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Jerry Fodor 1935-2017

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Jerry Fodor, who died yesterday, wrote thirty pieces for the LRB. The first was on Colin McGinn’s Problem of Consciousness in 1991, the last on Hilary Putnam’s Philosophy in an Age of Science in 2013. Many of them were on philosophy of mind (and, more often than not, lucidly explaining how the books under review had got it all wrong), though he also wrote on Wagner, Puccini, and Elton John and Tim Rice’s reworking of Aida: ‘I haven’t been to a musical play in maybe forty years. I know nonetheless (a priori, as philosophers say) that I do not like them.’

His cat would make occasional appearances: ‘Surely what matters to whether it’s all right for me to step on the cat’s tail,’ he wrote in a piece on the question of animal consciousness, ‘is primarily whether it hurts him, not what he thinks about it: still less whether he thinks about what he thinks about it.’

His literary criticism included a withering review of a pair of ‘amply unsuccessful’ novels about apes; and he had this to say of Steven Pinker’s view of Hamlet in his demolition of psychological Darwinism:

And here [Pinker] is on why we like to read fiction: ‘Fictional narratives supply us with a mental catalogue of the fatal conundrums we might face someday and the outcomes of strategies we could deploy in them. What are the options if I were to suspect that my uncle killed my father, took his position, and married my mother?’ Good question. Or what if it turns out that, having just used the ring that I got by kidnapping a dwarf to pay off the giants who built me my new castle, I should discover that it is the very ring that I need in order to continue to be immortal and rule the world? It’s important to think out the options betimes, because a thing like that could happen to anyone and you can never have too much insurance.

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