Jerry Fodor (1935-2017) (updated)


Jerry Fodor, one of the most influential philosophers of mind of the 20th Century, has died.Fodor received his undergraduate degree from Columbia University in 1956, and his Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University in 1960. His first professorship was at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he taught for 27 years. He then held a position at City University of New York for two years, before moving onto Rutgers University in 1988, where he was State of New Jersey Professor of Philosophy and Cognitive Science. He retired in 2016.

In addition to having exerted an enormous influence on virtually every portion of the philosophy of mind literature since 1960, Fodor’s work has had a significant impact on the development of the cognitive sciences. In the 1960s, along with Hilary Putnam, Noam Chomsky, and others, he put forward influential criticisms of the behaviorism that dominated much philosophy and psychology at the time… [and throughout his career he] articulated and defended an alternative, realist conception of intentional states and their content that he argues vindicates the core elements of folk psychology within a physicalist framework. (Bradley Rives, writing at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

Readers are invited to share their recollections of Professor Fodor and their thoughts about his work in the comments.

UPDATE 1: An obituary for Fodor, by Georges Rey, is here.

UPDATE 2: I’ll post links to relevant notices, obituaries, and remembrances in this update.

portrait of Jerry Fodor by Luca del Baldo

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David
David
3 years ago

This is really sad. For me, Fodor is easily one of the most interesting philosophers of the last fifty years. In fact, I’m going to commemorate him by rereading Modularity of Mind right now. Report

Daniel Kaufman
3 years ago

I was fortunate enough to study with Fodor, when I was a student at the CUNY Graduate Center, and he not only was fiercely intelligent but absolutely hilarious as a teacher. (Fodor stories make up some of the funniest experiences I had in graduate school.) Alongside Jerry Katz and Crispin Wright — the latter who was doing a stint at Michigan when I was an undergraduate there — he had more of an influence on me, as a student, then anyone else. As a professional, I always appreciated not just the quality of his work, in terms of its substance, but the writing itself, which showed that one needn’t eschew style and even humor in doing rigorous academic work … or at least, one needn’t do so, if one has reached the level of Jerry Fodor. (I have had papers rejected on the basis of literary style (i.e. too much of it), myself.)

He will be sorely missed. R.I.P. Jerry.Report

anne jacobson
anne jacobson
3 years ago

Jerry was wonderful. He met challenges with insghtful responses that enlarged the enquiry, it always seemed to me. I usually disagreed, but I am sad now to know he is gone.
He also had a very touching love for at least one cat.Report

Christopher Gauker
Christopher Gauker
3 years ago

In the 80’s and 90’s it was tough to disagree with the Fodorians, because mockery was licensed.Report

Stephanos Cherouvis
3 years ago

“The money is nothing, there is very little progress, but you get to meet very interesting people” Jerry Fodor on Philosophy Report

Csaba Pléh
3 years ago

I have had an continue to have a Fodorian bend in whatever way I tried to think about the human mind. His rtm and lot have permeated the thought of many of our generation. The modules we may criticalky regard but the way we regard them comes from Fodor. I had the chance to attend a seminar of his on modules in 1989 at Rutgers. At the same time, I was in the middle of struggling with his interpretation of Evo just at the time I heard the sad news. R.I. P. Csaba Pléh BudapestReport

Enézio E. De Almeida Filho
3 years ago

I really enjoyed Fodor’s courage in writing What Darwin Got Wrong – a remarkable book, one that dares to challenge the theory of natural selection as an explanation for how evolution works—a devastating critique not in the name of religion but in the name of good science.

Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, a distinguished philosopher and a scientist working in tandem, reveal major flaws at the heart of Darwinian evolutionary theory. Combining the results of cutting-edge work in experimental biology with crystal-clear philosophical arguments, they mount a reasoned and convincing assault on the central tenets of Darwin’s account of the origin of species. The logic underlying natural selection is the survival of the fittest under changing environmental pressure. This logic, they argue, is mistaken, and they back up the claim with surprising evidence of what actually happens in nature. This is a rare achievement—a concise argument that is likely to make a great deal of difference to a very large subject. What Darwin Got Wrong will be controversial. The authors’ arguments will reverberate through the scientific world. At the very least they will transform the debate about evolution and move us beyond the false dilemma of being either for natural selection or against science. Amazon BooksReport

Robert Arp
3 years ago

I wanted to dedicate my dissertation to him along the lines of: “To Dr. Jerry Fodor. If I can convince him, then I can convince anyone.” Wow. Rest in peace, Professor.Report

Ralph Brooker
Ralph Brooker
3 years ago

He was generous to me when I was researching autism in the mid- to late-1990s. Apart from setting the agenda in philosophy of mind his legendary wit and irreverence were a breath of fresh air as a philosophy undergrad in cognitive science department. Report

Ninamarie
Ninamarie
3 years ago

I was an undergraduate at MIT in the 1970s, studying psycholinguistics with his colleague, and.co-author of the seminal work “The Psychology of Language”, Merrill Garrett. Jerry was my teacher and friend. When I was admitted to both the Philosophy and the Psychology Ph.D. Programs at MIT, Jerry, who held joint appointment in both departments, Merrill, and a philosophy professor who was also a dear friend insisted, before I made my decision, on taking me to lunch at the MIT faculty club. There the three of them implored me to accept the admissions offer from the Psychology department, rather than the Philosophy department. (Which I did.) There are only 5 available jobs in academia for Philosophy Ph.D.s each year, he told me, and because we care about you, we believe, even though you’re good, there will be more opportunities for employment with a doctorate in psychology. And of course you can continue to study philosophy as a grad student. (Which I did.) I took a number of classes co-taught by Noam and Jerry (their sometimes almost non-verbal communication was a wonder to behold), and I babysat his and Janet’s daughter for the days when she came in to the Institute to visit her busy father. I have lots more stories, but for now, I will enjoy the memories. R.I.P. Jerry. Report

Doug Saddy
Doug Saddy
3 years ago

Sad news. I was lucky to be a student at MIT when Modularity of Mind was being intensely discussed. It was a such a pleasure to engage with Jerry and watch the debates roll. I happened to have a meeting with Jerry when he was in the process of packing up his office at MIT en route to CUNY. After the meeting he told me he had actually already packed the things he wanted and I was welcome to anything that was left. This was a remarkable gift because what he was leaving behind was all the paper detritus of 27 years of scholarship. Drafts of papers, both his own and from others with his notes and comments. It was like a condensation of the topics that had drawn his attention over his career at MIT – I even came across Howard Laznik’s generals paper. Jerry took all discussions seriously, the quirkiest one that comes to mind is a rather intense debate between Jerry and Merrill Garrett about whether Fred Astaire or Frank Sinatra was the better singer – Jerry made a very strong case for Fred Astaire. Report

Devon Kearney
Devon Kearney
3 years ago

Good quotes were almost always in the air when he spoke, but one of my favorites was in a seminar on Davidson’s “Mental Events,” when he said “this paper has all the hallmarks of a classic in philosophy, by which I mean it gets worse every time you read it.”Report

Jerry Dworkin
Jerry Dworkin
3 years ago

As others have already noted Jerry ( whom I have known since we were colleagues at MIT) was amazingly witty. He was particularly good at titling his articles. Here is a sample of them.

The dogma that didn’t bark; a fragment of a naturalized epistemology MIND
Making mind matter more. PHILOSOPHICAL TOPICS
A situated grandmother? MIND AND LANGUAGE,
Banish disContent LANGUAGE MIND AND LOGIC
Fodor’s guide to mental representation” MIND,
Tom Swift and his procedural grandmother COGNITION
Pi ka pu: the perception of speech sounds by prelinguistic infants PERCEPTION AND PSYCHOPHYSICS,
“Impossible words?” LINGUISTIC INQUIRY,

Here is his reply to Pinker’s view about why we read fiction: Pinker : ‘Fictional narratives supply us with a mental catalogue of the fatal conundrums we might face someday and the outcomes of strategies we could deploy in them. What are the options if I were to suspect that my uncle killed my father, took his position, and married my mother?’

Fodor: Good question. Or what if it turns out that, having just used the ring that I got by kidnapping a dwarf to pay off the giants who built me my new castle, I should discover that it is the very ring that I need in order to continue to be immortal and rule the world? It’s important to think out the options betimes, because a thing like that could happen to anyone and you can never have too much insurance.

For more hilarity–on opera not philosophy—see his Diary, March 30, 2000, London Review of Books which is available online.
SAMPLE
I haven’t been to a musical play in maybe forty years. I know nonetheless (a priori, as philosophers say) that I do not like them. They are noisy, and banal, and manipulative, and vulgar, and the singing is amplified. I know this, as I say, prior to experience, and independent of it. Moreover, I am painfully easily embarrassed; and I believe that musicals are the kind of plays in which the actors encourage the audience to come up on the stage and join in the fun. I did not see Hair of course, but I’m certain that everybody in the stalls eventually had to take his (/her/my) clothes off.
Report

Daniel Kaufman
3 years ago

I’m loving these great anecdotes about Fodor. Keep them coming! I plan on posting a few of my own.

Can’t think of any better way of memorializing the man.

Report

Michael Antony
Michael Antony
3 years ago

1985-86 was my first year as a philosophy doctoral student at MIT, and it was Fodor’s last year there before moving to CUNY. At some point during the year he invited grad students to help themselves to a bunch of offprints and books in his office that he wanted to get rid of. Among the books I found a copy of The Language of Thought, which I still have. RIPReport

Iris Oved
Iris Oved
3 years ago

This is very sad. He had a huge influence on my views about mental representation and cognition. I was fortunate to get a whole bunch of mentoring from him in grad school. He worked hard to teach me (ie, convince me I was wrong about concepts). I was never able to win him over to my Baptism view. He used to write emails to me in all caps, and since that was the notation he used for concepts, I could pretend he was just giving me direct access to his Language of Thought rather than being angry with me. 🙂Report

beauvoir's baby
beauvoir's baby
3 years ago

“There is already a big revisionist literature about what’s wrong with cognitive science, devoted to throwing out, along with the baby: the bath, the bath towel, the bathtub, many innocent bystanders, and large sections of Lower Manhattan.” – Jerry FodorReport

Martin Heisler
Martin Heisler
3 years ago

Nothing profound to add to what has been written above, except to note the profound loss I feel. Hilary Putnam and Jerry Fodor helped me to cut through much of what has passed for philosophy in the last 50 years.Report

S_G
S_G
3 years ago

Here is a German language obiturary for Fodor, from the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” (FAZ): http://www.faz.net/aktuell/feuilleton/geisteswissenschaften/zum-tod-des-philosophen-jerry-fodor-15318203.htmlReport

Daniel Kaufman
3 years ago

Rather unclassy that Samir Chopra post, not to mention self-absorbed. Guess what? The occasion of Fodor’s death isn’t about what made *you* feel alienated in graduate school. And hilariously, it wasn’t even Fodor himself that made Chopra feel alienated — he admits he had “no personal contact with him” — but rather, the mere fact that *others* thought so highly of Fodor. (Full disclosure, Chopra and I overlapped at the Graduate Center, while we were graduate students, and were part of the same circle of friends. He was much less precious then then he seems to be now.)

Funnily enough, precisely what Chopra disliked so much about Fodor is what I loved about him. You could guarantee that the otherwise stuffy, sometimes impenetrable, frequently self-important weekly colloquia at the Graduate Center would turn into a three-ring circus, if Fodor was around. While not quite as feared by speakers as Jerry Katz, who seemed to strike terror in virtually everyone, Fodor was so energetic and impulsive and disregarding of protocol that you never knew quite what he might do. I recall one occasion in particular, in which a speaker had come to the weekly colloquium to deliver what he thought was a scathing critique of some aspect of Fodor’s work. As the talk went on, I could see Jerry getting more and more agitated. Constantly shifting his then rather substantial body, in a chair that was far too small for him; rocking back and forth; burying his head in his hands; sporadically erupting in frustrated grunts and snorts; until finally, he couldn’t take it any more — there’s only so much frustration one can express, while sitting in a tiny chair — and he leaped up, rushed to the board behind the guy, where he proceeded to scribble the refutation to the talk while it was still being given. The speaker tried to carry on, but his eyes kept straying sideways to the board, where Jerry was squatting and scribbling, and finally he lost the thread and just sort of mumbled his way through the rest.

Absolutely freaking classic. And hilarious to boot. Report

Samir Chopra
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
3 years ago

Daniel: thank you so much for that comment and that anecdote. I needn’t have written my original post – your comment here does all the work. Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Samir Chopra
3 years ago

Lightening up is good for everyone. Fodor was a real “character” and that’s a good thing, not a bad one. There are more than enough boring stiffs, earnest moralizers, and dull writers already.Report

Bharath Vallabha
3 years ago

Samir Chopra’s post is great. He acknowledges Fodor’s brilliance, but bemoans the sometimes dismissive personality and combativeness in the writing and in talks, and the cult like hushes of awe people often regarded him with.

I better understood why some Wittgenstein critics disliked the way Wittgenstein wrote when I read Fodor. As someone who disagreed with Fodor’s views, his over sized writerly personality (the jokes, the “only game in town” put downs, the throw away barbs at this or that tradition, etc) seemed like an elaborate defense mechanism I had to wade through to get to the insights, to even disagree with them. It was as if Fodor was saying: if you don’t think the way I do (where philosophical insight gets merged with personality), so much the worse for you. I now wish I hadn’t let the surface author personality get in the way and that I worked through it to better appreciate his views. But he didn’t make it any easier for someone like me – no, not me as a brown person, but me as someone who didn’t share his Quinean naturalism or his Humean cognitivism.

In Wittgenstein’s writing, the seriousness and who can admire that marked the in and out groups. In Fodor’s writing, who can appreciate the humor and tone marked the in and out groups. Fodor unabashedly embraced the opposite of the Wittgensteinian image of the angst ridden philosopher, and Fodor was a much needed breath of fresh air in both ideas and temperment. Still, the two thinkers were more similar than might otherwise appear.Report

Consuelo Preti
Consuelo Preti
3 years ago

Jerry was the best dissertation supervisor I ever had. He gave me no quarter, ever, at any time. Trying to explain my arguments to him is what made the thesis take shape. I think he even pretended not to understand just to see what I would do, because at the defense he summarized my thesis so elegantly that I knew he’d been getting it all along, and mischievously at that.
Remembrances of Jerry as the great philosopher and writer that he was are nice. But he was a great human, in fact. He was one of the few people I could sit with in total silence for hours at a time—listening to music, at the ballet, at a talk, at dinner. He was a loving, sweet, vulnerable, caring, and affectionate man—these things seem ordinary but they are not. He was one of the most gifted in these qualities of anyone that I’ve ever known. Report

Joseph S. Biehl
Reply to  Consuelo Preti
3 years ago

Thank you, Consuelo, for remembrance. You’ve provided me with the very word that I’ve been looking for as I remember my favorite teacher, and philosopher (not named Nietzsche). He was so human, and in this profession humanity is not always evident. The charity, understanding, and patience that he displayed to me as a student was pivotal, not only with respect to my philosophical development (and I had much developing to do: his opening general comment on the the very first paper I wrote for him was “This is not how you do philosophy!”), but to my maturing as person and a professional. What Jerry Fodor helped me to become was not the next serious player in the philosophy of mind, but a man more more capable of assuming the role of a teacher of young people, with a greater sensitivity to their needs and how I might help to satisfy them. For that I am forever grateful.

I also think that his much discussed skill as a writer manifested this humanity as well. There was joy in his writing, and the commitment to express ideas, issues, and arguments in a vernacular that was without pretense and which made them comprehensible by connecting them to the way we live and experience our lives. His ability to do this was not only a gift he possessed, but an honor he bestowed on the reader. He was a humanist in the very best sense of the word. I will miss him. Report

Steven Ross
Steven Ross
3 years ago

I did not know Jerry well. I was not a student of his, and I do not work in philosophy of mind, so I did not interact with him very much in his role as a leading a spokesperson for a particular view in cognitive psychology. But, for about six years, I did manage the CUNY Graduate Center weekly colloquia, where, in no small part because of my admiration for him, he was a frequent guest. The thing about Jerry I wish to share was this. From my point of view, the actual topic and content of the paper was often of secondary importance. He would generally read, not all that well, from a prepared text, a lumbering unevenness of expression and delivery often blurring the points. Then, blissfully, the paper was over and it was time for Q and A. NOW we all saw the true Jerry. A supremely playful, terrifically versatile, in short, a simply marvelous philosophical personality emerged and shone. Ambitious, clear, amazingly quick with connections, and jokes, (very good ones, too) yet always modest, always willing to take the criticism, acknowledge the place where his view was in trouble or weak, there was this beautiful sense of bringing everyone along on a deeply personal journey – a journey he was anxious to share with as much transparency as possible. It was always, whatever the actual content of the paper, a master class of “what I think now, and why” that was terrifically respectful of all the other things there were to think too. At last philosophy breathed, almost sang, one might say. This mix of intelligence and insight and constant attunement to where a view – any view – had difficulty was terrifically liberating. He was always in touch with what made a philosophical view both tempting and a bit of a burden. He was one of the very few who never pretended that, just because he thought a particular view RIGHT, that did not for a moment meant he was could not see how it faced difficulties others could reasonably find fatal. When Jerry took questions, you felt – here is someone who feels both the power and the provisional nature of philosophy, and he navigates this all with such TALENT. It always reminded you of why, and how, you got excited about the subject in the first place, and he lived this feature of philosophy more effortlessly than anyone I ever knew.

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Joseph S. Biehl
Reply to  Steven Ross
3 years ago

Wonderfully said, Steven. Report