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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 teleological answer to the problem of psychosemantics. In the later book, he explicitly rejects the teleological approach, dismissing it as unsatisfactory. The theory that replaces it is a causal one, where symbols in the language of thought refer to objects and properties in the world in virtue of being caused by instantiations of such objects and properties.

Like much of Fodor’s work, Psychosemantics continually invokes the figures of both Granny and Aunty, largely fictionalized versions of his actual aunt and grandmother. Both are characterized as no-nonsense women, full of folksy wisdom and aphorisms, who speak with the voice of the establishment. Granny and Aunty thus serve as dialectical foils, forcing Fodor to defend controversial claims, but they also serve as humorous means for Fodor to put himself in his place. Granny, for example, is portrayed as wont to grin from her rocking chair and say “I told you so” in response to some of Fodor’s theories, and Aunty’s chiding advice to her nephew closes Psychosemantics: “Children should play nicely together and respect each other’s points of view.”

After spending twenty-seven years as a faculty member at MIT, in 1986 Fodor departed for the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center. Then, only two years later, he moved from CUNY to Rutgers University, where he was appointed State of New Jersey Professor of Philosophy. While at Rutgers, Fodor worked closely with his colleague Ernest LePore, associate director for the Rutgers Center for Cognitive Science. In addition to colloborating on several articles, Fodor and LePore wrote Holism: A Shopper’s Guide (1992).

Fodor has a reputation for being not only an engaging writer but an engaging speaker as well, which accounts for frequent invitations to participate in distinguished lecture series. In 1993, for example, he was asked to give the inaugural Jean Nicod Lectures in Paris, France. Jean Nicod was a French philosopher and logician, and the lecture series in his name was inaugurated on the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of his birth. The Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, which sponsors the annual lectures, seeks to foster the development of the discipline of cognitive science in France by hosting the lectures of a leading philosopher of mind or philosophically minded cognitive scientist. Fodor’s lectures have been published as The Elm and the Expert: Mentalese and Its Semantics. The title refers to a much-discussed example put forth in “The Meaning of ‘Meaning’” (1975), by Hilary Putnam, one of Fodor’s main philosophical influences.

Fodor also delivered the highly prestigious John Locke Lectures at Oxford University in 1996. An extended version of those lectures has been published as Concepts: Where Cognitive Science Went Wrong. Once again, Fodor invoked Aunty, and characterized the book as what Aunty would call “constructive criticism” of the enterprise of cognitive science. Concepts was also meant to be an internal critique, since Fodor himself is deeply committed to the traditional program of cognitive science. His criticism centers on the anti-atomist approach that traditional cognitive science has taken with respect to concepts, and Fodor offers an atomistic theory of concepts in an effort to solve many of the problems with which cognitive scientists have struggled.


Fodor has often been characterized as irreverent, and insofar as he has been prepared to depart from the philosophical mainstream, the characterization seems apt. Other adjectives that are offered to describe Fodor are “infuriating” and “irritating,” and though these may understandably have negative connotations, in Fodor’s case such descriptions are, in Fodor’s case such descriptions are actually not meant to be unflattering. As evidence for this interpretation, consider the fact that the book jacket for Concepts proclaims, “This is surely Fodor’s most irritating book in years.” Fodor is irritating in the sense that he has, time and again, provided the philosophical community with stimuli for argument. In this respect, being an irritant is a philosophical virtue.

Perhaps the most important respect in which Fodor has been a philosophical irritant is that, throughout his career, he has defended RTM in part by challenging his opponents to produce an adequate competitor. According to Fodor, the representational theory is the only serious proposal on the playing field that accounts for the production of bodily behavior by the mind—it is, so to speak, the only game in town. RTM prevails by default. This argumentative strategy has often infuriated his opponents. As a result, many cognitive scientists working on, for example, connectionist theories of the mind see their endeavor, at least in part, as an explicit effort to meet Fodor’s challenge and prove him wrong. Thus, whether cognitive science ultimately turns out to be the way that Fodor envisions it or the way that his opponents envision it, he will have played a large part in its development.

There is no doubt that as future philosophers look back on late twentieth century philosophy, they will regard Fodor as the period’s preeminent defender of the commonsense conception of mind. Though his representational theory of mind is, after all, a philosophical theory, it is nonetheless true that at bottom it aims to vindicate the commonsense presuppositions of folk psychology. Throughout his career, Fodor has revisited, reworked, and revised this theory, but he has never abandoned it. In fact, as he notes in Concepts, in his characteristically humorous style, “I seem to have grown old writing books defending RTMs; it occurs to me that if I were to stop writing books defending RTMs, perhaps I would stop growing old.” Alas, not even Fodor—as irreverent and infuriating and irritating as he is—can stop the march of time, but the arguments that he will leave behind in his voluminous corpus of published work ensure his place in history.

Additional Reading

Block, Ned, et al. “Commentary on ‘Methodological Solipsism Considered as a Research Strategy in Cognitive Psychology.’” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 3, no. 1 (March, 1980): 73-109. As is the practice of this journal, Fodor’s article was followed by an open peer commentary. Altogether, there are twenty-five short essays, contributed by philosophers and other cognitive scientists.

Dennett, Daniel. “The Logical Geography of Computational Approaches: A View from the East Pole,” in The Representation of Knowledge and Belief, edited by Myles Brand and Robert M. Harnish. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1986. In this humorous and easy-to-read discussion of computational approaches to the mind, Dennett contrasts two extremes: High Church Computationalism and Zen Holism. He casts Fodor as the “archbishop” of the former view.

Fodor, Jerry A. “The Folly of Simulation.” In Speaking Minds: Interviews with Twenty Eminent Cognitive Scientists, edited by Peter Baumgartner and Sabine Payr. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995. This interview with Fodor presents many of his views about the discipline of cognitive science. The book in which the interview appears contains an extensive glossary of terms common to discussions of cognitive science.

Heil, John. “Functionalism and the Representational Theory of Mind.” In Philosophy of Mind: A Contemporary Introduction. New York: Routledge, 1998. This summary of the representational theory of mind and the language of thought is especially well suited to the undergraduate philosophy student. In addition to providing an exposition of Fodor’s views, it discusses some simple problems with such views. The chapter ends with suggestions for further reading.

Loewer, Barry, and Georges Rey, eds. Meaning in Mind: Fodor and His Critics. Oxford, England: Blackwell, 1986. The fourteen essays in this book constitute extensive critical commentary on many different aspects of Fodor’s work. Following the essays, Fodor contributes a lengthy reply. The editors’ introduction is a useful overview of Fodor’s views, and the book contains a comprehensive bibliography of Fodor’s works. Anyone who has come across Fodor’s invocations of Granny in his work will be interested in the photograph of her that opens the book.

Sterelny, Kim. The Representational Theory of Mind: An Introduction. Oxford, England: Blackwell, 1990. In this work, designed to bridge the gap between introductory texts in philosophy of mind and scholarly literature, Sterelny defends both the representational theory of mind and the existence of a language of thought. In doing so, he makes frequent contact with Fodor’s views on these subjects. Written in a style that should be accessible to undergraduates. Glossary.

Stich, Stephen. From Folk Psychology to Cognitive Science: The Case Against Belief. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1983. In presenting a comprehensive argument against folk psychology, Stich takes a critical look at much of Fodor’s work. Chapters 3, 7, and 8 are especially relevant to Fodor.