In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Modularity

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies and Collections
  • Automaticity
  • Domain Specificity
  • Informational Encapsulation and Cognitive Impenetrability
  • Innateness
  • Flexibility
  • The Senses
  • Mind Reading
  • Language
  • Epistemology of Research on Modularity
  • Modularity in Biology
  • Culture and Modularity
  • Broader Philosophical Implications

Philosophy Modularity
Edouard Machery
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 May 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0150


One of the liveliest debates within cognitive science and the philosophy of psychology concerns the extent to which, and in which sense, the mind is modular. Several different notions of module have been developed over the years, and clarifying the weaker and stronger notions of module is an important, substantial philosophical project. A range of arguments has been conceived to show that modular processes subserve all cognitive competences, some of them, or none of them, and these need to be scrutinized with care. Of particular importance are, first, Fodor’s view that modules subserve only input systems (roughly, our senses) and linguistic systems, while nonmodular, domain-general processes subserve thinking and deciding; and, second, evolutionary psychologists’ massive modularity hypothesis, according to which cognition is modular through and through.

General Overviews

Overviews of the debates about the modularity of mind tend to be partisan. Robbins 2009 is an exception and, for this reason, is a good place to start (it is also freely available online). Fodor 1983, a required read for understanding the debates about modularity, presents an influential notion of module and defends a cognitive architecture in which only input and linguistic systems are modular. Fodor 1985 is a clear and succinct summary of Fodor 1983. Sperber 1994 is another required read; it introduces the massive modularity hypothesis—the hypothesis that the mind is entirely modular. Because a failure to distinguish different notions of modules has often generated confusion, the most useful overviews distinguish different notions of module as well as stronger and weaker claims about the modularity of the mind in addition to summarizing and evaluating the arguments for and against these claims. Carruthers 2006a is a book-length defense of the massive modularity hypothesis, which deals with the main difficulties for this hypothesis in detail. Barrett and Kurzban 2006 reviews the literature about the modularity of the mind systematically, defending the version of the massive modularity hypothesis developed by evolutionary psychologists. Barrett 2015 is the most recent, most sophisticated version of a modular approach to the mind. Carruthers 2006b is a brief introduction to the massive modularity hypothesis and a clear discussion of the arguments in its support. Samuels 2006 is a useful critical rejoinder. Coltheart 1999 presents one of the less stringent notions of module.

  • Barrett, H. Clark. The Shape of Thoughts: How Mental Adaptations Evolve. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199348305.001.0001

    The most recent book on the place of modules in mind. Integrates evolution, development, culture, and modularity.

  • Barrett, H. Clark, and Robert Kurzban. “Modularity in Cognition: Framing the Debate.” Psychological Review 113.3 (2006): 628–647.

    DOI: 10.1037/0033-295X.113.3.628

    Important review of the enormous literature on modularity. Usefully distinguishes the notion of module developed by Fodor from the notion of module used by evolutionary psychologists. Defends evolutionary psychologists’ notion of module.

  • Carruthers, Peter. The Architecture of the Mind: Massive Modularity and the Flexibility of Thought. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006a.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199207077.001.0001

    An important book-length treatment of the hypothesis that the mind is modular. Chapter 1 introduces the various notions of module and reviews in detail the arguments for the massive modularity hypothesis.

  • Carruthers, Peter. “The Case for Massively Modular Models of Mind.” In Contemporary Debates in Cognitive Science. Edited by Robert J. Stainton, 3–21. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006b.

    Distinguishes different notions of module. Reviews and defends the arguments for massive modularity, examining which notion of module fits with which argument.

  • Coltheart, Max. “Modularity and Cognition.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 3.3 (1999): 115–120.

    DOI: 10.1016/S1364-6613(99)01289-9

    Proposes to define modules by means of the notion of domain specificity.

  • Fodor, Jerry A. The Modularity of Mind: An Essay on Faculty Psychology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1983.

    DOI: 10.7551/mitpress/4737.001.0001

    Classic book; a necessary read. Introduces an influential notion of module, sometimes called “Fodorian module.” Argues that modules tend to have a cluster of distinctive properties. Proposes that input and linguistic systems are modular, while the systems involved in reasoning and decision are not. Argues that only modules can be studied from a computational perspective.

  • Fodor, Jerry A. “Précis of The Modularity of Mind.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 8.1 (1985): 1–42.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0140525X0001921X

    Clear summary of Fodor 1983. The commentaries after Fodor’s article as well as Fodor’s response are worth reading.

  • Robbins, Philip. “Modularity of Mind.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2009.

    Useful and accurate review of the positions about the modularity of the mind as well as the arguments for and against modularity.

  • Samuels, Richard. “Is the Human Mind Massively Modular?” In Contemporary Debates in Cognitive Science. Edited by Robert L. Stainton, 37–58. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006.

    Response to Carruthers 2006b. Reviews the arguments for the massive modularity hypothesis and argues that they fail. Defends a broadly Fodorian approach to cognition that contrasts modular input systems and domain-general reasoning processes.

  • Sperber, Dan. “The Modularity of Thought and the Epidemiology of Representations.” In Mapping the Mind: Domain Specificity in Cognition and Culture. Edited by Lawrence A. Hirschfeld and Susan A. Gelman, 39–67. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511752902

    Foundational article. Introduces the massive modularity hypothesis and highlights the role of modular processes in cultural transmission.

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