The Metaphorical Mind

What our language reveals about how we think and who we are

I finally got to be a homunculus part I.

You, too, can be a homunculus!

Some children hope to grow up to be firemen, policemen, or astronauts. Some believe that being a pirate will be an acceptable vocation given a shift in global markets. Others altogether see a future in pinball wizardry. And then still others grow up and realize they can become homunculi.

In the past three posts on this blog—Metaphor, metaphor! Wherefore art thou, Metaphor? and When AT&T asked us to ‘Reach out and touch someone’, did they mean that literally? and Race, language, black holes—I have argued that language can reveal more about how we think and in particular how we think about ourselves than is customarily believed. Homunculi (the plural of homunculus) provide an interesting example in philosophical and psychological discourse as to how we characterize ourselves.

A homunculus is essentially ‘a little man’ inside you, the agent behind your actions, the decider behind your decisions, the see-er behind your sight. Think of the so-called Cartesian theater inside your mind. All of your thoughts enter stage right, perform, and exit stage left. But who’s doing the seeing, considering, evaluating, etc. of these thoughts if they’re inside you? Not you! It’s the homunculus inside you, of course, who is the audience to this private mental show. The problem with homunculi is not so much their presence (as something inside you making decisions) as the fact that you need a homunculus inside a homunculus ad infinitum. Each smaller homunculus does the seeing, considering, evaluating for the previous one, but no matter how small you get, you need another homunculus. After all, who’s inside the homunculus’ head but another homunculus?

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It is rather remarkable, then, when one considers the very odd theoretical maneuver in which to understand ourselves better we feel it is felt necessary to invent a copy of ourselves inside ourselves. This shifts the problem, but doesn’t eliminate our identity issues as the complex thinking-things we are.

The very idea that there is a little imaginary person inside you might strike someone as odd—your faith in your inner child notwithstanding. But the general idea is not unique to psychology or philosophy. For example, as noted by theorists of biology like Richard Lewontin and Susan Oyama, preformationists had similar explanatory concepts (e.g., there is a little human being inside each single spermatozoa, which then grows and later becomes a complete human being, thus making a mother little more than a glorified receptacle and incubator and masturbation with ejaculation sinful mass murder).

Thus, homunculi play the general role of origin, and though generally now considered to be anathema in any account of consciousness, perception, or cognition, they quite frankly are still implicitly present in many theories, despite explicit avows to the contrary. Consider a model of a homunculus based on topographical representations of the body in the brain.

It likely does not strike you as a self-portrait. The large hands and lips of the homunculus indicate that the brain devotes more resources to these areas of the body (which is why passionate Friday nights tend toward kissing and touching and not knee-on-knee titillation). It is as if the brain represents us in a distorted miniature form inside us. If one wished to stretch this uncomfortably, on this account, it is logically possible to represent a body in a brain, copy that representation, destroy that body (and brain for that matter) and replace it with a robot or complicated array of sensors such that the brain (or the copy of its representations) would never be wise to anything changing extra-cranially. You could be locked inside your brain and not know it. [Insert Matrix soundtrack now.]

The problem with some neuroscientific and homunculus-driven accounts of psychological processes like consciousness or cognition is that they fall prey to a particular fallacy, namely the mereological fallacy (i.e., relating to part-whole relations). Bennett and Hacker in their Philosophical foundations of neuroscience put it thus: “The brain is not a logically appropriate subject for psychological predicates” [italics in original] (p. 72). What applies to wholes (like human beings) does not necessarily apply to the parts of those wholes (like brains or homunculi). Thus, it does not make any sense to say brains think or see or decide or that homunculi inside people consider or evaluate or perceive. (It’s so difficult in our language even that in the previous paragraph I had to submit to its communicative power to get my point across.) Parts are necessary for the wholes to do what they do, but they are not themselves sufficiently capable of doing what wholes do. In other words, that I as a human being think does not mean that my foot also has the ability to think (or not-think); in fact, it’s simply inappropriate to consider it one way or the other. And so we rightly do not hold fingers criminally responsible for something that is the actions of the whole. (Imagine sending a trigger finger to jail and letting the rest of a person go free.)

But concerning childhood dreams to become a homunculus and what I learned about human beings from this experience, please come back for part II of I finally got to be a homunculus.

Christopher H. Ramey, Ph.D., is an Assistant Teaching Professor of Psychology at Drexel University, specializing in cognitive psychology.

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