It was a spring evening in 1993 at Stanford; Fred Dretske (1932–2013) was introducing the man who would deliver that year’s Immanuel Kant Lectures, a distinguished philosopher of the cognitive and linguistic sciences from Rutgers: Jerry Fodor. Dretske spoke with warm approval about the intensity of Fodor’s philosophical views. He doesn’t just disagree with doctrines like empiricism, pragmatism, relativism, and holism, Dretske smilingly explained; he hates them.
To welcoming applause, Fodor stepped up to the podium, scowling. As he spread his papers on the lectern he muttered into the microphone: “I’d hate them a lot more if they were true.”
It was a classic deadpan ad lib, humorous yet thought-provoking, and indicative of the passion that animated all of Fodor’s philosophical writing. I remembered it clearly from two dozen years ago when his death was announced last week (he died on November 29). It was sad news. The philosophical world was a richer, more bracing, and more unpredictable place with Jerry Fodor in it.
“I hate relativism,” he once said, speaking of the then resurgent view that your truth may not be the same as my truth. “I hate relativism more than I hate anything else, excepting, maybe, fiberglass powerboats.” That’s Jerry. No other philosopher writes like that. I am so sorry that he’s gone.
The asyndetic multiple coordination of adjectives with which Steven Pinker characterized Fodor on his Twitter account hit the nail on the head: “Brilliant, hilarious, maddening, influential, irreplaceable.”
My appreciation of Fodor does not spring from endorsement of his philosophical views (and I’m not alone in this). I enjoyed his company and his lectures and his wit, but rarely found myself in full agreement with him, partly because I’m somewhat skeptical about linguistic nativism — the claim that what makes us capable of acquiring our native language is something that is both innate and specific to language. Fodor called his version of it “the only game in town” for those trying to understand how language and thought are possible. He defended linguistic nativism in a particularly extreme version, clearly distinct from Noam Chomsky’s, and more radical.
Chomsky claims it is a contingent fact that human beings, uniquely among animals, have a genetic quirk that causes human infants to respond to language use by internalizing a generative grammatical definition of an infinite set of structured sentences — the correct set, the one that the infant’s carers draw their utterances from.
Fodor, by contrast, appeared to hold (at least in his 1975 book The Language of Thought) that it is impossible for anyone to acquire a language without already possessing one that is at least as expressive, and impossible to acquire a primitive concept that you cannot already grasp and represent linguistically, so there must be an innate language of thought inbuilt in all of us. This was not so much an empirical hypothesis as a “foundational thesis” (the term is from Murat Aydede, who pulls nativism apart from the hypothesis that we think in a language). In Fodor’s view we do no language learning or grammar construction in our early years; we construct a translation from the language of our carers into the language already installed in our minds.
In other words, Chomsky thinks we happen to be born with mental scaffolding that aids us in building our first language, whereas Fodor believes we are born already knowing a language capable of expressing anything we can think, so “first language” is a misnomer.
I’m not ready to buy Fodor’s view (modified somewhat in LOT 2: The Language of Thought Revisited, 2008). In fact I’m sympathetic to the critique in Fiona Cowie’s book What’s Within? Nativism Reconsidered (1999). (Unsurprisingly, it elicited a furious 50-page Fodorian response, “Doing Without What’s Within; Fiona Cowie’s Critique of Nativism,” [Mind 110, 99–149, 2001]; and that provoked an appropriately barbed response from Cowie, “Whistling ‘Dixie': Response to Fodor on What’s Within.”) What makes me miss Jerry Fodor is not that I believe the claims he makes, but simply that without him, philosophy (a field in which I have a lively though secondary interest) will be a poorer, duller, and less exciting business.
I almost find it hard to believe that such a powerful, scintillating intellect could cease to exist. But Fodor, as a firm proponent of naturalizing the mind, would have firmly encouraged us to accept that this is how it goes with us mammals. Like it or not, we were born and we will die. To console us in between, Fodor would have said (citing his greatest passion outside of philosophy), there is opera.
The Kant Lectures I referred to are included in Fodor’s book The Elm and the Expert, 1994. Photo credit: Pedro Alcocer.