In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Epistemology and Active Externalism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Embedded Cognition and Knowledge
  • Extended Mind and Epistemology
  • Distributed Cognition and Epistemology
  • Collaborative Knowledge and Scientific Knowledge
  • Related Literature

Philosophy Epistemology and Active Externalism
J. Adam Carter, S. Orestis Palermos
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 October 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0285


Recently, there has been a growing interest in topics at the intersection of epistemology and externalist philosophy of mind in the form of active externalism. Active externalism, contrary to Putnam and Burge’s content (or passive) externalism, concerns the aspects of the environment that determine the content and the flow of cognition, not by acting as the background which cognition takes place against or is merely embedded in, but instead by driving and restraining the on-going thoughts and reasoning processes. There are several formulations of active externalism, but the view can be fruitfully categorized in three main varieties: (i) The hypothesis of extended cognition, according to which cognitive processes extend to the environment beyond the organism; (ii) the hypothesis of the extended mind, according to which mental states, such as beliefs and desires are extended beyond the organism; and finally, (iii) the hypothesis of distributed cognition, according to which cognitive processes are distributed between several individuals along with their epistemic artifacts. It should be noted, however, that even though these three types of active externalism are supposed to be distinct and can be motivated on the basis of independent argumentative lines, they are not incompatible with each other; there is in fact significant overlap between them. Likewise within the literature concerning the debate over active externalism, there is no consensus regarding how the view is supposed to be contrasted with the less provocative hypothesis of embedded cognition, according to which cognition may rely heavily on the agent’s surrounding environment, but is clearly restricted within one’s organismic boundaries. This unfortunate lack of clear theoretical distinctions is unsurprisingly inherited by the nascent (though burgeoning) literature at the intersection of epistemology and externalist philosophy of mind. Accordingly, even though there have been a few attempts to provide a topography of the relevant theoretical landscape so as to clarify what are the possible ways in which (for instance) knowledge and epistemic justification can be conceived of as extended or distributed, the present article should be considered as a first attempt to categorize the existing and quickly growing literature in as an informative way as possible so as to facilitate future research on the topic. To this end, existing literature has been organized in categories: (1) General Overviews of the literature on the intersection of philosophy of mind and epistemology; (2) Textbooks dedicated to the topic, broadly construed; (3) Anthologies dedicated to the topic; (4) Embedded Cognition and Knowledge; (5) Extended Cognition and Epistemology; (6) Extended Mind and Epistemology; (7) Distributed Cognition and Epistemology; (8) Collaborative Knowledge and Scientific Knowledge; and finally, (9) Related Literature, which contains miscellaneous literature that is expected to have an important input in future related literature.

General Overviews

While most of the literature at the intersection of epistemology and active externalism explores specific topics of connection between these two areas, there are two survey-style pieces that provide a wider perspective on the growing body of work relating epistemology to active externalism. Palermos and Pritchard 2013 is one such treatment, which explores (in particular) some of the more general themes at the fore of work connecting active externalism and social epistemology. The most comprehensive and substantial survey piece to date is Carter, et al. 2014, which is a forty-plus page, state-of-the-art overview of the terrain.

  • Carter, J. Adam, Jesper Kallestrup, S. Orestis Palermos, and Duncan Pritchard. “Varieties of Externalism.” Philosophical Issues 24 (2014): 63–109.

    DOI: 10.1111/phis.12026

    An extended state-of-the-art survey piece charting terrain at the intersection of epistemology and active externalism in the philosophy of mind.

  • Carter, J. Adam, and S. Orestis Palermos. “Active Externalism and Epistemic Internalism.” Erkenntnis 2014: 1–20.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10670-014-9670-5

    Argues that, despite initial intuitions to the contrary, active externalism is compatible to epistemic internalism, and that only when the latter is explicitly paired to epistemic individualism does genuine incompatibility arise.

  • Palermos, S. Orestis, and Duncan Pritchard. “Extended Knowledge and Social Epistemology.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2.8 (2013): 105–120.

    Examines how extended knowledge, the result of combining active externalism from contemporary philosophy of mind with contemporary epistemology, can offer an alternative conception of the future of social epistemology.

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