Action As Externalization
Action As Externalization
The causal theory of action says that actions consist of a causal link between an inner mental state (a reason, an intention, a willing) and a piece of behavior (an arm rising, flicking the switch). The mental state causes the behavior in the same way a tap on the knee can cause the lower leg to rise quickly (patellar reflex). Acts of speech, say, are composed of an internal state of intending or trying or simply desiring and the distinct event of vocal utterance, where the former causes the latter. But this omits an important aspect of action: the fact that behavior often externalizes states of mind—expresses them, manifests them, embodies them. Dance and song can externalize inner mental states, and speech behavior can externalize states of mind. Language can and does externalize thought (as well as desire and emotion). The body puts the mind into the public realm. It isn’t just that the mind operates to cause behavior, as measles causes a rash; behavior can be the outward expression of mind. This expression relation is not merely a causal relation; it is more intimate than that. The psychophysical system has the capacity to generate externalizations—bodying forth, as it were. No doubt this idea is difficult to articulate, but it appears to be a real phenomenon—which is why we often express ourselves in these terms. As perception internalizes its object, so action externalizes the inner states that lead to it. Ordinary human behavior is not a mental blank; it has mind inscribed on it. We may not understand how this can be but we readily talk this way. A theory of action needs to find room for it—and the usual causal theory falls short of achieving this.
Spoken language externalizes internal language, the kind that deals with thought. So it is natural to suppose that we possess two languages—a language of thought and a language of communication. Generalizing this point, we can say that non-linguistic action constitutes a kind of second mind—externalized mind. This mind is derivative on internal mind, as communicative language is derivative on cognitive language; but both can be described as mind made external. What we think of as external behavior is mentally imbued: for it is expressive of the inner, not merely causally connected to it. Thus the mind has the power to externalize itself in overt action, extending its reach beyond the private sphere (“the externalized mind”). Just as spoken words have meaning, in addition to words in inner speech, so actions in general are mentally endowed in virtue of the externalization exerted by the mind. Among the mind’s powers is its ability to transfer itself to the body. It isn’t that action is just mindless movement caused by a mental substratum; rather, it is the mind in action, so to speak. So the idea of a double mind, like the idea of a double language, comes to seem natural and attractive. This is another way of expressing the familiar point that the right conception of behavior is mentally defined. It is the process or act of externalization that enables the mind to spread itself to the body, which now becomes a site of mentality. The gap between mind and body is not as rigid as tradition has supposed. This is because behavior is not just caused by the mind but also the externalization of the mind—a much closer relation. Our paradigm of action should be singing and dancing not arms rising because of sudden urges (as if the movement is merely triggered). Behavior is not the non-mental effect of mind but a species of mindedness in its own right.
As the mind externalizes itself in the body, so in turn it internalizes the result: we are aware of our own body in acts of perception (including proprioception). A singer is aware of herself singing and a dancer is aware of her own movement. Given that perception is a type of internalization, we can say that the mind internalizes its own externalizations. This may lead to further externalizations as the agent modulates her behavior according to what she perceives: for example, the singer might adjust her volume and pitch according to what she hears. So controlled action is rightly seen as a process of externalization and internalization: first the mind pushes itself outward, then it internalizes the result of this act, leading to further externalizations. It’s a feedback loop, to use cybernetic jargon; but the language of externalization and internalization better captures the nature of the process in question. There is no comparable process in non-mental cybernetic systems such as thermostats: these are devoid of the operations we are calling internalization and externalization. A psychology based on the latter concepts is more appropriate for systems that genuinely perceive and act. So we should drop talk of stimulus and response and replace it with talk of internalization and externalization; and the same for the terminology of cybernetics. Perception allows the organism to take in the world, and action allows the organism to project the mind into the body: this is the conceptual framework within which to view psychology, animal and human. It isn’t old-fashioned behaviorism, and it isn’t modern cognitive science; it’s a view of the behaving organism that emphasizes the twin powers of the mind to take in and give out. The mind is forever internalizing and externalizing, not being stimulated and responding.
 Here I am assuming, not defending, the perspective on language favored by Chomsky and Fodor.