Jerry Fodor

Who is Jerry Fodor?

Jerry Alan Fodor (1935-), a philosopher of cognitive science at Rutgers University, is perhaps best known for his "modular theory of mind" and his concept of the "language of thought." Fodor's books include: Psychological Explanation (1968), The Language of Thought (1975), Representations: Essays on the Foundations of Cognitive Science (1979), The Modularity of Mind: An Essay on Faculty Psychology (1983), Psychosemantics: The Problem of Meaning in the Philosophy of Mind (1987), A Theory of Content and Other Essays (1990) The Elm and the Expert, Mentalese and Its Semantics (1994), Concepts: Where Cognitive Science Went Wrong (1998), In Critical Condition (1998), The Mind Doesn't Work that Way: The Scope and Limits of Computational Psychology (2000), and Hume Variations (2003). Fodor also writes about opera for the London Review of Books. His writing style is uniquely witty and peppered with joyful mockery, as well as homespun analogies and references.

What is Jerry Fodor's modular theory of mind?

First of all, Fodor said the mind is largely innate and mental development is not formed by experience, but rather set off by experience. Cognition can be described in the same way as the operations of computers, in terms of representations. The mind is modular in that many of its computational processes are independent of others. They may "send" their results to other computational processes without having their own processes "observed" by the other processes.

What are the modules of the mind, according to Jerry Fodor?

In his The Modularity of Mind (1983) Fodor posits "transducers" (senses that connect us with the outside world), "input systems," and "central systems." Input and central systems are distinguished by the fact that input systems are modular and central systems are not. Modules each have one kind of cognitive material (for example, the visual module), and their information is encapsulated so that they can work very quickly, although they are inaccessible to conscious introspection. One module can be destroyed without impairing the others, as in cases of "aphasia."

Besides the different sensory systems, language is a module. It should be noted that Fodor does not hesitate to compare his theory with the system of phrenology propounded by Franz Joseph Gall (1758—1828), which is usually taken to be an example of early pseudo-science. The non-modular central systems correspond to thinking and believing and have access to other contents of the mind. Unlike language, the non-modular central system is not localized.

What is Fodor's language of thought hypothesis?

The language of thought and thinking, as a mental language, is a system of symbols in the brain. Its content are "propositional attitudes" such as: thinks that, desires that, intends that, believes that, hopes that, and so forth. Each attitude has a distinct computational relation to a representation. Computation is information processing based on syntax. As Fodor puts it, there is "no computation without representation."

What is Fodor's surprising view of evolution?

Fodor is by no flight of the imagination a creationist. However, he does not accept an evolutionary psychology account of human cognition without qualification. Consider what he wrote in 1998:

Nothing is known about how the structure of our minds depends on the structure of our brains. Nobody even knows which brain structures it is that our cognitive capacities depend on. Unlike our minds, our brains are, by any gross measure, very like those of apes. So it looks as though relatively small alterations of brain structure must have produced very large behavioural discontinuities in the transition from the ancestral apes to us. If that's right, then you don't have to assume that cognitive complexity is shaped by the gradual action of Darwinian selection on prehuman behavioural phenotypes.

In other words, Fodor claims that it might be unnecessary to posit specific environmental conditions, or even a progression of adaptive changes, in order to account for the complexity of the human mind. For all we know, one small mutation might have made all the important mental difference between apes and us.

Thus, having a belief is being in a computational relation to a representation, as is having a desire. Every primitive concept in thought has a neural symbol in the brain. The end result of this in behavior is that the representation that is a belief causes an individual to behave as if it were true, whereas the representation that is a desire causes the individual to behave to make it true.

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