April 23, 2019 | 67° F

Rutgers professor and trailblazer in cognitive science, Jerry Fodor, dies at 82

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World renowned philosopher of cognitive science Jerry Alan Fodor died last Wednesday at the age of 82. He was a professor emeritus in the Department of Philosophy at Rutgers for 24 years and founded the University’s Center for Cognitive Science. 

Jerry Alan Fodor, a former professor emeritus in the Department of Philosophy and Cognitive Science at Rutgers, died this past Wednesday at the age of 82 in his New York City home. 

During the time leading up to his death, he suffered from complications of Parkinson’s disease and a recent stroke, according to The New York Times.    

Rutgers Today posted an obituary with world-renowned linguist, philosopher and rationalist Noam Chomsky discussing Fodor’s contributions to the development of cognitive science, his role of founder to its contemporary chapter and his presence in contemporary philosophy of language and mind. 

“His computational-representational theory of mind has for years been the gold standard in the field. His analyses of concepts and of the role of 'language of thought' are unsurpassed in their depth and import. Always with sparkling wit and style. A wonderful person and valued friend for 60 years,” Chomsky said. 

Fodor taught at Rutgers for 24 years, from 1988 until his retirement in 2012, and was widely recognized as one of the most influential philosophers of the mind throughout the late 20th and early 21st centuries. 

Prior to his time at the University, Fodor completed his undergraduate studies at Columbia University, after which he took to Princeton University where he received his Ph.D. working under well-established philosopher and mathematician Hillary Putnam. 

Fodor taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology between 1959 and 1986, shortly after he made his move to the City University of New York and later found his home at Rutgers for the remainder of his career, according to a report in Rutgers Today

Ernest Lepore, a professor in the Department of Philosophy, said Fodor's presence signaled to educational institutions everywhere that the University's philosophical department was ready to be among the best in the world.

Fodor founded the University’s Center for Cognitive Science and immediately began to attract renowned scholars both to the center and to the Department of Philosophy, according to the report.

Throughout his career, Fodor published a number of highly influential books and articles, according to Rutgers Today. Among his most influential published works are "The Language of Thought" and "Modularity of Mind." These touch on his language-of-thought theory, an empirical hypothesis about the nature of thought and his highly influential hypothesis about the architecture of the mind, which dictates that the mind is built into neural structures that evolved to have specific designated functions that are independent of our perceptual experiences.

“It is hard to overstate the impact of these ideas on the subsequent debates in philosophy of mind and language, in cognitive and developmental psychology, and in cognitive science, both on the many researchers who agreed with Fodor and on those who opposed his views,” Lepore said. “Nobody working in these areas could ignore this work.”

These positions, and a number of others Fodor defended during his career, were often debated among psychologists, neuroscientists, biologists and philosophers. Despite this adversity, few, if any philosophers were better prepared to argue for a position on the theoretical ground and with respect to empirical findings, earning him the reputation of a powerful opponent in philosophical debate. 

“He could be rough in debate,” Lepore said. “But it was never personal. And he was also very modest. If you came up to him and said, ‘Hey, I read your paper and thought it was really good,’ he would blush.”

Christian Zapata

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