Cognitive Theories and Social Harm

James Williams, ‘Do No Harm: the Extended Mind Model and the Problem of Delayed Damage’, Sophia, 55 (2016), 71-82; DOI 10.1007/s11841-016-0515-3

I found out about this essay at the conference in Helsinki that I mentioned in this post. It was discussed by Michael Wheeler: you can dip your toe into his achievements here, and you’ll notice that he’s part of the ‘History of Distributed Cognition Project’ that I have mentioned several times in the blog. The article caused the outburst from me I mentioned — and overstated — in my previous post. But it did get me quite worked up, because it was so interesting, and there’s a lot more to do it than I’ll get across in this post..


The essay is a critique of the Extended Mind theory as advanced by Andy Clark and David Chalmers, especially in Clark’s Supersizing the Mind (2008). This theory (and not for the first time I recommend Clark’s video seminar on the ‘History of Distributed Cognition’ site) argues that some of our cognition is done in collaboration with the environment. Indeed, some aspects of (e.g. memory) are absolutely achieved by this ‘extension’ — it’s not just a matter of convenient interactions that lighten the load on the brain for a while.
      Williams argues that there are different ways in which philosophy can cause harm. It can express and cause violence, perhaps. But it can also perpetrate ‘a concealed and delayed detrimental effect of an assumption of non-violence in a working model’. That is, the Extended Mind model is based on a problem-solving premise that seeks ‘smooth interactions and transparency’, and this runs the risk of concealing ‘underlying conflict in the situations they seek to describe and explain… [and] this concealment leads to harm, defined as a diminishing of our capacities to flourish in a given environment’.
      He makes an enlivening but stretched contrast between the Little Red Riding Hood story and the film Forrest Gump. The former represents the world as one of deception and danger; the latter gives us ‘charm’ but also ‘danger’ by portraying the ‘successful innocent’ who moves unwittingly and uncritically through a violent world. So in what Williams calls the ‘happy extended model’ the world is seen as a set of ‘practical difficulties and technical solutions’, and this may be an evasion of philosophical problems (and political ones, etc.) that could face up to changes, threats, breakdowns, and moral anxiety.
      Williams prefers a ‘more conflictual model’, in which ‘our extension into the world is perverse as opposed to virtuous, where extension should be thought of as carrying a constant threat of unhappy outcomes’, and where we are involved in ‘a multiplicity of conflicting processes that work together but also against one another’. He offers a practical instance of the consequences of a ‘lack of difficulty’, which is the way that pilot error in air accidents appears to develop rapidly from a disruption in ‘happy extension’ to which there is no alternative.


There is a turn towards the arts: ‘in future work, I want to examine the way the arts and literature offer a counter model to the damaging tool-function engineering dominance of our contemporary ways of understanding our relation to the world and of how we should create critically with its multiple processes’. Which of course sounds extremely interesting to me. And I think the literary representations of extended cognition that I’ve worked on (I’ve just submitted an essay on Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair and Alchemist for the ‘History of Distributed Cognition’ project) bear this out: critique and questioning arise every time.
      Michael Wheeler engaged very thoughtfully with the challenges posed by the Williams essay. One thing I took away was the idea that the key Extended Mind work has resources and subtleties that help address the ease / difficulty issue. But since I agree that, from the perspective of literature, ‘smooth interactions’ aren’t the order of the day, I was very pleased to have been introduced to the whole set of questions.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.