Susan Schneider, "The Language of Thought: A New Philosophical Direction" (MIT Press, 2011)


In 1975, Jerry Fodor published a book entitled The Language of Thought, which is aptly considered one of the most important books in philosophy of mind and cognitive science of the last 50 years or so. This book helped launch what became known as the classical computational theory of the mind, in which thinking was theorized as the manipulation of symbols according to rules. Fodor argued that certain features of human thought required that any human-like computational cognitive system had to have a structured format analogous to the structure that sentences have in natural languages. That is, according to Fodor, we must think in a Language of Thought, sometimes also called Mentalese.

Classical computationalism has always had its critics - most notably connectionist or neural-network models, which involve a more brain-like computing system consisting just of simple nodes and their connections, without any obvious internal structure at all. But since 1975 Fodor has argued that the computational model couldn't explain key features and kinds of reasoning, like making plans for the future or making decisions quickly. And he has also argued against the idea that neuroscience had anything critical to do with understanding the mind. In short, Fodor himself helped undermine the dominance of the classical computational model that he played such an important role in founding.

Professor Susan Schneider, a doctoral student of Fodor's who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, hopes to revitalize the LOT model in her new book, The Language of Thought: A New Philosophical Direction (MIT Press, 2011). Professor Schneider argues that LOT has suffered because it was underdeveloped in critical ways; in this interview, she talks about how the classical computational model can be modified to remain a vital contender in contemporary cognitive science.

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Carrie Figdor

Carrie Figdor is professor of philosophy at the University of Iowa.

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