[This is a preprint of an article accepted for publication in the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, © 2001. Wiley Press]
Jerry A. Fodor's In Critical Condition: Polemical Essays on Cognitive Science and the Philosophy of Mind.
(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998).
Christopher D. Green
For over a third of a century now, Jerry Fodor has been not only one of the most incisive, but also one of the funniest writers in philosophy. Fodor is not an easy read for the uninitiated. Often you must know a great deal about the topic about which he is writing to "get" the joke, but once you are there with him, he can make you laugh out loud in a room by yourself -- which can be disconcerting for whoever happens to be in the next room.
In Critical Condition (Fodor, 1998) is no exception. It is a collection of seventeen essays that Fodor has published over the past few years in either scholarly academic journals or "highbrow" newspapers like TLS. Many are reviews of works by other cognitive scientists and philosophers of mind. The title derives from the state that Fodor -- after over 30 years of working in the field -- believes cognitive science now finds itself in. The book is divided up into four parts, focusing on Metaphysics, Concepts, Cognitive Architecture, and Philosophical Darwinism, respectively.
The Metaphysics section consists of a review of John McDowell's Mind and World (1994) and a reply to Jaegwon Kim's paper "Multiple Realization and the Metaphysics of Reduction" (1993). As he has for decades, Fodor attempts here to steer a middle course between those who would reject scientific naturalism as a basis for the study of mind, and those who would have it that the only truly scientific study of mind is one that reduces it to something else (e.g., physiology, physics).
The section on Concepts, a topic that has exercised Fodor throughout his career, includes a review of Christopher Peacocke's A Study of Concepts (1992), two articles against "recognitional concepts," a defense of the idea of "mentalese" (Fodor's innate language of the mind) against the criticisms of Peter Carruthers (1996), and a review of A. W. Moore's Points of View (1997). Here Fodor defends against a variety of alternatives the position for which he is best-known (some would say notorious), viz., that we have no plausible theory of concept-learning; indeed we seem so far from a solution that we are better off concluding that most concepts are innate. Fodor tries to show why various popular attempts to dodge the problem -- such as converting concept-knowledge into some sort of "capacity" (e.g., to use the concept in question, or to recognize instances of it) -- are not able to handle even basic problems that concept-learning and concept-possession pose.
Part III on Cognitive Architecture is where we see Fodor at his critical best. His review of Paul Churchland's ostentatiously-entitled The Engine of Reason, The Seat of the Soul (1995) shows as well as anything I have ever read just how entranced disaffected philosophers who now seek truth at the Church of the Brain can get. Fodor is ruthless -- right at the start, after quoting a lengthy passage from Churchland's book he writes plainly, "I do think that is naughty of Professor Churchland. For one thing, none of it is true." And later, "Churchland's book is, in fact, not an overview, but a pot-boiler. It's a polemic, generally informed and readable for a certain quite parochial account of the methodology and substance of psychology…" (p. 84). He then turns to the famed connectionist research Paul Smolensky, with whom he carried on a running debate through the late 1980s and early 1990s that was the stuff of conference legend. Here Fodor reprints two articles from that era, both co-authored by Brian McLaughlin, that aim to show why Smolensky's attempts to strike a middle ground between traditional cognitive symbolists and connectionists leaves him, instead, with nowhere to stand. These are followed by reviews of Annette Karmiloff-Smith's Beyond Modularity (1992), Jeff Elman's Rethinking Innateness (1996), and Steven Mithen's The Prehistory of the Mind (1996).
The final section, Philosophical Darwinism, warms up with reviews of sociobiologist Richard Dawkins' Climbing Mount Improbable (1996) and philosopher Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995). As might be expected, Fodor is fairly dismissive of both. He then comments on naturalistic epistemologies of Patricia Churchland and Alvin Plantinga. Finally, he reviews Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works (1997) and Henry Plotkin's Evolution in Mind (1997), both of whom argue that evolution has equipped the human mind not with a general-purpose problem-solver, but rather with dozens of special-purpose "modules" that are more or less informationally insulated from each other. It is here that an extended quotation best gives the flavor of Fodor's writing:
The literature of psychological Darwinsism is full of what appear to be fallacies of rationalization: arguments where the evidence offered that an interest in Y is the motive for a creature's behavior is primarily that an interest in Y would rationalize the behavior if it were the creature's motive. Pinker's book provides so many examples that one hardly knows where to start.… [H]ere's Pinker on why we like fiction: "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?" 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. (p. 212)
You will find, I suspect, that Fodor is among the most irritating of authors if he happens to land on a philosophical position that you have spent years nurturing and cherishing. Even so, his argument are usually astute and take more than a little work to evade effectively. When, on the other hand, he casts his critical eye on a position you find to be of doubtful merit, or that you suspect of being a mere fashion, his writing is about the most fun one can have while reading serious philosophy of mind.
Carruthers, Peter. (1996). Language, thought, and consciousness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Churchland, Paul. (1995). The engine of reason, The seat of the soul. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Dawkins, Richard. (1996). Climbing mount improbable. New York: Viking.
Dennett, Daniel. (1995). Darwin's dangerous idea. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Elman, Jeff. (1996). Rethinking innateness: A connectionist perspective on development. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Fodor, Jerry A. (1998). In critical condition: Polemical essays on cognitive science and the philosophy of mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Karmiloff-Smith, Annette. (1992). Beyond modularity: A developmental perspective on cognitive science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Kim, Jaegwon (1993). "Multiple Realization and the Metaphysics of Reduction" Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 52, 1-26.
McDowell, John. (1994) Mind and world. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Mithen, Steven. (1996). The prehistory of the mind. London: Thames and Hudson.
Moore, A. W. (1997). Points of view. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Peacocke, Christopher. (1992). A study of concepts. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Pinker, Steven . (1997). How the mind works. New York: Norton.
Plotkin, Henry. (1997). Evolution in mind. London: Alan Lane.