Jerry Fodor, LOT 2: The Language of Thought Revisited. Oxford, OUP, 2008.
Some quick observations on Fodor’s new book:
1. As usual, a great book: ambitious, provocative, full of ideas and arguments, and as a bonus, funny (for those who like his humor).
2. He is still a computationalist, language-of-thought representationalist, atomist and nativist about concepts, referentialist with respect to semantic content, and causal theorist about the origin of semantic content.
3. He stresses more than ever that although his theory is the best available, it fails to explain central cognitive processes. His main reason is that computation is local, whereas central cognition (e.g., inductive inference) is global. What this means is, roughly speaking, that computational processes (as he understands them) only work well when they manipulate a few representations at a time. As soon as computations try to manipulate too many representations (e.g., because they are looking for global properties of a large set of representations), they run into the intractability of the frame problem. But some cognitive processes (e.g., inductive inference) require taking into account too many representations for computational processes to be a feasible explanation of them. Fodor suggests that some “new” kind of computation might be able to explain such processes, but he doesn’t think anyone has any idea how this new kind of computation works. I wish he would have explained better why it doesn’t help to appeal to lots of parallel processes here (as, e.g., Paul Churchland does in his recent work).
4. One novelty is iconic representations, whose content is nonconceptual. Fodor argues on empirical grounds that cognition involves iconic representations as well as linguistic/conceptual ones. At the very least, iconic (nonconceptual) representations are the ones present in the “iconic buffer”, which is a processing stage postulated by some classical cognitive psychological theories. As far as I remember from his previous work, this is a new addition to Fodor’s theory.
5. As usual, Fodor relies on his semantic account of computation, according to which computation is a kind of manipulation of representations that “preserves” (some) semantic properties of the representations. This gets him into trouble when it’s time to explain how the representations acquire their content, because he can’t appeal to computational processes. (According to Fodor, for a computation to be in place, there must already be representations with their semantic properties in place.) So he ends up saying that the notion of concept learning is incoherent. Instead, he suggests that semantic content is acquired through – listen to this! – non-computational brain processes. The story gets pretty mysterious at that point; a “here a miracle happens” moment. Fodor’s own argument that acquiring semantic properties is just something the brain does is quite involved, though – he does not generate his conclusion simply on the grounds of his account of computation. But I stress the connection with the semantic account of computation because I’ve been arguing for some time that contra Fodor and many others, computation does not require representation. If I’m right, computation might help explain the origin of semantic content is ways that are precluded to Fodor et al.
6. The appeal to brain processes to explain the origin of content is surprising and ironic for someone, like Fodor, whose theory of mind seems to have been built (over many decades) by ignoring neuroscience as a matter of principle, and, occasionally, as a rationalization for why it’s ok to ignore neuroscience.
7. I strongly recommend reading this book. Like most of his previous books, it will become a standard reference for philosophers of mind.