Active Externalism and Epistemic Internalism


Internalist approaches to epistemic justification are, though controversial, considered a live option in contemporary epistemology. Accordingly, if ‘active’ externalist approaches in the philosophy of mind—e.g. the extended cognition and extended mind theses—are in principle incompatible with internalist approaches to justification in epistemology, then this will be an epistemological strike against, at least the prima facie appeal of, active externalism. It is shown here however that, contrary to pretheoretical intuitions, neither the extended cognition nor the extended mind theses are in principle incompatible with two prominent versions of epistemic internalism—viz., accessibilism and mentalism. In fact, one possible diagnosis is that pretheoretical intuitions regarding the incompatibility of active externalism with epistemic internalism are symptomatic of a tacit yet incorrect identification of epistemic internalism with epistemic individualism. Thus, active externalism is not in principle incompatible with epistemic internalism per se and does not (despite initial appearances to the contrary) significantly restrict one’s options in epistemology.

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  1. 1.

    See, for instance, McKinsey (1991), Boghossian (1989) and Pritchard (2002).

  2. 2.

    See fn. 4.

  3. 3.

    See here Bach (1985, 250). This is of course a rough characterisation of the position. In what follows we will be addressing epistemic internalism under two specific forms: an accessibilist form and a mentalist form. For a helpful overview, see Pappas (2005).

  4. 4.

    Bonjour (1992, 136), in an oft-cited passage that characterises one line of motivation for incompatibilism, remarks that: “The adoption of an externalist account of mental content would seem to support an externalist account of justification in the following way: if part or all of the content of a belief is inaccessible to the believer, then both the justifying status of other beliefs in relation to that content and the status of that content as justifying further beliefs will be similarly inaccessible, thus contradicting the internalist requirement for justification.” (Bonjour 1992, 136). Along with Bonjour, Chase (2001), Vahid (2003), Williamson (2007), and Pritchard and Kallestrup (2004) have opted for incompatibilism, on various grounds. See however Brueckner (2002), Gerken (2008), Madison (2009) for some defences compatibilism. For the present purposes, we are not taking a stand on which ‘side’ of this debate has emerged victorious. In fact, the debate (which has received less attention currently than in the early 2000s) seems to have gone the way of a stalemate. What is important for our purposes is that that an externalist line about mental contents has obviously been viewed as at tension with the claim the epistemic internalist wants to make about justification. Against this background, a comparatively much more radical externalism, according to which cognition itself, and not merely mental contents, is extended, should also be a thesis we’d expect to be at prima facie tension with epistemic internalism. Though this is thus far unexplored terrain, Smithies (2014) has recently ventured in this direction by submitting that mentalist internalism is incompatible with the extended mind thesis. Thanks to an anonymous referee for requesting further discussion here.

  5. 5.

    See for instance Clark and Chalmers (1998), Clark (2008), Menary (2007), Rowlands (1999), and Wilson (2004). For two notable lines of criticism, see Adams and Aizawa (2008) and Rupert (2004).

  6. 6.

    Cf. Kallestrup and Sprevak (2013) and Carter et al. (2013).

  7. 7.

    The reason why we take the last two questions to be identical is because epistemnic externalism is standarly defined as the denial of epistemic internalism (however the latter is defined).

  8. 8.

    Cf. Smithies (2014), for instance, who suggests that active externalism is incompatible with mentalist epistemic internalism. Though, again, this is by and large unexplored territory.

  9. 9.

    Although, of course, depending on one’s starting point, the exact opposite can also be said: if the incompatibility thesis is true, then, to the extent that active externalism is a live option in the metaphysics of mind, this would constitute a prima facie strike against epistemic internalism.

  10. 10.

    See here, for instance Chisholm (1977) and BonJour (1985, ch. 2) for classic defences of the accessibilist position; for a recent overview, see also Madison (2010).

  11. 11.

    See, for instance, Bergmann (2006).

  12. 12.

    As Ginet (1975) puts the idea: “Every one of every set of facts about S’s position that minimally suffices to make S, at a given time, justified in being confident that p must be directly recognizable to S at that time. By ‘directly recognizable’, I mean this: if a certain fact obtains, then it is directly recognizable to S if and only if, provided that S at that time has the concept of that sort of fact, S needs at that time only to reflect clear-headedly on the question of whether or not that fact obtains in order to know that is does obtain” (34).

  13. 13.

    That is, there is no reason to suppose that epistemic internalism entails epistemic individualism, even though this is tacitly taken to be the case.

  14. 14.

    The parity principle should be understood as an intuition pump for assessing whether a part of the world should be included as part of a cognitive process. It is important to distinguish this principle telling us what is ruled-in and ruled-out, from what would be conditions specifying in virtue of what something is a cognitive process. The issue of in virtue of what may something count as part of a cognitive process is the issue of metaphysical grounding, which is, as Fine (2012, 37) puts it, ‘a distinctive kind of metaphysical explanation, in which explanans and explanandum are connected, not through some sort of causal mechanism, but through some constitutive form of determination.’ Unlike the extended mind thesis, which relies almost entirely on common-sense functionalism for its philosophical motivations, extended cognition proponents have reached beyond common-sense functionalism to dynamical systems theory (e.g. Chemero (2009), Froese et al. (2013), Sutton et al. (2008), Theiner et al. (2010), Tollefsen and Dale (2011), Palermos (2014) to offer a kind of metaphysical explanation suited to answer the question in virtue of what is something a cognitive process.

  15. 15.

    While this paper was first published in 2010, it has been available online since 2006. The ‘glue and trust’ criteria, however, had already made their appearance in Clark and Chalmers (1998), although the phrasing was somewhat different.

  16. 16.

    The most natural kind of case to devise to this end will be one that tries to exploit the thought that two agents could be relevantly the same vis-à-vis what is accessible to them by reflection alone, while letting just one of them enjoy what, by reference to the parity principle, constitutes an extended cognitive process, and in such a way that must consequently break the symmetry of their epistemic positions.

  17. 17.

    For recent discussions of cognitive integration within the context of extended cognitive processes, see here Pritchard (2010) and Palermos (2011, 2014).

  18. 18.

    As we’ll see later in this section, this assumption may be controversial by the lights of a proponent of extended cognition. Nonetheless, to whatever extent an argument for the incompatibility of extended cognition and accessibilist J-internalism will get off the ground, something like Premise (1) will be taken as evident.

  19. 19.

    Consider that the proponent of extended cognition (who takes Otto’s process to be an extended memorial process) might insist that the kind of common-sense functionalism that rules Otto’s memorial process to be extended will also entail that to whatever extent reflection is integral to memory, there must be an extended way of conceiving of this. To rule this out ex ante is to thus begin by rejecting a philosophical principle of extended cognition. Notice further that this worry about premise 1 seems to show its head no matter how we characterize Accessibilist J-internalism; it wouldn’t matter, for example, if we replaced ‘by reflection alone’ with Greco’s (2005) ‘from the agent’s internal perspective’ or with a related ‘awareness’ condition.

  20. 20.

    Just consider that, if Otto, at T, were to form an occurrent belief that p, at T, it would not be justified for Otto, at T. Indeed, this would be the analogue (in the non-extended case) of forming a belief about something that happened in one’s past prior to consulting one’s biological memory.

  21. 21.

    Schwitzgebel (2014, §2.1).

  22. 22.

    Although we should note, again, that the hypothesis of extended cognition (as opposed to the extended mind thesis) does not entail the existence of extended dispositional beliefs.

  23. 23.

    Cf. Goldman (1999) on the problem of forgotten evidence.

  24. 24.

    Unless, of course, just as we argued above, we allow for reflection to be extended in the Otto but not in the Otto* case. What this means, however, is that premises (1) and (2) cannot be true at the same time.

  25. 25.

    For a representative statement of this idea, see Neta (2007) and Firth (1978).

  26. 26.

    As Kvanvig puts it, ‘Doxastic justification is what you get when you believe something for which you have propositional justification, and you base your belief on that which propositionally justifies it.’ See also here Pollock and Cruz (1999) and Swain. Cf. Turri (2010) who reverses the order of explanation and defines propositional justification in terms of doxastic justification.

  27. 27.

    In other words, the matter of whether an agent satisfies conditions similar to the ‘glue and trust’ criteria is plausibly going to be orthogonal to whether a proposition p or a sense datum counts as evidence for that agent or not. But even if something like this could be established such that a proponent of the incompatibility of extended cognition and accessibilist J-internalism were able to demonstrate that extended cognition implies that for two subjects who don’t differ vis-à-vis what is reflectively accessible to them, they nonetheless differ vis-à-vis propositional justification, this would be a kind of Pyrrhic victory. Bergman (2007, 19) surely speaks for many in his remark that ‘I’ve never been much interested in propositional justification. Insofar as I’ve been interested in epistemic justification, it’s doxastic justification that I care about.’ This is of course not to say that propositional justification is not philosophically important at all; but rather, that the kind of epistemic justification of primary interest to epistemologists is doxastic, not propositional, justification. Accordingly, establishing incompatibility only at the propositional level will be viewed as coming up importantly short.

  28. 28.

    Note that the structure of this argument bears some expected structural similarities vis-a-vis the argument considered on behalf of the proponent of the incompatibility of accessibilist J-internalism and the hypothesis of extended cognition; in each case, we find a very natural way to move from one of the active externalist theses to incompatibilism; importantly, of course, as the hypothesis of extended cognition does not entail the more radical EMT, the key premises are substantially different.

  29. 29.

    But to make more explicit the reason something like (1) is needed is that, without insisting on a premise like (1), then one isn’t in a position to demonstrate that the antecedent in the conditional in (iii) can be true while the consequent false. Because the consequent itself involves a conditional, the claim in (iii) is of the form: [(A) → (B → C)]. The counterexample thus will involve supposing that A and B can be true while C false, and thus will be a case where we stipulate that the extended mind thesis is true and that two agents don’t diverge vis-à-vis what is reflectively accessible to them, but as an implication of extended mind thesis do diverge in their respective justification. Such a case will thus need to be one where it is insisted that an agent is going to count via the extended mind thesis as having an extended mental state while also not diverging in what is reflectively accessible to her, vis-à-vis a counterpart without an extended state. Accordingly, unless something like one is granted, it’s not clear at all how one would be in a position to demonstrate the falsity of (iii) via counterexample.

  30. 30.

    Note that Clark and Chalmers (1998) take it that the original case of Otto suffices to motivate by common-sense functionalist rationale both the extended cognition thesis and the extended mind thesis.

  31. 31.

    This unstable pairing would also violate what has been called the epistemic parity principle; see Carter (2013), Carter and Pritchard (2014) and Carter and Kallestrup (2014).

  32. 32.

    After all, premise (1*), unlike (1), is disjunctive; it comes out true so long as Otto and Otto* do not diverge either in the relevant awareness or capability of being immediately aware--whereas, the original (1) would be true only if they did not diverge vis-a-vis awareness. Thanks to an anonymous referee at Erkenntnis for encouraging clarification on this point.

  33. 33.

    For more discussion of the sense in which Otto’s process of consulting the notebook is second nature, and best not described as a series of discrete processes, see Clark (2010) and also Pritchard (2010) and Carter and Pritchard (2014).

  34. 34.

    An argument that Otto does base his belief on what propositionally justifies his belief, at T, would presumably have to presuppose something like the causal account of the basing relation. This faces well-known hurdles, such as Lehrer’s (1971) case of the gypsy lawyer. Moreover, it seems that if a doxastic account of the basing relation were correct, it’s implausible Otto could base his belief on what propositionally justifies his belief at T; in Leite’s (2004) parlance, Otto will not be able to justify his belief at T, and ipso facto, this undermines the basis of Otto’s belief.

  35. 35.

    Or, alternatively, unless one wants to go against orthodoxy and deny, as Kvanvig puts it, that ‘Doxastic justification is what you get when you believe something for which you have propositional justification, and you base your belief on that which propositionally justifies it.’

  36. 36.

    See Turri (2009) for a helpful discussion here.

  37. 37.

    For some outspoken opponents of this thesis, see Kallestrup and Pritchard (2013) and also Goldberg (2010).

  38. 38.

    As Pritchard & Kallestrup note, regarding Goldman: “According to [Goldman’s process reliabilism], a belief is justified just in case the (type of) cognitive process through which it was formed and sustained is reliable. Importantly, Goldman is explicit that the implicated processes are purely internal—they are operations of the cognitive faculties residing inside the agent’s skin and skull” (Pritchard and Kallestrup, 87, our emphasis).

  39. 39.

    Sosa (2007, 29), a committed externalist, who defines knowledge in terms of getting to the truth because of intellectual virtue or competence, remarks that ‘…a disposition, one with its basis resident in the competent agent, one that would in appropriately normal conditions ensure (or make highly likely) the success of any relevant performance issued by it’. For some remarks where Goldman appears to commit himself to epistemic individualism, see Goldman (1979, 13) and Goldman (1986, 51). See also here Kallestrup and Pritchard (2012, 100, fn. 11) for further discussion of Goldman’s commitment to epistemic individualism; see also (2013, pp. 86–87). Moreover, as Pritchard & Kallestrup remark, robust virtue epistemology is normally characterised in such a way that it is clearly committed to epistemic individualism (Ibid. p. 87).

  40. 40.

    For instance as ‘internal to consciousness’—or along such lines.

  41. 41.

    This is precisely an argument for the incompatibility of mentalist J-internalism and the extended mind thesis (blatantly) could not be cogently established by starting with a premise where individuals like Otto and Otto* counts as being in the same mental states, in order to show (then) that Otto and Otto* diverge vis-à-vis their justification.


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The authors would like to thank Emma C. Gordon, Jesper Kallestrup and Duncan Pritchard for helpful discussion. Thanks also to two anonymous referees at Erkenntnis who offered a number of very helpful suggestions. This article was written as part of the AHRC-funded ‘Extended Knowledge’ (#AH/J011908/1) research project that is hosted by the University of Edinburgh’s Eidyn research centre.

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Carter, J.A., Palermos, S.O. Active Externalism and Epistemic Internalism. Erkenn 80, 753–772 (2015).

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  • Active Externalism
  • Epistemic Justification
  • Extended Mind
  • Propositional Justification
  • Biological Memory