With his New York accent, Jerry Fodor, was the first professional philosopher I met -- it was the first year of my PhD in the mid 1990s -- who sounded and acted like people in my family: he was combative, quick-minded, razor-sharp, brutally funny, inexhaustible in debate, and his wit was cutting. When I took my first graduate seminar at Chicago it was with a genuine, albeit critical, admirer (Murat Aydede) on Fodor's theory of concepts (we read, I think, many of his classic books and I believe the manuscript of the book that came out of his Locke Lectures). The seminar itself prepared us for his visit. Fodor did not disappoint: he outlasted everybody in debate and stared down many incredulous stares. In those days the department talks at Chicago could be brutal affairs, but while Fodor did receive some criticism on a point of physics from Howard Stein (obliquely acknowledged), at all times he was in command of the discussion. It had never seen anything like it and I would rarely again.
During his visit I did not spend very much time with him. But I did get a chance to engage with his work. After I had exhausted my methodological objections (mostly dealing with his claims and appeals to scientific method) to his argument -- and I would have appreciated more of his help in strengthening my objections --, I asked him what he thought of Millikan's approach to semantics (related to the PhD-in-progress by my friend Marshall Abrams), he seemed decidedly lukewarm. So, I changed the subject and asked him a different question. Given how fast developing cognitive science and linguistics were becoming, how did he keep up with the literature? Wasn't he worrying he would miss something important? As an undergraduate I had come to know Dan Dennett,+ who was always a sprawling fount of information about new scientific discoveries in biology, unusual insights gleaned from robotics, and seemed ferociously consuming empirical psychology and at Chicago Bill Wimsatt seemed even more enmeshed in the sciences. At the time, Jesse Prinz was the 'senior graduate student' and we all were in awe of his work collaborating with world class cognitive scientist (Barsalou). By contrast, the citations and arguments in Fodor's works had a kind elegant sparseness. Fodor's answer stunned me in its simplicity and stuck with me all these years: I rely on my friends and students to call attention to work I should be familiar with. (I did not put quote-marks around that answer because I do not pretend to find my memory reliable after two decades.)
Later I realized that his answer made sense, of course, given that he was at the center of (and collaborating with leading figures in) so many exciting scientific and linguistic developments at MIT, CUNY, and Rutgers. His MIT seminar was legendary, and remembered exchanges in it would still be discussed a decade later at Tufts. But I wondered how he could be so confident of the attentiveness of his circle to his theoretical needs. I kind of expected him to ask me what I was working on (and I was excited to name-drop George Smith with whom I was writing a paper and who, I knew, had co-authored with Jerry Katz (who in turn had co-authored with Fodor)), but there was an awkward moment of silence (I later learned from others that he could be very shy) and then somebody else lodged an objection to his account of DOORKNOB.
It should be clear from the previous paragraph that I encountered Fodor at the moment that I was most impressionable about what my future research trajectory would be, but that I was not drawn into his research project. At Chicago, there was not much fondness for modularity. I admired the work on the language of thought (and happily trotted it out against the local Wittgenstein maffia) and I genuinely admired his influential critique of overzealous and uninformative reductionism.* I happen to think his book on Hume's philosophy of mind is among the best books written by any analytically minded philosopher on Hume (historian and not historian), and we corresponded a bit about it. (Later I regretted not reviewing it because a lot of the scholarly criticism he received on it was silly.) I read it and then used it in one of my graduate seminars. In re-reading our exchange for this post, I am struck, again, by how well he understood Hume without having (and I paraphrase) any sympathy whatsoever for Hume's associationism.** Our exchange hit an impasse (and eventually ended) over his claim that for Hume "X can get associated with Y only if token Xs and token Ys actually co-occur in experience." (oct 7, 2005; in response, I claimed that this prevented Hume from explaining cases of false belief, and so that Hume also allowed other sources of association.)
Others will speak about Fodor as a colleague, teacher, and friend (family-member, etc.) There is no doubt that he was clearly the dominant philosopher of mind and one of the sharpest minds in analytic philosophy for an extended period in the last third of the twentieth century. I think it will be interesting to see how much of his views will survive now that these do not have the force of his personality behind them. (Of course, some of his contributions involve the fatal undermining of other people's views--I am thinking, in particular of his criticism of Carnap's approach to objects of belief.) Others should be better able to comment on his ongoing relevance. He also helped shape the ways in which we conduct our professional affairs. At conferences he always managed to draw a crowd and I have to admit that long after I had lost interest in his substantive views, I would attend his sessions for the blood-sport. All his writings are a joy to read, of course, but his polemical ones are the most fun, even if (as Granny may admit in an unguarded moment) they are sometimes also a guilty pleasure.
*In re-reading it I am stuck by the paucity of citations (neither E. Nagel nor Hempel is even mentioned).
**I am also amused to see that we both left quite a few typos in our brief emails.
+I was never impressed by Fodor's criticism of Dennett's intentional stance, but I recognized that I may be biased.