In Memoriam: Jerry Fodor (1935-2017)

I just learned the sad news of Jerry Fodor’s death. Although I heard him lecture a few times, I talked to him directly only once, and it was probably one of the most important events of my life.

I applied to grad school for the first time in 2001, when I was in my last year of college in Bogota, at the Universidad Nacional. My English was terrible, almost non-existent. I even had to pay a translator to translate my writing sample from Spanish into English. Not knowing any philosophy, the translator did the best she could; the final result, nevertheless, made little sense (e.g., “intentionality” wasn’t translated systematically but it was rather re-interpreted as “purpose” or “desire” and the like, depending on the context. The horror).

Anyways, as expected, I was rejected everywhere. The last place I had yet to hear from was Rutgers. With the last little thread of hope, and upon my sister’s suggestion (she’s not in academia), I sent one of those newly invented electronic messages to Fodor, telling him about my interests in analytic philosophy of mind, and some concerns I had with his otherwise incredibly intriguing theory of the language of thought. Politely, he replied “My office hours are Tuesdays from ….” I was beyond happy. “Mom!” I cried “One of the most important philosophers of mind in the US just invited me to talk to him in his office!!”

My mother, always supportive, helped me to put together enough money to cover the ticket from Bogota to Newark, and two weeks later I was on a plane to the US. It would have been my second time there. The day before the “meeting”, I decided to take the train to New Brunswick so I could figure out the route I would have to take the following day, for my meeting with Fodor. I didn’t want to get lost, or be late. But since I was already there in the philosophy department, I figured I could just step in and ask, you know, whether or not I was accepted. This was way after April 15, so I should have known better–but I didn’t. I literally did not know anything about academia in the US.

Obviously–and I’d spare you the details of who gave me the news–I learned that day that I, too, had been rejected from Rutgers, the last place I had yet to hear from. All ten universities I applied to had rejected me. I was destroyed. I cried my eyes out on the way to Grand Central Station, and then up again to my sister’s, in Connecticut, where I was staying. After putting myself back together, she suggested I should, nevertheless, go and talk to Fodor and ask him for advice as to what I should do to pursue a career in philosophy in the US. I was pretty disheartened, but I put myself together again and, effectively, went to Fodor’s office hours the day after.

I walked in, told him who I was, explained why I had applied to Rutgers to work with him, and added that I had been rejected. We spoke a little bit about my honors thesis and the issues I was raising against the language of thought, and he was kind and supportive. Toward the end of the conversation he told me that he was sorry I hadn’t been accepted at Rutgers, but that I shouldn’t give up, and that I should consider applying to Tufts to do the MA program in philosophy, since I was doing my undergrad at a rather unknown place (no longer true, I don’t think).

His kindness that day, his encouragement, and his very precise suggestion as to what should be my next goal in the long marathon of chasing my dreams was precisely what I needed to pick up the pieces of my shattered hope. I will be forever grateful to Jerry Fodor, and will never forget his office hours.

RIP, Professor Fodor. You changed philosophy, and you changed my life.


    • Felipe De Brigard

      Thank you Gualtiero! I always hoped to thank him in person, but never got around to doing it. I thank John for inviting me to share this story in his memory.

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