Natural Kinds and Informational Atomism: A presentation on Jerry Fodor’s view

The following is a written form of a presentation I had to give, for an honours metaphysics class, on Jerry Fodor’s closing chapter in his book Concepts: Where Cognitive Science Went Wrong, where he presents his view on natural kinds concepts and non-natural kinds concepts. I won’t bother trying to present the dynamics of his view(s) as a preamble; hopefully the presentation will be clear enough to stand on its own. Perhaps only a few notes: when something like a doorknob or water is spoken about, the concepts to which the word corresponds per se are written in capitals (eg. DOORKNOB), the properties per se are written as, for example, ‘doorknobhood,‘ and the things per se are just called by their names (eg. doorknob(s)). That should be enough to make what follows comprehensible, I hope.


We’re eventually going to have to swallow Informational Atomism whole. Accordingly, I’ve been doing what I can to sweeten the pill.[1]

In this closing chapter of the book, Fodor intends to give us a certain conscionable ontological story about conceptual atomism. He notes that we “aren’t actually required to believe any of what’s in this chapter or the last”[2] but intends, in them, merely to scout out the ontological geography of conceptual atomism conjoined to informational semantics; a thesis he aptly calls informational atomism. Conceptual atomism, pace the Standard Argument we saw in the previous chapter, also plausibly entails radical conceptual nativism; from the Standard Argument “it follows that you can’t have learned your primitive concepts at all. But if you have a concept that you can’t have learned, then you must have it innately.”[3] We already saw that Fodor avoided radical conceptual nativism by adopting a position which is “explicitly non-cognitivist about concept possession.”[4] According to Fodor, “having a concept is… being in a certain nomic mind–world relation… in virtue of which the concept has the content that it does.”[5] This is just the thesis of informational semantics (i.e., the thesis that “meaning is information”[6]) according to which “content is constituted by some sort of nomic, mind–world relation”[7] from which it evidently follows that “there must be laws about everything that we have concepts of”[8] including doorknobs. This, then, is the principle subject of this chapter: to tell a story about nomic regularities governing our ‘locking-to’ properties in the world, including properties like doorknobhood.

But how could there be laws about doorknobs? Doorknobs, of all things![9]

Before launching into Fodor’s account of the nomic regularities governing doorknobs, it may be useful, if not necessary, to review what it is philosophers mean by calling certain things, or species of things, ‘natural kinds.’ After all, Fodor’s explanation will tread upon the distinction between concepts of things which are natural kinds, and concepts of things which are not. The go-to paradigm case in the literature is most often the table of elements, as Alexander Bird and Emma Tobin explain:

“Chemistry provides what are taken by many to be the paradigm examples of kinds, the chemical elements, while chemical compounds, such as H2O, are also natural kinds of stuff. (Instances of a natural kind may be man-made, such as artificially synthesized ascorbic acid (vitamin C); but whether chemical kinds all of whose instances are artificial are natural kinds is open to debate. The synthetic transuranium elements, e.g. Rutherfordium, seems good candidates for natural kinds, whereas artificial molecular kinds such as Buckminsterfullerene, C60, seem less obviously natural kinds.) The standard model in quantum physics reveals many kinds of fundamental particles (electron, tau neutrino, charm quark), plus broader categories such as kinds of kind (lepton, quark) and higher kinds (fermion, boson).”[10]

The idea here is that when we identify a natural kind, we are discovering something about the way the world really is carved up, rather than conventionally cutting it up into arbitrary (though no doubt useful) categories. We are in the business of discovery rather than invention, science rather than manufacturing.

Natural kinds, per hypothesis, are the only things which ground the truth of nomic regularities (they act as the truth-makers for laws in science). Thus Fodor says “I suppose that natural kind predicates just are the ones that figure in laws.”[11] Whereas doorknobs, which are pretty obviously not natural kinds, do not, “a natural kind enters into lots of nomic connections to things other than our minds.”[12] How, then, could there be laws about such things as doorknobs? Fodor’s answer comes in two parts; first, there is only one law about doorknobs, and second that this is actually “really [a law] about us.”[13] The suggestion is that there isn’t anything “whose states are reliably connected to doorknobs qua doorknobs except our minds.”[14] This is perfectly acceptable, however, since, although doorknobs aren’t a natural kind, our minds clearly are. So, all the nomic regularities (namely, just one) which hold with respect to doorknobs, are really laws about our minds; they stipulate that our minds reliably lock to the property of doorknobhood to which our minds are (naturally?) calibrated. So, doorknobs, according to Fodor, are mind-dependent; “DOORKNOB expresses a property that things have in virtue of their effects on us.”[15]

The Auntie-esque Complaint

What consequences does this view have for Metaphysical Realism? Fodor’s answer, in a word, is ‘none.’ He provides two reasons for this. First,

(i)               (∃x)(Rx & MDx)
-There is at least one ‘x’ such that ‘x’ is Real, and ‘x’ is Mind-Dependent. So, (∀x)~(MDx ⊃~Rx)


(ii)               (∀x)(∃y)~(MDy ⊃ MDx)
-It is not the case that if at least one thing is mind-dependent, then everything is mind-dependent.

First thing’s first: Fodor insists that his commitment to ‘doorknobs’ being mind-dependent does not commit him to Idealism. Idealism, best I have ever been able to define it, is the idea that relations are ontologically prior to their relata.[16] However, this isn’t the case with Fodor’s story, since at least one of the relata (namely, the mind) in the nomic relation between doorknobhood and the mind, is ontologically prior to the relation between them. Fodor argues that doorknobs are real because minds are real, and so “there are doorknobs iff the property that minds like ours reliably lock to in consequence of experience with typical doorknobs is instantiated.”[17] To say that doorknobs aren’t real because they are mind dependent would be akin, in Fodor’s submission, to suggesting that fingers aren’t real because they are hand-dependent! Moreover, doorknobs are even ‘in the world’ since “Doorknobs are constituted by their effects on our minds, and our minds are in the world.”[18]

Fodor seems to think that it is obvious that our minds exist and that there are properties like doorknobhood, instantiated in the world,[19] to which we reliably lock, and suggests that to doubt this conjunction could only be motivated by a fear of malin génies. Evil demon(s) or no, while the first conjunct seems obvious to me too, I’m not so sure about the second; however, that was the topic of the previous chapter, so I will use my better judgment here and decide to leave well enough alone.

In any event, doorknobs are real just in case there is “simply nothing wrong with, or ontologically second-rate about, being a property that things have in virtue of their reliable effects on our minds,”[20] but is there? George Lakoff provides us with the example of Tuesdays, arguing to the effect that, at least in the case of Tuesdays, there is no property to which we lock in acquiring TUESDAY which is to be found in the world “external to and independent of human minds.”[21] Fodor complains that he isn’t sure what ‘external to human minds’ could mean, replying that “I would have thought that minds don’t have outsides for much the same sorts of reasons that they don’t have insides.”[22] Tuesdays, he suggests, may[23] be mind-dependent and tendentiously conventional, but “there are many properties that are untendentiously mind-dependent though plausibly not conventional,”[24] like, for example, doorknobs!

Second thing’s second: even though there are plenty of concepts like DOORKNOB for which the properties to which we lock are constituted by the calibration of our minds, there are plenty of concepts for which this isn’t so, like WATER. Water is, after all, a natural kind, and there are, after all, some natural kinds. In fact, “DOORKNOB isn’t [even] the general case,”[25] but WATER is. According to informational semantics, having concepts like WATER or H2O, is in either case “being locked to the property of being water; and being water is a property which is, of course, not mind-dependent. It is not a property things have in virtue of their relations to minds, ours or any others.”[26]

The introduction of natural kinds may help Fodor’s view go down easier for the metaphysical realist, but it may also introduce a problem to which Fodor will spend quite a bit of time offering a response. The problem is that even if we lock to the property ‘water’ and thus acquire WATER, and water is a natural kind, how could we possibly lock to water as a natural kind, and if we don’t, how is water’s being a natural kind any help to the story? Fodor here prefers to use the avenue of storytelling to get his ideas across, and his story is pretty familiar to most of us. It involves a snake, a garden and a gestalt shift.

Felix culpa; “from the Garden to the Laboratory”[27]

Back in the garden, in the state of epistemic innocence, Fodor imagines that we never had to draw an appearance/reality distinction, since all of our concepts were of mind-dependent properties. We simply had no concepts of natural kinds (as such). We could acquire the concept DOORKNOB without ever worrying about whether we were locking to the property of being a “Twin-doorknob.”[28] Then along came a snake, and the rest is history.

Back in the Garden, when we were Innocent, we took it for granted that there isn’t any difference between similarity for us and similarity sans phrase; between the way we carve the world up and the way that God does. [Then the snake came along and convinced us by saying:] If you want to carve Nature at the joints, if you want to know how the world seems to God, you will have to learn sometimes to distinguish between Xs and Ys even though they taste (and feel, and look, and sound, and quite generally strike you as) much the same.[29]

Thus was birthed the scientific enterprise, and with it, the notion of natural kinds. The idea here is just that the whole notion of natural kinds is bound inexorably up with scientific theory; it is bound up with an essence/appearance distinction which we make in science (at least, if one construes science as the scientific and metaphysical realist will want it construed). Science envisions ways in which we can get access to the (hidden) essence(s) of things (i.e., “the deep sources of their causal powers”[30]) like water. Things which, in other words, are natural kinds. “The moral [of the myth] is that whereas you lock to doorknobhood via a metaphysical necessity, if you want to lock to a natural kind property, you have actually to do the science.”[31]

It is, Fodor suggests, “intuitively plausible, phylogenetically, ontogenetically, and even just historically, to think of natural kind concepts as late sophistications.”[32] Natural kinds, according to Putnam (according to Fodor), “thrive best – maybe only – in an environment where conventions of deference to experts are in place.”[33] The point is that we don’t start out with natural kinds, but acquire ‘natural kind’ concepts as such through the toil and labour of scientific advancement. However, didn’t we say (or shouldn’t we say) that we had the concept WATER in the garden (which is to say, pre-scientifically)? Fodor wants, here, to make a clear distinction between merely having a concept of a thing which is a natural kind in fact, and having a concept of a natural kind as a natural kind. For instance, to have the concept ‘Giraffe’ is to have a concept of something which happens to be, as a matter of fact, a natural kind, but to have the concept of ‘Giraffe’ as a natural kind is quite another thing. It seems, prima facie, that the same problem threatens to rear its head in this matter as had to be dealt with in Chapter 5 under the heading The Pet Fish Problem. If the concept of something as a natural kind, requires the belief in a scientific theory, then mustn’t it not be primitive? Fodor’s answer appears somewhat two-faced at first:

Did Homer have natural kind concepts?

Sure, he had the concept WATER (and the like), and water is a natural kind.

But also:

Did Homer have natural kind concepts?

Of course not. He had no disposition to defer to experts about water (and the like); I expect the notion of an expert about water would have struck him as bizarre. And, of course Homer had no notion that water has a hidden essence, or a characteristic microstructure (or that anything else does); a fortiori, he had no notion that the hidden essence of water is causally responsible for its phenomenal properties.[34]

Now, before going on from here to tackle the issue of the legitimacy of this distinction, and then Fodor’s account of natural kind ‘as such’ concept acquisition, I want to interject with a drive-by criticism (time permitting). In response to Fodor’s fairy tale, I would like to offer a different epistemo-gony.[35] Suppose that in the garden we presumed that the way in which we carved up the world just was the way in which God did so; that is to say, suppose that we assumed that everything about which we had a concept was a natural kind, including Tuesdays! Suppose that upon hearing what the snake had to say we didn’t acquire natural kind concepts as such, but acquired mind-dependent concepts as such. In less cryptic language, suppose that we naturally assume that the way in which we carve up the world is the way in which the world is really carved up, and it is only when we lose our epistemic innocence that we begin to suspect that not everything is a natural kind after all. The fall doesn’t introduce us to natural kinds, it introduces us to artificial ones. Is this story true? Perhaps it is. Fodor notes, (in frustration?), that:

Much of what is currently being written about concepts—by philosophers, but also, increasingly, by psychologists—suggests that natural kind concepts are the paradigms on which we should model our accounts of concept acquisition and concept possession at large.[36]

Fodor also notes that psychologists may have reason to think the same is true of individual human development. He writes “the current fashions in developmental cognitive psychology… stress how early, and how universally, natural kind concepts are available to children.”[37] Perhaps Putnam is right that natural kind concepts thrive best or only given conventions of deference to experts, but it stands to reason that he may be right because of the fall. Even in the history of metaphysics the direction of the fall seems to be in the opposite direction, not towards natural kinds, but away from them. Galileo had to argue contra his medieval predecessors that feathers do not have some hidden essence in virtue of which they have the potency ticklishness – instead, the property of being ticklish was mind-dependent. Later Berkeley did the same for size and shape, and, in short, everything else.

Through experimentation we know that children are “clear that you can’t make a horse into a zebra just by painting on stripes,”[38] and Fodor candidly concedes that “it’s usual to summarize such findings as showing that young children are ‘essentialists’, and if you like to talk that way, so be it. My point, however, is that being an essentialist in this sense clearly does not imply having natural kind concepts.”[39] Why not? The reason, in his submission, is that “what’s further required, at a minimum, is the idea that what’s ‘inside’ (or otherwise hidden) somehow is causally responsible for how things that belong to the kind appear; for their ‘superficial signs’.”[40] Children, however, do not (seem to) have this additional commitment; “it is, of course, an empirical issue, but I don’t know of any evidence that children think that sort of thing.”[41] Surely, though, it seems plausible to think they do, and if they do (or, more modestly, insofar as it is plausible to even think they do) then Fodor’s story needs to be seriously amended. Fodor says “unlike Quine, I’m no Empiricist,”[42] but why on earth, I wonder, does he think children are? In any case, here ends my drive-by criticism.

So now all I owe you is a story about what “emerging” comes to… I’ll start with natural kind concepts and informational semantic and just let the “emerging” emerge…[43] Then I get to go sailing.[44]

Can an atomistic informational semantics really “honour that distinction”[45] we just saw between “merely having a natural kind concept and having a natural kind concept as such[?]”[46] Having the concept WATER, for instance, as a natural kind seems, prima facie, to require “also having, for example, concepts like MICROSTRUCTURE and HIDDEN ESSENCE and NATURAL KIND,” but if this is so then such concepts aren’t really atomistic/primitive after all. The pre-theoretic story about how we lock to WATER doesn’t do us any good here (it’s the very same story, after all, that Fodor used to explain how we acquire DOORKNOB); what we need, now, is a post-theoretic story. Instead of locking to the superficial (i.e., ‘empirical’) signs of water, as we do when we acquire merely the pre-theoretic concept ‘WATER,’ Fodor suggests that we lock to water “via a theory that specifies its essence.”[47] One pleasant consequence of this is that we would be locked to WATER as a natural kind not merely in all nomologically possible worlds (i.e., worlds in which, regularities being as they are, we would be appeared to WATER-ly[48] and thereby, via a scientific theory, be locked to the post-theoretic ‘WATER’), but also across all metaphysically possible worlds. He explains that “we’re locked to being water via a chemical-cum-metaphysical theory, that specifies its essence, and that is quite a different mechanism of semantic access from the ones that Homer relied on,”[49] or children, or animals. In other words, we acquire the natural kind concept WATER if and only if “we’re locked to water via a theory that specifies its essence.[50]

This story may at first blush sound as though it is creating a semantic Chinese-wall between the pre-theoretic WATER, and the post-theoretic WATER; the danger is that such a story seems to make these two concepts so distinct as to imply their incommensurability. However, Fodor deals with this difficulty with remarkable ease by arguing simply that “if you are locked to water our way, you have the concept WATER as a natural kind concept; if you are locked to concept WATER Homer’s way, you have the concept WATER, but not as a natural kind concept.”[51] Therefore, either way, you are locked to the same thing; namely, the property ‘water.’ Interestingly, this means the blind man can lock to the very same property as we who can see do, when we both lock to doorknobhood. It also means that if I were in the Matrix, and had not yet acquired the concept DOORKNOB, I might acquire it so long as I lock onto the property ‘doorknobhood‘ which, we recall, is a mind dependent property. Doorknobs really would exist in the real world, even if there existed no doorknobs outside of the Matrix I inhabit, so long as (i) my mind exists, and (ii) my mind has locked to the mind-dependent property ‘doorknobhood.’

To recapitulate, “all that’s required [for acquiring the concept WATER as a natural kind as such] is being locked to water in a way that doesn’t depend on its superficial signs,”[52] and instead depends upon locking to water qua its essence. To do this, however, our ‘locking-to’ properties which are natural kinds must be mediated by some (correct) scientific theory which has (successfully) ‘discovered’ the hidden essences of those properties; “science discovers essences, and doing science thereby links us to natural kinds as such.”[53] Thus, on Fodor’s story, “Homer did have the concept WATER (he had a concept that is nomologically linked to being water) and, of course, being water isn’t a mind-dependent property. So Homer had a concept of a natural kind. But WATER wasn’t, for Homer, a concept of a natural kind as such; and for us it is.”[54]

If you are locked to water either way, you have the concept WATER. (I suppose that God is locked to being water in still a third way; one that holds in every metaphysically possible world but isn’t theory-mediated. That’s OK with informational semantics; God can have the concept WATER too. He can’t, however, have the pretheoretic concept WATER; the one that’s locked to water only by its superficial signs. Nobody’s Perfect.)[55]

Fodor continues to insist that, here as well, “there are no concepts the possession of which is metaphysically necessary for having WATER as a natural kind concept (except WATER); all that’s required is being locked to water in a way that doesn’t depend on its superficial signs.”[56] Instead, “what you need to do to acquire a natural kind concept as a natural kind concept ab initio is: (i) construct a true theory of the hidden essence of the kind; and (ii) convince yourself of the truth of the theory.”[57]

The Luddite objection

If there is a genuine analytic-synthetic distinction, then conceptual atomism pretty obviously tears apart at the seams. I won’t here offer a full blown and proper response to Quine’s Two Dogmas, mostly because I am not presenting today on Quine’s Two Dogmas, but I will offer two versions of this ‘Luddite objection’ with Fodor as my target. First, it is self-evident to us that there are analytic truths, truths which are true come what may, and which delineate the parameters of logically possible worlds. For example, take the analytic truth ‘at least one statement is true,’ which is clearly an analytic truth (if it were false, then the statement “‘at least one statement is true’ is false” would be true). Notice that this is even weaker than Putnam’s “minimal principle of contradiction,”[58] according to which “not every statement is both true and false.”[59] Although Putnam is quite right that “for the purpose of making this point, one needs only one example,”[60] the idea here is the weaker the better. If Putnam’s example works, then it stands to reason that so does mine. The conclusion should be that we know Quine is wrong, come what may, and that we know Fodor is wrong come what may, at least insofar as his view rests on the abolition of the analytic-synthetic distinction.

I could follow this criticism up with any number of epistemological criticisms, such as that the analytic-synthetic distinction is self-evident, that it is a good candidate for being properly basic, and so on. However, I want to offer a Moorean response; just as G.E. Moore responds to the Cartesian skeptic that he is more sure that he has a hand than he is that the arguments for skepticism are sound, so we are all, in fact, in this same position with respect to Quine’s arguments. We may not know how to answer them, but we sure as heck know they are wrong, because we are more sure of the analytic-synthetic distinction than we are of the soundness of any argument concluding to the abolition of the analytic-synthetic distinction. That, I take it, is just a psychological-epistemic fact about us.

To conclude, Fodor has managed so far to give us a story, on the assumptions of conceptual atomism and informational semantics, about how there could be nomic regularities about both natural kind concepts (as such) and pre-theoretic (mind-dependent) concepts, like doorknobs. Fodor rejected meaning holism early on, precisely because meaning holism makes nomic regularities about concept acquisition impossible, and in this chapter he has attempted to cash out a theory of the laws of concept acquisition.


[1] Fodor, Jerry A. Concepts: Where cognitive science went wrong. (Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1998): 162.

[2] Ibid. 161.

[3] Ibid. 124.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid. 12.

[7] Ibid. 146.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid. 124.

[10] Bird, Alexander and Tobin, Emma, “Natural Kinds”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <;.

[11] Fodor, Jerry A. Concepts: Where cognitive science went wrong. (Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1998): 150.

[12] Ibid. 161. My underline.*

[13] Ibid. 146.

[14] Ibid. 147.

[15] Ibid. 148.

[16] Alternatively, perhaps that phenomena are entirely independent of noumena.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid. 149.

[19] If it is instantiated in the world by being instantiated in the calibration of our brains then what else could the properties be other than peculiar bundles of superficial-signs? Is that problematic? I’m not sure.

[20] Ibid. 148.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid. 149.

[23] He never actually says this, so I’m reading between the lines.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid. 147.

[26] Ibid. 150.

[27] Ibid. 161.

[28] Ibid. 151.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid. 153.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid. 154.

[34] Ibid. 155.

[35] The Greek ‘γέγονα’ means to be begotten or born, ‘to begin’, and I mean to use it here in the same sense it carries in the word cosmogony.

[36] Ibid. 154.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid. 154-55.

[41] Ibid. 155.

[42] Ibid. 145.

[43] Ibid. 155.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid. 156.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid. 157.

[48] Perhaps here it should read Science-ly & WATER-ly.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid. 158.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Ibid. 157.

[55] Ibid. 157.

[56] Ibid. 158.

[57] Ibid. 160.

[58] Putnam, Hilary. “There is at least one a priori truth.” Erkenntnis 13, no. 1 (1978): 156.

[59] Ibid.

[60] Ibid.


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