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Active Content Externalism


The aim of this paper is to scrutinize active externalism and its repercussions for externalism about mental content. I start from the claim that active externalism is a version of content externalism that follows from the extended cognition thesis as a thesis about cognitive vehicles. Various features of active content externalism are explored by comparison with the known forms of passive externalism – in particular with respect to the multiple realizability of the relevant external content-determining components and with respect to mental causation. A crucial result is that social externalism is already a version of active externalism. I conclude with a first sketch of a general account of meaning inspired by extended cognition: a use theory supplemented by a functional-role account.

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  1. Other labels are “vehicle externalism”, “how-externalism”or “enabling externalism” (Hurley 1998, 2010), “wide computationalism” or “locational externalism” (Wilson 2010), “process externalism” (Keijzer and Schouten 2007), “environmentalism” (Rowlands 2003), or “transcranialism” (Adams and Aizawa 2010); cf. especially Hurley (2010).

  2. “The Extended Mind hypothesis is really a hypothesis about extended vehicles, vehicles that may be distributed across brain, body and world. We conflate vehicles and contents, as Dennett (1991) and Hurley (1998) stress, at our philosophical and scientific peril” (Clark 2005, fn. 1).

  3. This is a rarely posed question in the literature (if it has been considered elsewhere at all). Note that whether or not the external components of passive externalism are multiply realizable should not be confused with the possibility that content is multiply realizable in the traditional sense that the internal vehicles of a cognitive system may vary (by exchanging vehicle tokens into functionally equivalent tokens) while the content remains unchanged. (I like to thank an anonymous reviewer for his request for clarification.)

  4. Of course, this statement holds only insofar as abacus and pocket calculator really are functionally equivalent. But perhaps they aren’t. Modern pocket calculators do all sorts of advanced things (they allow, for instance, to display functional graphs etc.). So, on the face of it, the expressive powers of both tools are rather different. For the sake of the argument and to secure functional equivalence simply by fiat, let us consider them as nothing but instantiations of one and the same Turing machine.

  5. A word of clarification about the pairs proximal/distal and active/passive (as again, pointed out by an anonymous reviewer): The causal theory of reference aims to understand the reference relation in terms of a causal chain between the cognitive subject and the object of reference. This causal chain, however, can be very complex and long-range. I might meaningfully talk and think about Komodo dragons although I’ve never been in direct physical contact with any one of them. I could have seen them in TV only. The chain might even go back into my causal past, which is the reason why we can meaningfully talk and think about Julius Caesar or other historical figures and events. It is this long-range character that is captured by the term ‘distal’. How does this relate to the characterization of physical or natural kind externalism as passive or behaviorally irrelevant? Of course, direct causal contact with a Komodo dragon will most certainly be behaviorally relevant. But that is of course not the point. According to the causal theory of reference the causal chain serves to individuate content. So whether I’m in direct or rather indirect (long-range) causal contact with a Komodo dragon – that itself doesn’t change the reference of my Komodo dragon thoughts. Nor am I able to change the Komodo dragon kind. This classifies natural kind externalism as passive. See again Clark and Chalmers:

    “In these cases, the relevant external features are passive. Because of their distal nature, they play no role in driving the cognitive process in the here-and-now. This is reflected by the fact that the actions performed by me and my twin are physically indistinguishable, despite our external differences. In the cases we describe, by contrast, the relevant external features are active, playing a crucial role in the here-and-now. Because they are coupled with the human organism, they have a direct impact on the organism and on its beha viour. In these cases, the relevant parts of the world are in the loop, not dangling at the other end of a long causal chain. Concentrating on this sort of coupling leads us to an active externalism, as opposed to the passive externalism of Putnam and Burge.” (Clark and Chalmers 1998, 9)

  6. To be sure, language is but one of many social practices. In the present context I will restrict myself to talk about linguistic social practices, but extended social cognition comprises various forms of social interactions with language being only one of them. The space of social interactions or “we-space”, as Krueger (2011) has rightly pointed out, comprises of various interactive forms of “we-space management”, such as gesture, touch, facial and whole-body expressions. Since such processes are driven and (partially) constituted by environmental scaffolding, we find them among the vehicles of cognitive extension into the social environment. And this is not only true of these basic mechanisms, but also of the more advanced processes and mechanisms of social cognition: from joint attention and behavior reading over shared intentionality up to full-blown mindreading. I’ve addressed some of these points in a forthcoming paper, where I propose a new understanding of the mechanisms of shared intentionality as constituting some of the most decisive coupling mechanisms of extended social cognition. The key idea is that Bratman’s well-known conditions of shared intentionality and cooperation can be understood as coupling conditions in the sense of section 1.1 (it is, I believe, not necessary to buy into Searle-Tollefson-like intentions-in-action, as critically discussed by Blomberg 2011; see Lyre, H. forthcoming: Socially extended cognition and shared intentionality. Preprint, submitted.

  7. As Dave Chalmers has pointed out in correspondence, later reprints of the 1998 Analysis paper as well as the web version include further footnotes, some of which touch upon our point. In particular: ‘Might this sort of reasoning also allow something like Burge’s extended ‘arthritis’ beliefs? After all, I might always defer to my doctor in taking relevant actions concerning my disease. Perhaps so, but there are some clear differences. For example, any extended beliefs would be grounded in an existing active relationship with the doctor, rather than in a historical relationship to a language community. And on the current analysis, my deference to the doctor would tend to yield something like a true belief that I have some other disease in my thigh, rather than the false belief that I have arthritis there. On the other hand, if I used medical experts solely as terminological consultants, the results of Burge’s analysis might be mirrored.’ (cf. footnote 9 of ‘extended’ reprints of Clark and Chalmers (1998) in Chalmers (2002, 643–651), Clark (2008, 220–232), or online:


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The present version of the paper owes much to the kind suggestions of Kristina Musholt, Michael Pohl and an anonymous referee of this journal.

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Correspondence to Holger Lyre.

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Lyre, H. Active Content Externalism. Rev.Phil.Psych. 7, 17–33 (2016).

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  • Cognitive System
  • Natural Kind
  • Active Externalism
  • Mental Causation
  • External Component