RePresentations: Philosophical Essays on the Foundations of Cognitive Science

by Jerry A. Fodor
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The ten articles in RePresentations were all written in the 1960’s and 1970’s, fairly early in Fodor’s career. With the exception of the final essay, entitled, “The Present Status of the Innateness Controversy,” all of the essays were previously published in anthologies or philosophical journals such as Journal of Philosophy and The Philosophical Review. The fact of their previous publication gives rise to the pun of the title: Not only are the essays about the subject of mental representation but they are also, in this volume, re-presented.

Methodological Solipsism and Thought Experiments

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RePresentations contains a number of highly influential papers. One such paper is “Methodological Solipsism Considered as a Research Strategy in Cognitive Psychology,” originally published in 1980 in the interdisciplinary journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences. The term “methodological solipsism” comes from “The Meaning of Meaning’” (1975), in which Hilary Putnam defined it as the assumption that the existence of any particular psychological state does not require anything other than the existence of the mind whose psychological state it is. In the remainder of the paper, Putnam presented a series of thought experiments to show that this assumption is misguided.

The most famous of these thought experiments is the case of Twin Earth, a planet remarkably like Earth and populated with people who speak a language remarkably like English. However, Twin Earth differs from Earth in one important respect: the clear liquid there called “water,” which flows in the rivers and streams and is used for drinking and bathing, has the molecular composition not of water (H20) but rather the composition XYZ (a fictional chemical composition that is different from H20). Consider now your Twin Earth counterpart, a being who is, molecule for molecule, identical with you. When you are in the mental state “water is wet,” you are thinking about H20, but when your counterpart thinks “water is wet,” she is thinking about XYZ. It thus seems that you and your counterpart must be in different types of mental states. However, since you and she are, by hypothesis, microphysical duplicates of one another, the fact that your mental state is the state that it is depends on something external to you. In this case, for example, the fact that your mental state is the state that it is, rather than the one that your counterpart is in, depends on the fact that your environment contains H20 and not XYZ.

Notice, however, that although your mental state is about H20 and your twin’s mental state is about XYZ, it nonetheless seems that there is some sense in which you and your twin are in the same mental state. This intuition leads to the distinction between two kinds of mental state content: wide content (with respect to which you and your twin’s mental states are different) and narrow content (with respect to which you and your twin’s mental states are the same). Methodological solipsism commits one to doing psychology without wide content, and throughout his essay, Fodor argues forcefully that such a strategy is preferable. One reason he offers is that to focus on wide content is, in essence, to give up on the possibility of psychology altogether. If one had to do psychology in terms of wide content, one would have to wait for the outcome of all science; for example, your thoughts about water could be explained only after the completion of chemistry. As Fodor says, “No doubt it’s all right to have a research strategy that says wait awhile.’ However, who wants to wait forever?”

It bears noting that Fodor’s embrace of the assumption of methodological solipsism is strongly reminiscent of the views of René Descartes, and Fodor himself acknowledges that in many respects the theory of mind he puts forth is a Cartesian one. It is important, however, that he does not endorse the ontological commitments of the Cartesian theory of mind; unlike a Cartesian dualist, Fodor is not committed to the existence of a nonphysical mind distinct from the physical body. Fodor’s own position on the relationship between mind and body is a functionalist one.


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The development of functionalism in the 1960’s and 1970’s brought about a significant transformation in the philosophy of mind. The functionalist theory, underlying the discussion of several of the essays in RePresentations, emerged from the ashes of behaviorism and the identity theory. Behaviorism, espoused in the first half of the twentieth century by theorists such as Carl Hempel and Gilbert Ryle, attempted to define mental states solely in terms of behavior and dispositions to behave. Unfortunately for the behaviorists, however, significant problems with their theory soon became evident and were extensively detailed in numerous publications, such as Putnam’s “Brains and Behavior” (1965). Most problematic, perhaps, is the fact that the behaviorist is forced to deny a mental life to any creature that does not exhibit the standard behavioral patterns.

The other precursor to functionalism, the identity theory, was developed in the middle of the century by theorists such as J. J. C. Smart and U. T. Place as a materialist alternative to behaviorism. Instead of identifying a mental state with a particular pattern of behavior, the identity theorists identified mental states with particular physical states, usually neurophysiological states of the brain. Unlike the behaviorist, the identity theorist was thus able to account for the existence of mental states when there is not the appropriate behavior; moreover, by identifying mental states with brain states, the identity theorist was able to provide a highly satisfactory account of the causal powers mental states have with respect to behavior. However, the identity theory itself soon ran into trouble, due to its unfortunate exclusivity: According to this theory, the only creatures that can have mental states are creatures with brains that are exactly like human brains.

Functionalism retains the best elements of these two preceding theories, combining the behaviorists’ insight that mental states are relational with the insight of the identity theorists that people need to take seriously the causal relation between mental states and behavior. Roughly put, functionalism defines mental states in terms of their relations to sensory input, behavior, and other mental states. It is no accident that the development of functionalism coincided with the rise of computer science. Functionalism is grounded in a computational metaphor—viewing cognition as the “program” of the brain—and the early functionalists relied on the idea of a Turing machine, borrowed from computer science, to lay out their theories.

Fodor’s version of functionalism is outlined in “What Psychological States Are Not,” an essay cowritten with Ned Block. More generally, however, his functionalist leanings shape the discussions of mental representation in several other essays in RePresentations. For example, one corollary to Fodor’s functionalism is his rejection of psychological reduction, the view that psychological kinds (like propositional attitudes such as belief and desire) are reducible to neurological kinds. This theme is addressed most directly in “Special Sciences.” As Fodor argues, to provide a theory of the mind, people should focus not on the neurological composition of the brain but rather on the functional organization of cognition. His reasons are not simply epistemological; that is, he is not simply arguing that people should not focus on the brain because their experimental access to it is limited in various respects. Rather, people need to focus on the functional organization because neurological theories cannot adequately account for the propositional attitudes.

Representational Theory of Mind

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Fodor’s criticism of Dennett is only one way in which he champions realism in RePresentations. Another linchpin in this defense is his representational theory of mind (RTM). This theory claims that the propositional attitudes should be understood in terms of relations to mental representations. (The theory is extensively defended in The Language of Thought, a book that was written at about the same time as the essays in RePresentations.) Because the mental representations have semantic content, the RTM provides an explanation of what it is for propositional attitudes to have representational content. It is important that, although such an explanation is not provided directly by functionalism, it is fully consistent with it. Moreover, the conjunction of RTM and functionalism is what constitutes Fodor’s computationalist approach to the mind: Cognition can be understood as transformations on mental representations, and such transformations proceed based entirely on the syntactic properties of the symbols involved in such representations. Such symbols do, of course, have semantical properties, and Fodor thinks that there are important parallels between symbols’ syntax and their semantics.

Several of the essays in RePresentations are rightly recognized as contemporary philosophical classics. Perhaps the most influential is “Methodological Solipsism Considered as a Research Strategy in Cognitive Psychology.” This paper, along with Tyler Burge’s “Individualism and the Mental” (1979), spawned a vast literature on the distinction between narrow and wide content and its ramifications. “What Psychological States Are Not” and Fodor’s other writings on functionalism also generated a great deal of secondary literature. Though not every paper in the collection has made a similarly indelible mark on temporary philosophical discourse, each nonetheless makes an important contribution to the development of contemporary philosophy of mind and cognitive science in general, and to the development of Fodor’s own research program in particular.


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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.


Critical Essays