“LOT is a throwing together of ideas”
3:AM: What made you become a philosopher? You’ve been one for a long time. Has it been what you expected and has the profession changed a lot since you started?
Jerry Fodor: It was because my parents wanted me to be a lawyer. I actually did take a Constitutional Law course in order to please them; but when I’d read some judicial decisions, it seemed to me I could make equally bad arguments without bothering to get a law degree. Hence philosophy since, being very young, I thought of philosophers as particularly rational sorts of people; a view of which faculty meetings soon disabused me.
3:AM: You’re famous for your work on the Language of Thought (LOT). So, this is the thesis that thinking is explained using a theory of mind that describes a modular representational computerised system. You wrote about it in 1975 but then in 2008 wrote LOT2 to update us on how your thinking had moved on in the intervening years. For readers not up on this, could you quickly give a rundown of the basics of how your theory works. Also, a key issue is that you have to come up with a theory that isn’t just running a random string of thought following thought, but rather the theory has to explain how we can have meaning coherence, that is, the thoughts have to be able to be semantically and epistemically causally connected or else we wouldn’t have a theory of ‘making sense’, which is what thinking is. How have you done this?
JF: LOT is a throwing together of ideas, some borrowed from Empiricists, some from Rationalists and some from theories about computers. The book was an attempt to connect these bits and pieces. I arrived at a view that was already much in the air, albeit less than explicitly: the mind gets at the world by representing it; cognitive processes are operations that the mind performs on mental representations. In fact, I think what I recommended taking out was distinctly more original than what I recommended putting in: associationism (which made an utter mystery of the coherence of mental life) and behaviorism (which favored a cavalier rejection of the commonsense view that people do the things they do because want wht hay do and believe what they do. At the time, behaviorism and associationism permeated both psychology and the philosophy of mind, though in somewhat different forms. They still do here and there.
The main change in my views over the (many, many) intervening years is that I now think we should also discard a thesis that most philosophers hold explicitly and that cognitive science has never considered denying: that words, concepts and the like have ‘senses’ (meanings, contents, etc.) as well as referents. Zenon Pylyshyn and I are just finishing a book about why other philosophers and cognitive scientists should abandon it too.
3:AM: So one of the things you think this commits us to is that learning concepts is impossible and that everything is innate, isn’t it? This is what philosophers label an innatist position. There are some LOT theorists who don’t think this, aren’t there? So why do you think the innatist position is plausible? And how could we have an innate concept for Wednesday, say, or doorknob given that our brains have not changed much for about 200,000 years?
JF: There is certainly a paradox lurking somewhere in these bushes. The question, however, is how(/whether) it can be avoided. For a long while, I thought it couldn’t be; indeed, that it followed directly from what practically everybody agrees: that concept learning, if there were such a thing, would have to be some sort of hypothesis formation and confirmation. So, the argument went: learning the concept BACHELOR requires learning that the hypothesis `bachelors are unmarried men’ is true. But this hypothesis already contains the concept BACHELOR, since (by assumption) the concept UNMARRIED MAN is the concept BACHELOR. Conclusion: You can’t learn any concepts that you don’t already have; which is to say that you can’t learn any concepts. Paradox.
I now think there is, after all, a way out, though it requires rejecting the (more or less Fregian) doctrines that concepts and the like are individuated by their ‘senses’: What makes BACHELOR the concept that it is, is its having the same sense as the concept UNMARRIED MAN. Frege likewise held that ‘sense determines reference’, so what makes John a bachelor is his being a man and unmarried.
If, however, Frege was wrong about that, the innateness paradox disappears. Suppose, for example, that what determines the reference (the `extension’) of a concept is some sort of causal relation between the (mental) representation that expresses it and the things belonging to its extension. Then, even assuming the hypothesis-formation-and-confirmation story about concept acquisition, the precondition for learning BACHELOR is only that the learner has some concept that is coextensive with BACHELOR. Since this requirement is very weak, there is no residual paradox.