In Memoriam

In memoriam: Jerry Fodor

We note, with sadness, the passing of Jerry A. Fodor on Nov. 29. Fodor was one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century and a giant in philosophical debates about the nature of the mind, concepts, and language. He taught at MIT from 1959 to 1986 and was the author or coauthor of eight of our books, beginning with RePresentations: Philosophical Essays on the Foundations of Cognitive Science in 1981 and concluding with Minds without Meanings: An Essay on the Content of Concepts, published in 2014.

We asked Susan Schneider to reflect on Fodor’s legacy. Schneider, a professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut and author of The Language of Thought: A New Philosophical Direction, was a graduate student of Fodor’s. She sent along these thoughts, from a philosopher who both held Fodor in high regard and relished the opportunity to debate with him.

Fodor was clearly one of the most important philosophers of the late 20th century/early 21st Century, and his legacy is immense. His work set the stage for much of the current work in the fields of philosophy of psychology and philosophy of mind, and many philosophers of mind were inspired by Fodor’s work. I know I was. We disagreed with certain of Fodor’s claims, but he was the philosopher we all loved to argue against. His tirades were epic, his writing brilliant. His books combined out-of-the-box philosophical moves with discussions of Greycat and Granny. Greycat even received a book dedication. We all relished reading Fodor.

His Modularity of the Mind argued that the mind is comprised of various innate, compartmentalized subsystems, each of which can be characterized by a proprietary algorithm. Fodor’s arguments against connectionism (a theory of the format of thought which later gave rise to “deep learning”) are highly relevant to AI today, as they suggest in principle limits to the success of deep learning systems.

Fodor’s Language of Thought argued that the brain computes in an inner symbolic language. Cognition involved the algorithmic processing of symbolic mental states. Fodor was my dissertation supervisor, and this book inspired my own first book, (The Language of Thought: A New Philosophical Direction). In retrospect, I can’t believe he tolerated a student who wrote a dissertation (and later, a book) arguing against him, urging that his own view required a form of holism, for instance. Frankly, our debates grew very heated at times. Neither of us would budge. He was incredibly generous with his time, laboriously commenting on chapters of the book, despite the fact that it drove him crazy.

Fodor’s work on mental content sought to explain how the brain’s symbolic states had meaning. He offered a naturalistic approach to meaning that aimed to integrate mental phenomena into the domain of science.  He was a leading figure in the naturalistic tradition.

In his later work, Fodor grew even more pessimistic about the possibility that cognitive science could explain the ‘central system’ – i.e., the system (or systems) responsible for important cognitive functions, such as attention and working memory. (There were hints of this in his earlier work as well.)  Many disagreed. Since deep learning systems have taken off, I have often longed hear Fodor’s perspective on where AI is headed. Why hasn’t it hit a wall? Or has it? He will be missed.