Internalism and Externalism: Three kinds

Very often in philosophy does one hear about a distinction between internalism and externalism. These phrases always eluded me, and to some extent; still do.

I find it interesting that internalism and externalism are almost the same way of cutting things in vastly different discourses of philosophy; it sounds very much compatible with Michael’s talk about systematicity. So; lets start off with a very basic definition, and look at discourses.


D1: Internalism pertains to the justification of discourse x by means of an appeal to the agent’s internal beliefs, preferences, desires, etc. In short, the justification of a claim of a discourse in internalism makes an appeal to the internal mental states of an individual.

D2: Externalism is the denial of internalism; namely, the denial of the claim that we make appeal towards the agent’s mental states, beliefs, preferences and so on, as a means to justify or make appeal to, within a given discourse.

So now; lets address discourses:

 Discourses concerning internalist/externalist discussion

There are three prime candidates I can think of which make the appeal to mental states, and beliefs and desires as their justificatory source:

i. Epistemology – Internalism concerning the justification of knowledge; in lieu of an appeal to one’s belief states; consider the KK principle. Namely; S knows that p if and only if he Knows that he Knows that p.

ii. Semantics – Internalism concerning the source of meaning and content; namely, whether it is sourced in us. Putnam has the famous phrase: meaning just aint’ in the head. A very interesting case he puts forward for it too.

iii. Moral motivation – Internalism concerning the motivation of our actions; what is it that we appeal to when we decide to act on something; (broadly) internalism answers that we appeal to our beliefs/desires/motivational profile; but this, many think is problematic. I have to admit why internalism in motivation is difficult is very interesting. Consider the cases where people behave in such a way that they do not make an appeal to their own desires and beliefs, but something other than that? Does that, through a very skeletal description sound familiar?

Sinistre and Sinistre*


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