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Review of  The Elm and the Expert: Mentalese and Its Semantics

Reviewer: Travis J. Louthain
Book Title: The Elm and the Expert: Mentalese and Its Semantics
Book Author: Jerry A. Fodor
Publisher: MIT Press
Linguistic Field(s): Semantics
Issue Number: 6.737

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Review of Jerry Fodor (1994), "The Elm and the Expert:
Mentalese and its Semantics," A Bradford Book published by
The MIT Press.

Reviewed by John R. Lee (,
University of Edinburgh.

In this book, Fodor's project is to dig himself out of a
hole that he sees himself, and many others, as having got into
since cognitive science began to take shape. Being
essentially a series of public lectures (the first annual
series of Jean Nicod lectures), the book revels in Fodor's
characteristically popularising style, replete with even more
than usual of the raciness, witticisms and asides that make
him so delightful or exasperating, according to taste. But
it's the vigour of the arguments -- tantalising, penetrating,
old or new, convincing or implausible -- that make the book
such a readable canter around the main points of interest in
the field, the rapid pace covering a remarkable amount of
ground for the scant 130 pages the book occupies. Of the four
lectures, the first three attempt to show that Fodor's
preferred theory of mind is coherent, while the fourth then
considers some of the implications if it's true. Two
appendices deal briefly with related philosophical problems.
Much in the book is, of course, not particularly new. It
is intended for a relatively general audience -- if more of
philosophers than of linguists -- and although those having no
previous acquaintance with the literature are likely to find
it hard going (if only because of the pace), a fair amount has
to be in some sense introductory. The compactness of the
discussion provides a very clear synoptic view of Fodor's
ideas, and most usefully of the ways they have developed in
recent years, but this also means that many issues are skated
over rather rapidly -- as Fodor admits -- the most important
omission being the arguments for and against the material
Fodor tends to take as given premises, e.g. his three initial
theses sketched below. Some references are given, but not
The central difficulty that Fodor sees is that the three
main theses implied by the most prevalent views on meaning and
mind are apparently not altogether compatible. These theses
are (1) that psychological explanation is intentional, (2)
that intentional content somehow reduces to information, and
(3) that psychological laws are typically implemented by
computational processes. While none of these is, of course,
universally accepted, they do seem to characterise a fairly
"standard" view in cognitive science, and indeed one that
Fodor regards as having no serious competition. The problem
that arises is due to the tension between the assumption
underlying (2), to the effect that content has to be described
in terms of things external to the mind (which the information
is "about"), and the assumption underlying (3) that the causal
mechanisms in computation are sensitive only to the form (or
syntax) of representations, which is wholly internal (Fodor's
famous "formality criterion" of old). If intentional
description can't be coherently related to the underlying
mechanisms that cause behaviour, how is (1) possible?
How can there be a "naturalistic" account of intentionality?
In the past, Fodor has been prominent among those who
held that (2) was wrong, and that nomological uses of
semantics for internal representations (the same thing as
intentional content, on a computational view) would have to be
worked out on an "internalist" or "narrow" basis. The
arguments for this are many and strong, ranging from Putnam's
famous "Twin-Earth" examples, which indicate that
"externalist" or "broad" content can vary between states with
identical causal roles, to the Fregean observation that the
psychological role of representations may differ though the
broad content is the same (e.g. as when "Jocasta" has to be
distinguished from "Oedipus' mother"). It's here that the
title of the book comes in: Putnam also discusses cases
where, although experts can tell the difference between two
concepts such as "elm" and "beech", I can't; so it follows
that when I think "elm" I'm in the same state as when I think
"beech", even though broad content individuation would have to
distinguish these, and it's the discriminative ability of the
expert, not mine, that determines the truth conditions of my
thought. Fodor now wants to hold, though, that broad
characterisation of content, which he has come to see as
essential to informational theories, is compatible with
computational explanation, and in fact that narrow
descriptions of content are superfluous; so these kinds of
arguments must be refuted.
Fodor's approach is to exploit the relationship between
the notion of nomological possibility and the idea that
semantics, on the informational view which he derives from
Dretske, is to be characterised via counterfactuals. Broad
content can be regarded as "nomologically supervenient" on
computation -- i.e. computation will reliably produce
behaviour that coheres with a broad interpetation of its
states -- provided that the right counterfactuals are
supported about how the system would behave in given
circumstances. And this can happen, Fodor proposes, even if
based on no "metaphysical necessity" such as would arise from
identities between computational and semantic properties --
all that's needed is for these properties to co-occur in ways
that are reliable and explicable, if contingent. Then it may
be shown that, although Twin Earth and Fregean cases can arise
in principle, they will in fact always be at most aberrations
from the normal case, and we will be able to explain this by
reference to the other laws of science (Twin Earths, Fodor
claims, aren't in fact nomologically possible).
Fodor further observes that the success of rational
behaviour depends on, inter alia, agents being in "epistemic
equilibrium" with respect to the facts, in the sense that
having any additional relevant information would not normally
cause the agent to act differently. So in normal cases, if
it's important to know that "a=b", the agent does know this,
and the Oedipus situation does not arise: "What happened to
Oedipus was exceptional enough to write a play about". Even
though the content of the internal representations of "a" and
"b" may be the same, however, they may importantly differ in
what Fodor (following Frege) calls "mode of presentation",
interpreting the latter as syntactic distinctions
between "sentences of mentalese". Hence, it's still possible to
reconcile psychological laws based on broad content with
explanation of aberrant cases. (This discussion, though
Fodor doesn't mention the fact, has much in common with
Davidson's "principle of charity", which similarly insists
that to treat agents as intentional we "must count them right
in most matters".)
Lecture 3 presents a problem arising from considerations
about reference. Semantically equivalent expressions must
apply to the same things; so concepts that carry the same
information should be coextensive, otherwise the theory of
content can't be purely informational. This provides an
excuse for a long and complex discussion of Quine's question
about the indeterminacy of reference: how do we know that
"rabbit" refers to rabbits rather than undetached rabbit
parts? Fodor's strategy is to show that we can find the
latter ontology to be inconsistent with an informant's
language use if we know what inferences he accepts, and that
he does not interpret terms ambiguously. That we can know this
turns on the principle that conjunction (in general,
connective) reduction can't apply across referential
ambiguities -- so if "A" is an ambiguous name then (i) "A is a
rabbit", say, and (ii) "A is a rabbit part" can both be true
in the same situation; but (iii) "A is a rabbit and a rabbit
part" can't be. Thus if an informant accepts the inference
from (i) and (ii) to (iii) (and so agrees that (i) and (ii)
can't both be true) then we thereby know that "A" is
referentially unambiguous -- provided that we can
identify e.g. predicate conjunction without begging Quine's
question. Fodor simply derives it from sentence conjunction;
but although can see that the informant relates connected
sentences in various ways (and we can call this "inference",
given Fodor's naturalisation of that as simply a causal
relation between sentence tokens), how can we decide that a
given connective is, say, conjunction? We might need a bit
more convincing that Fodor is fully entitled to his assumption
that the semantics of sentential connectives come "for free".
In the enterprise of radical translation, it seems more likely
that they will have to be worked out hand-in-hand with the
development of the ontological scheme.
In his fourth lecture, Fodor surveys the uses of his
theory. The problem of interaction -- how the mental affects
the non-mental -- seems to be solved, because we can now see
that the causal powers and intentional contents of
representations are directly related: the computational roles
of representations are determined by just those of their
properties (i.e. the syntactic ones) that also carry
information about the world through their relation to the
system's actual or possible causal history. The other main
benefit, as compared with non-representational theories, is
said to be an explanation of experimentation. Fodor suggests
we are creatures that are able to have generally true
thoughts, not just about the world, but also about the
contents of our thoughts. Since these contents depend on
truth conditions and aetiology, we are able to see how to
construct situations in which (roughly speaking) we will come
to have a certain thought if and only if it is true. This
ability Fodor takes to point the way to integrating Quine's
notion of a"naturalised epistemology" into a cognitive, as
opposed to behaviourist, psychological framework. And
here we return to the title of the book, because consulting an
expert is somewhat like an experiment (conceived as consulting
nature), in that one puts oneself knowingly into a situation
where one should come to believe something just if it's true.
The mistake in Putnam's original argument, Fodor thus claims,
is in treating this kind of "conceptual deference" to the
expert as constitutive of the semantics of terms, whereas
actually it's simply epistemological. And the error of the
Instrumentalists in philosophy of science was in taking their
generally correct epistemology to imply a verificationist
semantics, whereas according to Fodor only an externalist
semantics can explain why the experimental strategy can be
successful. Science depends on a kind of "cognitive
management" -- on both an individual and social scale -- that
can most clearly be seen to make sense given these relations
between belief content and causation. Fodor concludes that we
now have the makings of a "naturalist consensus that is
Realist in ontology and epistemology, externalist in
semantics, and computationalist in cognitive psychology",
which shows how spontaneous and productive, rational behaviour
can be coherently accounted for.
Despite the book's combative and polemical style, and its
revisionism in terms of Fodor's own earlier writing, one
somehow does not feel the emerging position to be radically
new; which perhaps fits in with the notion that it's a
consensus. Probably the most fundamental idea in the
discussion is that psychological laws, being the laws of a
"special science", are ceteris paribus laws; that therefore
unsystematic exceptions are not a problem; and accordingly
that all psychological explanation has to do, in a certain
sense, is to "get the counterfactuals right", with the
emphasis on "nomic" rather than causal connections as basic.
This idea underlies all the solutions offered to Putnam, Frege
and Quine, and induces a striking tolerance of various
consequences, including even that a word (such as "gavagai")
in a foreign language might turn out in fact to be radically
There is something very pragmatic about this approach,
which appears to have moved Fodor methodologically closer to,
say, Dennett. Getting the counterfactuals right is an
instrumentalist imperative, and using this externalist, broad-
based ascription of content as the basis of one's account of
internal states seems not very far from the idea of projecting
semantics inwards from the "intentional stance". The main
differences thus seem more confined to the assumed
metaphysical basis; but the arguments around the Realist
assumptions of the Dretskean background are not considered


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