Thursday 12 February 2015

Extended Knowledge: Interview with Duncan Pritchard

Extended Knowledge Project
In this post I interview Duncan Pritchard, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh and Director of Edinburgh’s Eidyn Research Centre. Duncan is currently leading a major three-year AHRC-funded research project on ‘Extended Knowledge’, which is hosted by Eidyn.

The other co-investigators on this project are Prof Andy Clark and Prof Jesper Kallestrup, and the postdoctoral fellows on the project are Dr J. Adam Carter and Dr S. Orestis Palermos. The project draws on cutting-edge research in epistemology and the philosophy of mind and cognitive science, and its aim is to explore different ways of ‘externalising’ knowledge.

MA: What are the main research objectives of the Extended Knowledge project and what sparked your interest in this field?

DP: My interest in extended knowledge arose out of joining Edinburgh’s School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences in 2007 and becoming immersed in the excellent interdisciplinary work that is conducted here, particularly with regard to cognitive science. Edinburgh is a world–leader in this field and, thanks to my colleague Andy Clark, there is special interest here in the specific topic of the extended mind and, relatedly, extended cognitive processes (this is unsurprising given that it was Andy’s seminal work in this area which effectively began this particular research programme - see, e.g., Clark & Chalmers (1998) and Clark (2008).

I’ve always been keen to develop an epistemology which is informed by contemporary cognitive science, and it struck me that the possibility of extended cognition raises many interesting epistemological questions, particularly since epistemology as a discipline is strikingly individualistic in outlook (where the ‘individual’ in question here is essentially the biological individual as traditionally conceived). This led to me writing what is, I believe, the very first paper on the epistemology of extended cognition - Pritchard (2010) - which argues that virtue epistemology, one of the dominant research programmes in contemporary epistemology, is in fact compatible with the extended cognition hypothesis, at least so long as the former is construed in the right way (which means in an anti-individualistic fashion, though this particular way of putting things came later). This led in turn to the idea of ‘extended knowledge’, and thereby to this exciting research project, which has already generated a large and growing literature on this topic.

The project draws not just with Andy’s seminal work on the philosophy of cognitive science, and on
Duncan Pritchard
the extended mind in particular, but also from the input of my colleague, and long-standing collaborator (our first joint-authored paper was over a decade ago), Jesper Kallestrup, who has the distinction of having produced cutting-edge research not just in epistemology but also in philosophy of mind and cognitive science, metaphysics, and philosophy of language. He thus offers an effective ‘bridge’ between my own research (which is mainly in epistemology) and Andy’s research (which is mainly in philosophy of cognitive science).

The project is ably served by two first-rate postdoctoral fellows, Adam Carter and Orestis Palermos. Both have impressive research portfolios in their own right, but they also have the right blend of expertise for this project, with Adam coming from a mainly epistemology background, and Orestis coming from a mainly cognitive science background. The project also has an international network of researchers, representing a range of different disciplines (aside from philosophy, these include psychology, informatics, computer science, and education).

There are three phases to the project. In phase one, the challenge was to map out all the different ways of ‘externalising’ knowledge and explore their inter-relationships. This involved exploring how a number of distinctions map onto one another: epistemic externalism/internalism, content externalism/internalism, extended/unextended cognition, and distributed/non-distributed cognition. This phase of the project is now complete, and has resulted in a number of research outputs - see especially Carter, Kallestrup, Palermos & Pritchard (2014).

We are currently in phase two of the project, which is devoted to exploring the epistemological ramifications of extended cognition specifically. This too has resulted in a range of important research outputs, including work on extended cognition and virtue epistemology, cognitive integration, and epistemic situationism. An additional, particularly exciting development, has been an exploration of how recent work in cognitive science on predictive coding bears on the epistemological implications of extended cognition - see Clark (2013; 2014). In the new year we will begin the third and final stage of the project, which is an exploration of the epistemological ramifications of specifically distributed (or socially extended) cognition.

MA: The Extended Knowledge project conveys a powerful and cross-disciplinary idea. How can knowledge from other disciplines - e.g., psychology, biology, modern technology, or religion - contribute to your investigations?

DP: The Extended Knowledge project is indeed highly interdisciplinary. Primarily, it incorporates the inputs of a range of researchers in the cognitive sciences. One obvious input in this respect is empirical work on extended and distributed cognition, but we have also drawn in other empirical work in this regard, such as on the cognitive biases and heuristics relevant to situationism. One of the most exciting developments of the project has been realising that a new and influential research programme in the cognitive sciences predictive coding has a direct relevance to extended cognition, and hence to extended knowledge.

But the project also incorporates the insights of researchers from a range of other relevant fields besides the cognitive sciences. A good example of this is education. There are obvious practical ramifications of extended knowledge to the epistemology of education, and one of the aims of this project is to explore these ramifications. In this regard we have collaborated with researchers both as regards educational theory and educational practice, and the project has already delivered some important reattach outputs on this front (e.g., Pritchard 2014; forthcoming), with more in the pipeline.

MA: The idea that cognition is extended presents a significant challenge to traditional clinical psychiatry, which limits mental illness to a dysfunction of the brain. How could the notion that human cognition is not just “all inside the head” influence our understanding of the phenomenon of mental illness? 

DP: The honest answer is that I’m not altogether sure, since I haven’t explored this issue properly. Taking extended cognition seriously, as a metaphysical thesis about the nature of cognition, involves a commitment to being willing to rethink (sometimes profoundly) a range of notions that have traditionally been understood in terms of a purely biologically grounded picture of cognition. Presumably, then, extended cognition ought to have provocative implications for clinical psychiatry, in that a purely biological cut-off as regards what should be regarded as a bona fide mental illness (at least, when such a mental illness features in one’s processes responsible for belief generation) will be regarded as unprincipled. Now that you’ve raised this issue, I plan to think this through in more detail!

Further Reading

Journal Special Issues

Externalism: Epistemic, Content, Vehicle, (eds.) J. A. Carter, J. Kallestrup, S. O. Palermos & D. H. Pritchard, American Philosophical Quarterly (forthcoming).

Extended Knowledge, (eds.) J. A. Carter, J. Kallestrup, S. O. Palermos & D. H. Pritchard, Philosophical Issues 24 (2014).

Extended Cognition and Epistemic Action, (eds.) A. Clark, D. H. Pritchard & K. Vaesen, Philosophical Explorations 15 (2012).


Carter, J. A. (2013). ‘Extended Cognition and Epistemic Luck’ Synthese 190, 4201-14.

Carter, J.A. (2014). ‘Group Peer Disagreement’, Ratio (DOI: 10.1111/rati.12077).

Carter, J. A. & Kallestrup, J. (Forthcoming). ‘Extended Cognition and Propositional Memory’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research.

Carter, J. A. & Palermos, S. O. (Forthcoming). ‘Active Externalism and Epistemic Internalism’, Erkenntnis.

Carter, J.A. (Forthcoming). ‘Content Externalism, Epistemic Internalism and the Subjective/Objective Justification Distinction’ American Philosophical Quarterly.

Carter, J. A., & Pritchard, D. H. (Forthcoming). ‘Extended Entitlement’, Epistemic Entitlement, (eds.) P. Graham & N. Pedersen, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Carter, J. A., Kallestrup, J., Palermos, S. O., & Pritchard, D. H. (2014). ‘Varieties of Externalism’, Philosophical Issues 24, 63-109.

Clark, A. (2008). Supersizing The Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Clark, A. (2013). ‘Whatever Next? Predictive Brains, Situated Agents, and the Future of Cognitive Science’, Behavioural and Brain Sciences 36, 181-204.

Clark, A. (2014). ‘What ‘Extended Me’ Knows: Towards a Sub-Personal Virtue Epistemology’, manuscript.

Clark, A. & Chalmers, D. (1998). ‘The Extended Mind’, Analysis 58, 7-19.

Palermos, S. O. (2014). ‘Knowledge and Cognitive Integration’, Synthese 191, 1931-51.
Palermos, S.O. (2014). ‘Loops, Constitution, and Cognitive Extension’, Cognitive Systems Research, 27, 25-41.

Palermos, S. O., & Pritchard, D. H. (2013). ‘Extended Knowledge and Social Epistemology’, Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2, 105-20.

Palermos, S.O. (Forthcoming). ‘Extended Social Epistemology’, Social Epistemology and Epistemic Agency: De-Centralizing Epistemic Agency, (ed.) P. Reider, Maryland, NJ: Rowman & Littlefield.

Pritchard, D. H. (2010). ‘Cognitive Ability and the Extended Cognition Thesis’, Synthese 175, 133-51.

Pritchard, D.H. (2014). ‘Virtue Epistemology, Extended Cognition, and the Epistemology of Education’, Universitas: Monthly Review of Philosophy and Culture 478, 47-66.

Pritchard, D.H. (Forthcoming). ‘Intellectual Virtue, Extended Cognition, and the Epistemology of Education’, Educating for Intellectual Virtues, (ed.) J. Baehr, London: Routledge.

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