Sunday, October 11, 2009

Jerry Fodor and The Language of Thought

Thomas Riggins

Tim Crane has reviewed "LOT 2: 'The Language of Thought' revisited'" by Jerry Fodor in a recent issue of the TLS (9-4-09). Fodor is a leading philosopher of mind and this book is a follow up to his 1975 "The Language of Thought"-- which would be LOT 1. The purpose of this new book, according to Crane is to "stamp out" the philosophy of pragmatism which Fodor says is "perhaps the worst idea that philosophy ever had." Crane says Fodor in LOT 1 aimed at "reductionists, behaviourists, empiricists, operationalists, holists " and sundry Wittgensteinists. But all these "have become distilled" down to pragmatists. Fodor at least has good intentions!

In the 1975 work Fodor argued that when the brain thinks its thoughts the rules it follows are like a language (LOT= the language of thought). LOT is also known as "mentalese." The CONCEPTS of thinking combine in mentalese by rules just as words in a natural language combine by rules to make meaningful sentences.

A Marxist might think that the brain, through trial and error, simply learns whatever natural language it is exposed to and forms its CONCEPTS accordingly with no need for mentalese.

Fodor has some other controversial ideas in LOT 1, according to Crane-- such as the mind thinks as a computer, psychology cannot be reduced to a more basic science, and the simple concepts in the mind are INNATE not learned (the last, Crane indicates, is the most controversial).

LOT 2 revisits the main ideas of LOT 1 and Fodor has some second thoughts about some of his views but his attack on PRAGMATISM ("the view that thinking or having concepts is explained in terms of abilities to do things" is unwavering, according to Crane.

There are many shades of pragmatism and one of the most famous is that of the British philosopher GILBERT RYLE who attacked DESCARTES for his dualism-- matter and mind or the myth of "the ghost in the machine." Ryle also held that knowing how something is done comes before knowing that it "is the case." This riles Fodor to defend Descartes and he says "thought about the world is prior to thought about how to change the world. Accordingly, knowing that is prior to knowing how. Descartes was right and Ryle was wrong " [at least on this issue].

The two most important arguments against pragmatism in LOT 2 are 1) that since thinking is required for us to exercise our abilities it must be prior to them, and 2) since to think about the world with concepts the concepts have to relate to each other in a meaningful way ("be determined by the semantic properties of their parts") and this means, Fodor says, they partake of "compositionality" (i.e., the meaning of concepts is a function of the rules for relating them to each other, their "composition.") Pragmatism does not account for this property of thinking, Fordor says, so it must be wrong. This is a rather obtuse argument but there it is.

Thought consists of "aboutness". It is thinking about things i.e., it has reference. This is a position, Crane says, that Fodor has held for a long time. Crane maintains that there is a "tension" between Fodor's two arguments against pragmatism. The first argument has it that thought is "fine-grained" as thinking about George Orwell isn't always the same as thinking about Eric Blair. But the second argument is "coarse-grained" since references to Orwell are also references to Blair: "the thoughts have the same semantic properties."

Crane says the best chapter in the book is the one devoted to trying resolve this tension. He defends the fine-grained view by saying thinking about THE EVENING STAR is different than thinking about HESPERUS because there is only ONE concept in the latter and there are TWO concepts in the former.

But what about HESPERUS and VENUS? Well, Crane says, Fodor knows there is no difference in reference so the difference must be in how the content of the reference is presented by syntax. He quotes Fodor: "If there is something that it seems you need senses to do either do it with syntax or don't do it at all." All well and good, but Crane says this answer is also given by the philosophers Fodor opposes and although he has many differences with "pragmatists" and others, this use of syntax "is not one of them."

So the different ways we think about things is due to the different concepts involved and the concepts are part of the LOT going on in our brains [where else would it be?] What about PERCEPTION? This is discussed in "a much less satisfactory chapter."

Perception is NOT thought therefore it is non-conceptual. Crane says Fodor explains non-conceptual representation in two ways. 1.) Picture-like ("iconic") rather than linguistic and 2.) "in terms of the way it carries 'information' in a merely causal or physical sense." Crane gives the examples of smoke informing us of fire and clouds of rain.

These two arguments are also in tension according to Crane. "Informational content", he says, is indifferent as to how it is represented-- information about VENUS is also information about HESPERUS. Icons on the other hand are not indifferent as to how they are represented. The same cat can be perceived in different ways entirely.

Crane concludes that in Fodor's system informational content is "not well suited" for perception. He claims that perception can be as "fine-grained" as thought and that Fodor's "devotion to informational content" makes it difficult for him to see this.

So it appears that this philosophy has been found wanting. The LOT also appears to be a form of metaphysical speculation without sufficient empirical warrant.