RePresentations: Philosophical Essays on the Foundations of Cognitive Science Analysis

Jerry A. Fodor


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

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...

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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...

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Representational Theory of Mind

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.


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.


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