Friday, December 1, 2017

2761. Jerry A. Fodor, Philosopher Who Plumbed the Mind’s Depths, Dies at 82

By Margalit Fox, The New York Times, November 30, 2017

Jerry A. Fodor, one of the world’s foremost philosophers of mind, who brought the workings of 20th-century computer technology to bear on ancient questions about the structure of human cognition, died on Wednesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 82.
The cause was complications of Parkinson’s disease and a recent stroke, his wife, Janet Dean Fodor, said.

A longtime faculty member of Rutgers University, Dr. Fodor was at his death the State of New Jersey professor of philosophy there. His work, begun in the 1960s and dovetailing with linguistics, logic, semiotics, psychology, anthropology, computer science, artificial intelligence and other fields, is widely credited with having helped seed the emerging discipline of cognitive science.

“He basically created the field of philosophy of psychology,” Ernie Lepore, a philosopher at Rutgers and a frequent collaborator, said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. “If the study of the mind has been dominant in the last 30 or 40 years of philosophy, it’s really a function of Fodor’s influence.”

Known for his buoyant, puckish, at times pugnacious writing style, Dr. Fodor was the author of more than a dozen books, several intended for the general reader. Among the best known of these is “The Modularity of Mind,” published in 1983.

In it, he argued that the human mind, rather than being a unitary system as was often supposed, comprises a set of inborn, compartmentalized, purpose-built subsystems: a faculty for language, another for musical ability, still another for mathematics, and so on. These faculties, Dr. Fodor explained, operate by means of abstract algorithms, much as computers do.

In setting forth this model, Dr. Fodor married developments from the midcentury revolution in linguistics ushered in by Noam Chomsky to the computer science of the English mathematician and cryptanalyst AlanTuring.

While the brain, a physical entity, is amenable to study, the mind — an abstract, elusive quarry — is far less so, and questions about its architecture have occupied philosophers at intervals since classical antiquity.

Plato and Aristotle had much to say on the subject. So, more than two millenniums later, did philosophers like the 17th-century rationalist René Descartes and the 17th-century empiricist John Locke.

Such questions — in particular whether cognitive abilities are innate or must be learned — were taken up again in the first half of the 20th century by behavioral psychologists, notably B. F. Skinner, whose work, by Dr. Fodor’s lights, was a reprehensible thing indeed.
An ardent empiricist, Skinner maintained that a child is born with its mind a blank slate. As it matures, a spate of mental abilities — language, reason, problem-solving and much else — is learned through external experience.

In the late 1950s, Dr. Chomsky, a linguist, philosopher and ardent rationalist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, demonstrated that language was not learned behavior, as Skinner believed. Instead, he showed, it was the product of a dedicated mental faculty that is inborn — in today’s parlance, hard-wired in. His work, scholars now agree, vanquished behaviorism, especially as far as the study of language was concerned.

Dr. Fodor, an equally ardent rationalist who taught at M.I.T. for many years, expanded Dr. Chomsky’s ideas about linguistic innateness to include aspects of mind beyond language.
Drawing on the work of Turing, who developed early mathematical models of computation, Dr. Fodor proposed a model of the mind that entails separate faculties — he called them “modules” — each governing a separate function.

“Faculty psychology,” he wrote, “is impressed by such prima facie differences as between, say, sensation and perception, volition and cognition, learning and remembering, or language and thought.”

As Dr. Lepore pointed out on Wednesday: “It’s a very old idea, but for some reason it got lost in the history of philosophy. And it got resuscitated by Fodor.”

The idea had fallen into disfavor partly as a result of phrenology, the pseudoscience, popular in the 19th century, that sought to divine people’s prowess in given areas — and by extension their characters — by feeling the bumps on their heads to find the prominent spots.
But if one pared away the bumps and their touchy-feely characterological connotations, Dr. Fodor argued, phrenology’s underlying premise — that the mind consists of discrete, dedicated faculties — was worth revisiting.

One problem that such a model appeared to solve had long bedeviled psychologists: the question of why one part of the mind seemed disinclined to talk to another.

“There are different aspects of the mind — reasoning, language, perception, thought — and they don’t communicate very well, and that’s a bit of a shock,” Dr. Lepore said.

Consider, for example, a familiar optical illusion, in which lines of equal length are flanked by inward- or outward-facing arrowheads:

Even contemplating it now — though you have known for years that it is an illusion — you cannot help seeing the lines as different in length.

“That’s an example of the perceptual part of the mind not communicating with the reasoning part of the mind,” Dr. Lepore explained.

A model of mental organization in which the faculties are in essence walled off from one another could account for this, Dr. Fodor argued.

“Faculty psychology is getting to be respectable again after centuries of hanging around with phrenologists and other dubious types,” he wrote in “The Modularity of Mind.”

Over time Dr. Fodor revised his position, arguing that some mental functions, including language and perception, are modular, while others, like belief, decision-making and logical inference, operate more broadly. But his words from 1983 still resonate:

“A proposed inventory of psychological faculties,” he wrote, “is tantamount to a theory of the structure of the mind.”

The son of Andrew Fodor, a research bacteriologist, and the former Kay Rubens, a homemaker, Jerome Alan Fodor was born on April 22, 1935, in New York City and reared in Queens.

After graduating from Forest Hills High School, he received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Columbia, where he studied with the philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser. He earned a Ph.D. in the field from Princeton, where he was a disciple of the philosopher and mathematician Hilary Putnam.

Dr. Fodor taught at M.I.T. from 1959 to 1986. He was at the City University of New York Graduate Center from 1986 to 1988 before joining the Rutgers faculty. Throughout his Rutgers years, he maintained his residence on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for its proximity to the opera, an abiding passion.

Dr. Fodor’s first marriage, to Iris Goldstein, an emeritus professor of applied psychology at New York University, ended in divorce. Besides his wife, Janet Dean Fodor, a distinguished professor of linguistics at the CUNY Graduate Center, his survivors include a son, Anthony, from his first marriage; a daughter, Katherine Fodor, from his second marriage; and three grandchildren.

His other books include “The Structure of Language” (1964), with Jerrold J. Katz; “The Language of Thought” (1975); “Concepts: Where Cognitive Science Went Wrong” (1998); and “The Mind Doesn’t Work That Way” (2000).

Dr. Fodor was a regular contributor to The London Review of Books and The Times Literary Supplement, the London periodical. His laurels include Fulbright and Guggenheim fellowships.

Like much in philosophy, a field whose marrow is argument, Dr. Fodor’s work was not without controversy. No book of his engendered more of it than the provocatively titled volume “What Darwin Got Wrong” (2010), written with Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, a University of Arizona cognitive scientist.

In it, the authors took on one of evolutionary biology’s sacred cows: natural selection. They argued that the process, with its slow incremental changes, may have little bearing on the development of cognition, or, for that matter, other features of Homo sapiens.

“We think that what is needed,” they wrote, “is to cut the tree at its roots: to show that Darwin’s theory of natural selection is fatally flawed.”

They continued, in one of the most damning indictments a rationalist can make, “We claim that Skinner’s account of learning and Darwin’s account of evolution are identical in all but name.”

The book loosed an uproar among scientists. (Its review in the magazine Science appeared under the headline “Two Critics Without a Clue.”)

“He and Chomsky had a modus operandi which was ‘Bury your opponents as early as possible,’ ” Dr. Lepore said, speaking of Dr. Fodor. “And when he went up against the scientific community, I don’t think Fodor was ready for that. He basically told these guys that natural selection was bogus. The arguments are interesting, but he didn’t win a lot of converts.”

In the end, despite a half-century of work by Dr. Fodor and his colleagues, the mind remains a slippery thing. He brought the point forcibly home in “The Mind Doesn’t Work That Way.”

“We’ve got lots to do,” Dr. Fodor wrote. “In fact, what our cognitive science has done so far is mostly to throw some light on how much dark there is.”

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