In response to “Fodor’s Legacy” (Vol. 4, No. 2).

To the editors:

Jerry Fodor is indeed impressive for his contributions to philosophy, linguistics, psychology, and cognitive science at large, and David Lobina in his review of the book On Concepts, Modules and Language: Cognitive Science at Its Core bears witness to this. The significance of Fodor’s contributions to our knowledge of the human mind, of the nature of concepts and meaning, and of human language processing, among other topics in cognitive science, is only comparable to his ingenuity, coherence, and eloquence. I dare say that these same traits earned him fame as a controversial figure, equally admired and criticized from different quarters.

Lobina’s review does justice to Fodor’s views on the two main topics of the book, namely the modular conception of human cognitive architecture and the computational-representational theory of mind articulated around the notion of a language of thought. In the former case, Lobina lucidly explains the logic behind the tripartite structure that Fodor ascribes to the human mind; he justifies Fodor’s emphasis on modular systems and his skepticism about the possibility of ever understanding central systems. Likewise, when addressing Fodor’s language of thought hypothesis, Lobina appropriately identifies the need to postulate a language-like—or rather, logic-like—system distinct from natural language, that serves as a medium for representing thoughts and reasoning about them, a claim with a long history and support from eminent philosophers. He distinguishes between this need and the claims concerning how this cognitive system operates, such as by means of computations run over representations or mental symbols. He also stresses the close connection between the need for a language of thought as a foundational (and hence, innate) system for all cognitive processes and cognitive development in various domains, and the building blocks or minimal units with which it operates, i.e., concepts.

However, his review has nothing to say about the atomistic theory of concepts as developed and endorsed by Fodor early in his intellectual career.1 The reason for this probably lies in the fact that the three chapters of the book that touch on the issue of conceptual structure do not do so from the standpoint of semantic theory, which is where Fodor waged a standing battle against inferential role semantics and meaning holism as theories radically incompatible with his atomistic view of concepts. Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini’s chapter is devoted to conceptual development; it utterly defends Fodor’s unfailing insistence on the innateness of basic concepts.2 This chapter sparks a lengthy commentary by Lobina, who appropriately draws a neat contrast between Fodor’s conceptual nativism and constructivist theories of conceptual development and language acquisition. Lobina sides with the nativistic view that Fodor has taken to its ultimate consequences, despite its admittedly implausible ring.3 In the other two chapters, Roberto de Almeida and Ernie Lepore are focused on the possibility of including linguistically-based semantic representations as output of the language module,4 and Mary Potter considers the evidence for immediate access to conceptual representations during sentence processing.5 Lobina remains silent about these two contributions, which both might appear to conflict with two of the properties Fodor assigns to input systems and particularly to the language input module, namely shallow processing and speed. De Almeida and Lepore argue in their chapter that the kind of semantic representations they postulate as output of the language module are shallow enough to keep up with the modularity hypothesis. Including semantics as part of the language module may also be seen as speaking against Fodor’s unwavering rejection of a semantics for natural language.6

The issue of conceptual development still lingers in the final part of Lobina’s review. He directs his gaze toward the problem of how complex concepts are learned, assuming as Fodor does that hypothesis testing is the basic and only learning mechanism available. If I understand him correctly, Lobina uses a reductio ad absurdum argument against bootstrapping theories of acquisition. He takes as an example Susan Carey’s account of children’s development of arithmetic. He purports to show that these theories cannot possibly explain how children advance from a primitive stage where the relevant concept is absent, to a subsequent stage in which it has been developed, by integrating previous representations of quantity in terms of magnitude with a representational resource coming from a different domain.7 This argument is used to support Fodor’s avowal of the innateness of concepts as a last, unavoidable resort in the explanation of the emergence of concepts.

To my mind, Lobina’s review deserves credit for two main reasons. One is that he describes in a thoughtful manner the two major themes addressed in the book under review, which epitomize two of the most salient topics of Fodor’s legacy. The second reason is that he identifies the premises and arguments that support Fodor’s particular position regarding those topics. Nonetheless, I have some misgivings that I would like to point out in the remainder of this letter. First and foremost, I think that Lobina’s article is not, strictly speaking, a review of the book it is supposed to evaluate. If I were a prospective reader of the book, I would feel somewhat disappointed for not finding any information about the contents of some of its chapters. In fact, Lobina only alludes explicitly to six of the book’s twelve chapters: those by Noam Chomsky, Merrill Garrett, Fernanda Ferreira and James Nye, Thomas Bever, Piatelli-Palmarini, and his own chapter with José García-Albea. He neglects the rest. One may contend that it is not compulsory to mention each and every contribution to a collective book when discussing its contents. So be it. However, this neglect makes it appear that the article is not so much a review of the works of a selected group of Fodor’s colleagues and collaborators on two outstanding themes of interest in Fodor’s theorizing, but an essay about Fodor’s contribution to contemporary cognitive science. I would make no objections if such were the aim of the article, but in that case I would regard it as incomplete, for it leaves aside other issues of no lesser interest to philosophy, linguistics, and psychology that Fodor also addressed in many significant books and papers.

In this regard, I would like to single out a handful of prominent themes that characterize Fodor’s thinking and go unmentioned in Lobina’s article: First are his commitments to functionalism—the doctrine that mental states are characterized by the role they play in the generation of behavior, and not by their internal constitution; hence, mental states cannot be reduced to mere behavioral dispositions or to neural states and events—and to intentional realism—the belief in the psychological reality of propositional attitudes, or intentional states as causal agents in the mental code he dubbed the language of thought.8 The second theme is Fodor’s referentialist account of the meaning of basic concepts, based on an asymmetrical causal relationship between the physical world that impinges upon our sensory apparatus and the internal representations that are thereby formed.9 Third is his enduring defense of the independence of thought from language and the priority of thought over language. But over and above all these invaluable contributions, one thing that distinguishes Fodor as an exceptional thinker is his profound coherence and honesty. Fodor might be entirely wrong in all his claims and theories about the human mind, but as one might say, he does not keep an ace up his sleeve. All the claims, hypotheses, and ideas he set forth on intentionality, meaning, innateness, computation, and cognitive architecture make a well-wrought construction. This also is an important part of his legacy.

To end this letter, I would like to call attention to another kind of neglect I notice in Lobina’s review. In my opinion, he conveys the impression that the chapters of On Concepts, Modules and Language generally support Fodor’s views on the topics under discussion. This generalization is questionable. I have already mentioned the possible conflict between Fodor’s definition of modules and the evidence raised in some chapters for the inclusion of semantics within the language module. Admittedly, Fodor is oftentimes ambiguous regarding the kinds of information that ought to be incorporated into input systems, and he seems to cast doubt on the importance of properties such as speed or shallowness as necessary features of modules. But I think that these possible points of contention ought to be revealed for the reader’s convenience. A similar point can be made concerning the chapters by Garrett and by Ferreira and Nye.10 The former appeals to the role of language production mechanisms and processes in filtering the products of comprehension, something that Fodor did not envisage in his original proposal. Ferreira and Nye advocate a more pluralistic view of modularity in which the property of informational encapsulation is not considered a criterial feature of modules, on behalf of other properties, such as, once again, the shallowness of output representations. The aims of these proposals, however, are not to criticize or dismiss modular architecture as a whole, but rather to better accommodate it to recent empirical findings in psycholinguistics. I guess Fodor would not object to this. The chapter by Lobina and García-Albea, although neatly aligned with Fodor’s view on the independence of thought from language, also hints at incorporating semantic features of lexical representations into the otherwise speechless language of thought—and this they confess, much to Fodor’s regret.11

Other chapters not mentioned in the review should be seen as supplying complementary information to Fodor’s work.12 They do not really challenge or criticize his main tenets and proposals, with the possible exception of the chapter by Chomsky, who does not conceal his disagreement with Fodor on the role of language in human cognitive architecture.13 Whereas Fodor restricts natural language to the role of a humble servant of thought, Chomsky upgrades it to play a prominent part in mental life. Although Chomsky expresses his respect for Fodor’s conception of language as an input system and avoids criticizing it, there is a profound chasm between them regarding the relationship between language and thought, a disagreement that lies in their widely different views on the proper characterization of language.

José Manuel Igoa

José Manuel Igoa is Professor of Psychology at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid.

  1. Fodor’s first steps in his inquiry on meaning advocated a decompositional theory of concepts, where word meanings are built up from semantic primitives. See Jerrold Katz and Jerry Fodor, “The Structure of a Semantic Theory,” Language 39 (1963): 170–210. For Fodor’s atomistic semantics, see Jerry Fodor, The Language of Thought (New York: Crowell, 1975), or Jerry Fodor et al., “Against Definitions,” Cognition, 8, no. 3 (1980): 263–367. 
  2. Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini, “Fodor and the Innateness of All (Basic) Concepts,” in On Concepts, Modules, and Language: Cognitive Science at Its Core, ed. Roberto de Almeida and Lila Gleitman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 211–37. 
  3. See, for instance, Patricia Churchland, Neurophilosophy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986), or Hilary Putnam, Representation and Reality (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988), for early dismissals of Fodor’s view. A more nuanced discussion of Fodor’s nativistic view of concepts can be found in Stephen Laurence and Eric Margolis, “Radical Concept Nativism,” Cognition 86 (2002): 25–55. 
  4. Roberto de Almeida and Ernie Lepore, “Semantics for a Module,” in On Concepts, Modules, and Language: Cognitive Science at Its Core, ed. Roberto de Almeida and Lila Gleitman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 113–38. 
  5. Mary Potter, “The Immediacy of Conceptual Processing,” in On Concepts, Modules, and Language: Cognitive Science at Its Core, ed. Roberto de Almeida and Lila Gleitman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 239–48. 
  6. See Jerry Fodor, The Language of Thought (New York: Crowell, 1975); Jerry Fodor, Concepts: Where Cognitive Science Went Wrong (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998); Jerry Fodor, “Language, Thought and Compositionality,” Mind and Language 16, no. 1 (2001): 1–15; Jerry Fodor, The Language of Thought Revisited (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008). 
  7. Susan Carey, “Bootstrapping and the Origin of Concepts,” Daedalus 133 (2004): 59–68.  
  8. For foundational papers on functionalism, see Hilary Putnam, “Minds and Machines,” in Dimensions of Mind, ed. Sidney Hook (New York: New York University Press, 1960), 148–79; Ned Block, “Introduction: What is Functionalism?” in Readings in Philosophy of Psychology, vol. I, ed. Ned Block (London, UK: Methuen, 1980), 1–10. Two representative papers by Fodor on intentional realism and its relationship with the representational theory of mind are “The Persistence of the Attitudes,” published as Chapter 1 of his book Psychosemantics: The Problem of Meaning in the Philosophy of Mind (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987), and “Fodor’s Guide to Mental Representation,” published as Chapter 1 of his book A Theory of Content and Other Essays (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990). 
  9. See Jerry Fodor, The Language of Thought Revisited (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008). Jerry Fodor and Zenon Pylyshyn, Minds without Meanings: An Essay on the Content of Concepts (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015). 
  10. Merrill Garrett, “Exploring the Limits of Modularity,” in On Concepts, Modules, and Language: Cognitive Science at Its Core, ed. Roberto de Almeida and Lila Gleitman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 41–62. Fernanda Ferreira and James Nye, “The Modularity of Sentence Processing Reconsidered,” in On Concepts, Modules, and Language: Cognitive Science at Its Core, ed. Roberto de Almeida and Lila Gleitman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 63–86. 
  11. David Lobina and José Eugenio García-Albea, “On Language and Thought: A Question of Format,” in On Concepts, Modules, and Language: Cognitive Science at Its Core, ed. Roberto de Almeida and Lila Gleitman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 249–73. 
  12. See the chapters by Thomas Bever, by Janet Dean Fodor, Stephanie Nickels, and Esther Schott, by Natalie Batmanian and Karin Stromswold, and by Zenon Pylyshyn. Although Fodor was not particularly keen on looking for neural evidence for his computational theory of mind, the chapter by Randy Gallistel offers an interesting neurobiological account of the locus of symbol-based computation in the brain: “The Neurobiological Bases for the Computational Theory of Mind,” in On Concepts, Modules, and Language: Cognitive Science at Its Core, ed. Roberto de Almeida and Lila Gleitman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 275–96. 
  13. Noam Chomsky, “Two Notions of Modularity,” in On Concepts, Modules, and Language: Cognitive Science at Its Core, ed. Roberto de Almeida and Lila Gleitman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 25–40.