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Jerry A. Fodor, 82, philosopher who plumbed the mind’s depths

By Margalit Fox New York Times 

NEW YORK — Jerry A. Fodor, one of the world’s foremost philosophers of mind, who brought the workings of 20th-century computer technology to bear on ancient questions about the structure of human cognition, died Wednesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 82.

The cause was complications of Parkinson’s disease and a recent stroke, said his wife, Janet Dean Fodor.

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A former faculty member of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr. Fodor taught for the last three decades at Rutgers University. His work, begun in the 1960s and dovetailing with linguistics, logic, semiotics, psychology, anthropology, computer science, artificial intelligence, and other fields, is widely credited with having helped seed the emerging discipline of cognitive science.

“He basically created the field of philosophy of psychology,” said Ernie Lepore, a philosopher at Rutgers and a frequent collaborator, in a telephone interview Wednesday. “If the study of the mind has been dominant in the last 30 or 40 years of philosophy, it’s really a function of Fodor’s influence.”

Known for his buoyant, puckish, at times pugnacious writing style, Dr. Fodor was the author of more than a dozen books, several intended for the general reader. Among the best known of these is “The Modularity of Mind,” published in 1983.

In it, he argued that the human mind, rather than being a unitary system as was often supposed, comprises a set of inborn, compartmentalized, purpose-built subsystems: a faculty for language, another for musical ability, still another for mathematics, and so on. These faculties, Dr. Fodor explained, operate by means of abstract algorithms, much as computers do.

In setting forth this model, Dr. Fodor married developments from the midcentury revolution in linguistics ushered in by Noam Chomsky to the computer science of the English mathematician and cryptanalyst Alan Turing.

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Although the brain, a physical entity, is amenable to study, the mind — an abstract, elusive quarry — is far less so, and questions about its architecture have occupied philosophers at intervals since classical antiquity. Plato and Aristotle had much to say on the subject. So, more than two millenniums later, did philosophers like the 17th-century rationalist René Descartes and the 17th-century empiricist John Locke.

Such questions — in particular whether cognitive abilities are innate or must be learned — were taken up again in the first half of the 20th century by behavioral psychologists, notably B.F. Skinner, whose work, by Dr. Fodor’s lights, was a reprehensible thing indeed.

An ardent empiricist, Skinner maintained that a child is born with its mind a blank slate. As it matures, a spate of mental abilities — language, reason, problem-solving, and much else — is learned through external experience.

In the late 1950s, Chomsky, a linguist, philosopher, and ardent rationalist at MIT, demonstrated that language was not learned behavior, as Skinner believed.

Instead, he showed, it was the product of a dedicated mental faculty that is inborn — in today’s parlance, hard-wired. His work, scholars now agree, vanquished behaviorism, especially as far as the study of language was concerned.

Dr. Fodor, an equally ardent rationalist who taught at MIT for many years, expanded Chomsky’s ideas about linguistic innateness to include aspects of mind beyond language.

Jerome Alan Fodor was born in New York City and reared in Queens.

After graduating from Forest Hills High School, he received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Columbia. He earned a doctorate in the field from Princeton.

Dr. Fodor taught at MIT from 1959 to 1986. He was at the City University of New York Graduate Center from 1986 to 1988 before joining the Rutgers faculty. Throughout his Rutgers years, he maintained his residence on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for its proximity to the opera, an abiding passion.

Dr. Fodor’s first marriage, to Iris Goldstein, ended in divorce. Besides his wife, Janet Dean Fodor, he leaves a son, Anthony, from his first marriage; a daughter, Katherine, from his second marriage; and three grandchildren.