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Preface and Document Status


Arguments for Fodor’s Position

Against an Innate Language of Thought

Richard Rorty’s Arguments

Study of Mind

Evolutionary Approaches


Preface and Document Status

In 1986, when I wrote this essay, the ideas discussed were relatively fresh

I have made a précis summary of the original essay

I maintain the current form of the document out of interest in the topic and if I should return to write on it again

No further action for Journey in Being


Jerry Fodor wrote [1975, 1981] that there is a language of thought with the following features: richness – it is adequate for all cognition; it is innate – innateness is necessary to explain concept formation; it is natural – and underlies natural languages which are therefore easy to learn; it is not merely symbolic – if mind is to be not merely a machine the language must be a mental representation of the world

This essay was an examination of the idea of a language of thought

Arguments for Fodor’s Position

There is an appeal to Fodor’s concept. Surely thought is richer than language, just as nature is richer than thought

Arguments for the concept include Fodor’s: formation of concepts, ease with which natural languages are learned… further arguments include the universality of human concepts e.g. the near universal identification of species across industrial and native cultures – Mayr [1963] and Rosch [1972]

Against an Innate Language of Thought

Arguments against Fodor’s concept include, first, criticism of Fodor’s arguments. Since there is an origin of concepts – in evolution – there cannot be an in principle argument that concepts cannot be formed: the form of the argument must be that the human [brain] capacity is not adequate to the task of language and concept acquisition or formation

Fodor’s arguments fail to distinguish between a natural phenomena and difficulty in understanding the phenomena

Thinking about the adult difficulty with second language acquisition or the difficulty of first language acquisition by feral children is not a good argument since the period of brain developmental plasticity is over by the time the difficulty occurs. Regarding the universality of concepts, it should be noted that concepts are not truly universal; rather, concepts are universal in developed science and in cases where the survival or economics of the culture depends on the concepts; in other cases there is variation

The situation described above with regard to occasions for universality of concepts is an argument for ability to form concepts

There is a distinction between innateness of language and concepts and innateness of the ability to acquire language and form concepts

Innateness of the ability explains the data that Fodor’s idea was designed to explain as well as the data at which Fodor’s idea fails

Innateness of ability is biologically much more economical and contextually more adaptive than innateness of the adult function

Richard Rorty’s Arguments

Rorty [1979] argued that mind is not a mirror of nature

There are a number of problems with the idea of mind as a mirror of nature. First, being is immersed in the world; the metaphor of the mirror is nothing more than that – it is a metaphor perhaps based on reflexive thought and the acuity of visual perception. Second, the metaphor suggests a precise one-one correspondence but being in the world requires neither one-one correspondence or precision on all counts. Third, the metaphor suggests something static, something innate something given whereas the actual state of affairs is dynamic and developmental

Thus the difficulties with the mirror metaphor stand against Fodor’s idea of a language of thought

Yet Rorty has argued in favor of Fodor’s idea. Fodor’s ideas have been analyzed by Richard Rorty who finds that Fodor’s discussion is about how the individual interacts with the world, but is not a claim that “mind is a mirror” of nature. Arguments regarding innateness of ways of interaction are not different from arguments about innateness of a language of thought

I have included mention of Rorty’s position [c. 1979] because of their interest despite absence of any decisive character regarding Fodor’s language of thought

Study of Mind

In the endeavor to study a complex phenomenon such as mind, we may make parallel uses all valid approaches

These include empirical, theoretical, and synthetic studies

An example of an early synthetic study is Kant’s who hypothesized an intermediary - the schema - between the categories of mind and the stuff of existence

Empirical study includes that of behavior, development, language and concept use

Theoretical studies include conceptual, proximate and evolutionary analyses

Evolutionary Approaches

Use of an evolutionary dynamics of complex systems; e.g., the adaptive tendency to hierarchical structure

establishment of the evolutionary pathway and study of developmental psychobiology in evolution by analysis of modern forms of the evolutionary links

ecological studies of adaptation

An extension of Piaget’s approach, growth of the individual from conception to maturity, as a study of development and the relations between development and evolution - development determines details or coding while evolution determines the parameters or systems


Fodor, J., 1975, The Language of Thought

Fodor, J., 1981, Representations: Philosophical Essays on the Foundations of Cognitive Science

Piaget, J., 1970, Piaget’s Theory, in P. Mussen, ed., Carmichael’s Manual of Child Psychology

Rorty, R., 1979, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature

Rosch, E., 1972, Universals in color naming and memory, Journal of Experimental Psychology 93:10-20

Rosch, E., 1978, Principles of categorization, in E. Rosch and B. B. Lloyd, eds., Cognition and Categorization

Mayr, E., 1963, Animal and Species Evolution

Mayr, E., 1973, Natural Categories, in Cognitive Science 4:328-50

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Philosophy of Mind