Jerry Fodor: biography and work of this American philosopher

Science is constantly advancing. Some researchers and authors, however, have more influence than others in making this the case and leaving a barely comparable legacy of knowledge. This is the case of Jerry Fodor, renowned American philosopher and psycholinguist, who died in 2017.

In this article, we will briefly review his biography and learn about his contributions to the field of cognitive science. We will talk about the contributions he made in different fields of study and explain what his most outstanding work consists of: “Modularity of the Mind” (1983).

Jerry Fodor: Who was that?

Jerry Fodor was an American philosopher, as well as a psycholinguist, scientist, and university professor, becoming a professor of philosophy. He was born on April 22, 1935 in New York and died on November 29, 2017 also in New York, at the age of 82.

Fodor, in addition to being a philosopher and psycholinguist, was a great student of the human mind. He proposed an important theory in psychology: the theory of modularity of mind, which postulates that the mind is divided into compartments with specific functions, and which we will see later.

In addition, Jerry Fodor was one of the founders of functionalism, a major current in psychology, along with other writers such as William James, James R. Angell, and John Dewey.

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Jerry Fodor studied philosophy and began to develop his work in the 1960s. Some of his collaborators regard Fodor as the creator of the “philosophy of psychology” and of its contributions and knowledge, as we will see. two disciplines.

In the early 1960s, Fodor began working as a professor of philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), in the team of Noam Chomsky, a prominent American linguist. He worked at MIT until 1986.

Through his work, dedication and career, Jerry Fodor he became professor of philosophy in New Jersey at Rutger University.

Functionalism

A highlight of Jerry Fodor was his relationship to functionalism; Fodor is considered one of the fathers of functionalism in psychology. This philosophical stream postulates that the fundamental purpose of mental life and behavior is to enable us to adapt to the environment. Moreover, he considers that mental processes are functions of mediation between sensory inputs and motor outputs.

On the other hand, functionalism allowed the development of other theories and psychological currents.

Works and contributions

Jerry Fodor’s work is vast and results in a great number of works; among them, he has more than ten booksHe has also written some thirty publications for “London Review of Books”, a well-known British literary and political review.

Fodor’s work has focused on various fields, fields and disciplines, such as linguistics, psychology, semiotics, logic, artificial intelligence, and computer science, among others.

Cognitive sciences

One of the most important facts we need to know about this philosopher of the mind is that his contributions helped create cognitive science, a relatively modern discipline that deals with the scientific study of the mind and its processes. .

More precisely, Fodor has made outstanding contributions in the field of philosophy and psychology; he focused in particular on theories which postulate modularity of the mind. These theories, and which we will see later, propose that the mind is divided into certain functions, and that each of them is highly specialized; all, moreover, although independent, are linked to each other.

On the other hand, Jerry Fodor also immersed himself in the philosophy of language, a branch of philosophy that studies language itself through its nature, meaning, and relationship to thought.

Theory of modularity of the mind

To develop his work, Jerry Fodor follow a theoretical orientation centered on the paradigm of information processing (IP). Through his vision, and as we have already advanced, he developed one of his most important works: “The Modularity of Mind”, dated 1983.

In this work the influence that Franz Joseph Gall, the German physiologist who founded phrenology (pseudoscience which establishes a relation between the shape of the skull and the factions and characteristics of the personality) had on him is appreciated.

Characteristics of the theory

The theory of modularity of mind proposes a division of the same into two types of systems: input systems (the so-called input analyzers, which are modular) and central systems.

Input systems transfer information to central systems so that they can process it.. According to Jerry Fodor’s theory, only input systems can be verified empirically (because they are modular), as opposed to central systems (which they are not).

But how does the human mind work according to Fodor? In his theory of modularity of mind, he holds the view that the mind is divided into several innate and compartmentalized subsystems. Each subsystem develops a specific function: for example, we can speak of language, mathematical ability, musical ability, etc.

Fodor adds in his theory that these mental functions and faculties work in the same way as computers, thanks to abstract algorithms.

Science and technology

Another interesting fact about this philosopher is his relationship with science and the use of technology. So Jerry Fodor has been very guided by technology and computing to talk about the human mind and the brain. Fodor believed that the brain could be studied very well thanks to technology, but still to a certain extent, in which the mind became abstract and imprecise.

Thus, Fodor, through his contributions, attempted to answer the oldest questions of human cognition and the functioning of the mind, through the technology and computing of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Recognition and death

Jerry Fodor has won a number of accolades throughout his academic and professional career. Some of them were: the Guggenheim scholarship (in 1972), and a little later the Jean Nicod prize (in 1993).

Fodor died in 2017 at the age of 82 in his hometown of New York, following his Parkinson’s disease and a stroke. His legacy, however, remains valid and will likely remain so for many decades to come. The imprint he left in the field of psychology and philosophy is undeniable.

Bibliographical references:

  • Fodor, JA (1983). Modularity of the mind. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press. [Trad. española en Ed. Morata, 1986].

  • Fox, M. (2017). Jerry A. Fodor, a philosopher who has analyzed the depths of the mind, dies at the age of 82. The New York Times.

  • García-Albea, JE (2003). Fodor and the modularity of the mind (twenty years later). Rovira i Virgili University, Yearbook of Psychology, 34 (4): 505-571.

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