Jerry Fodor

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Jerry Fodor (2007)

Jerry Alan Fodor (born April 22, 1935 in New York City , † November 29, 2017 ) was an American philosopher and cognitive scientist . He taught at Rutgers University in New Jersey .


Fodor studied from 1952 to 1961 at Columbia University , Princeton University and Oxford University . In 1956 he received his bachelor's degree with summa cum laude from Columbia University, where he studied with Sidney Morgenbesser , in 1960 he received a PhD in philosophy at Princeton University under the direction of Hilary Putnam .

From 1961 to 1986 he was Professor of Philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology . From 1986 to 1988 he taught at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York . Fodor has been teaching at Rutgers University since 1988 .

In 1987 Fodor was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences , and in 1993 he was awarded the Jean Nicod Prize .

Fodor was married to the linguist Janet Dean Fodor (* 1942).

The representational theory of mind

In the phrenology Fodor sees a precursor of his thesis to the modularity of mind

With the help of various elements from the philosophy of mind and the cognitive sciences, Fodor developed a complex theory of mind which he himself calls "representational". The starting point of this theory is an analogy to the computer: computers not only have a hardware level , but also a software level . Although the software is ontologically dependent, it is independent in the sense that it can be described precisely without knowing its implementation . Fodor's thesis is that mind and brain are related to each other like software and hardware. The mind can be described by the cognitive sciences on an abstract level without a description of the brain being necessary.

To Fodor's representational theory of mind, the assumption is part of a language of thought (language of thought) : The spirit of working with mental representations, according to a mental syntax to thoughts are put together. Fodor calls the hypothetical language of the mind also "Mentalesisch" (mentalese) .

Much criticism has been expressed of Fodor's representational theory of mind in recent decades. It is argued that with connectionism, a more realistic model of the mind has been developed that dispenses with a separation between the software and hardware level: Artificial neural networks can simulate cognitive abilities without having explicit representations or syntax. Fodor, on the other hand, said that such systems basically could not simulate characteristic human abilities.


Thoughts have a property that makes them difficult to explain in scientific approaches: A thought relates to a state of affairs and is therefore capable of truthfulness. The idea that Herodotus was a historian relates, for example, to the fact that Herodotus was a historian and is true. In philosophy, this property of thoughts is called " intentionality ". It appears to be problematic because it is not at all clear how a neural process can relate to a situation. As a result, it is also not clear how a neural process can be true or false. Neural processes just seem to “happen” according to the laws of nature .

Fodor now tries to explain the intentionality - and with it reference and truth value capability - through a causal relationship. If a state X is always caused by Ys, then X also represents Y. This means that X relates to Y. However, if X is caused by a Z that is not a Y, then we are dealing with a misrepresentation and X is wrong.


With the thesis of the modularity of mind (modularity of mind) Fodor has made a contribution to the specific cognitive science research. Fodor assumes a modular structure of the mind, which he does not only mean the assignment of mental abilities to definable neuronal structures. Rather, he assumes that individual, relatively independent systems can be described on an abstract level.

According to Fodor, these systems - the modules - are characterized by a number of features. They should each be tailored to a specific input , interact little or no with one another and should not be subject to conscious control. For this purpose, the modules should work quickly and in parallel. Fodor also assumes that the modules are located in definable regions of the brain.

Fodor also sees his modularity thesis in the tradition of phrenology . However, while phrenology could not prevail and increasingly became a pseudoscience , the modularity thesis is being used very successfully today. For example, individual modules are sought in neuro- and patholinguistics . The assumption is that modules as autonomous systems can be disrupted independently of one another. If one finds that two skills a and b can turn out independently of one another, one can assume that these skills are partly based on the work of different modules.


In 2010 Fodor published together with Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini the book What Darwin Got Wrong , in which the principle of natural selection as a mechanism of evolution is questioned. Arguing with a further development of the Spandrel concept, the authors come to the conclusion that Darwin's theory of natural selection is "empty". In the following public debate, the controversial theses were particularly sharply criticized by evolutionary biologists, but there were also positive reactions, for example from the philosopher Mary Midgley .

Jerry Fodor and Noam Chomsky

Jerry Fodor and Noam Chomsky developed their ideas of the relationship between language and thinking and the processes of language acquisition in mutual influencing.

Semantic theory and transformation grammar

As a supplement to Chomsky's early version of ( Generative Transformation Grammar ), Fodor developed a semantic theory together with the linguist Jerrold Katz.

Chomsky's “Syntactic Structures” version analyzes the grammatical categories and relations of the sentence, but does not take into account the meaning of the word. That was criticized in the scientific discussion. In response, Katz and Fodor developed the semantic component theory. Chomsky incorporated this model into his new version of the TG, the standard theory.

This concept is based on Fodor's linguistic-philosophical and cognitive-scientific views: He assumes the relation of a thought to a state of affairs (intentional attitudes) and assumes that the system of language and logic apply equally to thinking . First, by means of causal sequences, it is possible to check whether the objective content, the propositional core of the statement, is either true or false. Second, the combinatorial structure of language also applies to thinking and consequently one can assume a language of thinking. In contrast to pragmatic approaches, in Fodor's field of investigation it is not the use of language that is the starting point, but the formal-logical structure of the terms in human consciousness. It follows that an expression only gets its meaning in connection with the mental apparatus.

For the development of their semantic interpretation, the aim of which is to model the derivation rules for language generation, Fodor / Katz refer to Chomsky's theory of TG. According to the language, the system of the mind - as a cognitive apparatus - has the abilities of productivity or creativity as well as compositionality : From the given building blocks "Oliver" "loves" "Laura" people can form sentences with different subjects and objects. This assumes that the word strings can be broken down into their components. The rule apparatus is based - both in the early models of Chomsky's transformational grammar and in interpretative semantics - on syntax.

Like Chomsky (in the first versions of the TG), Fodor believes that the human brain works in a similar way to a computer and that the processes can be noted in mathematical formulas . One can try to reproduce this language - and thus the process of language generation and understanding - through causal sequences and rules and to model a universal language . Mathematical symbols of graph theory - used in computer science - are used in conjunction with algorithms . However, after criticizing the suitability of cognitive processes for modeling, Chomsky refrained from mathematical formalization in his later grammatical theories such as “Government and Binding” (GB, 1981) and “Minimalist Program” (MP, 1992) .

Chomsky and Fodor's conceptions of the innate modularity of the mind

In their analysis of the behaviorist interpretation of mental processes - such as learning - Chomsky and Fodor advocate a nativist idea, i. This means that many cognitive functions and concepts are innate, including the ability to learn a language. These mental structures are organized by modules in the brain. Chomsky calls one of these specialized subsystems, which contains the universal language and controls the language acquisition mechanism, " Language Acquisition Device " (LAD). Fodor assigns the language centers to individual delimited brain regions ( phrenology ), which only cooperate to a limited extent and whose neural networks work according to a computer-like principle with input and output. He rejects connectivist models.

As early as 1959, Chomsky criticized the behavioristic learning psychology, which explains the behavior of living beings with the stimulus-response pattern, but hardly examines the causative mental mechanisms. The phenomenon “language” is also understood as linguistic “behavior” and learning works according to the principle of reinforcement and can - similar to the training of an animal - be directed: Successful use (sense of achievement = reward) of words and sentences increases natural learning behavior of the child (operative conditioning ). Numerous language programs have been developed based on the behavioral principles that only interactions with the environment and the biological enhancers are important for language acquisition. Their authors dispute Chomsky's and Fodor's thesis that language-specific cognitive regulatory apparatuses are innate.

In his research, Chomsky was interested - in contrast to the behaviorists - in the processes taking place in the brain. His guiding principle, resulting from Cartesian linguistics , is that nature places narrow limits on the child's hypothetical scope for learning his or her mother tongue. As a result, he - like Fodor - sees language acquisition in principle as a preprogrammed process that is essentially completed by the age of five. Chomsky thinks of this process as a menu plan with choices: the human brain is equipped with a set of choices. The child chooses the correct solution by using the language of the parents - in connection with the situation - as a yardstick.

In order to support his hypothesis of innate concepts, Fodor Chomsky's critique of “language learning” extends to aspects of thinking. He deals with Chomsky critics who emphasize the incompatibility between LAD and evolutionary development. This provides for a gradual adaptation of the human brain and not a sudden appearance of a complete set of dual parameters that model the entire spectrum of grammar possibilities. Fodor, on the other hand, complains on the basis of LOT of the language programs that are based on the theory of evolution, its conception of a gradual appropriation of the terms on separate, different levels of difficulty. His cognitive science argument takes up the problem of developmental leaps: the idea of ​​hierarchy is only justified if a child has to learn a concept of the second on the first level of this process that does not correspond to any of the first level, otherwise there would be no difference between the two Stages. However, a child cannot imagine second level terms unless they are familiar with first level terms. In this case the concepts of the higher level should be traceable to those of the lower level, i.e. H. To expand the term, projections and consolidations between the two sub-areas are required. Fodor summarizes his evaluation of the model: In the first case there is no difference between the levels and real learning does not take place. In the second case, the child cannot grasp the terms of the higher level because they have no relation to what has been learned so far. From this argument he concludes that concepts must be innate in order to enable learning. Fodor demonstrates how his hypothesis works using the example of “AIRPLANE” (capitalization of the abstract terms is used to distinguish between “entities” such as concrete objects, properties, names, etc.), for whose understanding quite complex terms are a prerequisite that is already present at birth Language center exist, such as "FLYING" and "MACHINE". Similar to Chomsky, he only sees language programs as useful that take into account the framework conditions of human biology.


Jerrold Katz # Discussion

The Linguistics Wars - Lakoff versus Chomsky

Francisco Varela: The Tree of Knowledge

Chomskys and v. a. Fodor's theories of innate language structures have been the subject of intense discussion since they were first published because of their explosive socio-educational policy. Both authors and their supporters repeatedly intervened in the dispute. In recent years, however, the public controversy about inherited or socialized language skills has been dominated by a majority opinion that represents a certain compromise: there is a consensus that language develops through its use in the child's social environment by using learning mechanisms that are part of a general innate apparatus of language learning ability.


  • with Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini : What Darwin Got Wrong , Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010, ISBN 978-0-374-28879-2
  • LOT 2: The Language of Thought Revisited , Oxford University Press, 2008
  • Hume Variations , Oxford University Press, 2003, ISBN 0199287333 .
  • The Compositionality Papers , (with E. Lepore), Oxford University Press 2002, ISBN 0199252165 .
  • The Mind Doesn't Work That Way: The Scope and Limits of Computational Psychology , MIT Press, 2000, ISBN 0262561468 .
  • In Critical Condition , MIT Press, 1998, ISBN 026256128X .
  • Concepts: Where Cognitive Science Went Wrong , (The 1996 John Locke Lectures), Oxford University Press, 1998, ISBN 0198236360 .
  • The Elm and the Expert, Mentalese and its Semantics , (The 1993 Jean Nicod Lectures), MIT Press, 1994, ISBN 0262560933 .
  • Holism: A Consumer Update , (ed. With E. Lepore), Grazer Philosophische Studien, Vol 46. Rodopi, Amsterdam, 1993, ISBN 9051837135 .
  • Holism: A Shopper's Guide , (with E. Lepore), Blackwell, 1992, ISBN 0631181938 .
  • A Theory of Content and Other Essays , MIT Press, 1990, ISBN 0262560690 .
  • Psychosemantics: The Problem of Meaning in the Philosophy of Mind , MIT Press, 1987, ISBN 0262560526 .
  • The Modularity of Mind: An Essay on Faculty Psychology , MIT Press, 1983, ISBN 0262560259 .
  • Representations: Essays on the Foundations of Cognitive Science , Harvard Press (UK) and MIT Press (US), 1979, ISBN 0262560275 .
  • The Language of Thought , Harvard University Press, 1975, ISBN 0674510305 .
  • The Psychology of Language , with T. Bever and M. Garrett, McGraw Hill, 1974, ISBN 0394306635 .
  • Psychological Explanation , Random House, 1968, ISBN 0070214123 .
  • The Structure of Language , with Jerrold Katz (eds.), Prentice Hall, 1964, ISBN 0138547033 .

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Jerry Fodor 1935-2017 , London Review of Books , accessed November 30, 2017
  2. “Darwin's theory of selection is empty”, quoted from a book review by Richard C. Lewontin
  3. ^ Douglas J. Futuyma : Two Critics Without a Clue . Science No. 328 (2010)
  4. Mary Midgley's book review
  5. Jerrold Katz and Jerry Fodor: The Structure of a Semantic Theory. In: Language 39, pp. 170-210, 1963.
  6. ^ Noam Chomsky: Syntactic Structures. The Hague: Mouton 1957.
  7. ^ Noam Chomsky: Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1965.
  8. Noam Chomsky: Aspects of the Syntax Theory (translation from: Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, 1965). Frankfurt 1969.
  9. ^ J. Fodor: Propositional Attitudes 1978.
  10. ^ J. Fodor: "Systematicity". Journal of Philosophy (93): 591-614. 1996.
  11. ^ J. Fodor: A Theory of Content and Other Essays. The MIT Press 1990.
  12. J. Fodor: RePresentations. Philosophical Essays on the Foundations of Cognitive Science. Mass .: The MIT Press 1978.
  13. ^ Noam Chomsky: Reflections on Language. New York: Pantheon Books, 1975.
  14. ^ J. Fodor: Connectionism and cognitive architecture: A critical analysis. Cognition (1-2): 3-71. 1988.
  15. ^ J. Fodor: The Language of Thought. Harvard University Press 1975.
  16. ^ BF Skinner: Verbal Behavior. Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ (1957) 1985.
  17. ^ Francesco Ferretti: Jerry A. Fodor: Mente e Linguaggio. Rome: Editori Laterza 2001.
  18. ^ J. Fodor: The Modularity of Mind: An Essay on Faculty Psychology, MIT Press 1983.
  19. ^ Noam Chomsky: Problems of linguistic knowledge. Beltz Athenaeum, Weinheim 1996.
  20. ^ J. Fodor: Connectionism and cognitive architecture: A critical analysis. Cognition (1-2): 3-7, 1988.
  21. ^ Noam Chomsky: A Review of BF Skinner's Verbal Behavior Language, 35: 26-58, 1959.
  22. Steven C. Hayes et al. (Eds.): Relational Frame Theory: A Post-Skinnerian Account of Human Language and Cognition, Plenum Press, 2001.
  23. Chomsky, Noam: Cartesian Linguistics. A chapter in the history of rationalism . Tübingen 1971. Translation (R. Kruse) by Chomsky, Noam: Cartesian linguistics: a chapter in the history of rationalist thought . University Press of America, Lanham, Maryland 1965. Reprint: University Press, Cambridge 2009.
  24. ^ Marc C. Baker: The Atoms of Language: The Mind's Hidden Rules of Grammar. New York: Basic Books, 2001.
  25. Jerry Fodor: The Language of Thought. Harvard University Press 1975.
  26. J. Fodor et al. a .: What Darwin Got Wrong. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010.
  27. Jerry Fodor (with E. Lepore): Holism: A Shopper's Guide, Blackwell, 1992.
  28. ^ N. Chomsky: Reflections on Language. New York: Pantheon Books, 1975.
  29. Stephen Crain, Stephen et al. a .: An Introduction to Linguistic Theory and Language Acquisition. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999.
  30. E. Bates, among others: innateness and emergentism. A companion to cognitive science (Oxford / Basil Blackwell): 590-601, 1998.
  31. M. Tomasello : Origins of Human communication, MIT Press, 2008.
  32. William O'Grady: innateness, universal grammar, and emergentism. Lingua. 118 (4): 620-631, 2008.