Aaron Sloman on the Extended Mind – in 1978

It’s easy to be unaware of the fact that notions similar to, if not identical with, the concept of the “extended mind” were in circulation before, say, 1998. Yet there were writers advocating active (as opposed to philosophical) externalism before that date. I have noted before that Tuomela 1989 is one such source:

“The main arguments in [this] paper are directed against the latter thesis, according to which internal (or autonomous or narrow) psychological states as opposed to noninternal ones suffice for explanation in psychology. Especially, feedback-based actions are argued to require indispensable reference to noninternal explanantia, often to explanatory common causes.” — Methodological Solipsism and Explanation in Psychology, Raimo Tuomela, Philosophy of Science Vol. 56, No. 1 (Mar., 1989) , pp. 23-47.

But there is an even clearer statement of the thesis dating back a decade before that, in Aaron Sloman’s The Computer Revolution in Philosophy (available for free here):

“Because these ideas have been made precise and implemented in the design of computing systems, we can now, without being guilty of woolly and unpackable metaphors, say things like: the environment is part of the mechanism (or its mind), and the mechanism is simultaneously part of (i.e. ‘in’) the environment!” — Aaron Sloman, The Computer Revolution in Philosophy: Philosophy, science and models of mind, Harvester Press, 1978, Section 6.5.

Here we have not only the extended mind, but situatedness as well!

Admittedly, not everything Sloman says in that book is friendly to an externalist perspective on mind, but I doubt he would take that to be a criticism.



David Leavens reminded me of Gregory Bateson saying similar things in 1972:

“… we may say that ‘mind’ is immanent in those circuits of the brain which are complete within the brain. Or that mind is immanent in circuits that are complete within the system, brain plus body. Or, finally, that mind is immanent in the larger system — man plus environment .”

In “Intelligence as a Way of Life” (2000), I note, in precisely this context (the precursors of active externalism), that Bateson’s 1971 “The Cybernetics of ‘Self’: A Theory of Alcoholism” says “the mental characteristics of the system are immanent not in some part, but in the system as a whole”, and also:

“The computer is only an arc of a larger circuit which always includes a man and an environment from which information is received and upon which efferent messages from the computer have effect. This total system, or ensemble, may legitimately be said to show mental characteristics”.

I then explicitly link his remarks to Tuomela 1989 and Clark and Chalmers 1998. Thanks again, David.

6 thoughts on “Aaron Sloman on the Extended Mind – in 1978

  1. Richard Menary points out that the position can be traced back to Dewey’s remarks on the reflex arc in 1896. I remember Rolf Pfeifer telling me to have a look at that, and now I see why. However, I can’t find any nice quotes from 1896 concerning extended mind, but from the Introduction to his “Essays in Experimental Logic” (1912) there is this:

    “Upon this view, thinking, or knowledge-getting, is far from being the armchair thing it is often supposed to be. The reason it is not an armchair thing is that it is not an event going on exclusively within the cortex or the cortex and vocal organs. It involves the explorations by which relevant data are procured and the physical analyses by which they are refined and made precise; it comprises the readings by which information is got hold of, the words which are experimented with, and the calculations by which the significance of entertained conceptions or hypotheses is elaborated. Hands and feet, apparatus and appliances of all kinds are as much a part of it as changes in the brain. Since these physical operations (including the cerebral events) and equipments are a part of thinking, thinking is mental, not because of a peculiar stuff which enters into it or of peculiar non-natural activities which constitute it, but because of what physical acts and appliances do: the distinctive purpose for which they are employed and the distinctive results which they accomplish.”

    Thanks, Richard!

    • This old set of postings has just appeared near the top of the PAICS menu on the left and so I’ve only just read all of it. I can’t beat Bateson, let alone Dewey (before WW1 – I wasn’t born until just before WW2 …), but I can tie with Sloman in 1978, with a very much shorter publication: Booth, D.A. (1978). Mind-brain puzzle versus mind-physical world identity. Commentary on R. Puccetti & R.W. Dykes: Sensory cortex and the mind-brain problem. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 3, 348-349. DOI: 10.1017/S0140525X00075178

      I was pointing out that it was not the Cartesian dualists’ visual or auditory experiences that differentiated those sensory cortices but the physical connections to sights and sounds through the eyes and ears.

      Three points to be added in this posting.

      (1) My comment’s title was disastrously written. I implicitly meant “identity” of the person within the mental and physical (and social) worlds, not the identity of those worlds. Harnad (editor) classified me as an eliminative physicalist from that title, without attending to the text of my comment. I am monist, but not a substance (or property) monist; rather, a causation monist with at least three sorts of closed causal system in a human being.

      (2) I’m very vocal about Wittgenstein’s influence on my thinking but I read Dewey’s extraordinarily inclusive review of The Reflex quite early on, and, despite the writing style of the age, felt great affinity to his prospect on Psychology. My BBS Comment is an early version of my view in recent decades of the input side of a ‘reflex’ contextualised to other reflexes.

      (3) Different people’s 21st century uses of the idea of a mind “extending” to the environment seem pretty diverse to me. My overlap with Sloman, or his or mine with Bateson, may be less than appears – let alone those with Clark’s “supersizing”. One grave danger is conflating a mind’s processing with the information being processed.

      – David B at US

  2. David, thanks for this. It would be good if you could post the original text of your 1978 piece here, or link to it. I found the following excerpt; is it complete?

    “To maintain my neutral monist or multi-aspect view of human reality (or indeed to defend the Cartesian dualism assumed by Puccetti & Dykes, it is wrong to relate the mind to the brain alone. A person’s mind should be related to the physical environment, including the body, in addition to the brain. Furthermore, we are unlikely to understand the detailed functioning of an individual brain without knowing the history of its interactions with the external and internal environments during that person’s life, or indeed any inherited neurogenomics (circuitry innately adapted to ecology.”

    I think many reading this might have missed the externalist reading you intended, since the claim that a person’s mind should be “related” to the environment does not immediately being to mind the idea that the mind is (partially) constituted by the environment. Even though identity or partial constitution are indeed ways one thing may be related to another, strictly speaking, an unqualified use of “x is related to y” suggests that x and y are distinct, in my mind. Your final point about history is most naturally understood as an epistemological, not metaphysical, one.

    • Ron, your excerpt is relevant but insufficient to convey my argument in this piece. As indicated at the start of the excerpt, my argument applies regardless of ontological commitments (“many neuroscientists'” physicalist monism, P&D’s interactionist dualism, my causal systems triism (already stated here), or parallelism!). Hence (in the space) I don’t say anything about how mental systems “relate” / correspond / whatever to the physical system.

      My point was that, however mental performance (including experiencing) and physical events do relate, the relevant physics extends beyond the internal physical brain through the (boundary?) physical senses to the external physical environment.

      Please note that, at that time, my barbs were aimed at my fellow laboratory psychologists and ‘grubo’-neuroscientists. I don’t think philosophers or computer scientists know of BBS in that first year.

      Hence, my final remark is written epistemologically but is intended to make the ontic assertion that the correspondence is not between current brain-and-environment and current mind but between their shared histories to the present moment. The extendedness is in time as well as space.

      As you asked, I’m trying to paste a full text below. The actual publication (the target and all the commentary) is available in one PDF from CUP via the University Shibboleth access. (Can you auto-adjust the line lengths? Sorry, I don’t have soft returns)

      BEHAVIORAL AND BRAIN SCIENCES (1978), 1(3), 347-348.
      Comment on Puccetti & Dykes: Sensory cortex and the mind-brain problem

      Text by D. A. Booth
      (then) Department of Psychology, University of Birmingham, P. 0. Box 363, Birmingham B15 2TT, England

      Mind-brain puzzle versus mind-physical world identity. Puccetti & Dykes expose some of the difficulties in mind-brain identity theory with the aid of a provocatively simple illustration: the similarities of structure in different primary sensory areas of cerebral cortex. Unfortunately they create difficulties by appearing to assume (in common with their opponents and many others) the more general theory that subjective experience might one day be explained by reference to its neural correlates alone. This presupposition, not just their neuroanatomical thesis, leads P & D to their tentative conclusion for dualism against monism. It is this commitment among many neuroscientists to find consciousness among the neurons which is liable to divert their attention from the main theoretical issue toward arguments as to whether P & D are likely to have come to the right anatomical conclusion.

      To maintain a neutral monist or multi-aspect view of reality, it is unnecessary and in fact wrong to identify the mind with the brain alone, or to locate it exclusively there. A person’s mind should be identified, roughly speaking, with his/her whole physical world – the physical environment, to some extent the body, in addition to his brain. Furthermore, we are unlikely to understand the detailed functioning of an individual brain without knowing the history of its interactions with the external and internal environments during that person’s life.

      The reason for this is that both the objective and the subjective aspects of mind, both behavior and experience, lie in the individual’s relation to his/her environment. Consciousness is a behaver’s own viewpoint. Experience is a private process embodied in the public world of its owner’s behavior in his particular physical and social context (Wittgenstein 1953). Thus experience is not the sort of process that could be organized solely by a set of brain events, and the efficacy of a behaver’s viewpoint or awareness is not simply an influence on a network of neurons. Mental processes form causal chains at a level of analysis in terms of meaning which is complementary to analysis at the physical level (MacKay 1958; Polanyi 1966). Physical causation runs through a system in which brain and environment are integrated, and furthermore there is no sense in seeking gaps in that chain of causation to fit consciousness in, whether within the brain or anywhere else (such as the environmental history). Specifically to P& D’s argument, the nature of a particular experience depends on the whole system, not just on one particularly critical set of physical mechanisms.

      P & D’s deaf and dumb extraterrestrial visitor would come to know what the experience of hearing is if her behavior became organized by sound through auditory receptors, even if she still had no Area 41 (and even though she might still refuse to acknowledge the refutation of his “eliminative materialism”). – And, contrary to P & D’s analysis, there are many more than two possible outcomes after Utopian transplants of human auditory cortex to visual Area 17 (for example). Far more likely than promptly normal visual functions or visual stimuli yielding auditory experiences – and an outcome which might be as instructive as normal perceptual development – would be initially inchoate visual experiences, or non-modal spatial impressions at most, while erstwhile auditory cortex begins to use its new visual input and to have its output interpreted elsewhere in the brain and environment.

      Establish the new meaning of the physical operations, and good visual behavior and clear visual experience will be re-established. (If P & D are wrong about the structural generality of sensory cortices, then completely normal vision may never be established, even in Utopia.)

      In summary, P & D’s logical diagram (their Figure 5) becomes unproblematic when it is completed (my Figure 1). There do not have to be any differences between the structures of sensory areas to account for the differences among the subjective experiences of seeing, hearing, and touch.

      a + A = A’
      X | X
      b + B = B’
      X | X
      c + C = C’

      Figure 1 (Booth). Completion and correction of P & D’s diagram of mind-brain relations. If sensory areas A, B, and C are very similar (|), and yet sensory experiences A’, B’, and C’ are very different (X), it is still possible for a + A to be identical with A’, b + B = B’, and c + C = C’, where a, b, and c are other parts of the same physical system which are very different from each other. [“+” refers to a physical connection.]

      These are not mere philosophical quibbles. Dissolving the conceptual hang-ups of mind-brain identity theory has immediate implications for research strategy. Neurochemists and neurophysiologists should pay as much attention outside the brain as inside it if they want a chance to find out how the brain works. Behavior is not a neurosecretion, and consciousness cannot be a field property of cerebral networks. Physical explanation of the meaning in behavior, and even of subjective experience, will be in terms integrating physical environment, somatic physiology, and neuroscience. This is the job of behavioral neuroscience or physiological psychology (a much misappropriated name by which I am proud to designate my work), and developments in both psychology and physiology have very recently brought such a reduction at last within sight of technical feasibility. Physiological-physical explanation of mind will not eliminate psychology but should stop some psychologists from feeling that they must try to masquerade as neuroscientists. It will not rule out consciousness or refute its existence, any more than atomic physics refutes the existence of life by explaining how life is possible in terms of biochemistry, physiology, and selective self-reproduction. One may hope the prospect may shift neuroscientists from trying to localize function to elucidating the whole system of processes that makes function possible.


      MacKay, D. M. Complementarity. Aristotelian Society Suppl. 32:105-122,1958.

      Polanyi, M. The Tacit Dimension. Doubleday, Garden City, N.Y., 1966.

      Wittgenstein, L. Philosophical Investigations. Blackwells, Oxford, 1953

  3. David, I don’t have time for a lengthy reply, so I’ll just focus on one sentence of yours:

    “My point was that, however mental performance (including experiencing) and physical events do relate, the relevant physics extends beyond the internal physical brain through the (boundary?) physical senses to the external physical environment.”

    The externalist position (that I was seeing Aaron as an early exponent of) is much more specific than is captured by your term “relevant”. Even non-externalists think the external physical environment is *relevant* to mind, it’s just that they see its relevance as (mere) causal relevance. You explicitly aim to stay above the metaphysical fray by saying your point applies however the mental and the physical relate, but the externalist is going beyond that, by saying that some of the physical stuff that lies outside the brain/computer, as traditionally conceived, actually *constitutes* mental states/events/processes/properties . I don’t see your (insightful) contribution as being a statement of that much more specific position. I doubt you would even assent to it, since I gather you reject the simplistic monist/supervenience position it presupposes.

    • Thanks, Ron. I can’t of course assent to eliminative materialism, whether or not in the (in my view) unsuccessful disguise of supervenience of mind (and society?) or indeed old-style epiphenomenalism.

      Given that rejection of the presupposition behind “constitutes”, I can’t see what it adds to “relevant” or even “relates.” I’d agree that the latter come from epistemology rather than ontology but, from a broadly Quinean point of view, these scientists’ views could be a start towards some ontology – certainly more than parallelism is!

      For example, if you can stretch “constitute” to include “embody” (as long as you let me stretch it to include also “enculture”), then I can’t embody mind in brain without embodying it also in [the rest of] the body (even non-innervated tissues), familiar tools, the person’s blogpost black-on-white markings, and probably quite a lot of other materials outside the skin. I can’t remember anything different that I might have been intending to imply in my 1978 BBS comment.

      By the way, (not dissimilarly) I can’t equate a running programmed computer with solely the brain of a physically and socially intelligent (living!) member of a biological species.

      – David

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