In cognitive science, conceptual content is frequently understood as the “meaning” of a mental representation. This position raises largely empirical questions about what concepts are, what form they take in mental processes, and how they connect to the world they are about. In Minds without Meaning, Jerry Fodor and Zenon Pylyshyn review some of the proposals put forward to answer these questions and find that none of them is remotely defensible.
Fodor and Pylyshyn determine that all of these proposals share a commitment to a two-factor theory of conceptual content, which holds that the content of a concept consists of its sense together with its reference. Fodor and Pylyshyn argue instead that there is no conclusive case against the possibility of a theory of concepts that takes reference as their sole semantic property. Such a theory, if correct, would provide for the naturalistic account of content that cognitive science lacks—and badly needs. Fodor and Pylyshyn offer a sketch of how this theory might be developed into an account of perceptual reference that is broadly compatible with empirical findings and with the view that the mental processes effecting perceptual reference are largely preconceptual, modular, and encapsulated.
About the Authors
Jerry A. Fodor is State of New Jersey Professor of Philosophy at Rutgers University. He is the author of The Mind Doesn’t Work That Way: The Scope and Limits of Computational Psychology (MIT Press) and other books.
Zenon W. Pylyshyn is Board of Governors Professor of Cognitive Science at Rutgers Center for Cognitive Science. He is the author of Seeing and Visualizing: It's Not what You Think (2003) and Computation and Cognition: Toward a Foundation for Cognitive Science (1984), both published by The MIT Press, as well as over a hundred scientific papers on perception, attention, and the computational theory of mind.
“Minds without Meanings is a very small book that attempts to do the very ambitious job of solving the problem of content. Fodor and Pylyshyn argue that the only semantic notion worth scientific attention is reference. Then they give an empirically grounded theory of reference. The book is vintage Fodor and Pylyshyn—densely argued, funny, infuriating. Great fun and a must-read.”
—Anthony Chemero, Professor of Philosophy and Psychology, University of Cincinnati; author of Radical Embodied Cognitive Science
“Meaning (word or lexical meaning) has eluded computationalists, is taken for granted by most cognitive psychologists, and has been pursued mightily by philosophers, mostly with results that are either mysterian or simplistic. So when two of the most influential collaborators in cognitive science, Jerry Fodor and Zenon Pylyshyn, mount an impressive argument that most of what researchers starting with Frege have had in mind by meaning does not exist, the community will take notice. Even if the conclusion is very implausible.”
—Andrew Brook, Chancellor's Professor of Philosophy and Cognitive Science; former President, Canadian Philosophical Association, Carleton University
“Cognitive science is long overdue for a fundamental overhaul of its basic assumptions. It must do away with meanings, intensions, and Fregean senses, in any and all varieties. To have a future, representational cognitive science must naturalistically explain how reference, and reference alone, can ground a purely extensional theory of mental content. Such is this book’s challenging assessment. Getting to the true heart of the issues, packed with philosophical arguments and empirical analyses and full of wit, the book directs cognitive science down an exciting new path. Whether it can survive the journey remains to be seen.”
—Daniel D. Hutto, Professor of Philosophical Psychology, University of Wollongong and University of Hertfordshire; coauthor of Radicalizing Enactivism and author of Folk Psychological Narratives
“In these revelatory new essays, Fodor and Pylyshyn, finding the problem of ‘meaning’ unsolvable, propose to do away with it altogether in favor of an enriched view of reference that can link concepts directly to the world.”
—Lila Gleitman, Professor of Cognitive Science, University of Pennsylvania