Do No Harm: the Extended Mind Model and the Problem of Delayed Damage


I argue in this essay that there can be harm due to philosophy that is not directly expressed in violent imagery. The harm is instead a concealed and delayed detrimental effect of an assumption of non-violence in a working model, defined as a picture of a field of enquiry and the methods required to approach it. Theses for the extended mind, as developed by Andy Clark and others, lead to a form of harm that follows from the models they work with. These engineering, tool and function-based models seek smooth interactions and transparency. Following points made by Kim Sterelny in the philosophy of biology, I argue that claims for smoothness and transparency conceal underlying conflict in the situations they seek to describe and explain. This concealment leads to harm, defined as a diminishing of our capacities to flourish in a given environment.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.


  1. 1.

    I am grateful to the three anonymous readers whose comments allowed me to improve aspects of this paper.

  2. 2.

    For a helpful introduction to its role as lesson and a full collection of versions of Little Red Riding Hood, see Zipes (1993).

  3. 3.

    Paul W. Kahn traces a contemporary incapacity to represent and react to state violence to Gump’s innocent presence around violent historical events. His blameless presence makes it harder for us to comprehend the causes of the violence. The false innocence of Gump as ever-present ‘popular sovereign’ renders violence more dangerous: ‘If Gump expresses the wholeness of sovereign presence, all those around him are experiencing the failure of representation. For them, the violence of the state is without meaning.’ (Kahn 2013, 112–13).

  4. 4.

    See Lance Knobel’s critical study of the design of the Barbican Arts Centre, London, resulting from its monolithic design: ‘The Barbican would never be built today because people are aware that what makes a city enjoyable and lively is diversity, change, and small interventions and not a single vision, conformity, and gigantism’ (Knobel 1981, 242).

  5. 5.

    ‘When executing the works of architecture, writes Vitruvius in the most frequently cited phrase of his entire treatise, you must take three things into account: firmitas (strength), utilitas (use) and venustas [beauty]’ (McEwen 2003, 199).

  6. 6.

    ‘With her unprecedented size, the highly innovative design of her hull, the largest engines that had ever been built, and her superbly efficient screw propeller, she was by far the most technically advanced boat that had ever been built. She is arguably the single most important vessel, in terms of ship design, in history’ (Brindle 2006, 131–2).

  7. 7.

    Scaffold is a term that Clark and Sterelny use frequently. It betrays a shared engineering and solution-based approach. However, with Sterelny, the image clashes with his work on apprenticeship, where the description of education and learning as scaffolding is less appropriate, given the synthesis of education process, teacher and student. He would be better served by a new take on traditional terms such as Bildung. (Løvlie et al. 2003)

  8. 8.

    Dependent on cooperation and suspicion, this communal learning has been a theme from early on in Sterelny’s work, notably on the importance of niche construction ‘in a hostile world’: ‘The fidelity of transmission depends both on individual psychological adaptations (imitation learning, deliberate teaching) and scaffolding developmental environments. But once social learning has been converted into a genuine inheritance mechanism, it allows rapid evolutionary change.’ (Sterelny 2003, 240)

  9. 9.

    The BEA final report draws attention to the pilots’ ‘total loss of cognitive control of the situation’ and recommends measures designed to improve the ‘ergonomics of information supplied’ (Flottau 2012). The problem is that for the plane and training to be certified there must have been an assumption of lack of difficulty, but this did not stand the test of the rare situation encountered by the pilots. So, when can we say that there is a genuine lack of difficulty and would it not be more sensible to assume—and train for—such difficulty?

  10. 10.

    Note that this early dependence on endorsement or trust becomes less important in later versions of Clark’s criteria. I argue that even when it falls away as criterion, it remains as part of the model for extension as a more loose assumption about reliability.


  1. Atkins, T., & Escudier, M. (2013). A dictionary of mechanical engineering. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Bapteste, E., & Dupré, J. (2013). Towards a processual microbial ontology. Biology and Philosophy, 28(2013), 379–404.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Brindle, S. (2006). Brunel: the man who built the world. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

    Google Scholar 

  4. Chalmers, D. (2008). Foreword in Clark 2008, pp ix-xvi.

  5. Clark, A. (2008). Supersizing the mind: embodiment, action, and cognitive extension. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Clark, A. (2012). Embodied, embedded, and extended cognition. In K. Frankish, W. Ramsey. The Cambridge Handbook of Cognitive Science (pp 275–91). Cambridge University Press.

  7. Clark, A., & Chalmers, D. J. (2010). The extended mind. In R. Menary (ed.), The extended mind (pp. 27–42). Cambridge: MIT.

  8. Clarke, R., Morell, M., Stone, G., Sunstein, C. & Swire, P. (2014). The NSA report: liberty and security in a changing world. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

  9. Davies, N. (2014). Hack attack: how the truth caught up with Rupert Murdoch. London: Chatto and Windus.

    Google Scholar 

  10. Dupré, J. (2012). Processes of life: essays in the philosophy of biology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Flottau, J. (2012). ‘BEA final report on AF447’ aviation daily. 389(4).

  12. Gorman, G. E. (2012). ‘From deception to deceit: Google and privacy? Don’t make me laugh’ online information review. 36(3) doi: 10.1108/oir.2012.26436caa.001 pp 340–41.

  13. Kahn, P. (2013). Finding ourselves at the movies: philosophy for a new generation. New York: Columbia University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Knobel, L. (1981). Interior design: Barbican arts centre, London’ The architectural review. CLXX(Number 1016), pp 238–51.

  15. Løvlie, L., Mortenson, P., & Nordenbo S. (2003). Educating humanity: Bildung in postmodernity. Oxford: Blackwell.

  16. McEwen, I. K. (2003). Vitruvius: writing the body of architecture. Cambridge: MIT.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Murphy, A. V. (2012). Violence and the philosophical imaginary. New York: Suny.

    Google Scholar 

  18. NTSB Press Release. (2014). NTSB recommends process improvements for certifying lithium-ion batteries as it concludes its investigation of the 787 Boston Battery Fire Incident’

  19. Orenstein, C. (2002). Little red riding hood uncloaked: sex, morality, and the evolution of a fairy tale. New York: Basic Books.

    Google Scholar 

  20. Rowlands, M. (2010). The new science of the mind: from extended mind to embodied phenomenology. Cambridge: MIT.

    Google Scholar 

  21. Shepherd, J. (2013). Crisis, what crisis. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  22. Spurrett, D., & Cowley, S. (2010). The extended infant: utterance-activity and distributed cognition. In R. Menary (Ed.), The extended mind (pp. 295–324). Cambridge: MIT.

    Google Scholar 

  23. Sterelny, K. (2003). Though in a hostile world: the evolution of human cognition. Oxford: Blackwell.

    Google Scholar 

  24. Sterelny, K. (2004). Externalism, epistemic artefacts, and the extended mind. In R. Schantz (Ed.), Current issues in theoretical philosophy, volume 2: the externalist challenge. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

    Google Scholar 

  25. Sterelny, K. (2012). The evolved apprentice: how evolution made humans unique. Cambridge: MIT.

    Google Scholar 

  26. Wheeler, M. (2010). In defence of extended functionalism. In R. Menary (Ed.), The extended mind (pp. 245–70). Cambridge: MIT.

    Google Scholar 

  27. Williams, J. (2016). A process philosophy of signs Edinburgh. Edinburgh: University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  28. Zemeckis, R. (1994). Forrest Gump, Paramount Pictures.

  29. Zipes, J. (Ed.). (1993). The trials and tribulations of little red riding hood. London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to James Williams.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Williams, J. Do No Harm: the Extended Mind Model and the Problem of Delayed Damage. SOPHIA 55, 71–82 (2016).

Download citation


  • Extended mind
  • Harm
  • Philosophical models
  • Process philosophy
  • Andy Clark
  • Kim Sterelny