One criticism of the Extended Mind hypothesis (EMH) turns on the idea of a distinction between “original” and “derived” content. (Adams and Aizawa offer an important argument against EMH along these lines in The Bounds of Cognition.)
A representation has “derived” content inasmuch as it has the content it has because of the way intentional agents regard it. The paradigmatic example is written text. It is supposed to be that written text has its meaning derivedly, because it has its meaning as a result of intentional agents’ having developed and applied conventions to the text that are meant to determine its meaning.
Meanwhile, a representation has “original” content inasmuch as it has its content independently of the way any agent regards it. Many people suppose that brains make use of internal representations that have their content, not because someone interprets them as having that content, but rather, simply “originally.”
How there can be original content is the subject of some dispute, but most people agree that there must be original content. Haugeland (Having Thought, p128) argues for this very succinctly. “Derivative intentionality, like an image in a photocopy, must derive eventually from something that is not similarly derivative; that is, at least some intentionality must be original (nonderivative).”
Dennett, of course, argues that there is no original intentionality. (How can he answer Haugeland’s succinct argument just quoted? That’s a bit beyond the scope here but briefly, in my view, he doesn’t think there’s any such thing as derived intentionality either. Taking the intentional stance toward something doesn’t make anything exist—intentionality, representation, or anything else—that didn’t before. He’s something of a fictionalist about these things. Yet he thinks the terms can be used in a way that is responsive to real patterns in the world. I’ve said too much, and too much that is confusing, so I’ll just leave off.)
What does the original/derived distinction have to do with the Extended Mind? Take the famous example of Otto from Chalmers and Clark’s original paper. (See description in previous blog post). Otto uses his notebook by writing in it and reading from it. These are paradigmatic examples of the use of representations for their derived content. Yet many people think that it is a mark of the mental that it involves original content. Arguably, a normal person recalls the kinds of things Otto recalls using representations in her brain that have original content, and that’s why what she’d be doing would really be thinking. What Otto is doing, involving derived content in the way that it does, can’t count as real thinking. It is a substitute for thinking, but it’s not the real thing.
One might quibble over whether normal cases of remembering always involved original content in the relevant way. Can’t it be that we human organisms develop and apply natural conventions toward many of our mental states, making them into representations with derived intentionality? Wouldn’t Otto’s notebook activities be relevantly like this?
I don’t want to take that tack, though. Rather, I want to suggest that when Otto reads from his notebook (or when any of us reads naturally in our native language) he’s (we’re) using the written representations for original content, not derived content. I want to suggest, in other words, that our use of written symbols in the normal reading and writing process uses meaning had by those symbols independently of the way intentional agents treat or regard them. How can I say this? It seems blatantly wrong!
Since this post has become longer than I expected, I’ll have to beg off until I make my next post. (Preview, to maintain plausibility: It’s important in the development of scientific and technological concepts that they not turn only on the history of a system, but also on its present causal powers. This runs afoul of certain popular views esp. in the philosophy of biology, but I’ll address that too. Anyway, note that the sense in which written texts have derived intentionality might turn only on these texts’ history.)
In the meantime, the present post perhaps provides fodder for discussion of the place that these kinds of criticisms (one’s starting from the original/derived distinction) have in discussions of EMH. Or perhaps it could be interesting to discuss whether Dennett’s view escapes the kind of criticism stated succinctly by Haugeland as quoted above. Adams and Aizawa think not—they think Dennett “nowhere comes to grips” with what they call the problem of the “lone thinker.” (You can probably guess from the context what a problem like that of a “lone thinker” would amount to for a view that says there is no original intentionality. I'll clarify in comments if need be, but I don't want to take up any more space here.)
I’ll post again soon.