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Concepts: Where Cognitive Science Went Wrong [Paperback]

Jerry A. Fodor
2.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

March 1 1998 0198236360 978-0198236368
Oxford Cognitive Science Series General Editors: Martin Davies, Wilde Reader in Mental Philosophy, University of Oxford, UK, James Higginbotham, Professor of General Linguistics, University of Oxford, UK, John O'Keefe, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College, London, UK, Christopher Peacocke, Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy, University of Oxford, UK, and Kim Plunkett, University Lecturer in Psychology, University of Oxford, UK The Oxford Cognitive Science series is a forum for the best contemporary work in this flourishing field, where various disciplines--cognitive psychology, philosophy, linguistics, cognitive neuroscience, and computational theory--join forces in the investigation of thought, awareness, understanding, and associated workings of the mind. Each book will represent an original contribution to its subject, but will be accessible beyond the ranks of specialists, so as to reach a broad interdisciplinary readership. The series will be carefully shaped and steered by the general editors, with the aim of representing the most important developments in the field and bringing together its constituent disciplines. About this book The renowned philosopher Jerry Fodor, who has been a leading figure in the study of the mind for more than twenty years, presents a strikingly original theory of the basic constituents of thought. He suggests that the heart of a cognitive science is its theory of concepts, and that cognitive scientists have gone badly wrong in many areas because their assumptions about concepts have been seriously mistaken. Fodor argues compellingly for an atomistic theory of concepts, deals out witty and pugnacious demolitions of the rival theories that have prevailed in recent years, and suggests that future work on human cognition should build upon new foundations. This lively, conversational, and surprisingly accessible book is the first volume in the Oxford Cognitive Science Series, where the best original work in this field will be presented to a broad readership. Concepts will fascinate anyone interested in contemporary work on mind and language. Cognitive science will never be the same again.

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Review

`serves up plenty of clever barbs, potshots, and one-liners' The Philosophical Review, Vol.109, No.4

`immensely stimulating. Anyone working in the area will need to study its trenchant critical discussion of key positions in philosophy, linguistics, and psychology. These readers will be rewarded as well by the book's many illuminating asides and its more constructive closing chapters.' Steven Gross

`a rich account of what a science of the mind might look like if concepts had no structure ... a daunting critique of much of contemporary philosophy and cognitive science. Like most of Fodor's work, this book is bound to infuriate some and delight others. Either way it is full of interesting arguments, and as Fodor's most comprehensive overview of his philosophical position in years, his new book deserves to be - and surely will be - widely read.' British Journal of the Philosophy of Science 50 (1999)

`Fodor continues to be one of philosophy's great idea generators. This provocative book will set the agenda for discussion about concepts for years to come. Fodor argues for atomism about concepts with wit, verve and style. Everyone interested in philosophical issues of language or mind should study this book.' Ned Block, Professor of Philosophy and Psychology, New York University

About the Author

Jerry Fodor is Professor of Philosophy at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.

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4.0 out of 5 stars Jerry on Concepts: CogSci Made Enjoyable May 18 2001
Format:Paperback
This deceptively slim book was something of a delight. I was delighted for once to have a relatively brief (and devilishly tongue-in-cheek) overview of positions and thought among what too often strikes me as elitist, territorial, and occasionally even blinkered work in the nominally cross-disciplinary and open-minded field of academia that is Cognitive Science. Similarities and weaknesses among various competing theories and hypotheses were called to attention, and the (largely successful, I believe) explanation and details of the political infighting between prominent theorists was made strikingly clear. Furthermore, Fodor's relaxed language and humor helped ease me, the poor reader, through the dense and convoluted minefield that is the philosophy behind the philosophy of language.
Much as I enjoyed the book, I must refrain from a full five stars for one reason. It wasn't that I found his description and treatment of the theories he presented (particularly those I was familiar with) to be a bit shallow -- after all, Fodor isn't attempting an in-depth literature review, nor is he addressing an audience made up of more than simply his colleagues in related academic fields. Neither was it Fodor's tone, which did strike me as perhaps less than entirely professional -- but on the other hand, his flippant manner and backhanded compliments were a large part of what made the book as a whole enjoyable instead of dry, dense, and a chore to slog through (as too often academic literature of this nature seems to be). And nor was it Fodor's airy disregard for the empirical demands of modern science when he outlines his own theory of concepts -- it's been a few years since Philosophy 101, but I do vaguely remember that this is allowed.
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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Pseudoscience: Where Jerry Fodor Went Wrong Dec 13 2000
Format:Paperback
This book is offensively bad.
First, when criticizing opponents, Fodor equivocates between empirical theories and a philosophical arguments. One example of this is the (surreal) criticism of Ray Jackendoff's theory as "begging the question"! Thus Fodor again and again engages in what Chomsky calls "strong methodological dualism," which is the penchant for: (1) using a hopelessly idealistic and false model of science to criticize extant empirical theories, and (2) urging the replacement of these empirical theories with a metaphysical view that has no predictive value, and is hence neither verifiable nor falsifiable.
Second, Fodor also ignores every single one of the most important theoretical issues in the theory of concepts, e.g.: (1) actually rigorously hooking up the "language of thought" with an empirical language, (2) compositionally accounting for prototypicality/exemplar effects in the context of the new "theory-theory" of concepts, (3) philosophically investigating the stunning new empirical evidence for some form of rationalism by psychologists such as Frank Keil. . . When Fodor does get near some of these issues he completely ignores (e.g. Montague Grammar, generalized quantifier theory) or fallaciously criticizes (e.g. Jackendoff, Pustejovsky) relevant work.
Seeing one of this centuries' greatest philosophers reduced to this is heartbreaking.
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Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars  2 reviews
24 of 24 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Jerry on Concepts: CogSci Made Enjoyable May 18 2001
By "daorcboy" - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This deceptively slim book was something of a delight. I was delighted for once to have a relatively brief (and devilishly tongue-in-cheek) overview of positions and thought among what too often strikes me as elitist, territorial, and occasionally even blinkered work in the nominally cross-disciplinary and open-minded field of academia that is Cognitive Science. Similarities and weaknesses among various competing theories and hypotheses were called to attention, and the (largely successful, I believe) explanation and details of the political infighting between prominent theorists was made strikingly clear. Furthermore, Fodor's relaxed language and humor helped ease me, the poor reader, through the dense and convoluted minefield that is the philosophy behind the philosophy of language.
Much as I enjoyed the book, I must refrain from a full five stars for one reason. It wasn't that I found his description and treatment of the theories he presented (particularly those I was familiar with) to be a bit shallow -- after all, Fodor isn't attempting an in-depth literature review, nor is he addressing an audience made up of more than simply his colleagues in related academic fields. Neither was it Fodor's tone, which did strike me as perhaps less than entirely professional -- but on the other hand, his flippant manner and backhanded compliments were a large part of what made the book as a whole enjoyable instead of dry, dense, and a chore to slog through (as too often academic literature of this nature seems to be). And nor was it Fodor's airy disregard for the empirical demands of modern science when he outlines his own theory of concepts -- it's been a few years since Philosophy 101, but I do vaguely remember that this is allowed.
No, my biggest concern, and greatest regret, is that Fodor spent so long criticising the prevailing view that he didn't seem to have enough space left in the book for too much exploration of his own, very interesting, ideas. Yes, yes, it's merely a starting point -- but I'm greedy, I want MORE!
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Great Read, but not a Good Introduction for Neophytes Sept. 9 2010
By Christopher Langston - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition
Over a decade after its first publication, Fodor's book is still a classic. At a reasonable 162 pages, it is slim, crammed with compelling argumentation, and leavened with irreverent wit. Its lessons remain as important today as they did a decade ago, and the book repays many re-readings. It is necessary reading for anyone with an interest in concepts. I can't recommend it enough.

However, two caveats are in order.

First, this is not a good introduction for the uninitiated. Although Fodor's book is thankfully light on formalism, which makes it easier to read than a lot of work on concepts, the book's argumentation is dense and presumes a lot of understanding of theories of concepts. Do you understand the difference between theories that take mental particulars as basic and those that take mental dispositions as basic? Do you know what the semantic features of lexical items are (e.g. [+/-telos])? If you don't, then this book will be heavy slogging, because an understanding of these ideas is presumed, not explained, in Fodor's book. I first read this book as part of an undergraduate course on concepts, and it was very difficult reading for me. It wasn't until a few years later when I had read the book three or four more times and had done a lot of background reading that I finally started to understand Fodor's arguments and their implications.

Second, as the other review by "daorcboy" suggests, this book does not do a good job of explaining what is compelling about Fodor's favored hypothesis about concepts, except that this hypothesis is supposedly better than its competitors. Nor does the book do a good job of explaining what is compelling about Fodor's competitors in the first place. This feature of Fodor's presentation not only makes it difficult for neophytes to understand what is at stake in Fodor's discussion, but it also leads to some serious distortions in the presentations of the issues. Here's an example that might illuminate this feature of Fodor's presentation, but it is only an illustration and can't represent the range of issues at stake (or do them full justice): consider the N-word and 'black person" (I'll be treating these words as stand-ins for the concepts they express; nothing important turns on this simplifying assumption). I hope that none of us would use the N-word, but all of us would find 'black person' acceptable to use, presumably because we think these terms have different meanings. According to Fodor's account, however, the N-word and 'black person' are literally *synonymous* because they have the same reference. Most people would find this an uncomfortable conclusion, but Fodor doesn't even acknowledge how uncomfortable this implication is, let alone that it is an uncompelling feature of his view, or that it is a prime motivation for alternative views.

No, instead, Fodor just assures us that his view must be true because all the alternatives are worse, primarily due to abstract considerations involving semantic productivity and systematicity, not to mention the horrors of semantic holism that follow in the wake of alternative theories. We are also given assurances that whatever differences there are between the N-word and 'black person' are due either to the pragmatics of speech (a la Grice, or more recently, Tim Williamson), or are incidental insofar as they are only features of these terms' different modes of presentation, which, Fodor tells us in his previous book, "The Elm and the Expert," are only associated with their semantic/referential properties by a miraculous pre-established harmony (a la Leibniz). If you get the sneaking suspicion from the characterization I'm peddling here that important explanatory burdens are being shirked by Fodor's theory, then you aren't alone among cognitive scientists and linguists: as linguist James Pustejovsky puts it with reference to Fodor's manner of defense, "anything can be explained by appealing to a general enough mechanism, with the subsequent lack of theoretical interest or scientific merit." And so if this chacterization of Fodor's theory doesn't sound that compelling, then you should suspect that there is more to the story than what makes it into Fodor's book.

After reading a few of Fodor's articles and books, any reader will start to discern a pattern in Fodor's style of argumentation. Fodor thinks concepts are unstructured mental particulars whose semantic content is directly determined by their reference; anyone who disagrees with Fodor's thesis is, to put it crudely, a closet behaviorist such that no matter how many epicycles they add to behaviorist theory, they will just be repeating the same old behaviorist mistakes. In many ways, Fodor's analytical pattern is accurate and yields important insights about the shortfalls of some theories, but it is also too simplistic. An analogy might help. Imagine a free-market economist from the University of Chicago who argues that anyone who doesn't agree with ultra-libertarian free-market philosophy is a closet communist; anything short of orthodox purity is apocryphal. Keynesians? Communists. Advocates of Prospect Theory? Communists. Behavioral economists? Communists. Whatever ounce of truth there is in such allegations obscures a lot more than it reveals, and the same is true for Fodor's repeated insinuation that other researchers (virtually all of cognitive science, apparently!) are closeted behaviorists who just haven't given up the ghost of behaviorism. This argumentative strategy gets old. It's not just that its predictable hole-poking manifests an unscientific spirit (because scientific theories are always interested in expanding their explanatory power or precision), but it is somewhat self-defeating, since it gives Fodor's theory nowhere to go, no ways to be improved or deepened. No doubt this is why "daorcboy" was dissatisfied that Fodor didn't have more to say about his own theory.

The foregoing caveats shouldn't put anyone off to reading Fodor's book, which has taught me a tremendous amount. But, like any book, it should be read with a grain of salt and only after you've read a more balanced introduction.
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