In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Externalism and Internalism in the Philosophy of Mind

  • Introduction
  • General Background
  • Classic and Early Work
  • Philosophy of Language/Mind Interface
  • The Extended Mind and Cognition
  • Mental Causation and Explanation I
  • Mental Causation and Explanation II
  • Intentionality: Articles
  • Intentionality: Books
  • Narrow Content I
  • Narrow Content II
  • Phenomenal Intentionality
  • Consciousness, Phenomenology, and Experience: Articles
  • Consciousness, Phenomenology, and Experience: Books
  • Marr’s Theory of Vision
  • Knowledge and Self-Knowledge
  • Other Cognitive Science and Philosophy of Science: Articles
  • Other Cognitive Science and Philosophy of Science: Books

Philosophy Externalism and Internalism in the Philosophy of Mind
Robert A. Wilson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 September 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0352


Across different areas of philosophy, “internalism” and “externalism” designate distinctly opposed positions. In the philosophy of mind, the debate between internalists and externalists arose in the 1970s with a focus on meaning and mental representation and the nature of mental states. Internalists or individualists hold that the nature of an individual’s mental states depends metaphysically just on facts about that individual, facts intrinsic to that individual, rather than her social or physical environment. A common way to express internalism is to say that an individual’s mental states are fixed or determined by the intrinsic, physical properties of that individual, where this relation of determination has typically been understood in terms of the notion of supervenience. For an individualist, two molecule-for-molecule identical individuals also must have the same mental states. Externalists or anti-individualists deny this. The two seminal papers here—Hilary Putnam’s “The Meaning of ‘Meaning’” (Putnam 1975, cited under Classic and Early Work) and Tyler Burge’s “Individualism and the Mental” (Burge 1979, cited under Classic and Early Work)—both launched attacks on taken-for-granted internalist or individualist views of meaning and mind. They did so in part by introducing thought experiments in which so-called doppelgängers (those molecule-for-molecule identical individuals), located in distinct physical and social environments, had thoughts with different mental contents. In addition, Burge published a large number of papers over the next two decades systematically drawing out the scope and implications of his anti-individualistic views for central topics in the metaphysics and epistemology of mind and cognitive science, including mental causation and psychological explanation, self-knowledge, and computational accounts of cognitive processing. Shifting from the initial focus on meaning and mental content in the 1980s to the idea that cognition is embodied and extends into the environment—the extended mind thesis—the debate over externalism in the philosophy of mind has infused much work on core topics in the field, such as the nature of intentionality, computational psychology, consciousness, perception, experience, functionalism, and materialism. The sections General Background, Classic and Early Work, Philosophy of Language/Mind Interface, and the Extended Mind and Cognition below provide background and fundamental readings on internalism and externalism in the philosophy of mind. Sections from Mental Causation and Explanation I to Knowledge and Self-Knowledge give coverage to particular topics, such as intentionality and consciousness. Sections Other Cognitive Science and Philosophy of Science: Articles and Other Cognitive Science and Philosophy of Science: Books cover miscellaneous books and articles that focus primarily on cognitive science and the philosophy of science. Some sectional divisions are artifacts of the ten entries-per-section constraint, together with finding no more meaningful way to categorize these entries. Other Oxford Bibliographies articles with complementary content include “Epistemology and Active Externalism,” “The Extended Mind Thesis,” “Self-Knowledge,” and “Supervenience.”

General Background

As mentioned in the introduction, work by Hilary Putnam and Tyler Burge in the 1970s posed the initial challenges to internalism or individualism about the mind. The collection of important essays in Fodor 1981 and the commissioned review Burge 1992, in distinct ways, provide a sense of the broader context in which those challenges were issued, while Wilson 2003 offers a more focused introduction to individualism itself. Readers who want a better sense of where the debate between externalists and internalists was located in traditional philosophy of mind can turn to textbooks and anthologies. Two differently oriented textbooks, Heil 1992 and Sterelny 1990, give solid introductions to the state of play of the philosophy of mind in the early 1990s, by which time the externalist challenge and alternative to individualism, particularly about intentionality, representation, and mental content, had won over much of the field. McCulloch 1995 is likewise accessible and has two chapters explicitly on the issue, and the anthology Block, et al. 1997 indicates how the shift to externalist views had filtered into the emerging work on consciousness by the late 1990s. Stich 1996 is an influential monograph that relies on internalism or individualism to defend an eliminativist view of our commonsense folk psychology, developing the ideas in Stich 1978 (cited under Classic and Early Work). Wilson 1995 is a sustained critique of individualism that draws on and develops several of the author’s earlier publications, while Wilson 2004 develops externalist perspectives that reflect the rise of the idea of extended cognition in the early 2000s.

  • Block, Ned, Owen Flanagan, and Güven Güzeldere, eds. The Nature of Consciousness: Philosophical Debates. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1997.

    A comprehensive anthology on consciousness, containing many classic and recent papers, including Ned Block’s “Inverted Earth” and Martin Davies’s “Externalism and Experience” (Block 1990 and Davies 1995, cited under Consciousness, Phenomenology, and Experience: Articles).

  • Burge, Tyler. “Philosophy of Language and Mind, 1950–1990.” Philosophical Review 100 (1992): 3–51.

    DOI: 10.2307/2185043

    A valuable general review of some dominant trends in philosophy of mind and language since 1950 that includes not only individualism in the philosophy of mind but also competing theories of reference, naturalism, and the relationship between mind and language.

  • Fodor, Jerry. RePresentations. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1981.

    A collection of Fodor’s essays that contains many influential papers, including “Propositional Attitudes” and “Methodological Solipsism Considered as a Research Strategy in Cognitive Psychology.” His introduction to this volume is also informative as an introduction to philosophy and cognitive science circa 1981.

  • Heil, John. The Nature of True Minds. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511625367

    A solid, advanced introduction to core topics in the philosophy of mind, including supervenience, individualism, and intentionality.

  • McCulloch, Gregory. The Mind and Its World. London: Routledge, 1995.

    Belongs to a series that introduces contemporary themes throughout the history of philosophy. Chapter 7, “Twin Earth,” and Chapter 8, “Internalism and Externalism,” provide clear introductions to key issues in debates over internalism and externalism.

  • Sterelny, Kim. The Representational Theory of Mind: An Introduction. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990.

    One of the best introductions to contemporary philosophy of mind; has chapters on Marr’s theory of vision (chapter 4) and individualism (chapter 5); opinionated in the author’s usual style.

  • Stich, Stephen. From Folk Psychology to Cognitive Science: The Case against Belief. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1996.

    A defense of eliminativism that explores some alternatives to folk psychology, including what Stich calls “the syntactic theory of the mind,”

  • Wilson, Robert A. Cartesian Psychology and Physical Minds: Individualism and the Sciences of the Mind. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139174374

    Extended critique of individualism and discussion of its relation to intentionality, mental causation, folk psychology, and cognitive science.

  • Wilson, Robert A. “Individualism.” In The Blackwell Guide to Philosophy of Mind. Edited by Stephen Stich and Ted A. Warfield, 256–287. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003.

    A brief overview of individualism in the philosophy of mind.

  • Wilson, Robert A. Boundaries of the Mind: The Individual in the Fragile Sciences; Cognition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511606847

    An externalist response to the question “Where does the mind begin and end?” that develops accounts of realization and consciousness and discusses both individual and group-level cognition.

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