Homunculus vs. Emissary

If the purpose of education is to help people to become the one who they want to be (and I like Downes’ idea a lot), then the question is: what it is like to be this One, what experience does it involve? In his great talk  “The MOOC of One” in Valencia, Downes first shows that “feeling like One” is not a sufficient answer.

Then he explains why two traditional theories are not sufficient, either: Two Semiotic approaches which he calls the Big Answer and the Little Answer (slide 18, minute 21:22). They involve abstract representations of our experiences, or of our mental content such as our own awareness, our own cognition, our own understanding. And these representation can be manipulated like mathematical symbols to make meaning/ make sense of our experiences or mental content.

It seems as if this abstraction gets us one step closer to the answer about our real experience. But Stephen shows that it is just one step further in an infinite regression: Who does the meaning making for us? It must be a homunculus inside ourselves who looks at our perceptions of what we look at. But who does the sensemaking for him?

“there’s no mechanism to do that – rather, we gradually become better recognizers”

as Downes later summarized on Twitter and  Facebook.

His emphasis on recognition is IMHO very plausible. An expert of such-and-such is recognized by the way how he looks at his such-and-such, and how he recognizes salient patterns against a backdrop of “normal” patterns, based on his huge statistcal “database” memory of normal constellations in his field.

To me, this kind of recognition nicely matches how McGilchrist describes one of the two operational modes of the brain: When an animal has to notice a predator, who may be hidden among dark twigs in the twilight, it employs a broad vigilant attention and immediately recognizes the new situation.

The other operational mode is employed when a bird picks a seed among grit or pebbles, with narrow focus on the known. We humans brought to perfection this narrow focus on the known, by wrapping and collapsing it into abstract representations.

So it is interesting what McGilchrist has to say about the relationship of these two modes — and it alignes nicely with the above observations that feeling alone and abstract representation alone does not explain our sensemaking:

“Hence the brain has to attend to the world in two completely different ways, and in so doing to bring two different worlds into being. In the one, we experience — the live, complex, embodied, world of individual, always unique beings, forever in flux, a net of interdependencies, forming and reforming wholes, a world with which we are deeply connected. In the other we ‘experience’ our experience in a special way: a ‘re-presented’ version of it, containing now static, separable, bounded, but essentially fragmented entities, grouped into classes,” (p. 30),

“There needs to be a process of reintegration, whereby we return to the experiential world again.” (p. 195)

His metaphor is that the representational mode is the emissary who needs to return to his master, the presentational mode, for reintegration.

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2 Responses to Homunculus vs. Emissary

  1. … Matthias,
    I had noted Downes take on representation and shared thoughts with him on inner speech (the little voice inside our heads). And now your comment reminds me so much of a parent human function described as follows in quasi-critical to critical situations:
    Although definition of a fire situation is not usually made on receipt of the first fire clue, it may lead to some form of action, e.g., investigation. …
    This period of validation, or redefinition, of the first cue will be influenced by a number of variables. …
    Initial findings from the research tend to indicate that most people need at least information from two different sources before the situation can be defined. …
    … yours,
    .* Neil TOWNSEND Real Fire Research – People’s Behaviour in Fire. In Jim SHIELDS, ed. 1998. Human Behaviour in Fire. Proceedings of the First International Symposium. Fire CERT Centre, University of Ulster, p.176-177.


  2. x28 says:

    Hi Hugues, thanks for adding this interesting aspect. Also your exchange with Stephen was very interesting.


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