I was very sad to find out about the passing of Jerry Fodor today. He was obviously an iconic figure in philosophy and I had only a brief interaction with him but he made a big impact. I sat in on the Research Seminar in Mind and Language that he ran along with Christopher Peacock in the Spring of 2004 and I also took his class on Concepts at NYU in the Spring of 2005 (through the CUNY Consortium). Sadly this was before I started blogging and so don’t have anything on either one written up (I recall having some notes on paper but those have been lost).
I do remember that I was also taking David Armstrong’s class on Truthmakers at CUNY and David Rosenthal’s class on Consciousness, Thought, and Language. For my final paper I ended up writing a version of what became The Mark of the Mental that was 50-plus pages long! I saw it as a kind of walking the line between Fodor’s views and Rosenthal’s views. I sent a draft of it to Jerry before it was due and he asked to meet with me to talk about it. I remember being very surprised to have heard back from him at all, let alone that he wanted to meet with me one-on-one to discuss it. He came up to the Graduate Center and we spent hours arguing about the paper. I forget exactly what we argued about but I remember thinking that I could not believe that he would take the time to come and sit down with me at all. I took a lot of notes during the discussion (all lost now) but I remember he gave me very valuable feedback and I really enjoyed talking with him. I actually can’t find the original version of the paper anywhere (I must have lost it when my old computer crashed back in 2007/2008), which is too bad.
Since I thought the paper nicely straddled the line between issues raised in both Fodor and Rosenthal’s classes I ended up submitting the paper to both of them. I figured at 50-plus pages it was really like two papers and I wanted to get the feedback from both of them. About a week later I got a message from Rosenthal saying he needed to talk to me. It turns out that it had somehow come to light that I had submitted it to both of them for credit. David explained to me that I could not do that (I believe he said “you would not try to pay for two different things with numerically the same money, would you?”). I felt really bad after that as I had really thought it was not a big deal at all. After hashing out the matter I was informed that I would have to pick one of them to submit it to. I chose to submit it for David’s class and so I never did get to hear what Jerry thought of the final version of the paper. I never spent any time with him after that, though I saw him speak on several occasions, I was too embarrassed to go up and talk to him.
He could be very intimidating (and sometimes downright mean) but he was also very lively and I will always remember that he took the time to come and talk to a student that he didn’t know very well at all to provide excellent feedback on a paper he must have thought was very bad.