Jerry Fodor And Philosophical Practice

I wrote a short post on Facebook today, making note of the passing away of Jerry Fodor:

Much as I admired Fodor’s writing chops, I deplored the way he did philosophy. The stories of his ‘put-downs’ and sarcastic, ironic, ‘devastating’ objections, questions, or responses in seminars always left me feeling like this was not how I understood philosophy as a practice. The admiration all those around me extended to Fodor was a significant component in me feeling alienated from philosophy during graduate school. (It didn’t help that in the one and only paper I wrote on Fodor–in refuting his supposed critique of Quine‘s inscrutability of reference claim–I found him begging the question rather spectacularly.) I had no personal contact with him, so I cannot address that component of him; all I can say is that from a distance, he resembled too many other academic philosophers: very smart folk, but not people I felt I could work with or for, or converse with to figure out things together.

In response, a fellow philosopher wrote to me:

[H]onestly that was my impression of Fodor also….while I too didn’t ever even meet him in person, I thought much of his rhetoric was nasty and unfair, that he routinely caricatured positions of others and then sort of pranced around about how he had totally refuted them, and that he basically ignored criticism…he was very far from what I would take to be a model for the profession….I got the impression that pretty much every other philosopher he mentioned was just a foil – produce a sort of comic book version of them to show how much better his view was.

There has been plenty of praise for Fodor on social media, much of which made note of precisely the style I pointed out above, albeit in admiring tones. In their obit for FodorThe London Review of Books paid attention to similar issues:

Jerry Fodor, who died yesterday, wrote thirty pieces for the LRB….Many of them were on philosophy of mind…more often than not, lucidly explaining how the books under review had got it all wrong….His literary criticism included a withering review of a pair of ‘amply unsuccessful’ novels about apes; and he had this to say of Steven Pinker’s view of Hamlet in his demolition of psychological Darwinism:

And here [Pinker] is on why we like to read fiction: ‘Fictional narratives supply us with a mental catalogue of the fatal conundrums we might face someday and the outcomes of strategies we could deploy in them. What are the options if I were to suspect that my uncle killed my father, took his position, and married my mother?’ Good question. Or what if it turns out that, having just used the ring that I got by kidnapping a dwarf to pay off the giants who built me my new castle, I should discover that it is the very ring that I need in order to continue to be immortal and rule the world? It’s important to think out the options betimes, because a thing like that could happen to anyone and you can never have too much insurance.

Unsurprisingly, this quote from Fodor was cited as a ‘sick burn’ on Twitter–as an example of his ‘genteel trash talk.’ But a second’s reading of Pinker, and of the response above by Fodor, shows that Fodor is again operating at his worst here. The paragraph cited is a deliberately obtuse and highly superficial reading of Pinker’s claim. Do we have to think about the specific events in Hamlet in order to ponder the ethical dilemmas that the play showcases for us? Is this why people have the emotional responses they do to Hamlet? Or is it because they are able to recognize and internalize the intractability of the issues that Hamlet raises? Do we need to specifically think about rings, dwarfs, and giants in order to specifically ponder the abstract problems that lie at the heart of the tale Fodor cites? Indeed, the many folks who have read these stories over the years seem–in their emotional responses–to have been perfectly capable of separating their concrete particulars from the concepts they traffic in. Fodor does not bother to offer a charitable reading of Pinker; he sets off immediately to scorn and ridicule. This kind of philosophy, and this kind of writing, earns plenty of applause from those who imagine philosophy to be a contact sport. But it does little to advance philosophical thinking on the issues at play.

11 thoughts on “Jerry Fodor And Philosophical Practice

  1. I fully acknowledge that we each have our own perspectives, Samir. And I would add that I do not follow Fodor in his rather absolutist view of truth. That said, the philosopher your write about here (and on facebook), is not the philosopher I knew from the classes I took with him, the office hours I monopolized, nor the Sunday afternoon phone calls he was generous enough to entertain. The Jerry Fodor I knew was a model a philosopher, a model mentor, and a model teacher. He wanted to help those who wanted to think things through. His prose style, moreover, wasn’t notable simply because it was cheeky and humorous, but because it so often cut to the quick: he was able, to a degree perhaps unequaled among his peers, to transmit the commonsense perspective on what are ultimately human questions, quandaries, and aspirations, into what had become (and still, unfortunately, overwhelming remains) an overly professionalized discourse. The philosophical community has suffered a great loss.

    1. Being fair and supportive to your students and unfair and abusive to those you disagree with would hardly be an unprecedented pairing.

      1. Where is the evidence that he was unfair and abusive to those he disagreed with? The above quote? A review of a book where he wittily offers criticisms? This is unfair? It’s abusive? In a profession/discipline/activity where individuals provide their take on how things ‘hang together,’ they inevitably disagree with how they hang together according to someone else. He expressed those disagreements humorously, but certainly not cruelly.

    1. Daniel: Thanks for your comment. Good to see you here! In response: I suppose not. But finding Fodor’s ‘joke’ funny is to find funny a deliberate style of non-charitable interpretation. It might be funny once or twice, but I’ve read a bit of Fodor and this kind of non-charitable interpretation was his hallmark. It gets tiresome after a while, especially when you realize that not-substantial philosophy is being done. He reminds me of Christopher Hitchens; great writer, but bothersome when you realize that a public school debating style very often disguised very poor arguments–but it still sold. But note, I did say I admired his ‘writing chops’ – he had flair for sure. I just think his flair let him get away with a great deal, and also entrenched a certain style of conversation in philosophy. Overall, that style of conversation has been destructive to philosophy.

      1. I guess I disagree with you almost completely about this.

        I don’t think anyone has done more substantial philosophizing than Fodor in the last fifty years, though there are a handful of others in the same league. And I think many of Fodor’s arguments are persuasive and ingenious, including many of those that are written in flippant, sweeping, and dismissive tones. (The latter are often recaps of much more serious and detailed arguments from earlier works, I think.)

        And even when he was operating at a level of abstraction that precludes detailed engagement, I think the view of the terrain he offered is often incredibly useful. This is true in some of his popular pieces and reviews, but a particularly good example is “Fodor’s Guide to Mental Representation”.

        More to your point: although I only had slightly more firsthand experience with him than you, I don’t have the impression that he was into punching down, and his humorous deprecation of others was almost always accompanied by self-deprecation. Both forms of deprecation, it seems to me, often sprang from a place of intellectual humility which was among his best characteristics: the real punchline of many of his zingers is that we are pretty ignorant about the very topics on which he was an expert.

      2. Daniel, I did not say he didn’t do substantial philosophy. I said that his style obscured times when he was making very weak philosophical claims. His supposed refutation of Quine (that I made note of in my post) is a case in point. (I think it is in The Elm and the Expert.) Vintage Fodor, witty, stylish, but when the crux of the argument appears, he just falls back on begging the question and simply does not take on board the full import of Quine’s claims. (BTW, check out his ‘proof that p’ if you can find it somewhere.) I never doubted the value of his philosophical work; I think he is wrong about everything, but I do not doubt that people will learn a great deal by reading him. I just would have preferred he did philosophy via a different ‘method.’

  2. I tend to agree with some of the comments here. He could come off in print as, shall we say…, smug, but in person he was a nice guy and good philosophical citizen. I didn’t interact with him much, but when I did, I could not have imagined it going better.
    Also, we have been hearing so much about people who are model philosophers in print, but real asses in person.
    I think I prefer good people who are vicious in print to vicious people who look good on the pages of a philosophy journal.

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