The Enduring Allure of Jerry Fodor

by David J. Lobina

‘It should be by now common knowledge that the “cognitive revolution” that gripped the fields of psychology and philosophy in the 1950s and 60s originated in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where a particular intellectual milieu was then forming around Noam Chomsky.’ Or so I started an article of mine a few years ago (it was never published, though a butchered version ended up here).

Fine, I continued, Chomsky might have been primus inter pares in this sphere, but what about the philosopher Jerry Fodor, perhaps second-best among this group of cognitive scientists, as they were to be known from then on? What about Fodor indeed. In the rest of the piece, I tried to explain why Fodor’s contributions may be more enduring in the long run. That was on the occasion of Fodor having been honoured with a festschrift of sorts at the time, a book that contains a piece of my own, in fact.

I want to take a slightly different approach here – a more personal one, in a way – as I would like to make a point born from the perception that Fodor is often too easily (or too quickly) dismissed. This might sound rather counterintuitive to some, and it is certainly not the case that Fodor’s ideas haven’t received plenty of attention ever since he started publishing in the 1960s or so, including outside academia, most notable in the London Review of Books (Darwin was said to have got something wrong once). No-one would deny he has been a central figure in cognitive science. But it is also true that the attitudes of some scholars towards Fodor’s work, and towards him in fact, have sometimes been rather cavalier.

I have witnessed some of these sentiments many times, probably because I mention Fodor often in conversation and academics love to typecast potential targets. You can quickly be branded a Fodorian if you subscribe to any of his ideas, and this is rarely meant as a compliment. Much the same applies if you cite Chomsky for support, by the way, becoming a Chomskyan – as an aside, someone once entered the string ‘Lobina Chomsky lackey’ on Google (according to when this site provided such information).

Indeed, as a PhD student I once approached a famous philosopher at a party to ask him how his views squared with those of Fodor’s, knowing full well that they stood as far apart as one could imagine. He didn’t have to answer. One of his PhD students overheard my question, turned to us, frowned slightly, and whilst nodding sarcastically-thus-dismissively, simply retorted: ‘yeah, well, he’s “funny” ’.

An improvement in my status wasn’t to save me from such ripostes. As a postdoctoral fellow at Oxford, I once pointed out to a barrister-cum-philosopher of some note that what he was arguing for didn’t quite work because of an argument of Fodor’s regarding…only to be interrupted with a brisk ‘let’s not accept that just because Fodor has said so’ (he didn’t seem interested in the actual argument). And not long after that I remember talking to a colleague about a course I was teaching on the relationship between language and thought. Oh, he sighed, Fodor. Not quite, I said, it is more about my own… Oh, he interjected, Chomsky then.

The festschrift I have alluded to, entitled On Concepts, Modules, and Language and published in 2017, was thankfully free of such opinions. The book focused on two issues close to Fodor’s heart (er, mind, rather) – the architecture of the human mind and the character of the mental language in which we think, the language of thought I have gone on and on about here at 3 Quarks Daily (I hope someone has been reading!) – and it was precisely because of the nature of these two topics, and because of the nature of the things Fodor had said about them, that I thought his influence would endure (read the piece!).

I won’t revisit the arguments I put together then; rather, I want to try and explain why the example of Jerry Fodor – or, more accurately, the kind of philosophy of cognitive science he defended and carried out – proved to be so important to me, at least in my intellectual life.

It’s all in Fodor’s 1983 book, The Modularity of Mind, a monograph that was the result of a graduate course he co-taught with Chomsky at MIT, where they both based at the time (Fodor would later move to Rutgers University). In particular, I take one of the main lessons of this book, if not the main lesson, to be that a given cognitive phenomenon is only properly discernible, let alone appropriately amenable for study, as long as it is encapsulated. That is, that you have to put up barriers to study any aspect of cognition. Or in the kind of words that Fodor used in the book, a mental happening can only be studied if it is modular; or put differently, the more restricted the range of operations of a given mental process, the more particular its data structures and its domain of analysis.

Taking this point to heart, I have spent my career arguing that any cognitive phenomenon needs to be studied in a certain way: one that accounts for such a phenomenon at the different levels of analysis (or explanation/description) that David Marr and his colleagues identified some thirty years ago, with my own necessary editions and additions.[i]

As is well-known, Fodor’s book was squarely focused on quintessential psychological phenomena such as visual perception and language comprehension, mental processes which Fodor argued could be subdivided into different stages, each stage requiring a different type of account and each thus engaging a separate component of the mind. In particular, Fodor argued that early stages of visual perception and language comprehension were more-or-less modular, as they seem to proceed largely independently of a person’s overall background knowledge (the availability of such knowledge usually legislated regarding whether a mental process was modular or central, according to Fodor). Such a stance went against the dominant view at the time, the so-called new look school of psychology, but that didn’t give Fodor any cause to pause – ‘cause to pause’ doesn’t mean ‘to stop’, as he might have put it.

Such an approach always seemed to fit in rather well with the four different levels of analysis introduced in a 1976 paper by Marr and Tomaso Poggio (these were reduced to three in Marr’s well-known 1982 book, Vision). The four levels are usually presented in the following hierarchical order: the hardware or implementational level; the level of mechanisms; the level of the algorithm; and the level of the theory of the computation

According to Marr and his colleagues, the computational level is the most important, as ‘the nature of the computations that underlie’ a specific cognitive domain depend ‘more upon the computational problems that have to be solved than upon the particular hardware in which their solutions are implemented’. Such a level, Marr further clarified, constitutes an ‘abstract formulation of what is being computed and why, and I shall refer to it as the “theory” of the computation’. The computational level, to be more precise, outlines and analyses the mapping from one type of information into another, including the properties that derive therefrom. The point of such a level, ultimately, is that in order to study a given cognitive domain, one must understand what such a domain actually does; that is, what problem(s) it solves, and what it aims at.

Such a stance, of course, has been common in linguistics since Chomsky introduced the distinction between competence and performance – a distinction, roughly, between the system of knowledge underlying language and actual linguistic behaviour – and Marr himself pointed out that Chomsky’s competence was rather similar to his theory of the computation.

Marr’s algorithmic level, for its part, aims to work out how the mapping function studied at the higher level is in fact effected in real time, a level that is partly determined by, on the one hand, the nature of the problem to be solved and, on the other, the available mechanisms. Thus, the algorithmic level would not pertain to the study of linguistic knowledge (competence), to keep to Chomsky’s parallelism, but to the study of language comprehension (performance). The linguistic parser naturally would be a rather central element of the algorithmic level, whilst such orbiting components as memory capacity and various attentional resources would properly pertain to the level of mechanisms, the third level of analysis. These mechanisms, according to Marr and Poggio, will be ‘strongly determined by hardware’ (in the case of cognition, by the brain substrate), as the physical implementation determines the actual character of memory capability, attentional resources, etc., though the level of the mechanisms would retain its theoretical independence nonetheless.

In the case of Fodor’s modularity take, in the 1960s and 70s he conducted a great deal work on the study of the operations of the linguistic parser, an input system according to his taxonomy of the mind. Indeed, the identity conditions Fodor put forward for modules (they are fast, mandatory, etc.) clearly do not apply to Marr’s computational level, but to the level of the algorithm. As such, modules are to be regarded as processing systems, somehow connected to both the corresponding body of knowledge of a given domain and such factors as memory, attention, etc. Thus, when one talks of modules à la Fodor, one is carrying a study at what Marr and co. called the levels of the algorithm and the mechanisms, with all that it is entailed by that.

The study of language comprehension is a topic I have engaged in myself over the years, and what one is doing in such a study is probe the actual step-by-step computations being carried out by the parser, and consequently the focus typically lies on the memory load and the overall complexity that results from the operations being executed in combination with the character of the representations that are manipulated. There are all sorts of complications here and there, but the point I am making is that this approach made such a study possible to begin with, and that is no small feat. In my academic career I have attempted to apply the nous of Fodor’s take in his modularity book – that is, the putting up of barriers – to every topic I have focused on, not least the investigation of the language of thought, an issue that certainly keeps me awake at night and some, I am sure, have given up in desperation.[ii]

Fodor didn’t seem to mind such challenges, for ever the good-natured fellow. I met him a couple of times, and he certainly left his mark, both intellectually and personally. The first time was at Rutgers University, where I was spending three months as a visiting PhD student. I had written a short article about recursion and the study of cognition and was keen to discuss it with anyone who might listen. Fodor was (almost) the only professor to agree to meet up with such a lowly doctoral student, even after I had inadvertently stood him up on our first meeting (his mistake, though!). When we did meet he bought me salad for lunch and thrashed my article, but I learned a great deal from the experience.

The second time of note involved eating a type of food that required wearing a bib. I sat next to him during this meal and we spoke almost exclusively about literature. For some reason I was under the impression that he was partial to both Beckett’s theatre and 19th century English literature, and I thought that this was the perfect opportunity for a graduate student to leave his mark. This meant plagiarising someone I knew, so not something that has ever stopped a student before.

The early novels of Beckett are worth reading, I intoned, but the later Beckett was too obsessed with silence and the problem with silence is that it is bloody boring. Fodor wasn’t moved and seemed more interested in an anecdote of Beckett’s I had told him earlier on involving cricket, a day of good weather in London, and being alive. We then moved on to 19th century English authors. The problem with them, I intoned again, is that they were more interested in being philosophers than writers, and moral philosophers at that! I don’t think he quite heard it. But I’m sure he would have appreciated the effort.


[i] Ah, the famous David Marr and his less famous colleagues. Anyway, I shall draw and quote from the following sources in the next couple of paragraphs, but without proper attribution:

Marr, D. (1977). Artificial intelligence —A personal view. Artificial Intelligence, 9, 37–48.

Marr, D. (1982). Vision: A computational investigation into the human representation and processing of visual information. San Francisco, CA:W. H. Freeman & Company.

Marr, D. and Nishihara, H. K. (1978). Visual information processing: Artificial intelligence and the sensorum of sight. Technology Review, 81(1), 28–49.

Marr, D. and Poggio, T. (1976). From understanding computation to understanding neural circuitry. MIT AI Lab, memo 357, 1–22.

[ii] I haven’t mentioned Fodor’s 1975 book, The Language of Thought, a far more influential book to me than The Modularity of Mind, but this is not yet another post about the language of thought. Again, see my article on Fodor!