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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Externalism is a group of positions in the philosophy of mind which argues that the conscious mind is not only the result of what is going on inside the nervous system (or the brain), but also what occurs or exists outside the subject. It is contrasted with internalism which holds that the mind emerges from neural activity alone. Externalism is a belief that the mind is not just the brain or functions of the brain.

There are different versions of externalism based on different beliefs about what the mind is taken to be. Externalism stresses factors external to the nervous system. At one extreme, the mind could possibly depend on external factors. At the opposite extreme, the mind necessarily depends on external factors. The extreme view of externalism argues either that the mind is constituted by or identical with processes partially or totally external to the nervous system.

Another important criterion in externalist theory is to which aspect of the mind is addressed. Some externalists focus on cognitive aspects of the mind -- such as Andy Clark and David Chalmers, Shaun Gallagher and many others -- while others engage either the phenomenal aspect of the mind or the conscious mind itself. Several philosophers consider the conscious phenomenal content and activity, such as William Lycan, or Francois Tonneau; Teed Rockwell or Riccardo Manzotti.

A neurobiological theory that relies on externalism for explanation of mental phenomena is called practopoiesis.

Enactivism and embodied cognition

Enactivism and embodied cognition stress the tight coupling between the cognitive processes, the body, and the environment. Enactivism builds upon the work of other scholars who could be considered as proto externalists; these include Gregory Bateson, James J. Gibson, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Eleanor Rosch and many others. These thinkers suggest that the mind is either dependent on or identical with the interactions between the world and the agents. For instance, Kevin O’Regan and Alva Noe suggested in a seminal paper that the mind is constituted by the sensory-motor contingency between the agent and the world. A sensory-motor contingency is an occasion to act in a certain way and it results from the matching between environmental and bodily properties. To a certain extent a sensory-motor contingencies strongly resembles Gibson’s affordances. Eventually, Noe developed a more epistemic version of enactivism where the content is the knowledge the agent has as to what it can do in a certain situation. In any case he is an externalist when he claims that “What perception is, however, is not a process in the brain, but a kind of skilful activity on the part of the animal as a whole. The enactive view challenges neuroscience to devise new ways of understanding the neural basis of perception and consciousness” (Noë 2004, p. 2). Recently, Noe published a more popular and shorter version of his position.

Enactivism receives support from various other correlated views such as embodied cognition or situated cognition. These views are usually the result of the rejection of the classic computational view of the mind which is centered on the notion of internal representations. Enactivism receives its share of negative comments, particularly from neuroscientists such as Christof Koch (Koch 2004, p. 9): “While proponents of the enactive point of view rightly emphasize that perception usually takes place within the context of action, I have little patience for their neglect of the neural basis of perception. If there is one thing that scientists are reasonably sure of, it is that brain activity is both necessary and sufficient for biological sentience.”

To recap, enactivism is a case of externalism, sometimes restricted to cognitive or semantic aspects, some other times striving to encompass phenomenal aspects. Something that no enactivist has so far claimed is that all phenomenal content is the result of the interaction with the environment.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Externalism" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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