Judging by a number of the comments in my Extended Mind and Political Theory post, there’s a lot of confusion as to just what the extended mind hypothesis is. Here is an excellent example of the confusion. One of the poster’s writes:

my “quibbling difficulties” (dismissiveness is always fun) are not with Clark; I think you need to reread my comments. I don’t like that he maintains the privilege of the mind (*it* is what extends, rather than anything else) but it’s *anything* but shocking.

The bolded portion of this passage is exactly the opposite of what Clark and others like Alva Noë are arguing. The thesis is not that mind extends itself into other things such as pencils and pieces of paper. Were this the case, then it would be perfectly appropriate to say that there’s nothing new here, because we would have minds on one side and the various things of the world on the other side. This would be a rather traditional view of mind standing opposed to world, such that mind projects itself on the world in a variety of ways. For example, in Hegel, the material world progressively comes to embody the mind in an externalized fashion. Here the picture that I draw or the tool that I fashion is an externalization of the interior space of my mind. Gradually the world increasingly comes to carry the mark of this interior space through the fashioning of matter.

read on!

The extended mind hypothesis, by contrast, is very different. In the case of the traditional understanding of mind, mind is one component in the assemblage. Here minds remain the same regardless of the assemblage they enter into. Under this theory, when I use a computer or a hammer or paint a painting or write longhand or use a television remote, etc., my mind always remains the same. Mind is one thing– individuated by the boundaries of the body –whereas all of these media (computer, hammer, paintbrush, canvas, paper, pen, television remote, etc) are another thing. I can imprint these other things with the contents of my mind (as in the case of externalizing my thought writing), but that piece of writing is nonetheless something other than mind. It is, to put it in Hegel speak, an “alienated” image of mind.

Within the framework of the extended mind hypothesis, mind is individuated in an entirely different way. Here mind is not a component in an assemblage, but rather mind is quite literally the assemblage itself. It’s not mind that is doing the extending, as Wildly suggests, but rather mind is extended. Mind is extended across brain, body, and the environment. Or alternatively, mind is environment+brain+body. It’s not located in any one of these components. Thus, when I sit down to solve a complex multiplication problem using pencil and paper, it is not that my mind is extending itself into this pencil and paper, nor is it that the pencil and paper are merely traces of internal operations of my mind, but rather it’s that mind is this assemblage of pencil+paper+brain+body. The unit mind = pencil+paper+brain+body. Likewise, when I turn to solve the same multiplication problem using a calculator, my mind doesn’t remain the same. This is so precisely because mind isn’t a component, but is the assemblage itself. Consequently, in the assemblage calculator+brain+body a new mind has come into being.

Now part of the point here is that these assemblages deserve to be called distinct minds because they have powers or capacities that other minds do not have. The pencil and paper are not simply props or vehicles of my internal mental processes, rather they allow me to do things that I couldn’t otherwise do. This point can be made a bit more clearly with reference to Chalmers’s example of the iPhone in his forward to Clark’s Supersizing the Mind. Chalmer’s makes the point that his iPhone is his memory. The iPhone is not a trace of his internal memory, nor a mere prop for his internal memory, but quite literally it is is memory. Chalmers’s memory is quite literally out there in the world rather than in his head. Phone numbers, notes, and all the information he can retrieve on the internet is there on the iPhone, not in his head. Under these circumstances, mind functions in a different way than in the case of those that use internalized brain memory to remember. Moreover, there are certain things that a mind that has an iPhone as one of its components is capable of doing that a mind without such a component cannot. These scaffoldings structure behavior and existence in unique ways.

Here there’s a profound connection between the conception of mind proposed by Clark and others, and the work of theorists such as Marshall McLuhan and Eric Havelock. Among other things, McLuhan and Havelock before him, argued that the invention of writing had a profound impact on the very nature of our minds and experiences of the world. In briefly unfolding this thesis, we can start by talking about simple things like memory. Memory functions in a different way in pre-literate cultures. Because everything must be stored in the internal space of the brain, memory techniques adaptive to the features and limitations of the brain must be developed. This is why cultural transmission takes the form of rhythmic poetry and repetitive refrains characterize this sort of cultural transmission. There’s something about the poetic refrain that can be more easily remembered than other types of conceptual thought, in the same way that the first few notes of a song immediately bring to mind the rest. However, this sort of memory has a number of limitations. It does a very poor job, for example, in allowing us to think abstractly, do geometrical proofs, do philosophy, etc., etc., etc.

The invention of writing changes things significantly. Hegel’s Science of Logic is not possible in the absence of writing for the simple reason that there’s no way to keep the Science of Logic in a brain. Rather, memory must become externalized, on the paper, for something like the Science of Logic to be possible. The paper here is not incidental, nor is it a mere prop or trace of internal thought, but rather it is a full-blown condition that generates an entirely new sort of thought and mind. We can do things on paper that we simply can’t do apart from paper.

McLuhan and Havlock attempt to show a whole series of profound consequences that follow from the invention of writing and the phonetic alphabet. They attempt to show, for example, how formal logic itself arises from writing. It will be recalled that in formal logic there is no time. Although we read the steps of a proof sequentially, those steps do not unfold in time in the way that the seed of a flower unfolds in time, rather all the steps are simultaneously there at once. As a result, things like formal paradoxes become possible. When people hear the Barber of Seville paradox, they’re often perplexed: “If the Barber of Seville cuts everyone’s hair except those who cut their own hair, who cuts the Barber’s hair?” How could this possibly be a paradox? The barber simply has someone else cut his own hair when he’s not cutting the hair of other people. This only becomes a paradox when propositions become timely and formal, such that they can’t simultaneously be true. Yet this timelessness comes into being as a result of existing on a piece of paper at the same time (many “contradictions” are of this sort… They arise from the extinction of time produced as a side-effect of writing). Here a new type of mind has emerged as a result of the assemblage brain+body+paper+writing. Mind isn’t one of those components– the brain, for example –but is the assemblage itself.

Now what I tried to suggest, in my earlier post, is that this conception of mind leads to significant revisions of how we pose social and political questions. As I noted earlier, one of the most distinctive features of the extended mind hypothesis is that there is no “constant mind” that remains the same mind as elements of the assemblage shift. The mind that involves the component of a computer is a different mind than the mind that uses the component of a piece of paper. Put differently, I don’t have a mind that is the same when using computer or paper. These are rather two minds precisely because mind is not that which resides inside a sack of flesh or the body, but rather is the assemblage itself. This means that in the framework of social and political theory, we’ll have many more units of analysis than we might initially think. Units of analysis or agents will be individuated not by bodies, but by assemblages involving all sorts of media. Just because I have a particular body that resembles another body (“humans”), we will be unable to say that these are the same sort of political subjects because these bodies might very well belong to very different assemblages of media and thereby be very different agents or minds. A farmer and a factory worker, for example, would be two entirely different species because of the assemblages to which they belong.

All of this is very schematic at this point because I’m groping for ways to even begin posing these questions. Once the reading group begins we’ll get into the nuts and bolts of Clark’s theory, bringing to light a number of his reasons for these strange claims. One of the things I like about Clark as opposed to, say, McLuhan, is that he provides an extremely solid foundation for his claims based on a good deal of empirical research surrounding limitations of brains and bodies. It will be recalled that for McLuhan all media enhance and obscure various sense-modalities of the body by extending the body and senses in a variety of ways. In many respects, McLuhan merely gestures at this, drawing heavily on Merleau-Ponty and Husserl, whereas Clark gives us the details of how it is so. However, perhaps the biggest difference is that where we still find the whiff of an unchanging human subject lurking in the background of thinkers such as McLuhan, Merleau-Ponty, Marx, and certainly Husserl such that if the agent were simply detached from these assemblages these agents would all share a common essence, in Clark et. al. we instead get an account that completely undermines this thesis, presenting a thoroughly ecological account of minds that are to be individuated by assemblages not by a human essence. This leads to an entirely different set of questions and concepts.