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Unpacking a dog

Jerry Fodor, 7 October 1993

A Study of Concepts 
by Christopher Peacocke.
MIT, 266 pp., £24.95, December 1992, 0 262 16133 8
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... The Modern era, as analytic philosophers reckon, started with Descartes. By contrast, the Recent era started when philosophy, in Richard Rorty’s phrase, took the ‘linguistic turn’. So it started with Frege or Russell, or early Wittgenstein, or the Vienna Circle; take your pick. Modern philosophy was mostly about epistemology: it wanted to understand what makes knowledge possible ...

Don’t bet the chicken coop

Jerry Fodor, 5 September 2002

Thinking about Consciousness 
by David Papineau.
Oxford, 280 pp., £25, April 2002, 0 19 924382 4
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... A note to Royall Tyler’s elegant new translation of Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji explains that ‘Hahakigi (“;broom tree”) is a plant from which brooms were indeed made and that had the poetic reputation of being visible from afar and of disappearing as one approached.’* Well, philosophers live in a thicket of such things; it is often very trying ...

Why would Mother Nature bother?

Jerry Fodor, 6 March 2003

Freedom Evolves 
by Daniel Dennett.
Allen Lane, 347 pp., £20, February 2003, 0 7139 9339 1
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... Been feeling bad about being a thing? Been feeling that the laws of nature are pushing you around? Here’s a book-length dose of Daniel Dennett’s Cold Comfort Cure. According to Dennett, ‘naturalism is no enemy of free will; it provides a positive account of free will.’ Sound too good to be true? Well, so it is. Proposals for ‘compatibilist’ resolutions of the problem of determinism aren’t new to philosophy, of course ...


Jerry Fodor: The Elton John and Tim Rice reworking of Aida, 30 March 2000

... How I got into this. John Sturrock called from the LRB. He knows that I like opera a lot, and that I now and then get tired of writing papers about the mind/body problem for philosophy journals. ‘Would I like to report on the new pop version of Aida? (Elton John, Tim Rice and, rumour has it, a transparent swimming-pool.)’ I pretend to have heard of Elton John and Tim Rice ...

More Peanuts

Jerry Fodor, 9 October 2003

Thinking without Words 
by José Luis Bermúdez.
Oxford, 225 pp., £25, May 2003, 0 19 515969 1
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... Dr Livingstone, I presume?’ Stanley was spot on: it was Dr Livingstone. Elsewise his presuming so wouldn’t have become the stuff of legend. A question suggests itself: how did he manage to presume so cleverly? Of all the things that Stanley might have presumed, how did he hit on the one that was both pertinent and true? Why didn’t he presume Queen Victoria, for example? Or Tower Bridge? At first blush, that sounds like an easy sort of question ...

It’s the thought that counts

Jerry Fodor, 28 November 1996

The Prehistory of the Mind 
by Steven Mithen.
Thames and Hudson, 288 pp., £16.95, October 1996, 0 500 05081 3
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... What’s your favourite metaphor for minds? If you’re an empiricist, or an associationist, or a connectionist, you probably favour webs, networks, switchboards, or the sort of urban grid where the streets are equidistant and meet at right angles: New York’s Midtown, rather than its Greenwich Village. Such images suggest a kind of mind every part of which is a lot like every other ...


Jerry Fodor, 18 April 1996

Climbing Mount Improbable 
by Richard Dawkins.
Viking, 320 pp., £20, April 1996, 0 670 85018 7
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... How do you get to Carnegie Hall?’ ‘Practice, practice.’ Here’s a different way: start anywhere you like and take a step at random. If it’s a step in the right direction, I’ll say ‘warmer’; in which case repeat the process from your new position. If I say ‘colder’, go back a step and repeat from there. This is a kind of procedure that they call ‘hill climbing’ in the computer-learning trade (hence, I suppose, the title of Richard Dawkins’s new book ...

Mouse Thoughts

Jerry Fodor, 7 March 2002

Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective 
by Donald Davidson.
Oxford, 237 pp., £30, September 2002, 0 19 823753 7
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... I do wish Donald Davidson would write a book. I mean, a proper book with a beginning, a middle and an end, in contrast to the collections of papers of which the present volume is an instance. My wishing so is not invidious. These bite-sized essays, each a mere fifteen or twenty pages long, often impress one as serious philosophical achievements even when they are read piecemeal, as they were written ...

Who ate the salted peanuts?

Jerry Fodor, 21 September 2006

The Human Touch: Our Part in the Creation of a Universe 
by Michael Frayn.
Faber, 505 pp., £20, September 2006, 0 571 23217 5
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... I think it was P.G. Wodehouse who observed that the English strike Americans as funny when they are just being English. Similarly, philosophers strike the laity as funny when they are just being philosophers, and that makes it hard to be as funny about them as they are when they’re left to their own devices. But Michael Frayn is among the honoured few who have succeeded ...

Not so Clever Hans

Jerry Fodor, 4 February 1999

If a Lion Could Talk: How Animals Think 
by Stephen Budiansky.
Weidenfeld, 219 pp., £20, December 1998, 0 297 81932 1
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... about all we’ve got. So, to repeat, why should Morgan’s Canon weigh so much? Why doesn’t Fodor’s Pop Gun tip the scales equally in the opposite direction? To wit: in no case may we interpret an action as the outcome of the exercise of a lower psychical faculty if it can be interpreted as the outcome of the exercise of one which stands higher in the ...

Where is my mind?

Jerry Fodor, 12 February 2009

Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action and Cognitive Extension 
by Andy Clark.
Oxford, 286 pp., £18.99, November 2008, 978 0 19 533321 3
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... If there’s anything we philosophers really hate it’s an untenable dualism. Exposing untenable dualisms is a lot of what we do for a living. It’s no small job, I assure you. They (the dualisms, not the philosophers) are insidious, and they are ubiquitous; perpetual vigilance is required. I mention only a few of the dualisms whose tenability we have, at one time or other, felt called on to question: mind v ...

What Wotan Wants

Jerry Fodor, 5 August 2004

Finding an Ending: Reflections on Wagner’s ‘Ring’ 
by Philip Kitcher and Richard Schacht.
Oxford, 241 pp., £14.99, April 2004, 0 19 517359 7
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... Wagner’s operas in general, and the Ring cycle in particular, have been goading the criticising classes into print for a century and a half, with still no end in sight, but the sacrifice of all those trees has produced very little in the way of a critical consensus; not even on such basic matters as what the Ring is about. Many of the enthusiasts I know hold that there really isn’t anything that the Ring is about ...

Water’s water everywhere

Jerry Fodor, 21 October 2004

Kripke: Names, Necessity and Identity 
by Christopher Hughes.
Oxford, 247 pp., £35, January 2004, 0 19 824107 0
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... Sometimes I wonder why nobody reads philosophy. It requires, to be sure, a degree of hyperbole to wonder this. Academics like me, who eke out their sustenance by writing and teaching the stuff, still browse in the journals; it’s mainly the laity that seems to have lost interest. And it’s mostly Anglophone analytic philosophy that it has lost interest in ...

The Trouble with Psychological Darwinism

Jerry Fodor, 22 January 1998

How the Mind Works 
by Steven Pinker.
Penguin, 660 pp., £25, January 1998, 0 7139 9130 5
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Evolution in Mind 
by Henry Plotkin.
Allen Lane, 276 pp., £20, October 1997, 0 7139 9138 0
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... It belongs to the millennial mood to want to sum things up and see where we have gotten and point in the direction that further progress lies. Cognitive science has not been spared this impulse, so here are two books purporting to limn the state of the art. They differ a bit in their intended audience; Plotkin’s is more or less a text, while Pinker hopes for a lay readership ...

Why Pigs Don’t Have Wings

Jerry Fodor: The Case against Natural Selection, 18 October 2007

... Die Meistersinger is, by Wagner’s standards, quite a cheerful opera. The action turns on comedy’s staple, the marriage plot: get the hero and the heroine safely and truly wed with at least a presumption of happiness ever after. There are cross-currents and undercurrents that make Meistersinger’s libretto subtle in ways that the librettos of operas usually aren’t ...

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