The Extended Mind

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The "extended mind" is an idea in the field of philosophy of mind which holds that the reach of the mind need not end at the boundaries of skin and skull. Tools, instrument and other environmental props can under certain conditions also count as proper parts of our minds.

The extended mind thesis[edit]

The "extended mind thesis" (EMT) refers to an emerging concept that addresses the question as to the division point between the mind and the environment by promoting the view of active externalism. The EMT proposes that some objects in the external environment are utilized by the mind in such a way that the objects can be seen as extensions of the mind itself. Specifically, the mind is seen to encompass every level of the cognitive process, which will often include the use of environmental aids.

The seminal work in the field is "The Extended Mind" by Andy Clark and David Chalmers (1998).[1] In this paper, Clark and Chalmers present the idea of active externalism (similar to semantic or "content" externalism), in which objects within the environment function as a part of the mind. They argue that it is arbitrary to say that the mind is contained only within the boundaries of the skull. The separation between the mind, the body, and the environment is seen as an unprincipled distinction. Because external objects play a significant role in aiding cognitive processes, the mind and the environment act as a "coupled system". This coupled system can be seen as a complete cognitive system of its own. In this manner, the mind is extended into the external world. The main criterion that Clark and Chalmers list for classifying the use of external objects during cognitive tasks as a part of an extended cognitive system is that the external objects must function with the same purpose as the internal processes.

In "The Extended Mind," a thought experiment is presented to further illustrate the environment's role in connection to the mind. The fictional characters Otto and Inga are both travelling to a museum simultaneously. Otto has Alzheimer's Disease, and has written all of his directions down in a notebook to serve the function of his memory. Inga is able to recall the internal directions within her memory. In a traditional sense, Inga can be thought to have had a belief as to the location of the museum before consulting her memory. In the same manner, Otto can be said to have held a belief of the location of the museum before consulting his notebook. The argument is that the only difference existing in these two cases is that Inga's memory is being internally processed by the brain, while Otto's memory is being served by the notebook. In other words, Otto's mind has been extended to include the notebook as the source of his memory. The notebook qualifies as such because it is constantly and immediately accessible to Otto, and it is automatically endorsed by him.

Criticisms of the extended mind thesis[edit]

Philosophical arguments against the extended mind thesis [2] include that:

  1. When focusing on cognition, the thesis confuses claims about what is constitutive about the concept of cognition with claims about causal influences on cognition (the "causal-constitutional fallacy"), for example, Adams and Aizawa (2010) ask "Question: Why did the pencil think that 2 + 2 = 4?, Clark’s Answer: Because it was coupled to the mathematician";
  2. It stretches the limits of our ordinary concept of cognition too far ("cognitive bloating") potentially implying that everything on the internet is part of individual cognitive systems;
  3. It uses a coarse-grained functionalism about the mind that ignores plausible differences between internal and external processes, such as differences between beliefs and external props and devices; or for creating a notion of cognition too heterogeneous to make up a scientific natural kind.

Each of these arguments is addressed in Clark (2008) [3] in which he notes that:

  1. While coupling is important for cognition, that is not to say that it is sufficient - the coupling must play a functional role in cognition. Many couplings do not do so and thus would not be 'extensions' (and this is consistent with a strong extended mind thesis).
  2. If we take any putative part of a system – internal or external – is unlikely to yield “cognition”, thus examples such as calculators, pencils, should be considered in parallel with neural regions. Simply looking at the part is not enough for cognition.
  3. One can imagine circumstances under which a biological being might retain information in non-neural ways (suggesting a Martian with a bitmap based memory, or humans with prosthetics to support memory), thus being neural cannot be a necessary condition for being cognitive.

While in Supersizing the Mind [3] Clark defends a strong version of the hypothesis of extended cognition (contrasted with a hypothesis of embedded cognition) in other work, some of these objections have inspired more moderate reformulations of the extended mind thesis. Thus, the extended mind thesis may no longer depend on the parity considerations of Clark and Chalmers' original argument but, instead, emphasize the "complementarity" of internal and external elements of cognitive systems or processes. This version might be understood as emphasizing the explanatory value of the extended mind thesis for cognitive science rather than maintaining it as an ontological claim about the nature of mind or cognition (for an overview, cf. Arnau, Estany, González del Solar & Sturm, 2014).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Analysis 58: 7-19. Also included in Menary (2010: ch. 2).
  2. ^ Adams, Fred., Aizawa, Ken (2010). Defending the bounds of cognition, in The Extended Mind (Eds, Richard Menary). pp. 67–80. 
  3. ^ a b Clark, Andy (2008). Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension. Oxford University Press. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Adams, Frederick, and Kenneth Aizawa. (2008). The bounds of cognition. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Arnau, Eric; Estany, Anna; González del Solar, Rafael and Thomas Sturm. (2014). The extended cognition thesis: Its significance for the philosophy of (cognitive) science. "Philosophical Psychology", 27 (1), 1-18.
  • Chemero, Anthony. (2009). Radical embodied cognitive science. Cambridge MA: MIT Press/Bradford.
  • Clark, Andy. (2008). Supersizing the mind: Embodiment, action, and cognitive extension. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Clark, Andy, and David J. Chalmers. (1998). The extended mind. Analysis 58: 7-19.
  • Crisafi, Anthony, and Shaun Gallagher. (2010). Hegel and the extended mind. AI and Society 25.1: 123-129.
  • Estany, Anna, and Thomas Sturm. (2014). Extended cognition: New philosophical perspectives. Special Issue of "Philosophical Psychology", 27 (1), 2014.
  • Menary, Richard. (2006). Attacking The Bounds of Cognition. Philosophical Psychology 19.3 (June): 329-344.
  • Menary, Richard. (2007). Cognitive integration: Mind and cognition unbounded. New York: Palgrave/Macmillan.
  • Menary, Richard, ed. (2010). The extended mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press/Bradford.
  • Noë, Alva. (2004). Action in perception. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Robbins, Philip, and Murat Aydede (Eds.). (2009). Cambridge handbook of situated cognition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Sterelny, Kim. (2004). Externalism, epistemic artifacts, and the extended mind. In Richard Schantz (Ed.), The externalist challenge (239-254). New York: de Gruyter.
  • Sterelny, Kim. (2012). The evolved apprentice: How evolution made humans unique. Cambridge: MIT Press/Bradford.
  • Wilson, Robert A. (2004). Boundaries of the mind: The Individual in the fragile sciences: Cognition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Wilson, Robert A. (2005). Collective memory, group minds, and the extended mind thesis. Cognitive Processing 6.4: 227-236.

External links[edit]