“Active externalism” and private property


Author: Timothy Sandefur

I recently learned of this 1998 paper by philosophers Andy Clark and David J. Chalmers, which advances an important argument that I tried to make in my 2006 book Cornerstone of Liberty: Property Rights in 21st Century America. Although Clark and Chalmers’ paper isn’t about property rights, their argument helps explain the persistence and the naturalness of private property.

Although property rights are often defended on moral or economic grounds—and I think convincingly so—these arguments have never really articulated what I think is the really crucial role that property plays in human life. As Richard Pipes notes in his great book Property And Freedom, the idea that property is merely a conventional arrangement—a sort of arbitrary social construct that can be changed if only we had the collective willpower—ignores the fact that property rights are not only ubiquitous in human cultures, but are present in a rudimentary sense even in other animals. And not just the higher apes, either. All animals take steps to separate themselves from the world—to demarcate “me” from “not me.” Pipes argues that private property serves a similar role for human beings: even children quickly discover how to use the idea of “mine” and “not mine” to differentiate themselves from the world, and thus prioritize their activities.

But what Clark and Chalmers observe is that human beings use outside resources (and by “outside” I mean, resources outside their skulls) not merely to preserve their thought processes, but as components in those thought processes. And when we use outside resources in this way—when we figure a math problem with a pen on paper, for example—those resources should be considered part of the person’s mind itself. “If, as we confront some task, a part of the world functions as a process which, were it done in the head, we would have no hesitation in recognizing as part of the cognitive process, then that part of the world is (so we claim) part of the cognitive process.”

If you’re like me, absentminded and forgetful, you frequently use your environment to trigger thoughts or memories as a substitute for mental processes that, if you had time, you could do inside your head. Presumably, we could memorize all the “things to do” for that particular day, or you could write a “things to do” list, and put it aside. Such a list isn’t just a metaphorical part of your thinking, it is your thinking, or a component of it. In this sense, it’s more than just a metaphor to say, as John Locke did, that you “mix yourself” with the things you create and produce—they really are, in a literal sense, a part of your thought processes. And this isn’t just true of “things to do” lists. When you habitually put things in a particular place, you know in a very deep sense where those things are—the habit of putting them in that place becomes a part of your thought process, a part of your mind. Art critic Robert Hughes once said that Monticello is a great portrait of Thomas Jefferson’s mind, but in this sense, every person’s house is, literally, a component of their thought processes and mechanism of living. Clark and Chalmers call this interaction with the environment “the extended mind”:

[I]t may be that the biological brain has in fact evolved and matured in ways which factor in the reliable presence of a manipulable external environment.  It certainly seems that evolution has favored on-board capacities which are especially geared to parasitizing the local environment so as to reduce memory load, and even to transform the nature of the computational problems themselves. Our visual systems have evolved to rely on their environment in various ways: they exploit contingent facts about the structure of natural scenes, for example, and they take advantage of the computational shortcuts afforded by bodily motion and locomotion. Perhaps there are other cases where evolution has found it advantageous to exploit the possibility of the environment being in the cognitive loop. If so, then external coupling is part of the truly basic package of cognitive resources that we bring to bear on the world.

Thus to take things away from a person doesn’t just “break the rules” and thus inflict harm only in a conventional sense; it actually deprives a person of something that is crucially theirs—something that is them! As I wrote in Cornerstone of Liberty, “We use the world around us to construct artifacts that expand our personal boundaries over the world, so as preserve and express ourselves…. [J]ust as spiders spin webs, so each human being ‘makes a self,’ not only through the friendships we nourish and the ideas we adopt, but through the things we create and preserve. The most obvious example of self-expression through private property is the home.”

Of course, I would say that the same principle applies to businesses and even to the most abstract conception of property—securities transactions and the like—but these are all elaborations on the same basic theme: private property is a part of the self.