When I first heard about the extended-mind thesis (EMT), some time in the mid-2000s, I was instantly intrigued—mainly because it feels so intuitively right. Driving my car, I often feel that I am my car, or that my car is me. Driving a rental car, especially as I pull it out of the rental company’s lot, I always feel that I’m maneuvering not my own body but a big piece of alien machinery around. It feels to me as if I not only write better but think better when I’m working on my own computers or mobile devices than I do on an alien machine. My mind or my soul or my bodily proprioception has extended to incorporate the “machines” (it seems heartless to call them that) with which I interact intimately every day.
But when I started reading the EMT (and anti-EMT) literature, I was nonplussed. The thrust of the pro-EMT advocacy was that mind really extends: it’s not just a feeling, not just a quale, but a literal or material extension. As Andy Clark writes in the preface to Supersizing the Mind: “Such body- and world-involving cycles are best understood, or so I shall argue, as quite literally extending the machinery of mind out into the world” (2008: xxvi). And the anti-EMT literature basically insisted that if it can’t be shown that mind literally or materially extends—if it only feels as if it does—then mind doesn’t extend.
This seemed like a wrong turn to me. What is “the machinery of the mind”? Obviously it’s a metaphor: not only is the mind not literally mechanical; the brain isn’t either. Never mind, even, how one literally extends a metaphor; what is the literal reality figured by the metaphor? Cognitive functions, presumably—not synaptic action, neurotransmitter uptake, etc. But what does it mean for cognitive functions to extend literally? Given that Clark is already rather egregiously misusing the adverb “literally” in applying it to a metaphor, should we assume that he is using the word colloquially, the way a lot of people do, as a kind of intensifier, to signify his strong affective commitment to this idea? “After pulling an all-nighter, I arrived at the exam literally dead”—“literally dead” there meaning not “lifeless” but “more than tired, more than exhausted: really really really tired.” We could surmise that Clark means “quite literally extending the machinery of mind out into the world” in much the same spirit: “it’s not just that it feels like my mind is extending out into the world; it really really really feels like it!”
But then he goes on to say that this “literal” extension of “the machinery of the mind” builds “extended cognitive circuits that are themselves the minimal material bases for important aspects of human thought and reason”: material bases. What are the material bases of mind? Neurons? Surely “cognitive circuits” is another metaphor (cognition as electricity), but somehow, through the intensification achieved through the use of the adverb “literally,” it gets transmogrified into “material bases.”
And the problem is that anything short of material extension just won’t cut it. If mind doesn’t materially extend, it doesn’t extend. On that point Clark agrees with his critics. The mere feeling that mind extends isn’t good enough. Relying on feeling is “falling into the qualia trap.”
Despite my initial enthusiasm for the EMT, then, the utter implausibility of Clark’s materialist arguments for it inclined me to join the anti-EMT group—except that their arguments seemed no more persuasive than Clark’s. Fred Adams and Ken Aizawa, Clark’s most persistent opponents, weren’t content to say “if nothing material extends, mind doesn’t extend”; they had to drag Jerry Fodor’s LOTH and Fred Dretske’s naturalized semantics into the fray, and claim that “thoughts have nonderived semantic content, but that natural language has merely derived content” (2008: 34). As a reader steeped in a very different philosophy of language—the ordinary-language philosophy of Wittgenstein and Austin, the work of Mead, Bakhtin, Burke, Derrida, etc.—I again found this notion implausible to the point of absurdity. Speaking a language doesn’t help us think? Thinking itself isn’t a form of internalized conversation, steeped in transcraniality? Speech acts aren’t performed by whole groups?
My book Feeling Extended: Sociality as Extended Body-Becoming-Mind, recently published by MIT Press, is my attempt to navigate a middle course between the implausibilities of Clark’s Scylla and the absurdities of Adams and Aizawa’s Charybdis. My original subtitle was in fact Speech Acts, Empathy, and Face as Extended Body-Becoming-Mind, but I decided that that was at once too long and not long enough: it should have included ritual as well. “Sociality” is a bit bland; but it covers the territory, and is a long-neglected subfield that is beginning to get some traction in cognitive philosophy (see e.g. Sterelny 2012).
My core argument in the book looks like this: Qualia are primary (extended mind feels extended) and shared (reticulated through the group) (§0.2 and §1.0, Chapter 4, Appendix)  Cognition is internalized conversation: intracraniality is mostly transcranial (§0.3 and §2.3)  Even verbal labels emerge out of preconative affect (§0.4 and §2.3)  Language is not all cognitive labels: speech acts are conative force (§0.5, §3.1.2, §3.2, §3.3)  Indirect speech acts can be preverbal (§0.6 and §3.4)  Empathy, face, and ritual are managed through affective-becoming-conative communication (§0.7, Chapter 5)  The extended mind is actually an extended body-becoming-mind (§0.8)
Note the emphasis on affect and conation: they are my attempt to map out the middle ground that Clark neglects to explore between moving bodies and extending minds. If it only feels as if mind extends, but the feeling that mind extends can itself be shown not only to extend but to exert conative pressure on others to organize their behavior around group norms, then what Clark derogates as “the qualia trap” may in fact be the solution he has been seeking.
The book also reprints an article I published online in Minerva a few years ago, entitled “Liar-Paradox Monism”: https://www.minerva.mic.ul.ie/Vol14/Monism.pdf.
- Adams, Frederick, and Kenneth Aizawa. (2008). The bounds of cognition. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
- Clark, Andy. (2008). Supersizing the mind: Embodiment, action, and cognitive extension. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
- Sterelny, Kim. (2012). The evolved apprentice: How evolution made humans unique. Cambridge: MIT Press/Bradford.