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Sunday, December 3, 2017

Have Fun With René, Jerry

I did not know Jerry Fodor at all, personally. But when you spend as much time with someone's work as I did with his, you feel like you did know him.

When I got to MIT in 1987, Jerry had already left, a year before. But his influence was still ubiquitous. There were a lot of older graduate students who were still working with him, and many of those a year before me clearly seemed like they wished they were.

Still, I was not quite ready to feel Fodor's influence myself. I'd grown up a bit of a Wittgensteinian, and the very idea of a 'language of thought' gave me a belly ache. I have no idea, to be honest, how or why that attitude changed. But somewhere along the way I actually sat down to read The Language of Thought, and then for some crazy reason decided to teach it in a tutorial at Harvard. Then I obsessed over A Theory of Content and Other Essays, every damn page of it; and then The Modularity of Mind; and The Elm and the Expert; and then, not too long after it appeared, Concepts: Where Cognitive Science Went Wrong. And then, somewhere in the early 2000s, I taught Concepts in a graduate seminar against Christopher Peacocke's Theory of Concepts. A whole ton of fun that was.

I remember when Jim Higginbotham (one of my dissertation advisors) left MIT to go to Oxford in 1993. A friend of mine told him: Good, you need to go teach them about Davidson. His response was: No, I need to go teach them about Fodor. Damn right!

It wasn't until around 2005 that I really started to understand the influence Fodor had somehow had on my thinking. I had just moved to Brown, and I was working intensively on what would become one of my favorite papers of mine, "Solving Frege's Puzzle". As I mention in a footnote in that paper, for most of the time I was writing it, I thought of it as a defense of Frege's notion of sense against a series of familiar objections. But the paper kept frustrating me, because there was this one line of objection that I never felt I could quite get past: that 'sense', as I was understanding it, might just as well be understood in purely computational (syntactic) terms.

This was a suggestion that traced directly to The Language of Thought, though it was made more explicit in Fodor's work later. For years, I thought I know how to answer this objection. But the truth was that I kept coming up with different answers, each of which would soon be shot down, usually after reading Fodor again. (The crucial texts here are all cited in the paper mentioned.) Eventually, I gave up. Fodor was right, and I had been wrong. (Not any more!!) But the great thing about philosophy is that this was not nearly as much of a crisis as it might otherwise have been. I could just turn my argument for p into an argument for ~p.

I wish to thank, publicly, all the teachers who made that possible. I had worked on that paper for years, and it would have totally sucked for it to have disintegrated completely.

The depth of Fodor's influence, not just on me but on so many of us, is the sort of thing that marks him as a great philosopher. So many of us have lived with his ideas over a very long period of time, and we just keep learning from him, even when we have thought we must surely have read him enough times, finally! I taught another seminar, just a few years go, even more tightly focused on Fodor's work on concepts, and it was every bit as much fun as the previous one. And I learned every bit as much, at least.

I have no idea whether I believe in an afterlife. But some years ago, my friend Jim Stewart (who was trained as a philosopher) gave a transcendental argument for the afterlife in a sermon he gave at my (ridiculously leftist) church. His thought was that, if we are to do God's work, then we have to believe that the arc of the universe bends towards justice.

If we are to believe that, he argued, then we have also to believe that all those who have struggled and sacrificed along the way will one day know the fruits of their sacrifice: Emmett Till and Dr King and Sojourner Truth and Mary Magdalene and millions of others. We have to believe that, so that we can be confident that we will one day know the fruits of our sacrifice. (Jim has spent much of his adult life as the director of the First Church Shelter for Homeless Men, so he knows whereof he speaks.) Otherwise, his thought was, 'we' could not make the sacrifices that God requires of us. We might think or hope otherwise, but if so then that is probably because we under-estimate what is required of us, i.e., we fail to appreciate our own privilege. (Think for a moment: When precisely are you willing to give your life for someone else? Are you sure that moment has not yet arrived?)

It may only be when we are gathered around the table with Christ himself---or whatever equivalent another faith tradition might provide---but Jim's idea was that there must be a just reckoning in the end. And, given the profundity of human injustice, only a divine reward will do.

As I've said, I didn't know Jerry well, but I doubt he believed in an afterlife. Nonetheless, I choose to think of him as now enjoying the fruits of his own unique and important contributions to human freedom. I hope Jerry enjoys the opportunity to talk to Hume and Descartes and Darwin---what a lot they have to figure out!---and to re-unite with his old friend Hilary Putnam and his old enemy B.F. Skinner (who's no longer thus).


  1. I discovered this wonderful essay
    just recently.

  2. Please help out a philosophic amateur, if you may. (My professional training is in law, my career has been in journalism, my reading of philosophy has been avocational and sporadic.) When you mention an enmity between Fodor and Skinner, are you saying that Fodor took Chomsky's side on the nativism-versus-conditioning issue as to "verbal behavior"? One of the usual objections to the nativist position is that it requires an incredible evolutionary leap at some point -- a miracle whereby some primates' brains were re-wired (re-wired themselves) for language. If I recall correctly, Chomsky has conceded there is some truth to this. If Fodor was a nativist is roughly the same sense, what might he have said about objections along those lines?

    1. Yes, Fodor was entirely on Chomsky's side in the nativism debate. Have a look at this review
      for a good account of his position.
      Fodor's views about evolution are an entirely other story, and I'm not sure how they interact with his nativism. See this summary
      of a book he wrote on that topic (which I hasten to add I have not read).


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