Introductory summary by Ted Honderich of Jerry Fodor’s Royal Institute of Philosophy Annual Lecture


            Jerry Fodor is among the strongest of philosophers and cognitive scientists, some say burliest, in a notable department of philosophy, that of Rutgers, the university of the state of New Jersey. He was born a New Yorker, went to Columbia and Princeton, and spent a year in Oxford. He is known for the theory that there is one Language of Thought, right there in all our human brains, not English or any other natural language. He is also known for understanding the mind in terms of modules, specialized entities responding to specific kinds of input. The philosophy of language has not escaped his attention and judgement, and he has taken on not merely much of cognitive science but also Darwin himself on evolution. 

            The sequence of the first half of his lecture, as he reports himself, begins with (i) the question about the mental -- about the conscious and the unconscious mind -- of whether there are things in it called unconceptualized representations, whether there is a perceptual given in that sense, as well as the conceptualized representations elaborated in some or all of the representative theories of the mind. That opening question, in the first of a number of metamorphoses or improvements of it, becomes the question of (ii) whether there are just-representing representations as well as representing-as ones, a distinction like the more familiar one between seeing something and seeing it as something.

            That second question in turn becomes the question of (iii) whether there are what are called iconic mental representations as well as discursive ones. Are there iconic mental representations somehow akin, for example, to pictorial ones, maybe of a giraffe on paper? Not word-like and sentence-like representations in the particular and much studied ways that those are composed of parts. And finally there is the last metamorphosis, the question (iv) of whether there are mental representations where representing something and individuating something comes apart -- on which final understanding of the issue of givenness there is empirical evidence.

            There is suggestive evidence in the psychological literature, that is, of representation without what is called an item effect. There is data to which your own experience, maybe of the chiming of a clock, and counting the chimes, is relevant. It takes and deserves slow reading. So we are invited to the conclusion that a certain perceptual given is quite likely -- we are invited by the evidence of psychologists to an answer to what has hitherto been taken as a philosopher's question. Which is not to say that there isn't a given in some other sense or other senses.

            Is all this about the given as hitherto heard of in philosophy? C. I. Lewis has much of his place in the history of American philosophy and logic for asserting the existence of some given, and his compatriot Wilfrid Sellars has some of his place for denying it. In this particular philosophical sense the given is qualia or qualities presented in our sense experience and also in rather more than that. They are  qualia that are immediate, certain, and true -- true despite their not involving conceptualization, which is a pretty good trick -- and also what we construct reality out of.

            Fodor sure isn't Lewis, for reasons starting with his inclusion of the unconscious mind, and also his nod to Freud, rarer these days than a decade ago. That isn't to say he hasn't got a subject for which he can use an old name. He isn't either, by the way, into what I call actualism, an enthusiasm of my own, about a very much plainer givenness, a fact of just all consciousness rather than also the rest of mentality. He has, as he hoped, limned one philosophical landscape, very discursively, and with what you could call New Yorker finesse. One question here is what distinguishes conscious from unconscious representation. We need to know, don't we? Despite similarity, conscious representation is a different sort of thing from a picture of a giraffe on paper or the printed word, isn't it?