Jerry A. Fodor Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Attempting to vindicate people’s commonsense psychological views, Fodor provided a staunch defense of a representational theory of mind and the language of thought that such a theory presupposes.

Early Life

After an undergraduate education at Columbia University in New York City, Jerry A. Fodor received his Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1960. He began his academic career at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1959, first as an instructor and then, in 1961, as an assistant professor. Around that time, he also published his first article, “What Do You Mean?” (1960), in Journal of Philosophy.

Early in his career, Fodor spent a year visiting at the University of Illinois, where he worked closely with Charles Osgood, one of the pioneers of psycholinguistics. He also married Janet Dean, a linguist with a Ph.D. from MIT, with whom he often collaborated in his early work. Added to the fact that the philosophy department at MIT was closely connected with the linguistics department, it is not surprising that Fodor’s work would draw significantly from the discipline of linguistics.

Life’s Work

Many of Fodor’s early articles were collaborative, interdisciplinary efforts, as he worked together with psychologists and linguists such as Zenon Pylyshyn, Jerrold Katz, Merrill Garrett, and Thomas Bever. In the early 1970’s, Fodor once again joined forces with Bever and Garrett, this time to produce a book that surveyed the literature in psycholinguistics, a field that begun to blossom only in the previous decade. Much of the material in the text they wrote, The Psychology of Language: An Introduction to Psycholinguistics and Generative Grammar (1974), was then revisited by Fodor in his subsequent book The Language of Thought. This book clearly reveals Fodor’s debt to Noam Chomsky, distinguished member of the faculty at MIT and a towering figure in linguistics.

Though Fodor’s work had been generating discussion for a number of years, in many ways The Language of Thought is the book that put him on the philosophical map. An argument for realism about the mental, this book presents Fodor’s first comprehensive argument for the representational theory of mind (RTM), a theory that he has vigorously continued to defend throughout his career. The fundamental claim of RTM is that to have a propositional attitude (for example, a belief or a desire) is to be in a certain relation to an internal representation. As such, RTM postulates an infinite set of internal representations and this, as the title of the book suggests, is the language of thought, an innate system of representation. This claim of innateness is one respect in which Chomsky’s influence can be clearly seen, and much of the argument for the existence of a language of thought in the book’s second chapter calls upon Chomskian linguistic theory. It is important to note, however, that the innateness claim does not commit Fodor to the view that children are born with every concept that there is, including even complex concepts such as “airplane” or “telephone.” Rather, all that must be innate are the basic elements out of which those more complex concepts can be constructed.

A useful description of RTM and its relation to the language of thought, which Fodor often employs, invokes the metaphorical notion of propositional attitude boxes. For example, when one has the belief that one’s car’s gas tank is full, this puts the appropriate language of thought symbols corresponding to “the gas tank is full” in one’s belief box. Were one instead to desire that the gas tank be full, the symbols would be put in one’s desire box. The presence or absence of certain symbols in someone’s belief and desire boxes will then issue an action. For example, the conjunction of “the gas tank is empty” in someone’s belief box and “the gas tank is full” in that same person’s desire box will, other things being equal, lead to subsequent behavior such as a trip to the gas station. It is by showing how it is scientifically possible for behavior to be connected to the representational content of mental states that RTM vindicates folk psychology.

It is important that, although the language of thought is not supposed to be a natural language such as English or French, it is supposed to be a language—that is, it is supposed to have a syntax. That such a language be syntactical is important because Fodor wants to maintain that the relations between propositional attitudes and the language of thought symbols that are their objects are computational, and computational relations must be able to be formally (or syntactically) specified.

Having postulated a language of thought, Fodor next had to explain how symbols in such a language could refer to items in the world. The problem of finding a suitable property or relation to explain such reference has become known as the problem of psychosemantics, a term coined by Fodor in his long manuscript, “Psychosemantics: Or, Where Do Truth Conditions Come From?” Though this manuscript was widely circulated among his philosophical circle in the 1980’s, he decided not publish it, having changed his mind about the adequacy of the the theory offered therein. Ultimately, he revisited the problem of psychosemantics in his book Psychosemantics: The Problem of Meaning in the Philosophy of Mind. In the original manuscript, which he eventually consented to having published in the much-respected anthology Mind and Cognition (1990), Fodor had offered a...

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