Philosophy The Extended Mind Thesis
by
Julian Kiverstein, Mirko Farina, Andy Clark
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 October 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0099

Introduction

The extended mind thesis (EMT) claims that the cognitive processes that make up the human mind can reach beyond the boundaries of individual to include as proper parts aspects of the individual’s physical and sociocultural environment. Proponents of the extended mind story thus hold that even quite familiar human mental states (such as states of believing that so-and-so) can be realized, in part, by structures and processes located outside the human head. Such claims go far beyond the important, but less challenging, assertion that human cognizing leans heavily on various forms of external scaffolding and support. Instead, they paint mind itself (or better, the physical machinery that realizes some of our cognitive processes and mental states) as, under humanly attainable conditions, extending beyond the bounds of skin and skull. Extended cognition in its most general form occurs when internal and external resources become fluently tuned and deeply integrated in such a way as to enable a cognitive agent to solve problems and accomplish their projects, goals, and interests. Consider, for instance, how technological resources such as pens, paper, and personal computers are now so deeply integrated into our everyday lives that we couldn’t accomplish many of our cognitive goals and purposes without them. The extended mind thesis claims that technological resources have become so thoroughly enmeshed with our internal cognitive machinery that they now count as part of the machinery of thought itself. Underlying (but distinct from) the extended mind thesis is a commonplace observation thatintelligent problem solving of the kind we find in adult humans isn’t something the naked brain can achieve all on its own, but is instead the outcome of the brain and body operating together in an environmental and often technologically loaded setting. As humans, we possess the kinds of high-level cognitive skills and abilities we do in no small part because of the many tools we use for thinking. The extended mind thesis goes further, however, by claiming that it is mere prejudice to suppose that all cognition must take place within the confines of the organism’s skin and skull. Cognitive science, it is then claimed, shouldn’t only concern itself with the more or less enduring processes taking place inside the heads of cognitive agents. Cognitive scientists should also investigate, on a kind of equal footing, temporary, soft-assembled wholes that mesh the problem-solving contributions of the brain and nervous system with the body and physical and sociocultural environment.

The section below on Extended Mind and Epistemology was prepared with the assistance of Spyridon Orestis Palermos. Many thanks to Orestis, and to Duncan Pritchard and John Sutton, for their help and advice.

General Overviews

There are a number of monographs and essays that provide useful introductions to the extended mind thesis, and to the work in cognitive science that (partially) motivates it. Clark and Chalmers 1998 provides the seminal statement of the extended mind thesis, and much of the current debate is in part based on the arguments of this paper. Clark 1997 draws on a wide body of empirical research in robotics, artificial life, connectionism, developmental psychology, and economics to make a case for extended cognition. Haugeland 1998 contains an early statement of the view that minds can profitably be thought of as complex systems that emerge from the dynamic couplings of brain, body, and world. It also described (contested) criteria for determining whether the mechanisms that support cognition can be “partitioned-off” from body and world. Rowlands 1999 develops an argument that evolution favored essentially hybrid cognitive processes. Drawing on research from (more or less) mainstream psychology, Rowlands constructs accounts of visual perception, memory, thought, and language as extended cognitive processes. Wheeler 2005 shows how the extended mind thesis has its philosophical foundations in Heidegger’s phenomenology, and explains how Heidegger’s philosophy, when combined with the extended mind thesis, contains the seeds of a solution to the frame problem, which has so far proved an insuperable problem for orthodox cognitive science. Wilson and Clark 2009 offers a useful taxonomy of extended cognition along two dimensions: the nature of the external resources recruited by cognizers, and the durability of extended cognitive systems. Adams and Aizawa 2008 assembles and further develops a number of important challenges to the extended mind thesis, and also advances an alternative “intracranialist” view of cognitive systems. The introduction to the Menary 2010 contains a state-of-the-art survey of the debate surrounding the extended mind.

  • Adams, Frederick, and Kenneth Aizawa. The Bounds of Cognition. Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008.

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    A comprehensive critique of the arguments for the extended mind.

  • Clark, Andy. Being There: Putting Brain, Body and World Together Again. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997.

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    A book-length exploration of cognition as embodied and as environmentally scaffolded. This wide body of empirical research helps to motivate and support the extended mind thesis. For a similar survey of recent research (mostly in robotics), see the opening chapter of Clark 2008 (cited under Textbooks).

  • Clark, Andy, and David J. Chalmers. “The Extended Mind.” Analysis 58.1 (1998): 7–19.

    DOI: 10.1093/analys/58.1.7E-mail Citation »

    The original statement of the extended mind thesis (including the “parity arguments” described later in this entry). Reprinted In Philosophy of Mind: Classical and Contemporary Readings, edited by David Chalmers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

  • Haugeland, John. “Mind Embodied and Embedded.” In Having Thought: Essays in the Metaphysics of Mind. By John Haugeland, 207–240. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

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    An influential early statement of the view that minds should be thought of as product of the dynamic coupling of brain, body, and world. Contains a useful (but also controversial) criterion for fixing the boundaries of cognitive systems.

  • Menary, Richard. “Introduction: The Extended Mind in Focus.” In The Extended Mind. Edited by Richard Menary, 1–26. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010.

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    A useful survey of the current debate surrounding the extended mind. Forms the introduction to an important collection of essays.

  • Rowlands, M. The Body in Mind: Understanding Cognitive Processes. Camdridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511583261E-mail Citation »

    Chapter 6 (pp. 119–147) of this book points to the work of George Miller to show the many limitations that internal working memory has to face when we remember things. Rowlands argues that at least some memory processes must be understood as the result of a series of interactions between a remembering organism and its milieu, and on this basis claims that working memory is essentially “hybrid” in character.

  • Wheeler, Michael. Reconstructing the Cognitive World. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005.

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    Suggests that the extended mind thesis is part of a new movement in cognitive science that has its philosophical foundations in Martin Heidegger’s existential phenomenology. Uses the extended mind thesis to propose a solution to the frame problem, a notoriously stubborn problem for orthodox cognitive science.

  • Wilson, Robert A., and Andy Clark. “How to Situate Cognition: Letting Nature Take Its Course.” In The Cambridge Handbook of Situated Cognition. Edited by Philip Robbins and Murat Aydede, 55–76. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

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    Provides a useful taxonomy of extended cognition and argues that the resulting account of cognitive extension can be used to respond to a number of prominent objections to extended cognition.

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