Re: Representation, Homunculi, Animism

From: HARNAD Stevan (
Date: Mon Feb 26 1996 - 13:27:29 GMT

> From: "Petrie Susie" <>
> Date: Mon, 26 Feb 1996 12:24:41 GMT
> I'm a little confused with the article questioning Skinner about
> radical behaviourism. Could you please explain the terms "Internal
> representation, homuncular and animistic". Thanks.


This has two meanings, one more general, one more specific. Use the
first, more general one:

(1) An internal representation is anything that is going on inside the
head. Note that internal representations are mostly unconscious, so I
was right to say inside the HEAD rather than inside the MIND (if by
"mind" I mean only those things that I am conscious of).

For example, you have an internal representation of "apple" so that you
are able to recognise an apple when you see one, you are able to think
of apples, and you are able to talk sensibly about apples. All of that
depends on internal representations -- unobservable structures and
processes in your head, structures and processes that it is the task of
cognitive psychology to discover.

(2) The narrower meaning of "representation" is something that stands
for or represents something else: A picture may represent a scene. A
description may also represent a scene. Some people think that what is
going on inside our heads is pictures or descriptions. That is a
specific THEORY of internal representation, but for now you should think
of a theory-neutral sense of internal representation, as in (1), where
it can be ANYTHING going on inside the head that gives us the capacity
to do and feel what we can do and feel.

The important thing is that internal representations are not observable.
They are inferred to exist for theoretical reasons: because they can
explain causally what we can do and feel. In that sense they are like
physicists' quarks, the unobservable things I was describing in


A homunculus is a "little man in the head." One of the many reasons
introspections was rejected as a method for psychology was that instead
of explaining what we could do, instead of explaining our behavioural
capacity, introspection simple internalised it: How do I think of
"apples"? I visualise them in my mind. But if to think of apples you
picture them in your mind, then I still don't know what's going on: Is
there a little man inside your head looking at the pictures? For if so,
then what we need to know is what's going on inside HIS mind -- and
that better not be more pictures, or we need even more, still smaller

You see the point? Homuncular theories, theories that are based on what
goes on in my mind, never explain what it is to BE a mind, to BE an
observer. They always assume an unexplained observer. That's the little
man. But explaining the mind requires replacing the little man by a
mechanism, something that can do what the little man (i.e., us) can do,
without the help of even smaller little men.

Behaviourists agree with cognitivists about the unacceptability of a
homunculus. They disagree, though, on whether ALL theories of internal
representation require a homunculus. Behaviourists think yes,
cognitivists think no.


The Latin word for "mind" is "anima." A synonym for "animism" is
"mentalism." The rejection of introspectionism was the rejection of
animism or mentalism -- the idea that the mind could be explained by
observing its contents. Think of the chicken crossing the road: Folk
psychology is animistic. Why did the chicken cross the road? Because it
WANTED to get to the other side. But what is "wanting"? It is a mental
state we all recognise, because we all have it. But it is not an
explanation -- or rather, it is an animistic or mentalistic explanation,
one that begs the question, just as the homunculus does.

So what we want is an explanation that is not homuncular, that does not
rely on an unexplained little man in the head, and one that is not
animistic, that does not rely on our shared intuitive, introspective
but unexplained understanding of mental states. For all we know is what
it is like to BE IN a mental state, such as wanting, whereas what we need
to know is what a mental state really IS. For that, you need a theory of
internal representation, part of an overall causal theory of mind that
describes a mechanism that can DO what we can do (and, we hope, also
feel what we can feel). That will be an explanation of the mind.
Can Radical Behaviourism provide it?

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