Philosophy Semantic Externalism
Sandy Goldberg
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 May 2010
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 May 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0113


Semantic externalism is the view that (some) semantic properties of a subject’s words and/or thoughts depend for their individuation on features of the subject’s “external” environment. The external environment has traditionally been taken to be any part of the environment beyond the physical boundaries of the subject’s skin. (See Farkas 2008 for a criticism of this and other construals of “external.”) Externalism’s core claim is often characterized in terms of the possibility of two individuals, duplicates from the skin-in, who nevertheless differ in the meanings of their words or the contents of their thoughts, owing to differences in their respective environments. Originally deriving from the “new” theories of reference developed in the 1970s in the work of such figures as Chastain, Donnellan, Kripke, Putnam, and Stampe, externalist theses were soon developed about the contents of thought and other mental states as well.

General Overviews

Discussions of the variety of semantic externalist positions in the philosophy of mind and language may be found in Pessin and Goldberg 1996, Wikforss 2008, and Kallestrup 2011. Most overviews devoted to the topic of semantic externalism, however, focus on versions in the philosophy of mind (see, e.g., Chalmers 2002, Lau and Deutsch 2002). The first chapter of Brown 2004 offers a nice overview of the varieties of mind externalist positions. Interestingly, Putnam himself (one of the earliest and most influential of semantic externalism’s proponents) originally rejected mind externalism; see Putnam 1996 for a description of the evolution of his thought on the matter. McGinn 1989 contains some early arguments on behalf of externalist views in the philosophy of mind.

  • Brown, Jessica. Anti-Individualism and Knowledge. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004.

    The first chapter presents the variety of externalist positions one can take in the philosophy of mind.

  • Chalmers, David. “Content: Internalism and Externalism.” In Philosophy of Mind: Classical and Contemporary Readings. Edited by David Chalmers, 476–477. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    Offers a brief overview of the various semantic externalism positions in the philosophy of mind.

  • Farkas, Katalin. The Subject’s Point of View. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    Defends an internalist Cartesian conception of the mind and criticizes various aspects of the externalist approach to the mind, arguing that there is no independently plausible characterization of “external” through which any of the traditional arguments for semantic externalism go.

  • Kallestrup, Jesper. Semantic Externalism. New York: Routledge, 2011.

    Provides a comprehensive and accessible overview of semantic externalism in the philosophy of language and mind.

  • Lau, Joe, and Max Deutsch. “Externalism about Mental Content.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2002.

    Focuses exclusively on semantic externalism in the philosophy of mind.

  • McGinn, Colin. Mental Content. Oxford: Blackwell, 1989.

    Although not an overview per se, this book is an influential development of an externalist account of the contents of thought, and surveys many of the motivations for such a view.

  • Pessin, Andrew, and Sanford Goldberg. “Natural Kinds and Philosophy of Language: Introduction.” In The Twin Earth Chronicles: Twenty Years of Reflection on Hilary Putnam’s “The Meaning of ‘Meaning’”. Edited by Andrew Pessin and Sanford Goldberg, 53–59. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1996.

    Presents the motivation for semantic externalism in the philosophy of language from Putnam’s “twin earth” thought experiment.

  • Putnam, Hilary. “Introduction.” In The Twin Earth Chronicles: Twenty Years of Reflection on Hilary Putnam’s “The Meaning of ‘Meaning’”. Edited by Andrew Pessin and Sanford Goldberg, xv–xxi. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1996.

    A reassessment from one of the seminal contributors to the debate over the significance of semantic externalism for the philosophy of mind and language.

  • Wikforss, Åsa. “Semantic Externalism and Psychological Externalism.” Philosophy Compass (2008): 158–181.

    Clarification and critical discussion of three types of externalism.

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