Notes on “Externalism” by Mark Rowlands

Sunday, 20th March, 2016

Book details

Externalism: putting mind and world together again
Mark Rowlands


I liked this book a lot. It describes the internalist position and gives a kind of chronological survey of the externalist response. After highlighting the limitations of the “standard” externalism (which Rowlands calls Content Externalism), Rowlands outlines a more radical (and much more interesting imho) variant which he calls Vehicle Externalism.

** The Internalist position: Cartesianism (Chapter 2) and Idealism (Chapter 3)

Rowlands roots internalism in Cartesian dualism: the Mind/Body split, and the individual pairing between an individual Mind (or Soul) and that Mind’s own Body. In “Cartesian materialism” the explicit dualism is dropped and instead of the Mind/Soul being linked to the Body, the mind is somehow located or implemented in the body. Internalism is then characterised as holding two claims (p. 13):

  • Location: “any mental phenomenon is spatially located inside the boundaries of the subject, S, that has or undergoes it.”
  • Possession: “the possession of any mental phenomenon by a subject S does not depend on any feature that is external to the boundaries of S.”

Although the dualism has been officially expunged, idealism still has its influence, and Chapter 3 describes things like the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, structuralism, and so on, as examples of a post-Kantian idealism.

Chapter 2 effectively shows the modern mainstream internalist position as a more-or-less direct descendant of the Cartesian position. Chapter 3 otoh is perhaps the weakest of the book, but also the least central (at least for my own interest).

There is a brief nod to historical context in Chapter 2, pointing to the influence on Descartes of “the rise of mechanism associated with the scientific revolution” (p. 18). Marx was very critical of the “mechanical” materialism of his own day, saying the the dynamic idealism of e.g. Hegel was closer to the truth than the mechanical materialism of e.g. Feuerbach. Interesting if the mechanical approach was not a consequence of materialism.

Repeatedly Rowlands conflates the Ideal and the Mental (e.g., pp 4, 32, 60). On p. 4 Rowlands is characterising Kant, and on p. 60 Berkeley. However, on p. 32 Rowlands seems to be defining Idealism per se as “the view that reality is mental”. This might be a fair characterisation of Kant’s idealism, but I don’t know if it is a fair characterisation of Plato’s idealism. It is certainly not accurate of Hegel.

Incidentally, the error of conflating the Ideal and the Mental — and an argument that this was *not* Plato’s position — is one of Ilyenkov’s main points in his Dialectics of the Ideal.

** Externalist responses

The Externalist response is presented in three chronological episodes:

  • Husserl & Sartre (Chapter 4)
  • Wittgenstein (Chapter 5)
  • Putnam, Burge and others — “Content Externalism” (Chapters 6-8)

I don’t want to use the word “historical” because there is no development from one episode to the next, although Husserl’s ideas reappear in Vehicle Externalism.

Husserl & Sartre

Chapter 4 was the surprise highlight of the book for me.

An important part of Husserl’s phenomenology seems to have been a “principle of unity” of consciousness. Each phenomenon of consciousness does not exist alone, but only in a network of related phenomena. Consequently each experience brings with it anticipations or expectations or potentialities (all words used by Rowlands at different points) of other experiences.

It’s easy to psychologise this — in fact, it’s difficult for me not to psychologise it. It immediately brought to mind Mead about the horse:

A person who is familiar with a horse approaches it as one who is going to ride it. He moves toward the proper side and is ready to swing himself into the saddle. His approach determines the success of the whole process. But the horse is not simply something that must be ridden. It is an animal that must eat, that belongs to somebody. It has certain economic values. The individual is ready to do a whole series of things with reference to the horse, and that readiness is involved in any one of the many phases of the various acts. It is a horse that he is going to mount; it is a biological animal; it is an economic animal. Those characters are involved in the ideas of a horse. If we seek this ideal character of a horse in the central nervous system we would have to find it in all those different parts of the initiated acts. One would have to think of each as associated with the other processes in which he uses the horse, so that no matter what the specific act is, there is a readiness to act in these different ways with reference to the horse. We can find in that sense in the beginning of the act just those characters which we assign to “horse” as an idea, or if you like, as a concept.

(Mead, 1934, Mind, Self and Society, chapter 2, page 12)

Sartre’s contribution spells out the implications of Husserl’s phenomenology for the internalist/externalist debate. Specifically, if consciousness is nothing more than a network of expectations, there need be nothing at all “in” consciousness: consciouness is an entirely outward pointing attitude (so for Sartre the opposition is not between matter and mind, but between “Being and Nothingness”). Rowlands makes the connection with behaviourism (and connectionism for that matter) virutally explicit when he says (p. 65):

Not only are the intentional objects of consciousness not in consciousness, but also there are no /representations/ of these objects.

My prejudice of Husserl had always been of a kind of latter-day, vulgarised Hegel. That prejudice is not challenged here. However, I can see how Husserl’s work on consciousness (as presented by Rowlands) could be part of a kind of “greater behaviourism” (which would include such as Vygotky and Mead alongside Pavlov and Skinner).

Sartre comes over as a latter-day, vulgarised Marx. Sartre claims his interpretation of Husserl is a “radical reversal of idealism” (p. 64; Sartre’s Being and Nothingness p. 239). This obviously recalls Marx’ declaration of turning Hegel right-side-up in the introduction to Capital.


I can’t get excited about Wittgenstein. It’s not that I disagree with what he says. His work just seems very slight. This chapter covers things like the private language argument, and the notion of following a rule as conforming to a community practice.

Content Externalism

Chapters 6-8 cover the archetypal Externalism of Anglo-American “Analytical” philosophy, with Hilary Putnam and Tyles Burge and their twin-earth thought experiments as prime exemplars. I’m afraid I find this kind of philosophy absolutely tedious. I can say Rowlands seemed to be systematic and thorough.

Chapter 6 lays out the strength of the Content Externalist attack on internalism.

One interesting thing about Husserl and Wittgenstein, which disappears in Content Externalism, is that with H & W the subject of consciousness is an active agent: some form of “situatedness” seems to treated as fundamental to the subject, so each “consciouness event” is related to previously experienced or anticipated events. With the “Analytic” philosophers, the examples are isolated events: a moment of perception, the holding of a belief. The subject of consciousness is purely contemplative. This takes us back to Marx’s criticism of Feuerbach and mechanical materialism.

** Vehicle Externalism

Content Externalism addresses Internalism’s Possession claim and (according to Rowlands in chapter 7) is further limited to certain kinds of “mental contents”. Vehicle Externalism addresses the Location claim. Vehicle Externalism is the position that the thinking subject, or the system that thinks, is to some extent outside the boundaries of the human body.

Chapter 9 spends a lot of time in biology, e.g., how some animals (examples used are beavers and acanthocephalan worms) have evolved to outsource functions to their environment. James Gibson’s ecological approach to vision is used to show (a) how animals use objective structure in their physical environment and (b) how important is the subject’s subjectivity, activity, to understanding their cognition.

It’s a slight shame that the relevance of Husserl & Sartre’s arguments from chapter 4 is not spelt out explicitly in this part of the book. There are very strong echoes of Husserl’s anticipations/expectations in the potentialities & sensorimotor contingencies referred to here. Rowlands criticises a representational theory of mind, preferring what he calls an “extended” approach (as in extending into the environment) — with similarly clear echoes of Sartre’s outwardly pointing consciouness (and imho echoes of behaviourism).

That’s just a slight shame though. I enjoyed the book as a whole, and I thought Chapters 4 (on Husserl and Sartre) and 9 & 10 (on Vehicle Externalism) were very strong.

Next steps

What would a Marxist make of all this? Surely a Marxist would never even consider an Internalist position? But Ilyenkov’s polemic in Dialectics of the Ideal, against the “official” Soviet Marxist line, is precisely against an Internalist line where the Ideal is mental and the mental is neural. So these arguments still have to be had.

Rowlands equates the Ideal with the mental, which is a weakness, but the most important line in this book (Husserl/Sartre through to Vehicle Externalism) doesn’t use that equation at all. In fact I think this line is if anything more sympathetic to Ilyenkov’s position, that the Ideal is based on social practice.

To me Vehical Externalism is far more interesting than Content Externalism, which really does feel like a debate entirely internal to academic Analytical philosophy. Content Externalism still retains the absolute split between subject and object, while in Vehicle Externalism part of the subject is “out there” in the object (e.g., language, custom, features of the social environment).

So, two paths lead out of this:

  • The book was written over twelve years ago. Where is Vehicle Externalism now? How has the Externalist position in general developed?
  • After reading this book, Husserl suddenly seems interesting. I want to get a quick overview of his philosophy and a sense of the strengths and weaknesses of his approach. IIRC Lukacs gives Husserl short shrift (in the Destruction of Reason). Does Hegel (Marx, Vygotsky, and others) give us everything we need? What exactly does Husserl bring? Part of the light shining on this exploration will be the differences between Husserl and Brouwer (in which my preference is closer to Brouwer).

[update: Mark Rowlands has a more recent (2013) book out on externalism: The New Science of the Mind: From Extended Mind to Embodied Phenomenology.]


One Response to “Notes on “Externalism” by Mark Rowlands”

  1. […] it pre-supposes the most important thing to explain, i.e., the thinking subject. I can see now why Rowlands felt the need to devote a chapter to chasing after various types of contemporary neo-Kantianism […]

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