Cognition & Reality

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Fodor’s Confusion

Filed under: Uncategorized — drtone @ 9:20 am

One of the most mysterious things I witnessed while I was in grad school many years ago was the ascendence of Jerry Fodor as a leading theoretician in cognitive psychology. From my perspective, from any sane perspective, Fodor’s insistence on a language of thought is clownishly wrong. Extending Chomsky’s critique of language learning, and based on a complicated and empirically challenged chain of logic, Fodor claims that learning is impossible.

Suppose you are a child in the first stage of such a process of acquisition and you must try to learn the concept X, a concept of the second stage. If something is a second-stage concept, then it cannot be coextensive with any first-stage concept, otherwise there would be no distinction in expressive power between the first and the second stages, and no basis at all for such a hierarchy of learning stages. But if you are a child who cannot represent the extension of a second-stage concept in terms of the extension of some first-stage concept you are already familiar with, then you cannot represent the extension of that second-stage concept X at all because the first-stage concepts are all that you have at your disposal.

Leaving aside the issue that, supposing that apparent “learning” proceeds based on “innate representations,” there would remain a purpose in describing the manifestation of mature concepts (i.e., a psychology of learning), Fodor’s logic is founded on an unnecessary assumption that is the foundation of his claim: There must, he claims, be a distinction between “first-order” and “second-order” concepts. It should be obvious that this begs the question because it presupposes a discontinuity between more and less complex concepts. What if learning consisted of a continuum of concept acquisition? What if? Let us be clear: Such a continuum is apparent in the cognitive development of every child, as Eleanor Rosch was the first to formalize within the cognitive paradigm with her prototype theory of categorization.

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