From Anthony Chemero, Radical Embodied Cognitive Science:
Imagine the scene: An academic conference. Two cognitive scientists, casual but friendly acquaintances, are chatting in a hotel bar.'
"So, what are you working on now?"
"I've been doing some stuff with [insert one of: ecological psychology, connectionist networks, dynamical modeling, embodied cognition, situated robotics, etc.]."
"But [insert name(s) here] already showed that that approach is hopeless. The paper was published in …"
"Yeah, yeah. I've read that one. I don't buy it at all. [Reinsert name(s) here] doesn't really get it. You see …"
If you're reading this, you've probably taken part in a conversation like this. In fact, nearly everyone working in cognitive science is working on an approach that someone else has shown to be hopeless, usually by an argument that is more or less purely philosophical. This is especially true of the not quite mainstream approaches listed above, the approaches that constitute the core of radical embodied cognitive science, the view I will describe and defend in this book. But it is also true for more mainstream computational cognitive science (e.g., Miller, Galanter, and Pribram 1960). We all know about the arguments that purport to show that our research can never succeed; indeed, nearly every book written by a philosopher begins with an argument that the competing approaches are hopeless. Yet, for some reason, we persist. Somehow we're only convinced by the philosophical arguments that everyone else's approaches are hopeless.
Chemero starts his introduction this way:
Jerry Fodor is my favorite philosopher.
I think that Jerry Fodor is wrong about nearly everything.
Knowing these two facts about me should be helpful for those who wish to understand what this book is all about.
This reminded me of the first time I ever encountered Jerry Fodor.
It was the summer of 1965. I was seventeen years old, between high school and college, and I had lucked into a summer job running subjects for Jim Jenkins, who was spending a year at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. Arthur Koestler was there at the same time, and he organized a series of presentations, a couple of which I got to attend if I happened to be around delivering results to my boss. At one of these, Roman Jakobson (then 68 years old) gave a talk about something or another.
It might have been about oral traditions of epic poetry, but one reason that I've forgotten the subject matter of the talk is that I so vividly remember the exchange that took place afterwards.
Jerry Fodor (then 30 years old) was also at the center that year, and in the audience for this talk. After Jakobson finished, Fodor stood up and raised his hand, and on being recognized, he asked a question that began, as academic questions sometimes do, with a long statement.
Jakobson, he observed, was well known to be a leading exponent of structuralist linguistics. Structuralism, as was also well known, was methodologically committed to procedures of segmentation and classification applied recursively to sequences of sounds, and the resulting strings of phonemes, morphemes, words, and phrases. These procedures could be shown to be nothing but a formally less rigorous implementation of a context-free grammar. And Noam Chomsky had clearly demonstrated that context-free grammars were incapable in principle of modeling human language, failing for example to capture the regularities of the English respectively construction.
So, Fodor asked somewhat angrily, why was Jakobson still going around giving talks, as an exponent of an approach that had been demonstrated to be hopelessly inadequate?
In responding, Jakobson began by noting that perhaps these issues were not critically relevant to the analysis of the meter of Serbo-Croatian folk epics (or whatever he had been talking about). But really, he continued, the questioner was in his opinion exaggerating the extent of the differences between his own approach and what he called "my friends the generative linguists".
"For example," he continued, "there is a young man at M.I.T. whose ideas about semantic primitives I find very interesting. His name is Fodor — perhaps you know him?"
It's possible that this was an ironic exchange between two people who knew one another well, having overlapped in Cambridge academia for two or three years at that point. But it didn't seem so to me at the time, since Fodor hadn't greeted Jakobson or given any other indication of previous acquaintance; and if Jakobson knew who Fodor was, he did a good job of pretending otherwise.
In any case, it was the only time that I've ever seen Jerry Fodor at a loss for words.