection view of human evolution often drowned out the subtleties of the points he was trying to make. An avowed atheist, he was not giving up on evolution, he was giving up on the idea of selection as the blind watchmaker. Being Jerry, he did a lot of scholarship and knew the Darwin texts and letters inside out. He once said to me, characteristically, that he thought Darwinians, if they had been selected for anything, were selected for their ability not to read. His humour had remained intact even if his reputation suffered.
When not doing philosophy, Jerry Fodor, was a deeply shy, but passionate human being. He loved opera, he loved the novels and stories of Henry James; he even called one of his beloved cats, Mr. James. He was a passionate but hopeless sailor and friends would avoid invitations to join him at sea. He knew this but persevered. When his wife, the linguist Janet Dean Fodor, was away at conferences, he would take the opportunity to play his favourite recordings from Wagner’s Ring Cycle, and, as he told me, it was always just in the arias when the tears were running down his face that Janet would call him. “How does she do it?’, he asked good humouredly, “It’s a skill”.
Jerry was a warm and loyal friend to his many colleagues, who indulged his ways, his outbursts at views he considered crazy and his stubborn defence of his own views, and it was with much affection that they admired his quick and fierce intelligence. He will be much missed.