A Philosophy of Psychology


What the Mind Does: Internalization and Externalization



The concepts of internalization and externalization are found with some frequency in psychology. It is said that the child internalizes the surrounding culture, including moral and social norms (the same can be said of an adult transplanted into a hitherto alien culture). It is also said that the child internalizes the rules of grammar of the language he or she grows up to speak. In clinical psychology we hear that a person has internalized family conflicts or role models or patterns of response. On the other hand, psychoanalysts have suggested that people externalize their own psychological traits, as with classic projection; and it can be added that animism and anthropomorphism are instances of the same phenomenon. Linguists speak of public communicative language as the externalization of an (innate) internal language system.[1]Art and technology are sometimes held to be externalizations of the mind. These are certainly suggestive ways of talking, but what do they really mean? How literally should they be taken? Can they be elevated into a general theory of the mind?

As always the dictionary provides a useful starting point. The OEDgives us this for “internalize”: “make (attitudes or behavior) part of one’s nature by learning or unconscious assimilation; acquire knowledge of (the rules of language)”. For “externalize” we have: “give external existence or form to; project (a mental image or process) onto a figure outside oneself”.  Merriam-Webster has: “to make external or externally manifest”. The idea of internalization is that something originally external to the mind is rendered part of the natureof what is internal to the mind: it was “out there” and now it is “in here”, shaping it, forming its inner architecture. Thus what was once merely the code of one’s society becomes one’s own inner code—a sort of cultural invasion has occurred (often unconsciously).  The language spoken by others is incorporated into one’s own symbolic faculty, made internal. The mind is evidently capable of this internalization operation, converting what is perceived externally into a feature of one’s interior landscape. In the case of externalization the governing idea is that what is originally inner is expressed outwardly: the external comes to have the formof the internal—it is the internal made manifest. The nature of the external thus reflects the nature of the internal. Evidently the mind is capable of this feat of externalization, converting mind into world, inner into outer. The internal is made external, as the external can be made internal. The mind pushes outward as it also pulls inward. Notice that this is not the same concept as the concept of causation: it is not merely that the external can cause the internal and the internal can cause the external; rather, the external can determine the nature of the internal and the internal can leave its imprint on the external. We might say that there is in both cases an “internal relation” between the inner and the outer: each side reflects the other. A sort of isomorphism obtains, as well as a kind of dependence. This is a strong relation, in which the mind is said to literally internalizewhat lies outside its boundaries, as well as literally to externalizewhat is within it. Clearly an exceptionally tight and intimate relationship is envisaged, a kind of overlapping of internal and external.

It might be wondered whether others parts of nature can be said to internalize and externalize. The idea is not preposterous; indeed, the term “internalize” is used in biology to describe the cell pulling external material across its membrane and into its interior (“endocytosis”). The justification for using this term is obviously that a boundary exists across which certain items flow, so changing the nature of the entity they flow into. There is the internal landscape of the cell and there is its external environment, and the latter can penetrate the former, molding it in the process. I suppose we could extend the use of the term to feeding: the external in the form of food is taken in and converted into tissues of the body, shaping them—though here the idea of changing the nature of the body seems strained. But the abstract notion of an entity with boundaries being shaped by and shaping its environment, by dint of a transfer of elements, seems generally applicable. Even in physics and chemistry we could justify talking this way, though to my knowledge physicists and chemists don’t: the atom absorbs and expels energy, internalizing and externalizing a transferable ingredient; heat is absorbed into a system altering its behavior, also seeping out to alter the surrounding world; osmosis is the passage of molecules from inside a physical system to outside it (and vice versa). There is what is internal to an entity and what is external to it; and the activity of the entity, in conjunction with its environment, involves various kinds of internalization and externalization. We might, indeed, contrive a metaphysical system from this basic structure: The world is the totality of internalizations and externalizations. There are these entities called “monads” and they operate by internalizing what is around them and externalizing what is within them. They are not isolated atoms but essentially interacting entities whose nature is fixed by acts of internalization and externalization. There is a dialectic between internalization and externalization that defines the ontological structure of reality. We might even conjoin this metaphysical picture with panpsychism: the psychic units that constitute so-called physical reality internalize what exists around them and they also externalize themselves in the form of perceptible matter. The metaphysical possibilities are endless: history is the externalization of the internalized; God internalizes everything and his creation is the externalization of his nature; mind is matter internalized and matter is mind externalized…

Putting that metaphysical flurry aside, we can focus on the mind and its capacity to engage in both sorts of operation. Clearly we must assume some sort of boundary in order to make sense of the concepts of internalization and externalization. The external must lie on the further side of this boundary in order to be capable of crossing it from elsewhere. The mind must be bounded by something or else there would be nothing external to it. This boundary could be conceived in many ways, depending on further ontological commitments: it might just be the boundary of the brain or the body, or it might be conceived immaterially. A dualist would suppose that the immaterial substance could internalize extended substance by that substance crossing an immaterial boundary—not presumably by actual spatial transfer but by some sort of extraction of form. Similarly, the mental substance could externalize itself by imparting its form to material substance: but not by itself becomingmaterial. In the case of language the talk of externalization is motivated by the idea that both the internal language and its outer expression share their grammatical structure (and maybe lexicon), so that we can say that the internal structure is manifested in the structure of outer speech. Thus outer public language has a derivative structure determined by copying the original structure of the internal language (perhaps supplemented by other sources of structure). Likewise, if we thought that inner speech were the internalization of outer speech, we would suppose that the derivation goes the other way. On either view we have an isomorphism of grammatical structure. We don’t tend to think this way about knowledge in general, as if all knowledge is a kind of internalization of the outer—as if knowledge of the universe were the internalization of the universe. We internalize the rules of English, say, but we don’t internalize the planets (those rocky entities). But that may be a reflection of a misguided internalist view of the mind: wouldn’t an externalist say that (some) mental states are (partly) individuated by objects in the environment, so that it is acceptable to say that the mind internalizes the external world? On earth we internalize water (H2O) in our thoughts and meanings, while on twin earth we internalize retaw (XYZ). So we could in principle extend the idea of knowledge-as-internalization to the full range of knowledge, not just knowledge of language or cultural norms. We internalize objects and facts as well as rules and attitudes.[2]

Similarly for externalization: why should we not extend the idea of externalization further than is customary? Why not view all behavior as the externalization of the mind? An action is an intention externalized. Art and artifacts count as externalizations, so what about the actions that lead to them? The notion of expressionencourages this thought: we express our emotions in our body, and this expression is surely a form of externalization (consider facial expressions). There is a natural “fit” between inner feeling and its bodily expression, not merely a causal connection. Just as perception can be viewed as the internalization of objects, so action can be viewed as the externalization of desires (etc.). The mind takes in and it also gives out. It isn’t just that reasons causeactions; actions externalizereasons—embody them, lend them material form (consider a chess move). And it isn’t just that objects cause perceptions; perceptions internalize objects. The relation is a lot more intimate and internal than we have tended to suppose—not logical perhaps, but certainly structural.[3]Maybe it is a general property of mind to be an internalizing externalizer. The mind absorbs things across its boundary and it extrudes things in the opposite direction. For instance, the mind internalizes the rules of grammar to achieve mastery of a particular language, but this mastery is externalized in actual speech. In the case of innate knowledge of the universal rules of grammar, there is no such internalization, since the knowledge is present ab initio; but there is still externalization as the internal language faculty hooks up with sensorimotor systems. It is natural to suppose that there exists an innate internal mental apparatus prior to any internalization of the environment, and that this apparatus interacts with the environment to lead to internalized knowledge; this composite system then interlocks with sensorimotor systems to make externalization possible—spoken language and maybe action in general (as well as art and technology). We have a transition from the internal to the internalized to the externalized. There are internal and external domains and there are operations that cross these boundaries, thus producing mixed domains of the internalized and the externalized. Not everything in the internal domain is internalized (we are not empiricists) and not everything in the external domain is externalized (we are not idealists): but there is a good deal of internalized and externalized stuff in the world—intersections of the internal and the external mediated by the operations of internalization and externalization.

People speak of stimulus-response psychology and of computational psychology to characterize a general conception of how the mind works and what it does; we can likewise speak of internalization-externalization psychology (or I-E psychology) to capture the general conception of how the mind works we are exploring. This is quite a specific conception, incorporating as it does the idea that the mind is a device forinternalization and externalization—not for mediating stimulus and response or for performing computations (though these ideas need not be regarded as simply false, just incomplete). It depicts the mind in a particular way—not just as an input-output device, but as something that performs a characteristic kind of operation of conversion. Not that the conversion operations in question are well understood or free of mystery; indeed, they are quite puzzling. For how is it possible to internalize the external or to externalize the internal? Isn’t this contradictory? It seems like a peculiar form of mental alchemy—yet it is evidently what happens. Nor can we draw comfort from those non-psychological analogues I mentioned earlier, because abstract similarity is not identity of mechanism: howthe mind contrives to internalize and externalize is left unexplained. It is not just a matter of absorbing molecules across a membrane or emitting energy from an atom; these are specifically psychological processes—a sort of mimicry, perhaps, whereby the outer is converted to the inner and the inner is converted to the outer. It is not like inserting a marble into a box or ejecting a marble from a box, in which the ideas of internalization and externalization have literal spatial meaning; but it is not entirely unlike that either. It is as ifthe external world is inserted into the mind, or extruded from it. People speak of the extended mind; well, this is the externalized mind. Similarly, we can speak of the “internalized world” to capture the power of the mind to bring the world into its domain (the world extends beyond its own natural boundaries to take up residence in minds). The mind protrudes into the world in acts of externalization, but the world also protrudes into the mind in acts of internalization. Each visits the other’s territory, leaving its distinctive mark. That is the essence of the mental—internalizing and externalizing, crossing an interface.

Let me illustrate how this conceptual framework applies by considering two unrelated topics: music and sense. Music is closely associated with the emotions, and this gives it a unique place in the operations of internalization and externalization. On the one hand, music is easily internalized, as if it is designed to be: we hear a tune with our outer ear and instantly it enters our inner musical landscape. Its emotional resonance plays a role in this ready internalization. On the other hand, audible music expresses inner feeling perfectly, so lending itself to the externalization of emotion—in the form of dancing, singing, playing an instrument, humming, etc. We internalize tunes and we externalize what is thus internalized. And there is an especially intimate connection between the internal and the external in the case of music: we repeat the external tune silently in our head, and we externalize our inner experience in forms that precisely mirror what is going on internally (notably when singing). The psychology of music is thus steeped in internalization and externalization, and would hardly be conceivable without them. In the case of sense, Frege supposed that senses are objective external entities, but he also supposed that they shape the very nature of thoughts: we internalize senses in such a way that they enter our cognitive landscape (the same could not be said of references as Frege conceived them). At the same time grasp of sense is externalized in public symbolic systems—these systems make sense manifest. So senses are both internalized and externalized—and this is essential to their identity, what they are. If we think of senses as existing in our environment (in some extended sense), then the task of thought is to internalize them; but once internalized they are available for externalization in language, so that language becomes sense externalized. That is the psychology of sense: first internalization, then externalization—internal absorption and external expression. And that is psychology generally: internalizing the world and then externalizing what has been made internal. It isn’t just that an outer stimulus elicits an overt response via an internal process, or that information flows from the environment into the brain and then out to behavior. Rather, the mind possesses a specific set of capacities that we call “internalization” and “externalization”; and these capacities deserve the names they have been given. If we want a single word to express this general conception, analogous to “behaviorism” and “computationalism”, we might choose “conversionism” for want of anything better.[4]


Colin McGinn



[1]This is the position taken by Chomsky: the primary instantiation of language is as an internal system connected initially to thought; only later is language hooked up to sensorimotor systems that produce a spoken communicative language. When that happens the internal system is externalized, i.e. its properties are transferred to an outer capacity. Outer language has structure becauseinner language has structure—the former is derivative from the latter. See Why Only Us, Robert C. Berwick and Noam Chomsky (MIT Press, 2016).

[2]I don’t say we should endorse this proposal, only that it is worth considering. An alternative would be to divide all knowledge into two classes: internalized knowledge and non-internalized knowledge. Then we could have debates about where given types of knowledge fall—what about knowledge of mathematics or ethics? Similarly, there will be a division between externalized facts about the world and non-externalized facts (which are presumably much more numerous, if we keep God out of it).

[3]One approach would be that perception involves building a mental modelof the perceived object, thus replicating its structure internally. Or we might go full externalist and insert the object itself into perceptual content, expanding the mind into physical space. And there are other approaches too that could be used to justify the word “internalize”.

[4]I suppose we could try for something catchy like “int-ext psychology” or “outside-in theory”, but it might be best to stick with the more cumbersome description.


13 responses to “A Philosophy of Psychology”

  1. jgkess@cfl.rr.com says:

    Kind of reminds me, a little bit, of J.J. Gibson’s, “affordance theory”. The concept of “framing effects” seems also relevant. With respect to the metaphysics of your claim, you seem lately to be channeling your “inner Whitehead”. I say again that I vastly respect your commitment to a purely philosophical way of looking at things, as well as to the clarity with which you “externalize” that commitment, but you seem not to have much use for contemporary cognitive science—which must at least “inform” a contemporary philosophy of psychology.

    • I tend to like Chomsky’s version of cognitive science, which acknowledges mystery where appropriate. Psychology is still too behaviorist for me. I also like (responsible) metaphysical speculation ala Whitehead.

  2. jgkess@cfl.rr.com says:

    Just a question (or two). Are you familiar with the English writer John Gray? Though an atheist himself, his lately expressed antipathy to The New Atheists surpasses in spitefulness even that of the Greek Orthodox hysteric, Robert Bentley Hart. So vitriolic was his piece on Dawkins, a while back, that,” The New Statesman”, removed it from its web-site (it might have appeared first, rather, in, “The Guardian”). A very good writer, Gray, and in an earlier incarnation much more appealling in his cerebral nihilism. Jerry Coyne, in a recent post, takes him up again and gives him a good thrashing. And what of these alleged Four Horsemen of The New Atheism (kind of a dated question, I know)? Christopher Hitchens was a great writer. Dawkins is a great writer and scientist. Sam Harris, after listening to his pod-cast with Thomas Metzinger (on consciousness), has me coming around.

    • I’ve read a few Gray reviews–elegantly acerbic, but not reliable. I’ve read pretty much everything by Dawkins and find him (a) a terrific writer and (b) always right (though often misunderstood). Hitchens was an old pal of mine and much admired as a writer. Harris I don’t know as well, but find him too enamored of neuroscience, though reasonable enough.

  3. Alan says:

    Under this view, mimicry gains significance. Art notoriously eludes our attempts to pin it down but ‘conversionism’ lets any considered thing enjoy art-candidacy status whilst facilitating knowledge (ala Dummett) by a community of experts. It lets knowledge of art be as unverifiable as it would appear to be, yet plausibly tied to discerning evaluations.
    Art is all flummoxed boundaries, the kneading of mind and world.

  4. jgkess@cfl.rr.com says:

    The good news: the Republican-controlled Senate will be as vulnerable in 2020 as the Republican-controlled House was vulnerable in 2018—in terms of the number of incumbent seats up for grabs. The bad news: Trump seems like he’s about to implode, and who knows the scope of the collateral damage? Was glad to see that my home-state of Wisconsin returned in 2018 to its Democratic norm (Madison is a great town). By way of politics, then, this: “Good writing is good writing, damn it”, wrote Norman Mailer in defense of the Conservative American writer, William F. Buckley, Jr. (founder in 1955 of the magazine, “The National Review”). Retrograde as Buckley’s convictions were—political, religious and other-wise—the superior quality of his prose and wit carry the day (at least up to, say, 1975, after which all cloyed). Hitchens was a fan. But poor Bill didn’t sell much in England, about which he often complained. His encounters with Gore Vidal are legendary. If your’e a fan of “acerbic elegance”, I strongly recommend his early stuff (Vidal’s as well). There now, a full week without a Comment. I should surely be praised “for this my present wonderful continence”.

    • I thought Buckley an elegant scoundrel but not a stupid one. These days he seems like a dream conservative. Vidal was a very clever man with his heart in the right place–but well aware of both facts. As Strawson said of Putnam: “Hilary is a very sweet man, as he would be the first to agree”.

  5. BertieRussell says:

    I would appreciate your views on Saul Bellow, John Updike and Philip Roth. Recently I read Roth’s The Plot against America which I found excellent on all counts: several ravishing sentences, the tension between family members is almost experienced ( they are so competently rendered !) by the reader, as are the quiet domestic scenes. I will definitely re-read the book in the future. Then I was a bit let down by American Pastoral. There’s exuberance, and some fine paragraphs, but he overdoes the bereavement. It’s riddled with unhinged paragraphs that upset the balance. I completely agree with your estimation of Dawkins, and would add to his merits the way he presents the material, that lures you in. I also enthusiastically recommend Hitch-22. It’s moving, informative and the prose is mellifluous (the audiobook would rekindle anyone’s appreciation for the wonders of the English language)

    • I admire all three: Bellow, Updike, and Roth. I recently read Goodbye Columbus and really enjoyed it. He was very good very early. I also like The Dying Animal. But I prefer Nabokov to all three–for his artistry and daring. Hitch-22 has all the hallmarks of its author, but it was painful for me to read it because we were friends. I strongly recommend anything by Edward St. Aubyn (also a friend).

  6. jeffrey Kessen says:

    I de-activated my Facebook page about three months ago. But, just out of curiosity, I recently did a search for my Facebook name. Naturally, the only link that turned up was an early Comment of mine on your blog, in which I had honked, “I am queer, as we say these days…” (aah Google—it has a sense of humor, after all). Those were the words featured in the link and the link itself was of a different color from the rest, which I think means that at least one person had clicked on it—probably my mother! (no big deal—she knows). Prior to Commenting on your blog , I had only recently become inter-active on-line (having scorned the idea for years). But I seem to myself now to have gone a little mad. However, no harm done. Have always appreciated your patient responses to my Comments and I look forward to your next thread.

  7. Giulio Katis says:

    Apologies for the length of this response and the number of questions below – I’ll put them all in the one comment to avoid polluting your blog too much.

    1. Is there a thread connecting the ideas in this post, and the conjecture you made in your book Prehension that “selective cognition came from oral prehension – loosely, ‘thought came from the mouth’”? Oral prehension involves a coarse form of internalisation, of course; but I assume, as an interaction with the environment, it is also an instance of externalisation. Is oral prehension an activity that simultaneously involves both processes?

    2. Do you see ‘conversionism’ (I don’t think this term does justice to the concept) also taking place within the brain? E.g. is a (conscious) thought or recollection an instance of externalisation (of some lower level brain process), and is the awareness of some sensory or mental event an instance of internalisation (resulting in the formation of neural connections that later will be externalised as a recollection or thought)? If so, in what terms should we think of the boundary?

    3. Can the perspective you have outlined provide a useful way to describe free-will? I.e. as a concept that should be understood relative to some ‘actor’ with a boundary and an environment, in the context of there being internalisation and externalisation processes. (One could take the body, the brain or the conscious mind as the ‘actor’.)

    4. Can conversionism be applied to groups of people? E.g. can a committee be said to be acting as a single agent, and hence be morally responsible as a whole, to the extent it engages in conversionism? Or is this going too far?

    5. How can semantics be understood in terms of this framework? Can it be understood just in terms of internalisation? (I.e. define the semantics associated with some symbolic or syntactic information Y to be the ‘stuff out there’ that is the pre-image X=f^{-1}(Y) of Y under the internalisation process f that created Y.) Or does semantics involve more, namely the externalisation of what has been internalised? Presumably, the externalisation of what has been internalised is what gives information meaning.

    6. For a given boundary, are there specific relationships between the internalisation and externalisation processes? They obviously are not inverse processes exactly. But what, for instance, is the connection between X and the internalisation of the externalisation of X? The internalisation of me humming a tune, should be close (though not equal) to my initial representation of the tune itself. Maybe the externalisation of the internalisation of the externalisation of X is often equal to the externalisation of X…

    7. There are many me’s. Me as a conscious mind that is aware right now, as a conscious being with my own history and potential futures, as an organism in totality (body, brain and conscious and unconscious mind), as a member of my immediate family (there will be several of these: parent, child, sibling, spouse etc), as a member of an extended family, as an actor in a particular performance or member of a sports team, as part of one or several social or professional group or tribe, as a human, as a sentient being etc. Do you see the mind as having a fixed boundary (in the way a cell, the body, or for that matter the brain, does)? Or does each ‘me’ correspond to a specific internalisation/externalisation process that occurs in the mind? In other words, does the mind have the capacity to create, modify, destroy its own boundaries (each with its own internalisation/externalisation processes); and to have many simultaneously, which may overlap or interact (analogous to life as a whole, as mentioned in the next question below)?

    8. As you note, the creation of boundaries and the ability for information to flow across boundaries and be stored (and modified) within is fundamental to life. (Maybe the history of life can be seen as the ongoing creation, modification, destruction and interaction of many boundaries, at different levels, each with their associated internalisation/externalisation processes.) And, as you mention, there are many other physical processes with boundaries: life evolved on a planet which, with its atmosphere, is also an open system with a boundary (energy passing through and being transformed by it); and life evolved out of chemistry, in which atoms and molecules interact, compose and come apart, not only through combinatorics but also through the shape, form and other properties of the constituents. Do you see the potential for creation of boundaries, and the associated dynamics or calculus of internalisation and externalisation, as being just a consequence of low level physical laws, or is it a metaphysical feature of the universe?

    9. What would it mean to invert our focus, and take as our basic object of study, what we designate as real, the boundaries themselves and these internalisation and externalisation processes (rather than what is inside or outside each boundary)?

    10. Finally, are you familiar with the work of Howard Pattee? E.g. see the paper http://www.academia.edu/19567840/Cell_Phenomenology_The_First_Phenomenon. I first found a reference to his work in the neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga’s Edge article on the Schnitt (https://www.edge.org/response-detail/27049).

    For Pattee, there is an ‘epistemic cut’ that separates subject from object. Though this is not a Cartesian ontological cut, it nevertheless, he claims, reflects some feature of reality that is not captured by a purely reductionist worldview. Pattee’s work is focused on biology and the origins of life, rather than consciousness or psychology. I think it may be tackling foundational questions related to your post. (This is just a guess, as I am still muddling through his ideas.)

    The measurement process is an internalisation, which results in the creation of symbolic information. His notion of an active (vs passive) symbol is related to externalisation.

    The fact that what has been internalised can be externalised seems (to me) mysterious, if not miraculous. Pattee makes a statement in the above linked article that could be read as hinting at the reason why this is possible: “Symbols act as special boundary conditions serving as a memory structure or as a constraint on the lawful dynamics.”

    • These are all excellent questions, which show the richness of the IE approach. I will internalize them and see whether any externalization results. Generally, I like what you say about them.

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