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Jerry Fodor is one of the principal philosophers of mind of the


late twentieth and early twenty-first century. In addition to
having exerted an enormous influence on virtually every
portion of the philosophy of mind literature since 1960,
Fodors work has had a significant impact on the development
of the cognitive sciences. In the 1960s, along with Hilary
Putnam, Noam Chomsky, and others, he put forward
influential criticisms of the behaviorism that dominated much
philosophy and psychology at the time. Since then, Fodor has
articulated and defended an alternative, realist conception of
intentional states and their content that he argues vindicates
the core elements of folk psychology within a physicalist
framework.
Fodor has developed two theories that have been particularly
influential across disciplinary boundaries. He defends a
Representational Theory of Mind, according to which
mental states are computational relations that organisms bear to mental representations that are
physically realized in the brain. On Fodors view, these mental representations are internally
structured much like sentences in a natural language, in that they have both syntactic structure
and a compositional semantics. Fodor also defends an influential hypothesis about mental
architecture, namely, that low-level sensory systems (and language) are modular, in the sense
that theyre informationally encapsulated from the higher-level central systems responsible
for belief formation, decision-making, and the like. Fodors work on modularity has been
especially influential among evolutionary psychologists, who go much further than Fodor in
claiming that the systems underlying even high-level cognition are modular, a view that Fodor
himself vehemently resists.
Fodor has also defended a number of other influential views. He was an early proponent of the
claim that mental properties are functional properties, defined by their role in a cognitive system
and not by the physical material that constitutes them. Alongside functionalism, Fodor defended
an early and influential version of non-reductive physicalism, according to which mental
properties are realized by, but not reducible to, physical properties of the brain. Fodor has also
long been a staunch defender of nativism about the structure and contents of the human mind,
arguing against a variety of empiricist theories and famously arguing that all lexical concepts are
innate. When it comes to a theory of concepts, Fodor has vigorously argued against all versions
of inferential role semantics in philosophy and psychology. Fodors own view is what he calls
informational atomism, according to which lexical concepts are internally unstructured and
have their content in virtue of standing in certain external, informational relations to
properties instantiated in the environment.

Table of Contents

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Biography
Physicalism, Functionalism, and the Special Sciences
Intentional Realism
The Representational Theory of Mind
Content and Concepts
Nativism
Modularity
References and Further Reading

Jerry Fodor was born in New York City in 1935. He received his A.B. from Columbia University
in 1956 and his Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1960. His first academic position was at MIT,
where he taught in the Departments of Philosophy and Psychology until 1986. He was
Distinguished Professor at CUNY Graduate Center from 1986 to 1988, when he moved to Rutgers
University where he has remained ever since. He is currently the State of New Jersey Professor of
Philosophy and Cognitive Science.

Throughout his career Fodor has subscribed to physicalism, the claim that all the genuine
particulars and properties in the world are either identical to or in some sense determined by
and dependent upon physical particulars and properties. Although there are many questions
about how physicalism should be formulated and understoodfor instance, what physical
means and whether the relevant determination/dependency relation is supervenience (Kim
1993) or realization (Melnyk 2003, Shoemkaer 2007)theres widespread acceptance of some
or other version of physicalism among philosophers of mind. To accept physicalism is to deny
that psychological and other non-basic properties float free from the fundamental physical
properties. Thus, acceptance of physicalism goes hand in hand with a rejection of mind-body
dualism.
Some of Fodors early work (1968, 1975) aimed (i) to show that mentalism was a genuine
alternative to dualism and behaviorism, (ii) to show that behaviorism had a number of serious
shortcomings, (iii) to defend functionalism as the appropriate physicalist metaphysics
underlying mentalism, and (iv) to defend a conception of psychology and other special sciences
according to which higher-level laws and the properties that figure in them are irreducible to
lower-level laws and properties. Lets consider each of these in turn.
For much of the twentieth century, behaviorism was widely regarded as the only viable
physicalist alternative to dualism. Fodor helped to change that, in part by drawing a clear
distinction between mere mentalism, which posits the existence of internal, causally efficacious
mental states, and dualism, which is mentalism plus the view that mental events require a special
kind of substance. Heres Fodor in his classic book Psychological Explanation:
[P]hilosophers who have wanted to banish the ghost from the machine have usually sought
to do so by showing that truths about behavior can sometimes, and in some sense, logically
implicate truths about mental states. In so doing, they have rather strongly suggested that
the exorcism can be carried through only if such a logical connection can be made out.
[O]nce it has been made clear that the choice between dualism and behaviorism is not
exhaustive, a major motivation for the defense of behaviorism is removed: we are not
required to be behaviorists simply in order to avoid being dualists (1968, pp. 58-59).
Fodor thus argues that theres a middle road between dualism and behaviorism. Attributing
mental states to organisms in explaining how they get around in and manipulate their

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environments need not involve the postulation of a mental substance different in kind from
physical bodies and brains. In Fodors view, behaviorists influenced by Wittgenstein and Ryle
ignored the distinction between mentalism and dualismas he puts it, confusing mentalism
with dualism is the original sin of the Wittgensteinian tradition (Fodor, 1975, p. 4).
In addition to clearly distinguishing mentalism from dualism, Fodor put forward a number of
trenchant objections to behaviorism and the various arguments for it. He argued, for instance,
that neither knowing about the mental states of others nor learning a language with mental
terms requires that there be a logical connection, that is, a deductively valid connection, between
mental and behavioral terms, thus undermining a number of epistemological and linguistic
arguments for behaviorism (Fodor and Chihara 1965, Fodor 1968). Perhaps more importantly,
Fodor argued that theories in cognitive psychology and linguistics provide a powerful argument
against behaviorism, since they posit the existence of various mental events that are not
definable in terms of, or otherwise logically connected to, overt behavior (Fodor 1968, 1975).
Along with the arguments of Putnam (1963, 1967) and Chomsky (1959), among others, Fodors
early arguments against behaviorism were an important step in the development of the then
emerging cognitive sciences.
Central to this development was the rise of functionalism as a genuine alternative to
behaviorism, and Fodors Psychological Explanation (1968) was one of the first in-depth
treatments and defenses of this view (see also Putnam 1963, 1967). Unlike behaviorism, which
attempts to explain behavior in terms of law-like relationships between stimulus inputs and
behavioral outputs, functionalism posits that such explanations will appeal to internal properties
that mediate between inputs and outputs. Indeed, the main claim of functionalism is that mental
properties are individuated in terms of the various causal relations they enter into, where such
relations are not restricted to mere input-output relations, but also include their relations to a
host of other properties that figure in the relevant empirical theories. Although, at the time, the
distinctions between various forms of functionalism werent as clear as they are now, Fodors
brand of functionalism is a version of what is now known as psycho-functionalism. On this
view, what determines the relations that define mental properties are the deliverances of
empirical psychology, and not, say, the platitudes of commonsense psychology, what can be
known a priori about mental properties, or the analyticities expressive of the meanings of mental
expressions; see Rey (1997, ch.7) and Shoemaker (2003) for discussion.
By defining mental properties in terms of their causal roles, functionalists allow for different
kinds of physical phenomena to satisfy these relations. Functionalism thus goes hand in hand
with multiple realizability. In other words, if a given mental property, M, is a functional property
thats defined by a specific causal condition, C, then any number of distinct physical properties,
P1, P2, P3 Pn, may each realize M provided that each property meets C. Functionalism thereby
characterizes mental properties at a level of abstraction that ignores differences in the physical
structure of the systems that have these properties. Early functionalists, like Fodor and Putnam,
thus took themselves to be articulating a position that was distinct not only from behaviorism,
but also from type-identity theory, which identifies mental properties with neurophysiological
properties of the brain. If functionalism implies that mental properties can be realized by
different physical properties in different kinds of systems (or the same system over time), then
functionalism precludes identifying mental properties with physical properties.
Fodors functionalism, in particular, was articulated so that it was seen to have sweeping
consequences for debates concerning reductionism and the unity of science. In his seminal essay
Special Sciences (1974), Fodor spells out a metaphysical picture of the special sciences that
eventually came to be called non-reductive physicalism. This picture is physicalist in that it
accepts what Fodor calls the generality of physics, which is the claim that every event that falls
under a special science predicate also falls under a physical predicate, but not vice versa. Its
non-reductionist in that it denies that the special sciences should reduce to physical theories in
the long run (1974, p. 97). Traditionally, reductionists sought to articulate bridge laws that link

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special science predicates with physical predicates, either in the form of bi-conditionals or
identity statements. Fodor argues not only that the generality of physics does not require the
existence of bridge laws, but that in general such laws will be unavailable given that the events
picked out by special science predicates will be wildly disjunctive from the perspective of
physics (1974, p. 103). Multiple realizability thus guarantees that special science predicates will
cross-classify phenomena picked out by purely physical predicates. This, in turn, undermines the
reductionist hope of a unified science whereby the higher-level theories of the special sciences
reduce to lower-level theories and ultimately to fundamental physics. On Fodors picture, then,
the special sciences are autonomous in that they articulate irreducible generalizations that
quantify over irreducible and casually efficacious higher-level properties (1974; see also 1998b,
ch.2).
Functionalism and non-reductive physicalism are now commonplace in philosophy of mind, and
provide the backdrop for many contemporary debates about psychological explanation, laws,
multiple realizability, mental causation, and more. This is something for which Fodor surely
deserves much of the credit (or blame, depending on ones view; see Kim (1993) and Heil (2003)
for criticisms of the metaphysical underpinnings of non-reductive physicalism).

A central aim of Fodors work has been to defend folk psychology as at least the starting point for
a serious scientific psychology. At a minimum, folk psychology is committed to two kinds of
states: belief-like states, which represent the environment and guide ones behavior, and
desire-like states, which represent ones goals and motivate behavior. We routinely appeal to
such states in our common-sense explanations of peoples behavior. For example, we explain
why John walked to the store in terms of his desire for milk and his belief that theres milk for
sale at the store. Fodor is impressed by the remarkable predictive power of such belief-desire
explanations. The following passage is typical:
Common sense psychology works so well it disappears. Its like those mythical Rolls Royce
cars whose engines are sealed when they leave the factory; only its better because they arent
mythical. Someone I dont know phones me at my office in New York fromas it might
beArizona. Would you like to lecture here next Tuesday? are the words he utters. Yes
thank you. Ill be at your airport on the 3 p.m. flight are the words that I reply. Thats all that
happens, but its more than enough; the rest of the burden of predicting behaviorof
bridging the gap between utterances and actionsis routinely taken up by the theory. And
the theory works so well that several days later (or weeks later, or months later, or years
later; you can vary the example to taste) and several thousand miles away, there I am at the
airport and there he is to meet me. Or if I dont turn up, its less likely that the theory failed
than that something went wrong with the airline. The theory from which we get this
extraordinary predictive power is just good old common sense belief/desire psychology. If
we could do that well with predicting the weather, no one would ever get his feet wet; and yet
the etiology of the weather must surely be childs play compared with the causes of behavior.
(1987, pp. 3-4)
Passages like this may suggest that Fodors intentional realism is wedded to the
folk-psychological categories of belief and desire. But this isnt so. Rather, Fodors claim is
that there are certain core elements of folk psychology that will be shared by a mature scientific
psychology. In particular, a mature psychology will posit states with the following features:
(1) They will be intentional: they will be about things and they will be semantically
evaluable. (In the way that the belief that Obama is President is about Obama, and can be
semantically evaluated as true or false.)
(2) They will be causally efficacious, figuring in genuine causal explanations and laws.

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Fodors intentional realism thus doesnt require that the folk-psychological categories themselves
find a place in a mature psychology. Indeed, Fodor has suggested that the individuation
conditions for beliefs are so vague and pragmatic that its doubtful theyre fit for empirical
psychology (1990, p. 175). What Fodor is committed to is the claim that a mature psychology will
be intentional through and through, and that the intentional states it posits will be causally
implicated in law-like explanations of human behavior. Exactly which intentional states will
figure in a mature psychology is a matter to be decided by empirical inquiry, not by a priori
reflection on our common sense understanding.
Fodors defense of intentional realism is usefully viewed as part of a rationalist tradition that
stresses the human minds striking sensitivity to indefinitely many arbitrary properties of the
world. Were sensitive not only to abstract properties such as being a democracy and being
virtuous, but also to abstract grammatical properties such as being a noun phrase and being a
verb phrase, as well as to such arbitrary properties as being a tiny folded piece of paper, being
an oddly-shaped canteen, being a crumpled shirt, and being to the left of my favorite mug. On
Fodors view, something can selectively respond to such properties only if its an intentional
system capable of manipulating representations of these properties.
Of course, there are many physical systems that are responsive to environmental properties (
thermometers, paramecia) that we would not wish to count as intentional systems. Fodors own
proposal for what distinguishes intentional systems from the rest is that only intentional systems
are sensitive to non-nomic properties, that is, the properties of objects that do not determine
that they fall under any laws of nature (Fodor 1986). Consider Fodors example of the property of
being a crumpled shirt. Although laws govern crumpled shirts, no object is subsumed under a
law in virtue of being a crumpled shirt. Nevertheless, the property of being a crumpled shirt is
one that we can represent an object as having, and such representations do enter into laws of
nature. For instance, theres presumably a law-like relationship between my noticing the
crumpled shirt, my desire to remark upon it, and my saying theres a crumpled shirt. On
Fodors view the job of intentional psychology is to articulate the laws governing mental
representations, which figure in genuine causal explanations of peoples behavior (Fodor 1987,
1998a).
Although positing mental representations that have semantic and causal properties states that
satisfy (1) and (2) abovemay not seem particularly controversial, the existence of causally
efficacious intentional states has been denied by all manner of behaviorists, epiphenomenalists,
Wittgensteinians, interpretationists, instrumentalists, and (at least some) connectionists. Much
of Fodors work has been devoted to defending intentional realism against such views as they
have arisen in both philosophy and psychology. In addition to defending intentional realism
against the behaviorism of Skinner and Ryle (Fodor 1968, 1975, Fodor et al. 1974), Fodor has
also defended it against the threat of epiphenomenalism (Fodor 1989), against Wittgenstein and
other defenders of the private language argument (Fodor and Chihara 1965, Fodor 1975),
against the eliminativism of the Churchlands (Fodor 1987, 1990), against the instrumentalism of
Dennett (Fodor 1981a, Fodor and Lepore 1992), against the interpretationism of Davidson
(Fodor 1990, Fodor and Lepore 1992, Fodor 2004), and against certain versions of connectionism
(Fodor and Pylyshyn 1988, Fodor and McLaughlin 1990, Fodor 1998b).
Even if Fodor is right that there are intentional states that satisfy (1) and (2), theres still the
question of how such states can exist in a physical world. Intentional realists must explain, for
instance, how lawful relations between intentional states can be understood physicalistically.
This is particularly pressing, since at least some intentional laws describe rational relations
between the intentional states they quantify over, and, ever since Descartes, philosophers have
worried about how a purely physical system could exhibit rational relations (see Lowe (2008) for
recent skepticism from a non-Cartesian dualist). Fodors Representational Theory of Mind is his
attempt to answer such worries.

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As Fodor points out, RTM is really a loose confederation of theses that lacks, to put it mildly, a
canonical formulation (1998a, p. 6). At its core, though, RTM is an attempt to combine Alan
Turings work on computation with intentional realism (as outlined above). Broadly speaking,
RTM claims that mental processes are computational processes, and that intentional states are
relations to mental representations that serve as the domain of such processes. On Fodors
version of RTM, these mental representations have both syntactic structure and a compositional
semantics. Thinking thus takes place in an internal language of thought.
Turing showed us how to construct a purely mechanical device that could transform
syntactically-individuated symbols in such a way as to respect the semantic relations that exist
between the meanings, or contents, of those symbols. Formally valid inferences are the
paradigm. For instance, modus ponens can be realized on a machine thats sensitive only to
syntactic properties of symbols. The device thus doesnt have access to the symbols semantic
properties, but can nevertheless transform the symbols in a truth-preserving way. Whats
interesting about this, from Fodors perspective, is that, at least sometimes, mental processes
also involve chains of thoughts that are truth-preserving. As Fodor puts it:
[I]f you start out with a true thought, and you proceed to do some thinking, it is very often
the case that the thoughts that thinking leads you to will also be true. This is, in my view, the
most important fact we know about minds; no doubt its why God bothered to give us any.
(1994, p. 9; see also 1987, pp. 12-14, 2000, p. 18)
In order to account for this most important fact, RTM claims that thoughts themselves are
syntactically-structured representations, and that mental processes are computational processes
defined over them. Given that the syntax of a representation is what determines its causal role in
thought, RTM thereby serves to connect the fact that mental processes are truth-preserving with
the fact that theyre causal.
For instance, suppose a thinker believes that if John ran, then Mary swam. According to RTM,
for a thinker to hold such a belief is for the thinker to stand in a certain computational relation to
a mental representation that means if John ran, then Mary swam. Now suppose the thinker
comes to believe that John ran, and as a result comes to believe that Mary swam. RTM has it that
the causal relations between these thoughts hold in virtue of the syntactic form of the underlying
mental representations. By picturing the mind as a syntax-driven machine (Fodor, 1987, p. 20),
RTM thus promises to explain how the causal relations among thoughts can respect rational
relations among their contents. It thereby provides a potentially promising reply to Descartes
worry about how rationality could be exhibited by a mere machine. As Fodor puts it:
So we can now (maybe) explain how thinking could be both rational and mechanical.
Thinking can be rational because syntactically specified operations can be truth preserving
insofar as they reconstruct relations of logical form; thinking can be mechanical because
Turing machines are machines. [T]his really is a lovely idea and we should pause for a
moment to admire it. Rationality is a normative property; that is, its one that a mental
process ought to have. This is the first time that there has ever been a remotely plausible
mechanical theory of the causal powers of a normative property. The first time ever. (2000,
p. 29)
In Fodors view, its a major argument in favor of RTM that it promises an explanation of how
mental processes can be truth-preserving (Fodor 1994, p. 9; 2000, p. 13), and a major strike
against traditional empiricist and associationist theories that they offer no competing
explanation (1998a, p. 10; 2000, pp. 15-18; 2003, pp. 90-94).

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That it explains how truth-preserving mental processes could be realized causally is one of
Fodors main arguments for RTM. In addition, Fodor argues that RTM provides the only hope of
explaining the so-called productivity and systematicity of thought (Fodor 1987, 1998a, 2008).
Roughly, productivity is the feature of our minds whereby there is no upper bound to the number
of thoughts we can entertain. We can think that the dog is on the deck; that the dog, which
chased the squirrel, is on the deck; that the dog, which chased the squirrel, which foraged for
nuts, is on the deck; and so on, indefinitely. There are, of course, thoughts whose contents are so
long that other factors prevent us from entertaining them. But abstracting away from such
performance limitations, it seems that a theory of our conceptual competence must account for
such productivity. Thought also appears to be systematic, in the following sense: a mind that is
capable of entertaining a certain thought, p, is also capable of entertaining logical permutations
of p. For example, minds that can entertain the thought that the book is to the left of the cup can
also entertain the thought that the cup is to the left of the book. Although its perhaps possible
that there could be minds that do not exhibit such systematicitya possibility denied by some,
for example, Evans (1982) and Peacocke (1992)it at least appears to be an empirical fact that
all minds do.
In Fodors view, RTM is the only theory of mind that can explain productivity and systematicity.
According to RTM, mental states have internal, constituent structure, and the content of mental
states is determined by the content of their constituents and how those constituents are put
together. Given a finite base of primitive representations, our capacity to entertain endlessly
many thoughts can be explained by positing a finite number of rules for combining
representations, which can be applied endlessly many times in the course of constructing
complex thoughts. RTM offers a similar explanation of systematicity. The reason that a mind that
can entertain the thought that the book is to the left of the cup can also entertain the thought that
the cup is to the left of the book, is that these thoughts are built up out of the same constituents,
using the same rules of combination. RTM thus explains productivity and systematicity because
it claims that mental states are relations to representations that have syntactic structure and a
compositional semantics. One of Fodors main arguments against alternative, connectionist
theories is that they fail to account for such features (Fodor and Pylyshyn 1988, Fodor 1998b,
chs. 9 and10).
A further argument Fodor offers in favor of RTM is that successful empirical theories of various
non-demonstrative inferences presuppose a system of internal representations in which such
inferences are carried out. For instance, standard theories of visual perception attempt to explain
how a percept is constructed on the basis of the physical information available and the visual
systems built-in assumptions about the environment, or natural constraints (Pylyshyn 2003).
Similarly, theories of sentence perception and comprehension require that the language system
be able to represent distinct properties (for instance, acoustic, phonological, and syntactic
properties) of a single utterance (Fodor et al. 1974). Both sorts of theories require that there be a
system of representations capable of representing various properties and serving as the medium
in which such inferences are carried out. Indeed, Fodor sometimes claims that the best reason
for endorsing RTM is that some version or other of RTM underlies practically all current
psychological research on mentation, and our best science is ipso facto our best estimate of what
there is and what its made of (Fodor 1987, p. 17). Fodors The Language of Thought (1975) is
the locus classicus of this style of argument.

Even if taking mental processes to be computational shows how rational relations between
thoughts can be realized by purely casual relations among symbols in the brain, as RTM
suggests, theres still the question of how those symbols come to have their meaning or content.
Ever since Brentano, philosophers have worried about how to integrate intentionality into the
physical world, a worry that has famously led some to accept the baselessness of intentional

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idioms and the emptiness of a science of intention (Quine 1960, p. 221). Part of Fodors task is
thus to show, contra his eliminativist, instrumentalist, and interpretationist opponents, that a
plausible naturalistic account of intentionality can be given. Much of his work over the last two
decades or so has focused on this representational (as opposed to the computational)
component of RTM (Fodor 1987, 1994, 1998; Fodor and Lepore 1992, 2002).
Back in the 1960s and early 1970s, Fodor endorsed a version of so-called inferential role
semantics (IRS), according to which the content of a representation is (partially) determined by
the inferential connections that it bears to other representations. To take two hoary examples,
IRS has it that bachelor gets its meaning, in part, by bearing an inferential connection to
unmarried, and kill gets its meaning, in part, by bearing an inferential connection to die.
Such inferential connections hold, on Fodors early view, because bachelor and kill have
complex structure at the level at which theyre semantically interpreted that is, they have the
structure exhibited by the phrases unmarried adult male and cause to die (Katz and Fodor
1963). In terms of concepts, the claim is that the concept BACHELOR has the internal structure
exhibited by UNMARRIED ADULT MALE, and the concept KILL has the internal structure
exhibited by CAUSE TO DIE. (This article follows the convention of writing the names of
concepts in capitals and writing the meanings of concepts in italics.)
Eventually, Fodor came to think that there are serious objections to IRS. Some of these
objections were based on his own experimental work in psycholinguistics, which he took to
provide strong evidence against the existence of complex lexical structure. Understanding a
sentence does not seem to involve recovering the decompositions of the lexical items they
contain (Fodor et al. 1975). Thinking the thought CATS CHASE MICE doesnt seem to be harder
than thinking CATS CATCH MICE, whereas the former ought to be more complex if chase can
be decomposed into a structure that includes intends to catch (Fodor et al. 1980). As Fodor
recently quipped, [i]ts an iron law of cognitive science that, in experimental environments,
definitions always behave exactly as though they werent there (1998a, p. 46). (For an
alternative interpretation of this evidence, see Jackendoff (1983, pp. 125-127; 1992, p. 49), and
Miller and Johnson-Laird (1976, p. 328).) In part because of the lack of evidence for
decompositional structure, Fodor at one point seriously considered the view the inferential
connections among lexical items may hold in virtue of inference rules, or meaning postulates,
which renders IRS consistent with a denial of the claim that lexical items are semantically
structured (1975, pp. 148-152).
However, Fodor ultimately became convinced of Quines influential arguments against meaning
postulates, and more generally, Quines view that there is no principled distinction between
those connections that are constitutive of the meaning of a concept and those that are merely
collateral. Quinean considerations, Fodor argues, show that IRS theorists should not appeal to
meaning postulates (Fodor 1998a, appendix 5a). Moreover, Quines confirmation holism
suggests that the epistemic properties of a concept are potentially connected to the epistemic
properties of every other concept, which, according to Fodor, suggests that IRS inevitably leads
to semantic holism, the claim that all of a concepts inferential connections are constitutive. But
Fodor argues that semantic holism is unacceptable, since its incompatible with the claim that
concepts are shareable. As he recently put it, since practically everybody has some eccentric
beliefs about practically everything, holism has it that nobody shares any concepts with anybody
else (2004, p. 35; see also Fodor and Lepore 1992, Fodor 1998a). This implication would
undermine the possibility of genuine intentional generalizations in psychology, which require
that concepts are shared across both individuals and different time-slices of the same individual.
Proponents of IRS might reply to these concerns about semantic holism by claiming that only
some inferential connections are concept-constitutive. But Fodor suggests that the only way to
distinguish the constitutive connections from the rest is to endorse an analytic/synthetic
distinction, which in his view Quine has given us good reason to reject (for example, 1990, p. x,
1998a, p. 71, 1998b, pp. 32-33). Fodors Quinean point, ultimately, is that theorists should be

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reluctant to claim that there are certain beliefs people must hold, or inferences they must accept,
in order to possess a concept. For thinkers can apparently have any number of arbitrarily strange
beliefs involving some concept, consistent with them sharing that concept with others. As Fodor
puts it:
[P]eople can have radically false theories and really crazy views, consonant with our
understanding perfectly well, thank you, which false views they have and what radically
crazy things it is that they believe. Berkeley thought that chairs are mental, for Heavens
sake! Which are we to say he lacked, the concept MENTAL or the concept CHAIR? (1987, p.
125) (For further reflections along similar lines, see Williamson 2007.)
Without an analytic/synthetic distinction, any attempt to answer such a question would be
unprincipled. Rejecting the analytic/synthetic distinction thus leads Fodor to reject any
molecularist attempt to specify only certain inferences or beliefs as concept-constitutive. On
Fodors view, then, proponents of IRS are faced with two unequally satisfying options: they can
agree with Quine about the analytic/synthetic distinction, but at the cost of endorsing semantic
holism and its unpalatable consequences for the viability of intentionality psychology; or they
can deny semantic holism at the cost of endorsing an analytic/synthetic distinction, which Fodor
thinks nobody knows how to draw.
Its worth pointing out that Fodor doesnt think that confirmation holism, all by itself, rules out
the existence of certain local semantic connections that hold as a matter of empirical fact.
Indeed, contemporary battles over the existence of such connections are now taking place on
explanatory grounds that involve delicate psychological and linguistic considerations that are
fairly far removed from the epistemological considerations that motivated the positivists. For
instance, there are the standard convergences in peoples semantic-cum-conceptual intuitions,
which cry out for an empirical explanation. Although some argue that such convergences are best
explained by positing analyticities ( Grice and Strawson 1956, Rey 2005), Fodor argues that all
such intuitions can be accounted for by an appeal to Quinean centrality or one-criterion
concepts (Fodor 1998a, pp. 80-86). There are also considerations in linguistics that bear on the
existence of an empirically grounded analytic/synthetic distinction including issues concerning
the syntactic and semantic analyses of causative verbs, the generativity of the lexicon, and the
acquisition of certain elements of syntax. Fodor has engaged linguists on a number of such
fronts, arguing against the proposals of Jackendoff (1992), Pustejovsky (1995), Pinker (1989),
Hale and Keyser (1993), and others, defending the Quinean line (see Fodor 1998a, pp. 49-56, and
Fodor and Lepore 2002, chs. 5-6; see Pustejovsky 1998 and Hale and Keyser 1999 for
rejoinders). Fodors view is that all of the relevant empirical facts about minds and language can
be explained without any analytic connections, but merely deeply believed ones, precisely as
Quine argued.
Fodor sees a common error to all versions of IRS because they are trying to tie semantics to
epistemology. Moreover, the problems plaguing IRS ultimately arise as a result of its attempt to
connect a theory of meaning with certain epistemic conditions of thinkers. A further argument
against such views, Fodor claims, is that such epistemic conditions do not compose, since they
violate the compositionality constraint that is required for an explanation of productivity and
systematicity (see above). For instance, if one believes that brown cows are dangerous, then the
concept BROWN COW will license the inference BROWN COW DANGEROUS; but this
inference is not determined by the inferential roles of BROWN and COW, which it ought to be if
meaning-constituting inferences are compositional (Fodor and Lepore 2002, ch.1; for discussion
and criticism, see, for example, Block 1993, Boghossian 1993, and Rey 1993).
Another epistemic approach, as favored by many psychologists, appeals to prototypes.
According to these theories, lexical concepts are internally structured and specify the
prototypical features of their instances, that is, the features that theyre instances tend to (but
need not) have (for examples see Rosch and Mervis 1975). Prototype theories are epistemic
accounts because having a concept is a matter of knowing the features of its prototypical

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instances. Given this, Fodor argues that prototype theories are in danger of violating
compositionality. For example, knowing what prototypical pets (dogs) are like and what
prototypical fish (trout) are like does not guarantee that you know what prototypical pet fish
(goldfish) are like (Fodor 1998a, pp. 102-108, Fodor and Lepore 2002, ch. 2). Since
compositionality is required in order to explain the productivity and systematicity of thought,
and prototype structures do not compose, it follows that concepts dont have prototype structure.
According to Fodor, the same kind argument applies to theories that take concepts to be
individuated by certain recognitional capacities. Fodor argues that since recognitional capacities
dont compose, but concepts do, there are no recognitional conceptsnot even red (Fodor
1998b, ch. 4). This argument has been disputed by a number of philosophers, for example,
Horgan (1998), Recanati (2002), and Prinz (2002).
Fodor thus rejects all theories that individuate concepts in terms of their epistemic relations and
their internal structure, and instead defends what he calls informational atomism, according to
which lexical concepts are unstructured atoms whose content is determined by certain
informational relations they bear to phenomena in the environment. In claiming that lexical
concepts are internally unstructured, Fodors informational atomism is meant to respect the
evidence and arguments against decomposition, definitions, prototypes, and the like. In claiming
that none of the epistemic properties of concepts are constitutive, Fodor is endorsing what he
sees as the only alternative to a molecularist and holistic theory of content, neither of which he
takes to be viable. By separating epistemology from semantics in this way, Fodors theory places
virtually no constraints on what a thinker must believe in order to possess a particular concept.
For instance, what determines whether a mind possesses DOG isnt whether it has certain beliefs
about dogs, but rather whether it possess an internal symbol that stands in the appropriate
mind-world relation to the property of being a dog. Rather than talking about concepts as they
figure in beliefs, inferences, or other epistemic states, Fodor instead talks of mere tokenings of
concepts, where for him these are internal symbols that need not play any specific role in
cognition. In his view, this is the only way for a theory of concepts to respect Quinean strictures
on analyticity and constitutive conceptual connections. Indeed, Fodor claims that by denying
that the grasp of any interconceptual relations is constitutive of concept possession,
informational atomism allows us to see why Quine was right about there not being an
analytic/synthetic distinction (Fodor 1998a, p. 71).
Fodors most explicit characterization of the mind-world relation that determines content is his
asymmetry dependency theory (1987, 1990). According to this theory, the concept DOG means
dog because dogs cause tokenings of DOG, and non-dogs causing tokenings of DOG is
asymmetrically dependent upon dogs causing DOG. In other words, non-dogs wouldnt cause
tokenings of DOG unless dogs cause tokenings of DOG, but not vice versa. This is Fodors
attempt to meet Brentanos challenge of providing a naturalistic sufficient condition for a symbol
to have a meaning. Not surprisingly, many objections have been raised to Fodors asymmetric
dependency theory (seethe papers in Loewer in Rey 1991), and its interesting to note that the
theory has all but disappeared from his more recent work on concepts and content, in which he
simply claims that meaning is information (more or less), without specifying the nature of the
relations that determine the informational content of a symbol (1998a, p. 12).
Regardless of the exact nature of the content-determining laws, its important to see that Fodor is
not claiming that the epistemic properties of concept are irrelevant from the perspective of a
theory of concepts. For such epistemic properties are what sustain the laws that lock concepts
onto properties in the environment. For instance, it is only because thinkers know a range of
facts about dogswhat they look like, that they bark, and so forththat their dog-tokens are
lawfully connected to the property of being a dog. Knowledge of such facts plays a causal role in
fixing the content of DOG, but on Fodors view they dont play a constitutive one. For while such
epistemic properties mediate the connection between tokens of DOG and dogs, this a mere
engineering fact about us, which has no implications for the metaphysics of concepts or
concept possession (1998a, p. 78). As Fodor puts it, its that your mental structures contrive to

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resonate to doghood, not how your mental structures contrive to resonate to doghood, that is
constitutive of concept possession (1998a, p. 76). Although the internal relations that DOG
bears to other concepts and to percepts are what mediate the connection between DOG and dogs,
such relations are not concept-constitutive.
Fodors theory is thus a version of semantic externalism, according to which the meaning of a
concept is exhausted by its reference. There are two well-known problems with any such theory:
Frege cases, which putatively show that concepts that have different meanings can nevertheless
be referentially identical; and Twin cases, which putatively show that concepts that are
referentially distinct can nevertheless have the same meaning. Together, Frege cases and Twin
cases suggest that meaning and reference are independent in both directions. Fodor has had
much to say about each kind of case, and his views on both have changed over the years.
If conceptual content is exhausted by reference, then two concepts with the same referent ought
to be identical in content. As Fodor puts it, if meaning is information, then coreferential
representations must be synonyms (1998a, p. 12). But, prima facie, this is false. For as Frege
pointed out, its easy to generate substitution failures involving coreferential concepts: John
believes that Hesperus is beautiful may be true while John believes that Phosphorus is
beautiful is false; Thales believes that theres water in the cup may be true while Thales
believes that theres H2O in the cup is false; and so on. Since its widely believed that
substitution tests are tests for synonymy, such cases suggest that coreferential concepts arent
synonyms. In light of this, Fregeans introduce a layer of meaning in addition to reference that
allows for a semantic distinction between coreferential but distinct concepts. On their view,
coreferential concepts are distinct because they have different senses, or modes of presentation
of a referent, which Fregeans typically individuate in terms of conceptual role (Peacocke 1992).
In one of Fodors important early articles on the topic, Methodological Solipsism Considered as
a Research Strategy in Cognitive Psychology (1980), he argued that psychological explanations
depend upon opaque taxonomies of mental states, and that we must distinguish the content of
coreferential terms for the purposes of psychological explanation. At that time Fodor thus
allowed for a kind of content thats determined by the internal roles of symbols, which he
speculated might be reconstructed as aspects of form, at least insofar as appeals to content
figure in accounts of the mental causation of behavior (1981, p. 240). However, once he adopted
a purely externalist semantics (Fodor 1994), Fodor could no longer allow for a notion of content
determined by such internal relations. If conceptual content is exhausted by reference, as
informational semantics has it, then there cannot be a semantic distinction between coreferential
but distinct concepts.
In later work Fodor thus proposes to distinguish coreferential concepts purely syntactically, and
argues that we treat modes of presentation (MOPs) as the representational vehicles of thoughts
(Fodor 1994, 1998a, 2008). For instance, while Thales water-MOP has the same content as his
H2O-MOP (were he to have one), they are nevertheless syntactically distinct (for example, only
the latter has hydrogen as a constituent), and will thus differ in the causal and inferential
relations they enter into. In taking MOPs to be the syntactically-individuated vehicles of thought,
Fodors treatment of Frege cases serves to connect his theory of concepts with RTM. As he puts
it:
Its really the basic idea of RTM that Turings story about the nature of mental processes
provides the very candidates for MOP-hood that Freges story about the individuation of
mental states independently requires. If thats true, its about the nicest thing that ever
happened to cognitive science (1998a, p. 22).
An interesting consequence of this treatment is that peoples behavior in Frege cases can no
longer be given an intentional explanation. Instead, such behavior is explained at the level of
syntactically-individuated representations If, as Fodor suggested in his early work (1981),
psychological explanations standardly depend upon opaque taxonomies of mental states, then

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this treatment of Frege cases would threaten the need for intentional explanations in psychology.
In an attempt to block this threat, Fodor (1994) argues that Frege cases are in fact quite rare, and
can be understood as exceptions rather than counterexamples to psychological laws couched in
terms of broad content. The viability of a view that combines a syntactic treatment of Frege cases
with RTM has been the focus of a fair amount of recent literature; see Arjo (1997), Aydede
(1998), Aydede and Robins (2001), Brook and Stainton (1997), Rives (2009), Segal (1997), and
Schneider (2005).
Let us now turn to Fodors treatment of Twin cases. Putnam (1975) asks us to imagine a place,
Twin Earth, which is just like earth except the stuff Twin Earthians pick out with the concept
water is not H2O but some other chemical compound XYZ. Consider Oscar and Twin Oscar, who
are both entertaining the thought theres water in the glass. Since theyre physical duplicates,
theyre type-identical with respect to everything mental inside their heads. However, Oscars
thought is true just in case theres H2O in the glass, whereas Twin Oscars thought is true just in
case theres XYZ in the glass. A purely externalist semantics thus seems to imply that Oscar and
Twin Oscars WATER concepts are of distinct types, despite the fact that Oscar and Twin Oscar
are type-identical with respect to everything mental inside their heads. Supposing that
intentional laws are couched in terms of broad content, it would follow that Oscars and Twin
Oscars water-directed behavior dont fall under the same intentional laws.
Such consequence have seemed unacceptable to many, including Fodor, who in his book
Psychosemantics (1987) argues that we need a notion of narrow content that allows us to
account for the fact that Oscars and Twin-Oscars mental states will have the same causal powers
despite differences in their environments. Fodor there defends a mapping notion of narrow
content, inspired by David Kaplans work on demonstratives, according to which the narrow
content of a concept is a function from contexts to broad contents (1987, ch. 2). The narrow
content of Oscars and Twin Oscars concept WATER is thus a function that maps Oscars context
onto the broad content H2O and Twin Oscars context onto the broad content XYZ. Such narrow
content is shared because Oscar and Twin Oscar are computing the same function. It was
Fodors hope that this notion of narrow content would allow him to respect the standard
Twin-Earth intuitions, while at the same time claim that the intentional properties relevant for
psychological explanation supervene on facts internal to thinkers.
However, in The Elm and the Expert (1994) Fodor gives up on the notion of narrow content
altogether, and argues that intentional psychology need not worry about Twin cases. Such cases,
Fodor claims, only show that its conceptually (not nomologically) possible that broad content
doesnt supervene on facts internal to thinkers. One thus can not appeal to such cases to argue
against the nomological supervenience of broad content on computation since, as far as anybody
knows chemistry allows nothing that is as much like water as XYZ is supposed to be except
water (1994, p. 28). So since Putnams Twin Earth is nomologically impossible, and empirical
theories are responsible only to generalizations that hold in nomologically possible worlds, Twin
cases pose no threat to a broad content psychology (1994, p. 29). If it turned out that such cases
did occur, then, according to Fodor, the generalizations missed by a broad content psychology
would be purely accidental (1994, pp. 30-33). Fodors settled view is thus that Twin cases, like
Frege cases, cases are fully compatible with an intentional psychology that posits only two
dimensions to concepts: syntactically-individuated internal representations and broad contents.

In The Language of Thought (1975), Fodor argued not only in favor of RTM but also in favor of
the much more controversial view that all lexical concepts are innate. Fodors argument starts
with the noncontroversial claim that in order to learn a concept one must learn its meaning, or
content. Empiricist models of concept learning typically assume that thinkers learn a concept on
the basis of experience by confirming a hypothesis about its meaning. But Fodor argues that such
models will apply only to those concepts whose meanings are semantically complex. For

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instance, if the meaning of BACHELOR is unmarried, adult, male, then a thinker can learn
bachelor by confirming the hypothesis that it applies to things that are unmarried, adult, and
male. Of course, being able to formulate this hypothesis requires that one possess the concepts
UNMARRIED, ADULT, and MALE. The empiricist model thus will not apply to primitive
concepts that lack internal structure that can be mentally represented in this way. For instance,
one can not formulate the hypothesis that red things fall under RED unless one already has RED,
for the concept RED is a constituent of that very hypothesis. Primitive concepts like RED,
therefore, must not be learned and must be innate. If, as Fodor argues, all lexical concepts are
primitive, then it follows that all lexical concepts are innate (1975, ch. 2). Fodors claim is not
that people are born possessing lexical concepts; experience must play a role on any account of
concept acquisition (just as it does on any account of language acquisition). Fodors claim is that
concepts are not learned on the basis of experience, but rather are triggered by it. As Fodor
sometimes puts it, the relation between experience and concept acquisition is brute-causal, not
rational or evidential (Fodor 1981b).
Of course, most theories of conceptssuch as inferential role and prototype theories, discussed
aboveassume that many lexical concepts have some kind of internal structure. In fact, theorists
are sometimes explicit that their motivation for positing complex lexical structure is to reduce
the number of primitives in the lexicon. As Ray Jackendoff says:
Nearly everyone thinks that learning anything consists of constructing it from previously
known parts, using previously known means of combination. If we trace the learning process
back and ask where the previously known parts came from, and their previously know parts
came from, eventually we have to arrive at a point where the most basic parts are not
learned: they are given to the learner genetically, by virtue of the character of brain
development. Applying this view to lexical learning, we conclude that lexical concepts
must have a compositional structure, and that the word learners [functional]-mind is
putting meanings together from smaller parts (2002, 334). (See also Levin and Pinker 1991,
p. 4.)
Its worth stressing that while those in the empiricist tradition typically assume that the
primitives are sensory concepts, those who posit complex lexical structure need not commit
themselves to any such claim. Rather, they may simply assume that very few lexical items are not
decomposable, and deal with the issue of primitives on a case by case basis, as Jackendoff (2002)
does. In fact, many of the (apparent) primitives appealed to in the literaturefor example,
EVENT, THING, STATE, CAUSE, and so forthare quite abstract and thus not ripe for an
empiricist treatment.
In any case, Fodor is led to adopt informational atomism, in part, because he isnt persuaded by
the evidence that lexical concepts have any structure, decompositional or otherwise. He thus
does not think that appealing to lexical structure provides an adequate reply to his argument for
concept nativism (Fodor 1981b, 1998a, Fodor and Lepore 2002). If lexical concepts are primitive,
and primitive concepts are unlearned, then lexical concepts are unlearned.
In his book Concepts: Where Cognitive Science Went Wrong (1998a), Fodor worries about
whether his earlier view is adequate. In particular, hes concerned about whether it has the
resources to explain questions such as why it is experiences with doorknobs that trigger the
concept DOORKNOB:
[T]heres a further constraint that whatever theory of concepts we settle on should satisfy: it
must explain why there is so generally a content relation between the experience that
eventuates in concept attainment and the concept that the experience eventuates in
attaining. [A]ssuming that primitive concepts are triggered, or that theyre caught, wont
account for their content relation to their causes; apparently only induction will. But
primitive concepts cant be induced; to suppose that they are is circular. (1998a, p. 132

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Fodors answer to this worry involves a metaphysical claim about the nature of the properties
picked out by most of our lexical concepts. In particular, he claims that its constitutive of these
properties that our minds lock to them as a result of experience with their stereotypical
instances. As Fodor puts it, being a doorknob is just being the kind of thing that our kinds of
minds (do or would) lock to from experience with instances of the doorknob stereotype (1998a,
p. 137). By making such properties mind-dependent in this way, Fodor thus provides a
metaphysical reply to his worry above: there need not be a cognitive or evidential relation
between our experiences with doorknobs and our acquisition of DOORKNOB, for being a
doorknob just is the property that our minds lock to as a result of experiencing stereotypical
instances of doorknobs. Fodor sums up his view as follows:
[I]f the locking story about concept possession and the mind-dependence story about the
metaphysics of doorknobhood are both true, then the kind of nativism about doorknob that
an informational atomist has to put up with is perhaps not one of concepts but of
mechanisms. That consequence may be some consolation to otherwise disconsolate
Empiricists. (1998a, p. 142)
In his recent book, LOT 2: The Language of Thought Revisited (2008), Fodor extends his earlier
discussions of concept nativism. Whereas his previous argument turned on the empirical claim
that lexical concepts are internally unstructured, Fodor now says that this claim is superfluous:
What I should have said is that its true and a priori that the whole notion of concept learning is
per se confused (2008, p. 130). Fodor thus argues that even patently complex concepts, such as
GREEN OR TRIANGULAR, are unlearnable. Learning this concept would require confirming the
hypothesis that the things that fall under it are either green or triangular. However, Fodor says:
[T]he inductive evaluation of that hypothesis itself requires (inter alia) bringing the property
green or triangular before the mind as such. You cant represent something as green or
triangular unless have the concepts GREEN, OR, and TRIANGULAR. Quite generally, you
cant represent anything as such as such unless you already have the concept such and such.
This conclusion is entirely general; it doesnt matter whether the target concept is
primitive (like green) or complex (like GREEN OR TRIANGULAR). (2008, p. 139)
Fodors diagnosis of this problem is that standard learning models wrongly assume that
acquiring a concept is a matter of acquiring beliefs Instead, Fodor suggests that beliefs are
constructs out of concepts, not the other way around, and that the failure to recognize this is
what leads to the above circularity (2008, pp. 139-140; see also Fodors debate with Piaget in
Piattelli-Palmarini, 1980).
Fodors story about concept nativism in LOT 2 runs as follows: although no conceptsnot even
complex onesare learned, concept acquisition nevertheless involves inductive generalizations.
We acquire concepts as a result of experiencing their stereotypical instances, and learning a
stereotype is an inductive process. Of course, if concepts were stereotypes then it would follow
that concept acquisition would be an inductive process. But, Fodor says, concepts cant be
stereotypes since stereotypes violate compositionality (see above). Instead, Fodor suggests that
learning a stereotype is a stage in the acquisition of a concept. His picture thus looks like this
(2008, p. 151):
Initial state (P1) stereotype formation (P2) locking (= concept attainment).
Why think that P1 is an inductive process? Fodor says there are well-known empirical results
suggesting that even very young infants are able to recognize and respond to statistical
regularities in their environments, and a genetically endowed capacity for statistical induction
would make sense if stereotype formation is something that minds are frequently employed to
do (2008, p. 153). What makes this picture consistent with Fodors claim that there cant be
any such thing as concept learning (p. 139) is that he does not take P2 to be an inferential or

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intentional process (pp. 154-155). What kind of process is it? Here, Fodor doesnt have much to
say, other than its the kind of thing that our sort of brain tissue just does: Psychology gets you
from the initial state to P2; then neurology takes over and gets you the rest of the way to concept
attainment (p. 152). So, again, Fodors ultimate story about concept nativism is consistent with
the view, as he puts it in Concepts, that maybe there arent any innate ideas after all (1998a, p.
143). Instead, there are innate mechanisms, which he now claims take us from the acquisition of
stereotypes to the acquisition of concepts.

In his influential book, The Modularity of Mind (1983), Fodor argues that the mind contains a
number of highly specialized, modular systems, whose operations are largely independent from
each other and from the central system devoted to reasoning, belief fixation, decision making,
and the like. In that book, Fodor was particularly interested in defending a modular view of
perception against the so-called New Look psychologists and philosophers (for example,
Bruner, Kuhn, Goodman), who took cognition to be more or less continuous with perception.
Whereas New Look theorists focused on evidence suggesting various top-down effects in
perceptual processing (ways in which what people believe and expect can affect what they see),
Fodor was impressed by evidence from the other direction suggesting that perceptual processes
lack access to such background information. Perceptual illusions provide a nice illustration. In
the famous Mller-Lyer illusion (Figure 1), for instance, the top line looks longer than the bottom
line even though theyre identical in length.

Figure 1. The Mller-Lyer Illusion


Standard explanations of the illusion appeal to certain background assumptions the visual
system is making, which effectively override the fact that the retinal projections are identical in
length. However, as Fodor pointed out, if knowing that the two lines are identical in length does
not change the fact that one looks longer than the other, then clearly perceptual processes dont
have access to all of the information available to the perceiver. Thus, there must be limits on how
much information is available to the visual system for use in perceptual inferences. In other
words, vision must be in some interesting sense modular. The same goes for other sensory/input
systems, and, on Fodors view, certain aspects of language processing.
Fodor spells out a number of characteristic features of modules. That knowledge of an illusion
doesnt make the illusion go away illustrates one of their central features, namely, that they are
informationally encapsulated. Fodor says:
[T]he claim that input systems are informationally encapsulated is equivalent to the claim
that the data that can bear on the confirmation of perceptual hypotheses includes, in the
general case, considerably less that the organism may know. That is, the confirmation
function for input systems does not have access to all the information that the organism
internally represents. (1983, p. 69)
In addition, modules are supposed to be domain specific, in the sense that theyre restricted in
the sorts of representations (such as visual, auditory, or linguistic) that can serve as their inputs
(1983, pp. 47-52). Theyre also mandatory. For instance, native English speakers cannot hear

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utterances of English as mere noise (You all know what Swedish and Chinese sound like; what
does English sound like? 1983, p. 54), and people with normal vision and their eyes open cannot
help but see the 3-D objects in front of them. In general, modules approximate the condition so
often ascribed to reflexes: they are automatically triggered by the stimuli that they apply to
(1983, pp. 54-55). Not only are modular processes domain-specific and out of our voluntary
control, theyre also exceedingly fast. For instance, subjects can shadow speech (repeat what is
heard when its heard) with a latency of about 250 milliseconds, and match a description to a
picture with 96% accuracy when exposed for a mere 167 milliseconds (1983, pp. 61-64). In
addition, modules have shallow outputs, in the sense that the information they carry is simple,
or constrained in some way, which is required because otherwise the processing required to
generate them couldnt be encapsulated. As Fodor says, if the visual system can deliver news
about protons, then the likelihood that visual analysis is informationally encapsulated is
negligible (1983, p. 87). Fodor tentatively suggests that the visual system delivers as outputs
basic perceptual categories (Rosch et al. 1976) such as dog or chair, although others take
shallow outputs to be altogether non-conceptual (see Carruthers 2006, p. 4). In addition to these
features, Fodor also suggests that modules are associated with fixed neural architecture (1983,
pp. 98-99), exhibit characteristic and specific breakdown patterns (1983, pp. 99-100), and have
an ontogeny that exhibits a characteristic pace and sequencing (1983, pp. 100-101).
On Fodors view, although sensory systems are modular, the central systems underlying belief
fixation, planning, decision-making, and the like, are not. The latter exhibit none of the
characteristic features associated with modules since they are domain-general, unencapsulated,
under our voluntary control, slow, and not associated with fixed neural structures. Fodor draws
attention, in particular, to two distinguishing features of central systems: theyre isotropic, in the
sense that in principle, any of ones cognitive commitments (including, of course, the available
experiential data) is relevant to the (dis)confirmation of any new belief (2008, p. 115); and
theyre Quinean, in the sense that they compute over the entirety of ones belief system, as when
one settles on the simplest, most conservative overall beliefas Fodor puts it, the degree of
confirmation assigned to any given hypothesis is sensitive to properties of the entire belief
system (1983, p. 107). Fodors picture of mental architecture is one in which there are a number
of informationally encapsulated modules that process the outputs of transducer systems, and
then generate representations that are integrated in a non-modular central system. The
Fodorean mind is thus essentially a big general-purpose computer, with a number of domainspecific computers out near the edges that feed into it.
Fodors work on modularity has been criticized on a number of fronts. Empiricist philosophers
and psychologists are typically quite happy with the claim that the central system is domaingeneral, but have criticized Fodors claim that input systems are modular (see Prinz 2006 for a
recent overview of such criticisms). Fodors work has also been attacked from the other direction,
by those who share his rationalist and nativist sympathies. Most notably, evolutionary
psychologists reject Fodors claim that there must be a non-modular system responsible for
integrating modular outputs, and argue instead that the mind is nothing but a collection of
modular systems (see, Barkow, Cosmides, and Tooby (1992), Carruthers (2006), Pinker (1997),
and Sperber (2002)). According to such massive modularity theorists, what Fodor calls the
central system is in fact built up out of a number of domain-specific modules, for example,
modules devoted to common-sense reasoning about physics, biology, psychology, and the
detection of cheaters, to name a few prominent examples from the literature. Evolutionary
psychologists also claim that these central modules are adaptations, that is, products of selection
pressures that faced our hominid ancestors; see Pinker (1997) for an introduction to evolutionary
psychology, and Carruthers (2006) for what is perhaps the most sophisticated defense of massive
modularity to date.
That Fodor is a nativist might lead one to believe that he is sympathetic to applying adaptationist
reasoning to the human mind. This would be a mistake. Fodor has long been skeptical of the idea
that the mind is a product of natural selection, and in his book The Mind Doesnt Work That

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Way (2001) he replies to a number of arguments purporting to show that it must be. For
instance, evolutionary psychologists claim that the mind must be reverse engineered: in order
to figure out how it works, we must know what its function is; and in order to know what its
function is we must know what it was selected for. Fodor rejects this latter inference, and claims
that natural selection is not required in order to underwrite claims about the teleology of the
mind. For the notion of function relevant for psychology might be synchronic, not diachronic:
You might think, after all, that what matters in understanding the mind is what ours do now,
not what our ancestors did some millions of years ago (1998b, p. 209). Indeed, in general, one
does not need to know about the evolutionary history of a system in order to make inferences
about its function:
[O]ne can often make a pretty shrewd guess what an organ is for on the basis of entirely
synchronic considerations. One might thus guess that hands are for grasping, eyes for seeing,
or even that minds are for thinking, without knowing or caring much about their history of
selection. Compare Pinker (1997, p. 38): psychologists have to look outside psychology if
they want to explain what the parts of the mind are for. Is this true? Harvey didnt have to
look outside physiology to explain what the heart is for. It is, in particular, morally certain
that Harvey never read Darwin. Likewise, the phylogeny of bird flight is still a live issue in
evolutionary theory. But, I suppose, the first guy to figure out what birds use their wings for
lived in a cave. (2000, p. 86)
Fodors point is that even if one grants that natural selection underwrites teleological claims
about the mind, it doesnt follow that in order to understand a psychological mechanism one
must understand the selection pressures that led to it.
Evolutionary psychologists also argue that the adaptive complexity of the human mind requires
that one treat it as a collection of adaptations. For natural selection is the only known
explanation for adaptive complexity in the living world. Fodor replies that the complexity of the
mind is irrelevant when it comes to determining whether its a product of natural selection:
[W]hat matters to the plausibility that the architecture of our minds is an adaptation is how
much genotypic alternation would have been required for it to evolve from the mind of the
nearest ancestral ape whose cognitive architecture was different from ours. [I]ts entirely
possible that quite small neurological reorganizations could have effected wild psychological
discontinuities between our minds and the ancestral apes. (2000, pp. 87-88)
Given that we dont currently know whether small neurological changes in the brains of our
ancestors led to large changes in their cognitive capacities, Fodor says, the appeal to adaptive
complexity does not warrant the claim that our minds are the product of natural selection. In his
latest book co-authored with Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, What Darwin Got Wrong (2010),
Fodor argues that selectional explanations in general are both decreasingly of interest in biology
and, on further reflection, actually incoherent. Perhaps needless to say, this view has occasioned
considerable controversy; for examples see Sober (forthcoming), Block and Kitcher (2010), and
Godfrey-Smith (2010).
In The Mind Doesnt Work That Way (2000), and also in LOT 2 (2008), Fodor reiterates and
defends his claim that the central systems are non-modular, and connects this view to general
doubts about the adequacy of RTM as a comprehensive theory of the human mind. One of the
main jobs of the central system is the fixation of belief via abductive inferences, and Fodor argues
that the fact that such inferences are isotropic and Quinean shows they cannot be realized in a
modular system. These features render belief fixation a holistic, global, and contextdependent affair, which implies that it is not realized in a modular, informationallyencapsulated system. Moreover, given RTMs commitment to the claim that computational
processes are sensitive only to local properties of mental representations, these holistic features
of central cognition would appear to fall outside of RTMs scope (2000, chs. 2-3; 2008, ch. 4).

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Consider, for instance, the simplicity of a belief. As Fodor says: The thought that there will be no
wind tomorrow significantly complicates your arrangements if you had intended to sail to
Chicago, but not if your plan was to fly, drive, or walk there (2000, p. 26). Whether or not a
belief complicates a plan thus depends upon the beliefs involved in the planthat is, the
simplicity of a belief is one of its global, context-dependent properties. However, the syntactic
properties of representations are local, in the sense that they supervene on their intrinsic,
context-independent properties. To the extent that cognition involves global properties of
representations, then, Fodor concludes that RTM cannot provide a model of how cognition
works:
[A] cognitive science that provides some insight into the part of the mind that isnt modular
may well have to be different, root and branch, from the kind of syntactical account that
Turings insights inspired. It is, to return to Chomskys way of talking, a mystery, not just a
problem, how mental processes could be simultaneously feasible and abductive and
mechanical. Indeed, I think that, as things now stand, this and consciousness look to be the
ultimate mysteries about the mind. (2000, p. 99).
Thus, although Fodor has long championed RTM as the best theory of cognition available, he
thinks that its application is limited to those portions of the mind that are modular. Needless to
say, many disagree with Fodors assessment of the limits of RTM (see Carruthers (2003, 2006),
Ludwig and Schneider (2008), and Pinker (2005)).

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Author Information
Bradley Rives
Email: rives@iup.edu
Indiana University of Pennsylvania
U. S. A.

Last updated: October 25, 2010 | Originally published: October 25, 2010

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