Short works

Books : reviews

Jerry A. Fodor.
The Language of Thought.
Harvard University Press. 1975

A compelling defense of the speculative approach to the philosophy of mind. Fodor argues that, while our best current theories of cognitive psychology view many higher processes as computational, computation itself presupposes an internal medium of representation.

Fodor’s prime concerns are to buttress the notion of internal representation from a philosophical viewpoint, and to determine those characteristics of this conceptual construct using the empirical data available from linguistics and cognitive psychology.

Jerry A. Fodor.
Concepts: where cognitive science went wrong.
OUP. 1998

Jerry Fodor presents a strikingly original theory of the basic constituents of thought. He suggests that the heart of a cognitive science is its theory of concepts, and that cognitive scientists have gone badly wrong in many areas because their assumptions about concepts have been seriously mistaken. Fodor argues compellingly for an atomistic theory of concepts, and maintains that future work on human cognition should build upon new foundations.

He starts by demolishing the rival theories that have prevailed in recent years—that concepts are definitions, that they are prototypes or stereotypes, that they are abstractions from belief systems, etc. He argues that all such theories are radically unsatisfactory for two closely related reasons: they hold that the content of a concept is determined, at least in part, by its inferential role; and they hold that typical concepts are structurally complex. Empirical and philosophical arguments against each of these claims are elaborated.

Fodor then develops his alternative account. He argues that conceptual content is determined entirely by informational (mind-world) relations, and that typical concepts are atomic. The implications of this ‘informational atomism’ are considered in respect of issues in psychology, lexical semantics, and metaphysics, with particular attention to the relation between informational atomism and innateness.

This is surely Fodor’s most irritating book in years. The doctrines he attacks are central to practically all current work in cognitive science, and the alternative be promotes is antithetical to practically all current views of how the mind works. Concepts will fascinate anyone interested in contemporary work on mind and language; it should exasperate philosophers, linguists, cognitive psychologists, and cognitive neuroscientists alike. Cognitive science will never be the same again.