Homuncular strategies for explaining mental faculties are not in fashion. Indeed, you will be laughed out of town if you are incautious with them. Dennett likes to sanction their use as long as they cash out in less-than-intelligent sub-processes, whcih have less intelligent sub-parts themselves, and so down to stupid neurons.

Oddly, while we protest at using homuncular strategies for discussing ‘parts’ of our minds (as if minds had parts), we seem happy to use them willy-nilly when discussing the affairs of nations. It seems natural, even correct, to say things like “Russia bristled”, “China objected”, “The USA wants….” etc. I think this is not accidental, and not “mere metaphor”. From where we are standing, nations seem to behave intentionally. Complex behaviour typically appears intentional. That is, it is about something. Cognitivists are committed to an equation of intentionality and representation. They think of intentionality in terms of states. I think of it in terms of behaviour. This is one reason the concept of representation has done so little for me all this time. Now here’s a truly upsetting hypothesis:

All homuncular explanatory strategies are equally good, and equally vacuous. They are equally good, because they allow us to interpret complex behaviour which seems to be goal directed. This applies to nations, cortical areas, and our selves.

All are equally vacuous because the homunculus does not exist anywhere. We converse as if we were the homuncular level. We’re not. Its only an explanatory strategy. One we use on ourselves without recognizing its limitations. It can help to make sense of observed behaviour. The sense it makes will, ultimately, be a function of the point of view of the observer.

(As a final note, if you want to illustrate this notion any time, p. 74 of the Intentional Stance provides a pointer to a literal homunculus: the midget chess master hidden inside Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen’s late 18th Century chess “automaton”).

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