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He is the author of many groundbreaking books in the fields of philosophy of mind and cognitive science, where he laid the groundwork for the modularity of mind and the language of thought thesis. Fodor is also well known for his arguments against reductionism.
Jerry Fodor received his A.B. degree (summa cum laude) from Columbia University in 1956 and a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Princeton University in 1960 under the direction of Hilary Putnam. From 1959-1986, Fodor was on the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. From 1986-1988, he was a full professor at the City University of New York (CUNY). Since 1988 he has been State of New Jersey Professor of Philosophy and Cognitive Science at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
- Around the time  Rutgers was establishing itself as a major center for philosophy, making a number of senior appointments of first-rate people. Their chief coup was hiring Jerry Fodor and attaching him to the cognitive science depatment as well as the philosophy department. Fodor (who is now a close friend) is a gentle man inside a burly body, and prone to an even burlier style of arguing. He is shy and voluble at the same time, a cat lover and a philosopher slayer. He is a formidable polemicist burdened with a sensitive soul. He likes to refute his opponents into an early grave in the afternoon and then quiver at the opera in the evening. Disagreeing with Jerry on a philosophical issue, especially one dear to his heart can be a chastening experience; even when he is most wrong he seems to be winning the argument. His quickness of mind, inventiveness, and sharp wit are not to be tangled with before your first cup of coffee in the morning. Well, adding Jerry Fodor to the faculty at Rutgers instantly put it on the map, Fodor being by common consent the leading philosopher of mind in the world today. I had met him in England in the seventies and spent a good amount of time with him in New York during my sabbatical there. I found him to be the genuine article, intellectually speaking (though we do not always see eye to eye). <ref>Template:Cite book</ref>
Fodor is a member of the honorary societies Phi Beta Kappa and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has received numerous awards and honors: New York State Regent's Fellow, Woodrow Wilson Fellow (Princeton University), Chancellor Greene Fellow (Princeton University), Fullbright Fellow (Oxford University), Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in The Behavioral Sciences, and Guggenheim Fellow.
Fodor and the nature of mental states
In his book Propositional Attitudes (1978), Fodor presented one of the fundamental conceptual bases of his thought: the idea that mental states consist in relations between individuals and mental representations. Despite the changes which have characterized some of his theoretical positions over the years, the idea that intentional attitudes are relational has remained unchanged from its first formulations up to the present time. <ref name="Fodor1">Template:Cite book</ref>
In that book, he attempts to show how mental representations (specifically sentences in the language of thought or LOT) are necessary in order to explain the relational nature of mental states. Fodor takes into consideration two alternative hypotheses: one which denies the relational character of mental states and one which considers mental states to be two-place relations (either between individuals and sentences of natural languages or between individuals and abstract propositions). Fodor's own option emerges out of the contrast of these two positions. His idea is that in order to properly account for the nature of intentional attitudes, it is necessary to employ a three-place relation (between individuals, representations and propositional contents) founded on a concept of mental representation.
Considering mental states to be triadic relations, representative realism makes it possible, according to Fodor, to hold together all of the elements necessary to the solution of the problem, putting an end to the questions generated by the alternative conceptions. Mental representations, moreover, are not only the immediate objects of beliefs, but also constitute the domain over which mental processes operate. From this perspective, they can be considered the ideal conjunctive link between the formal/syntactic conception of content and the computational conception of the functional architecture which represents, according to Fodor, our best explanation of mental processes.
The functional architecture of the mind
Fodor's well-known nativism, or belief in the innateness of many cognitive functions and concepts, emerges—following along the general path plowed by the linguistics of Noam Chomsky—from the criticism of behaviourism and associationism. His criticisms of these views led him to the formulation (or re-formulation) of the hypothesis of the modularity of the mind.
Historically, questions regarding the functional architecture of the mind have been divided into two different theories of the nature of the faculties. The first can be characterized as a horizontal view because it refers to mental processes as if they are interactions between faculties - such as memory, imagination, judgement, and perception - which are not domain specific (e.g., a judgement remains a judgement whether it refers to a perceptual experience or to the comprehension of language). The second can be characterized as a vertical view because it claims that the mental faculties are differentiated on the basis of domain specificity, are genetically determined, are associated with distinct neurological structures, and are computationally autonomous.
The vertical vision goes back to the 19th century movement called phrenology and its founder Franz Joseph Gall, who claimed that the individual mental faculties could be associated precisely, in a sort of one to one correspondence, with specific physical areas of the brain. Hence, someone's level of intelligence, for example, could be literally "read off" from the size of a particular bump on his posterior parietal lobe. This simplistic view of modularity has, of course, been disproven over the course of the last century.
However, Fodor, revived the idea of the modularity of mind, without the notion of precise physical localizability of the mental faculties, in the 1980s and became one of the most articulate proponents for it with the 1983 publication of his monograph Modularity of Mind. <ref name="Fodor2">Template:Cite book</ref>
Two properties of modularity in particular, informational encapsulation and the specificity of domains, make it possible to tie together the questions of functional architecture with the theme of mental content: the capacity to elaborate information independently from the background beliefs of individuals allows Fodor to hypothesize a mechanism capable of accounting for an atomistic conception of mental content.
That is, guaranteeing that mental processes are (at least in part) independent from theories means opening the door to the possibility of a non-holistic (atomistic and casual) notion of mental content. Such a conception is necessary for Fodor in order to safeguard representational realism and, at the same time, attempt to solve the problems left open by methodological solipsism. The idea, in other words, is that the properties of the contents of mental states can depend, rather than exclusively on the internal relations of the system of which they are a part (the set of beliefs, for example), also on the causal relations with the world.
In A Theory of Content and Other Essays, published by the MIT Press in 1990, Fodor takes up another of his most central notions with regard to the philosophy of mind: the question of representational realism.<ref name="Fodor3">Template:Cite book</ref> Fodor needs to justify representational realism in order to justify the idea that the contents of mental states are expressed in symbolic structures of a propositional nature such as LOT. Such a justification is of enormous interest because it has immediate repercussions on some of the more general aspects of Fodor’s theory of the mental.
Fodor's criticism of Dennett
Fodor’s representational realism emerges out of his criticism of standard realism (which Fodor calls mere intentional realism). This latter view is characterized by two distinct assertions: one regarding the internal structure of mental states (according to which intentional attitudes are monadic in the sense described earlier) and another which concerns the fundamental conditions of a semantic theory (interpretable in terms of an isomorphism between causal roles and the inferential web). In the modern panorama of philosophy of mind, in which the functionalist view tends to prevail, the majority view seems to be that the first of these two assertions is false, but that the second is true. Fodor departs from functionalism in accepting the truth of the first thesis but rejecting (strongly) the truth of the second. Fodor’s argument in favour of representational realism starts from his criticism of the instrumentalism of Daniel Dennett. Dennett maintains that it is possible to be realist with regard to intentional states without having to commit oneself to the reality of mental representations. <ref>Template:Cite book</ref>But, according to Fodor, if one remains at this level of analysis, then there is no possibility of explaining why the intentional strategy works:
- "There is, nevertheless, a standard objection to instrumentalism...: it is difficult to explain why the psychology of beliefs/desires works so well, if the psychology of beliefs/desires is, in fact, false....As Putnam, Boyd and others have emphasized, from the predictive successes of a theory to the truth of that theory there is surely a presumed inference; and this is even more likely when (differently from the case of geocentric astronomy) we are dealing with the only theory in play which is predictively crowned with success. It is not obvious...why such a presumption should not militate in favour of a realist conception—against an instrumentalist one---of the interpretations of beliefs/desires." <ref name="Fodor4">Template:Cite journal</ref>
Productivity, compositionality and thought
But what are Fodor’s positive arguments in favour of the reality of mental representations in terms of the LOT? Fodor maintains that if language is the expression of thoughts and language is systematic, then thoughts must also be systematic. Systematicity in natural languages tends to be explained in term of two ulterior concepts: productivity and compositionality. The fact that systematicity and productivity depend on the compositional structure of language means that language has a combinatorial semantics. If thought also has a combinatorial semantics, then there must be a language of thought (i.e., thought must be in a kind of language).
These arguments serve to sustain the thesis of representational realism: not only intentional objects, but even the cognitive states in which such specific content occur are structured events. Representations must therefore exist. Moreover, they must have a specific format: they must be formulae of Mentalese, mental sentences whose syntax gives rise to the combinatorial semantics of the content which they vehicle.
The second argument that Fodor provides in favour of representational realism involves the processes of thought. This argument touches on the relation between the representational theory of mind (RTM, from now on) and models of its functional architecture. To assert that the sentences of Mentalese require peculiar processes of elaboration is to assert that they require a computational mechanism of a certain type. The syntactic conception of mental representations goes hand in hand with the computational theory of the mind: the idea that mental processes consist in calculations which act only on the form of the symbols which they elaborate. The computational theory of the mind (CTM) is based on a precise mechanical conception of thought based on Turing machines. Hence, the defence of a model of architecture which explicitly invokes classic artificial intelligence passes inevitably, according to Fodor, through a defence of the reality of mental representations.
Moreover, the formal-mechanical conception of thought processes has the advantage of highlighting the important parallelism between the causal role of symbols and the contents which they express. The theory which emerges goes hand in glove with the theory of the LOT, in fact, because it goes hand in glove with the syntactic theory of the mind (syntax is that which plays the role of mediation between the causal role of the symbols and the content which they vehicle). The advantage of a conception of this type is that the semantic relations between symbols can be "imitated" by their syntactic relations (the inferential relations which connect the contents of two symbols can be imitated by the syntax which regulates the derivation of one symbol from another).
The fact that the LOT fits perfectly with the idea of a von Neumann type functional architecture of the mind is an important step forward toward the naturalization of the mental. Fodor acknowledges the cardinal role of functionalism in the direction of this process of naturalization, but he is also conscious of what he considers to be the intrinsic limits of that hypothesis. The principle defect consist in the fact that functionalism, if left unmodified, implies a conception of content (and meaning) which, focused exclusively on the causal relation between one symbol and another, remains totally internal to the symbolic system. The advantage of a conception of this type is that it makes it easier to formulate and explain a materialistic conception of the mental. The disadvantage is that it leaves out completely a non-secondary aspect of the project of naturalization of the mental: the justification of a theory of mental content (and of meaning) which takes account of the relation between representer and represented (which explains how it is possible that our representations can refer to the external world). Having abandoned his original position of methodological solipsism, Fodor more recently has maintained that functionalism, at least in its traditional form, can explain only some aspects of mental content and that is cannot be placed at the foundation of an entire semantic theory. He has become increasingly externalist in this regard.
The nature of content
From the beginning of the 1980’s, Fodor has adhered to a causal conception of mental content (and of meaning). This conception of content contrasts sharply with some of the basic assumptions of the inferential role semantics to which Fodor himself subscribed earlier in his career. The focal point of Fodor’s criticism of inferential (or conceptual) role semantics (IRS) is that while any true naturalization of the mental must inevitably include an explanation of content in atomistic terms, IRS has inevitably holistic implications.
Fodor’s criticisms of holism are many and various. But he identifies the central problem with all the different notions of holism as the idea that the determining factor in semantic evaluation is the notion of an “epistemic bond” (P is an epistemic bond of Q if the semantic value of P is considered by an intentional system to be relevant for the semantic evaluation of Q). Meaning holism strictly depends on this notion. The identity of the content of a mental state (the identity of meaning), under holism, can only be determined by the totality of its epistemic bonds . And this makes the realism of mental states an impossibility:
- "If, as is certain, people differ in an absolutely general way in their estimations of epistemic relevance, and if we follow the holism of meaning and individuate intentional states by way of the totality of their epistemic bonds, the consequence will be that two people (or, for that matter, two temporal sections of the same person) will never be in the same intentional state. Therefore, two people can never be subsumed under the same intentional generalizations. And, therefore, intentional generalization can never be successful. And, therefore again, there is no hope for an intentional psychology." <ref>Fodor, J. Holism: A Shopper's Guide, (with E. Lepore), Blackwell, 1992, ISBN 0631181938. </ref>
The asymmetric causal theory
Having criticized the idea that semantic evaluation concerns the internal relations between the units of a symbolic system, the way is open for Fodor to adopt an externalist position with respect to mental content and meaning. For Fodor, in recent years, the problem of naturalization of the mental is tied to the possibility of presenting “the sufficient conditions for which a piece of the world is relative to (expresses, represents, is true of) another piece” in non-intentional and non semantic terms. If this goal is to be attained within a representational theory of the mind, then the fundamental challenge for the causal theory is to establish the interpretation of the primitive non-logical symbols of the LOT. Fodor’s initial proposal is that what determines that the symbol for “water” in Mentalese expresses the property H20 is that the occurrences of that symbol are in certain causal relations with water. The intuitive (or naïve) version of this causal theory is what Fodor calls the “Crude Causal Theory.” According to this theory, the occurrences of symbols express the properties which are the causes of their occurrence. The term “horse”, for example, says of a horse that it is a horse. In order to do this, it is necessary and sufficient that certain properties of an occurrence of the symbol “horse” be in a nomological relation with certain properties which determine that something is an occurrence of horse.
The main problem with this theory is that of erroneous representations. There are two unavoidable problems with the idea that "a symbol expresses a property if it is nomologically necessary that all and only the presences of such a property cause the occurrences." The first is that not all horses cause occurrences of horse. The second is that not only horses cause occurrences of horse. Sometimes the A(horses) are caused by A (horses), but at other times---when, for example, because of the distance or conditions of low visibility, one has confused a cow for a horse—the A (horses) are caused by B (cows). In this case the symbol A doesn’t express just the property A, but the disjunction of properties A or B. The crude causal theory is therefore incapable of distinguishing the case in which the content of a symbol is disjunctive from the case in which it isn’t. This gives rise to what Fodor calls the "problem of disjunction."
Fodor responds to this problem with what he defines as a "a slightly less crude causal theory." According to this approach, it is necessary to break the symmetry at the base of the crude causal theory. Fodor must find some criterion for distinguishing the occurrences of A caused by As (true) from those caused by Bs (false). The point of departure, according to Fodor, is that while the false cases are ontologically dependent on the true cases, the reverse is not true. There is an asymmetry of dependence , in other words, between the true contents (A= A) and the false ones (A = A or B). The first can subsist independently of the second, but the second can occur only because of the existence of the first:
- From the point of view of semantics, errors must be accidents: if in the extension of "horse" there are no cows, then it cannot be required for the meaning of "horse" that cows be called horses. On the other hand, if "horse" did not mean that which it means, and if it were an error for horses, it would never be possible for a cow to be called "horse." Putting the two things together, it can be seen that the possibility of falsely saying "this is a horse" presupposes the existence of a semantic basis for saying it truly, but not vice versa. If we put this in terms of the crude causal theory, the fact that cows cause one to say "horse" depends on the fact that horses cause one to say "horse"; but the fact that horses cause one to say "horse" does not depend on the fact that cows cause one to say "horse"..." <ref name="Fodor3" />
During the 1960's, various philosophers such as Donald Davidson, Hilary Putnam, and Fodor tried to resolve the puzzle of developing a way to preserve the explanatory efficacy of mental causation and so-called "folk psychology" while adhering to a materialist vision of the world which did not violate the "generality of physics." There proposal was, first of all, to reject the then dominant theories in philosophy of mind: behaviorism and the type identity theory. <ref>Template:Cite book</ref> The problem with logical behaviorism was that it failed to account for causation between mental states and such causation seems to be essential to psychological explanation, especially if one considers that behavior is not an effect of a single mental event/cause but is rather the effect of a chain of mental events/causes. The type-identity theory, on the other hand, failed to explain the fact that radically different physical systems can find themselves in the same identical mental state. Besides being deeply anthropocentric (why should humans be the only thinking organisms in the universe?), the type-type theory also failed to deal with accumulating evidence in the neurosciences that every single human brain is different from all the others. Hence, the impossibility of referring to common mental states in different physical systems manifests itself not only between different species but also between organisms of the same species.
Image:320px-Reduktionismus.png The solution to these problems, according to Fodor, is to be found in functionalism, a hypothesis which was designed to overcome the failings of both dualism and reductionism. Without going into detail here, the idea is that what is important is the function of a mental state regardless of the physical substrate which implements it. The foundation for this view lies in the principle of the multiple realizability of the mental. Under this view, for example, I and a computer can both instantiate ("realize") the same functional state though we are made of completely different material stuff (see graphic at right). On this basis functionalism can be classifed as a form of token materialism.<ref>Template:Cite journal</ref>
Almost all of Fodor's major ideas have been challenged by a wide variety of philosophers of diverse orientation. For example, the language of thought hypothesis (or LOTH) has been accused of either falling prey to a regressus ad infinitum or of being superfluous. Specifically, Simon Blackburn suggested in an article in 1984 that since Fodor explains the learning of natural languages as a process of formation and confirmation of hypotheses in the LOT, this leaves him open to the question of why the LOT itself should not be considered as just such a language which requires yet another and more fundamental representational substrate in which to form and confirm hypotheses so that the LOT itself can be learned. If natural language learning requires some representational substrate (the LOT) in order for it to be learned, why shouldn't the same be said for the LOT itself and then for the representational substrate of this representational subtrate and so on, ad infinitum? On the other hand, if such a representational substrate is not required for the LOT, then why should it be required for the learning of natural languages? In this case, the LOT would be superfluous. <ref>Template:Cite book </ref> Fodor, in response, argues that the LOT is unique in that it does not have to be learned via an antecedent language because it is innate. Template:Fact
The question might now be asked: "How do we come to completely understand and symbolically represent what these innate functions actually are, assuming it is even possible for our representations of functions to correspond to some absolute fact of the world?" Generally one might argue that we have no way of knowing if the connotations associated with our perception of a particular function genuinely correspond to some fact about the "real" thing. Fred Dretske argues that misrepresentions of functions are ultimately a serious side effect of adopting a functionalist view-point. Take, for example, the attribution that a frog has a fly detector. We would like to say that one of the many innate functions of the frog is to detect flies. Yet, a frog can quite easily misrepresent a bumblebee to be a fly. What then do we say about this innate function that the frog has? It can no longer be seen as just a fly detector. Instead it seems necessary, in accounting for such exceptions to our functional rules, to add disjunctions to their hypothetical conditions. Consider the possibility that even the universal grammer code might very well be a misrepresention of the true innate function that the brain has which accounts for language acquisition. Template:Fact
Yet another argument againt the LOT was formulated by Daniel Dennett in 1981. The basic point of this argument is that it would seem, on the basis of the evidence of our behavior toward computers but also with regard to some of our own unconscious behavior, that explicit representation is not necessary for the explanation of propositional attitudes. During a game of chess with a computer program, we often attribute such attitudes to the computer, saying such things as "It thinks that the queen should be moved to the left". We attribute propositional attitudes to the computer and this helps us to explain and predict its behavior in various contexts. Yet no one would suggest that the computer is actually thinking or believing somewhere inside its circuits the equivalent of the propositional attitude "I believe I can kick this guy's butt" in Mentalese. The same is obviously true, suggests Dennett, of many of our everyday automatic behaviors such as "desiring to breathe clear air" in a stuffy environment. <ref>Template:Cite book</ref>
Fodor's self-proclaimed "extreme" concept nativism has been criticized by many linguists and philosophers of language. Kent Bach, for example, takes Fodor to task for his criticisms of lexical semantics and polysemy. Fodor claims that there is no lexical structure to such verbs as "keep", "get", "make" and "put". He suggests that, alternatively, "keep" simply expresses the concept KEEP (Fodor capitalizes concepts to distinguish them from properties, names or other such entities). If there is a straightforward one-to-one mapping between individual words and concepts, "keep your clothes on", "keep your receipt" and "keep washing your hands" will all share the same concept of KEEP under Fodor's theory. This concept presumably locks on to the unique external property of keeping. But, if this it true, then RETAIN must pick out a different property in RETAIN YOUR RECEIPT, since one can't retain one's cloths or retain washing one's hands. Fodor's theory also has a problem explaining how the concept FAST contributes, differently, to the contents of FAST CAR, FAST DRIVER, FAST TRACK, and FAST TIME. <ref name="Bach">Template:Cite journal</ref>. Whether or not the differing interpretations of "fast" in these sentences are specified in the semantics of English, or are the result of pragmatic inference, is a matter of debate. Template:Fact
What makes Fodor's view of concepts extremely difficult to digest for many critics is simply his insistence that such a large, perhaps implausible, number of them are primitive and undefinable. For example, Fodor considers such concepts as BACHELOR, EFFECT, ISLAND, TRAPEZOID, VIXEN, and WEEK to be all primitive, innate and unanalyzable because they all fall into the category of what he calls "lexical concepts" (those for which our language has a single word). Against this view, Bach argues that the concept VIXEN is almost certainly composed out of the concepts FEMALE and FOX, BACHELOR out of SINGLE and MALE, and so on. <ref name="Bach" />
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