Jerry Fodor

Jerry Fodor taught philosophy for many years at MIT and later at Rutgers. His books include The Modularity of Mind (1984) and What Darwin Got Wrong (2010). He died in November 2017.

C’est mon métier

Jerry Fodor, 24 January 2013

It would take at least two workaday philosophers to keep up with Hilary Putnam. Philosophy in an Age of Science is a case in point. It’s a collection of papers, most of them previously published, devoted among lots of other things to: the philosophical interpretation of quantum mechanics, the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of language, the philosophy of mathematics, philosophical...

What are trees about?

Jerry Fodor, 24 May 2012

Full disclosure: after a while, I began to skip. After a while longer, I began to skip a lot. That was reprehensible, but passages like: ‘but then a teleogenic process in which one critical dynamical component is a representational process that interprets its own teleodynamic tendency extends this convoluted causal circularity one level further’ started to get me down; as Deacon...

Fire the press secretary

Jerry Fodor, 28 April 2011

Sometimes, when I’m feeling dyspeptic, I wonder why psychologists have such a down on minds. Psychologists, of all people. In philosophy, ever since Plato, the mainstream opinion has been that the mind is the organ of thought; thinking is what the mind is for, and we act as we do because we think what we do. But psychologists, for the last hundred years or so, have mostly viewed that...

Where is my mind?

Jerry Fodor, 12 February 2009

If there’s anything we philosophers really hate it’s an untenable dualism. Exposing untenable dualisms is a lot of what we do for a living. It’s no small job, I assure you. They (the dualisms, not the philosophers) are insidious, and they are ubiquitous; perpetual vigilance is required. I mention only a few of the dualisms whose tenability we have, at one time or other, felt called on to question: mind v. body; fact v. value; knowledge v. true belief; induction v. deduction; sensing v. perceiving; thinking v. behaving; denotation v. connotation; thought v. action; appearance v. reality … I could go on. It is, moreover, a mark of an untenable dualism that a philosopher who is in the grip of one is sure to think that he isn’t. In such a case, therapy can require millennia of exquisitely subtle dialectics. No wonder philosophers are paid so well.

Flirts, Victims, Connivers

Jerry Fodor, 11 September 2008

I’ve been told you can’t judge a book by its cover; and not by its subtitle either, it would seem. Jean Starobinski’s Enchantment presents itself as concerned with ‘the seductress in opera’, but not much of it actually is. It consists, rather, of a collection of occasional pieces, most of which have previously been published. They offer relatively impressionistic...

An appreciable number of perfectly reasonable biologists are coming to think that the theory of natural selection can no longer be taken for granted. This is, so far, mostly straws in the wind; but it’s not out of the question that a scientific revolution – no less than a major revision of evolutionary theory – is in the offing. Unlike the story about our minds being anachronistic adaptations, this new twist doesn’t seem to have been widely noticed outside professional circles. The ironic upshot is that at a time when the theory of natural selection has become an article of pop culture, it is faced with what may be the most serious challenge it has had so far. Darwinists have been known to say that adaptationism is the best idea that anybody has ever had. It would be a good joke if the best idea that anybody has ever had turned out not to be true.

Headaches have themselves

Jerry Fodor, 24 May 2007

Consciousness is all the rage just now. It boasts new journals of its very own, from which learned articles overflow. Neuropsychologists snap its picture (in colour) with fMRI machines, and probe with needles for its seat in the brain. At all seasons, and on many continents, interdisciplinary conferences about consciousness draw together bizarre motleys that include philosophers, psychologists, phenomenologists, brain scientists, MDs, computer scientists, the Dalai Lama, novelists, neurologists, graphic artists, priests, gurus and (always) people who used to do physics.

Who ate the salted peanuts?

Jerry Fodor, 21 September 2006

I think it was P.G. Wodehouse who observed that the English strike Americans as funny when they are just being English. Similarly, philosophers strike the laity as funny when they are just being philosophers, and that makes it hard to be as funny about them as they are when they’re left to their own devices. But Michael Frayn is among the honoured few who have succeeded. I fondly remember a piece of his from the 1960s (about fog) that purported to be a newly discovered fragment of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. Wittgenstein generally writes with a transcendental pomposity that makes parody seem superfluous, not to say impossible. But Frayn pulled it off. For years Frayn’s Wittgenstein was to be found pinned to the bulletin boards of anglophone philosophy departments all round the world.

Give me that juicy bit over there

Jerry Fodor, 6 October 2005

I’m in a pout about this book; I’m conflicted. On the one hand, there are several respects in which it seems to me to be very good. Mithen knows a great deal and he writes well by the received standards of cognitive science (which are not daunting). So his book is both edifying and a pleasure to read. If you’re in the market for a summary of what’s known (a little) and...

Water’s water everywhere

Jerry Fodor, 21 October 2004

“Here’s the basic idea. One drops the traditional thesis that necessary propositions are linguistic or conceptual, and one substitutes a metaphysical account of necessity. Philosophy is to recognise not just the actual world we live in but also a plethora of ‘possible worlds’. The actual world is itself possible, of course; but so, too, is the world that’s just like this one except that Mr James (a domestic feline who’s currently having a nap) is awake and chasing mice. Similarly, there are worlds that are just like ours except that there’s nobody in them, and worlds just like ours except that everybody is in them except President Bush. Likewise there are (brave, new) worlds in which I get Foucault’s royalties and he gets mine. And so on.”

What Wotan Wants

Jerry Fodor, 5 August 2004

Wagner’s operas in general, and the Ring cycle in particular, have been goading the criticising classes into print for a century and a half, with still no end in sight, but the sacrifice of all those trees has produced very little in the way of a critical consensus; not even on such basic matters as what the Ring is about. Many of the enthusiasts I know hold that there really...

You can’t argue with a novel

Jerry Fodor, 4 March 2004

The philosophical novel is a well-established genre. Comp. Lit. 102: readings in Dostoevsky, Kafka, Mann, Gide, Sartre (and Martin Amis if time permits); little or no philosophical sophistication required. In the paradigmatic instances, the form is used to show how things look when viewed from the perspective of some or other philosophical assumptions, the philosophy itself being exemplified...

More Peanuts

Jerry Fodor, 9 October 2003

‘Dr Livingstone, I presume?’ Stanley was spot on: it was Dr Livingstone. Elsewise his presuming so wouldn’t have become the stuff of legend. A question suggests itself: how did he manage to presume so cleverly? Of all the things that Stanley might have presumed, how did he hit on the one that was both pertinent and true? Why didn’t he presume Queen Victoria, for...

Why would Mother Nature bother?

Jerry Fodor, 6 March 2003

Been feeling bad about being a thing? Been feeling that the laws of nature are pushing you around? Here’s a book-length dose of Daniel Dennett’s Cold Comfort Cure. According to Dennett, ‘naturalism is no enemy of free will; it provides a positive account of free will.’ Sound too good to be true? Well, so it is. Proposals for ‘compatibilist’ resolutions of...

Don’t bet the chicken coop

Jerry Fodor, 5 September 2002

A note to Royall Tyler’s elegant new translation of Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji explains that ‘Hahakigi (“;broom tree”) is a plant from which brooms were indeed made and that had the poetic reputation of being visible from afar and of disappearing as one approached.’* Well, philosophers live in a thicket of such things; it is often very trying.


Mouse Thoughts

Jerry Fodor, 7 March 2002

I do wish Donald Davidson would write a book. I mean, a proper book with a beginning, a middle and an end, in contrast to the collections of papers of which the present volume is an instance. My wishing so is not invidious. These bite-sized essays, each a mere fifteen or twenty pages long, often impress one as serious philosophical achievements even when they are read piecemeal, as they were...

Not Entirely Nice

Jerry Fodor, 2 November 2000

I have a friend who has a friend who is a composer of international stature, heavily invested in the aesthetics of difficulty. He’s also opera-addicted and likes to get to the Met whenever he comes through town. My friend remembers a phone call from his friend that went about like this: ‘Listen, they’re doing Bohème tonight. Let’s go; but please don’t tell...

A Science of Tuesdays

Jerry Fodor, 20 July 2000

Hilary Putnam’s latest book collects two series of his lectures with two chapters of ‘afterwords’. Subsidiary topics go by faster than my eye was able to follow, but the main concerns are: ‘representational’ theories of perception, and ‘identity’ theories of the mind/body relation.‘

How I got into this. John Sturrock called from the LRB. He knows that I like opera a lot, and that I now and then get tired of writing papers about the mind/body problem for philosophy journals. ‘Would I like to report on the new pop version of Aida? (Elton John, Tim Rice and, rumour has it, a transparent swimming-pool.)’ I pretend to have heard of Elton John and Tim Rice. Sturrock sounds amused, possibly at my expense. ‘Sure, what have I got to lose?’ I say.‘

Diary: why the brain?

Jerry Fodor, 30 September 1999

Why, why, does everyone go on so about the brain? Each Tuesday, the New York Times does its section on science, to which I am addicted. I like best the astrophysical stuff on pulsars and quasars and black holes and how old and far away everything is; there’s a pleasantly vertiginous aftertaste that sometimes lasts until ‘Arts and Entertainment’ comes out on Saturday. But I’m quite prepared to settle for the breaking news on whether birds are dinosaurs, or when Africa was last attached to Brazil, or which kind of cholesterol is good for you after all. It’s all grist for the same mill: how odd it is how odd the world turns out to be.‘

Not so Clever Hans

Jerry Fodor, 4 February 1999

Maybe, some day, we’ll have serious and well-confirmed theories about how minds work; theories that actually explain interesting things. Historians of science will then be able to consider psychology as just another episode in the long struggle. If so, I bet they’re struck by how often in 20th-century behavioural science methodological nuttiness got in the way. Why, they’ll wonder, did psychology feel compelled to embark on its investigations by tying one hand behind its back and using the other to shoot itself in the foot? Didn’t problems about the mind seem hard enough to bear without adding a freight of procedural inhibitions?


Jerry Fodor, 29 October 1998

Suppose God took it into his head to make another world just like ours; if one is good, why wouldn’t two be better? There’s a lot he’d have to see to; dividing the light from the dark and the seas from the dry land would hardly make a start. He’d need to conjure up another Milky Way, for example, that’s exactly counterpart to ours, and arrange the very same number of stars in the very same relative locations. There would have to be the same number of planets circling these stars as circle ours; and the same number of moons circling the planets … and so on down to the least significant particles of asteroidal debris. All of which he’d have to set moving, at just the right velocity, away from duplicates of all the other galaxies.

The Trouble with Psychological Darwinism

Jerry Fodor, 22 January 1998

It belongs to the millennial mood to want to sum things up and see where we have got to and point in the direction in which further progress lies. Cognitive science has not been spared this impulse, and these two books purport to limn the state of the art. They differ a bit in their intended audience: Plotkin’s is more or less a text, while Pinker hopes for a lay readership. Pinker covers much more ground but he takes an ungainly six hundred pages to do it, compared to Plotkin’s svelte volume. Both are unusually good at exposition, Pinker exceptionally so from time to time. Their general sense of what’s going on and of what comes next is remarkably similar, considering that they are writing about a field that is notoriously fractious. Taken severally or together, they present what is probably the best statement you can find in print of a very important contemporary view of mental structure and process.

Cat’s Whiskers

Jerry Fodor, 30 October 1997

Proust’s Swann is obsessed by what he doesn’t know about Odette. His anguish has no remedy; finding out more only adds to what he does know about her. Since Kant, lots of philosophers have suffered from a generalised and aggravated form of the same complaint. They want to know what the world is like when they aren’t thinking about it; what things are like, not from one or other point of view, but ‘in themselves’. Or they think that maybe that’s what science aims to know, and wonder whether it’s a project that makes any sense. They are thus worried about ‘the possibility of objectivity’.

Bottoms Again

Jerry Fodor, 19 June 1997

Archimedes thought that he could move the world if only he could get outside of it, and the same idea inspires writers in the transcendental genre of fiction. Find some place sufficiently far out and put your fulcrum there. The leverage you achieve will lend authority to your voice. Both these books hope that higher primates will supply the required pivot. The Woman and the Ape looks up to them for moral edification; Great Apes looks down on them for comic relief. Each is, in its own way, amply unsuccessful.

It’s the thought that counts

Jerry Fodor, 28 November 1996

What’s your favourite metaphor for minds? If you’re an empiricist, or an associationist, or a connectionist, you probably favour webs, networks, switchboards, or the sort of urban grid where the streets are equidistant and meet at right angles: New York’s Midtown, rather than its Greenwich Village. Such images suggest a kind of mind every part of which is a lot like every other. Take a sample here and you find the concept dog associated to the concepts cat and animal; take a sample there and you find the concepts Antony and Cleopatra in close connection. Though mental content changes as you go from place to place in the web, the structure is everywhere the same. It’s concepts and connections wherever you look.


Jerry Fodor, 18 April 1996

‘How do you get to Carnegie Hall?’ ‘Practice, practice.’ Here’s a different way: start anywhere you like and take a step at random. If it’s a step in the right direction, I’ll say ‘warmer’; in which case repeat the process from your new position. If I say ‘colder’, go back a step and repeat from there. This is a kind of procedure that they call ‘hill climbing’ in the computer-learning trade (hence, I suppose, the title of Richard Dawkins’s new book). It’s guaranteed to get you where you’re going so long as the distance between is finite. (And so long as there are no insurmountable obstacles or ‘local maxima’ in the way: nothing is perfect.)

Encounters with Trees

Jerry Fodor, 20 April 1995

A dialectic of two different and opposed conceptions of Naturalism is working itself out in Mind and World. There’s the reductionist version – John McDowell calls it ‘bald’ Naturalism; ‘Scientism’ is another pejorative currently in fashion. And there’s the kind of naturalistic pluralism that McDowell himself is striving for. Very roughly the distinction is between the tradition that runs from Kant through the Positivists to the likes of Dewey and Quine, and the tradition that runs from Kant through the Hegelians to Wittgenstein, Rorty, Davidson and Hilary Putnam since he left MIT for Harvard.’

Unpacking a dog

Jerry Fodor, 7 October 1993

The Modern era, as analytic philosophers reckon, started with Descartes. By contrast, the Recent era started when philosophy, in Richard Rorty’s phrase, took the ‘linguistic turn’. So it started with Frege or Russell, or early Wittgenstein, or the Vienna Circle; take your pick. Modern philosophy was mostly about epistemology: it wanted to understand what makes knowledge possible. Recent philosophy is mostly about meaning (or ‘content’) and wants to understand what makes thought and language possible. So, anyhow, we tell our undergraduates when we’re in a hurry.

Too hard for our kind of mind?

Jerry Fodor, 27 June 1991

Whatever, you may be wondering, became of the mind-body problem? This new collection of Colin McGinn’s philosophical papers is as good a place to find out as any I know of. Published over a period of more than a decade, and drawn together from the usual motley of largely inaccessible academic journals, these essays provide a vivid introduction to current views in the philosophy of mind and to their immediate precursors. Professionals will find, in the earlier publications (which, confusingly, come last in the book), a fascinating record of what happened to the philosophy of mind in England when Davidson and Kripke hit town. Professionals and laity alike will find, in the later publications, an up-to-date, sophisticated and enjoyably tendentious account of the present state of the art.

The crucial sentence in Peter Godfrey-Smith’s review of our book, What Darwin Got Wrong, is: ‘If one [but not the other of two linked traits] is causing increased reproductive success, it is being selected for, in the sense that matters to evolutionary theory’ (LRB, 8 July). A number of other reviewers of the book have made much the same suggestion, but it won’t do. The theory...
A perceptible flurry in the dovecote. Here are some replies to my critics. It seems to me that Simon Blackburn has comprehensively missed the point (Letters, 1 November). He takes the problem I raised to be epistemological: ‘If two traits occur together, how do we know which was “selected" for?’ But I don’t do epistemology, and that isn’t what I’m worried about (nor,...

The True Sentence

16 March 2000

As far as I can tell, Richard Rorty (LRB, 16 March) is seriously confused. it’s a leitmotif of his piece that ‘understanding is always of objects under a description,’ a principle from which he apparently thinks it follows that there’s never a way of getting ‘behind’ the description to the object that you’re trying to understand. I doubt that does follow, but...
My Rutgers colleague, Benjamin Martin Bly, seems not to grasp that there is a difference between, on the one hand, trying to find out ‘the way the structure of our minds depends on the structure of our brains’ or ‘the basis of cognition when it depends on a subtle interplay among brain regions’ and, on the other hand, making brain maps of what lights up where when one thinks...

It Got Eaten: Fodor v. Darwin

Peter Godfrey-Smith, 8 July 2010

In 1959 the psychological doctrine known as ‘behaviourism’ was at the peak of its influence. Pioneered in the early 20th century by Edward Lee Thorndike, Clark Hull and J.B. Watson,...

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Whirring away

P.N. Johnson-Laird, 18 October 1984

Who now remembers phrenology as anything other than a Victorian pastime? Yet it began as a serious scientific hypothesis. Its founder, the German anatomist Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828), argued...

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