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Homunculus of the Dutch scientist Nicolas Hartsoeker
Historical model of the Homunculus, Kunstkammer in the Landesmuseum Württemberg (loan from the SMNS )

The homunculus or homunculus ( Latin for 'little man') describes an artificially created human being . The idea of ​​the homunculus was developed in the late Middle Ages in the context of alchemical theories - often using the term " arcanum ". The homunculus often appears as a demonic helper in magical practices. The motif of the homunculus has often been taken up in the literature, particularly to illustrate the ambivalence of modern technology . Perhaps the best-known use of the homunculus idea can be found in Goethe's Faust II .

The term homunculus has also acquired other meanings in philosophy and neuroscience . In the philosophy of perception and the philosophy of mind , the term “homunculus” refers to the idea that there is another being in the head who perceives stimuli and has experiences. While no philosopher is likely to believe that there is a homunculus in the head, philosophers occasionally raise certain theories that implicitly include the existence of such a being. If one assumes, for example, that an image is projected onto the retina in visual perception , which is then sent as an image to the brain, then there should be another being in the head who looks at these images. With such trains of thought, certain ideas about perception and the mind are supposed to be reduced to absurdity .

In neuroanatomy , a sensory homunculus and a motor homunculus are used as examples . These homunculi arise as epistemic auxiliary constructions when the brain regions are assigned to the body parts for which they are responsible.

Cultural history

Early Concepts

The word "Homunculus" is already used in Cicero , Plautus and Apuleius . There it means as a diminutive of homo , i.e. H. as a diminutive of the Latin word for “man”, nothing other than “little man, little man”. A culturally and historically significant concept with this word until the late Middle Ages connected, than the much older speculation about the creation of artificial human (see the. Pygmalion - and Golem - Myth ) a new, chemical-medical direction smashing. The doctor Arnaldus von Villanova is said to have thought about the alchemical production of artificial people as early as the 13th century. There are even earlier reports of homunculi. Clemens Romanus declared around 250 AD that Simon Magus created a human being by turning air into water, water into blood, and finally blood into flesh.


The alleged production of a homunculus is described in detail in De natura rerum (1538), which is generally attributed to Paracelsus . It is there that the term homunculus gets its alchemical meaning for the first time. Paracelsus was a doctor, alchemist, and mystic of the early 16th century. In De natura rerum it is deduced from the fact of putrefaction (the putrefaction and putrefaction of organic substances) in a warm, humid environment that the development of the incubated bird egg and the development of the male semen in the uterus also represent such a putrefaction. Thus, an artificial warm and humid environment for the growth of a living being could be created. Paracelsus gives concrete instructions for the production of a homunculus: Human sperm must be left to rot in a vessel in (warming) horse manure for 40 days. What then stirs is "like a person, but transparent". For 40 weeks this being would then have to be nourished with the arcanum of human blood at constant heat , and ultimately a human child would arise, albeit much smaller than a naturally born child.

Later concepts

In the tradition of alchemy the idea of ​​creating new life was common. Organic material seemed to contain a soul substance from which one could create new, artificial life . Even Pierre Borel , the personal physician of Louis XIV , claimed in the late 17th century that the distillation of human blood resulted in a human figure. Something similar is reported by the British chemist and mystic Robert Fludd , who allegedly grew a human head in the test tube . With the beginning of the modern age, however, one can also observe a certain change in the homunculus concept, which ultimately reflects the further development of the natural sciences . While the homunculus was still a predominantly alchemical-mystical concept at the beginning, the idea of ​​breeding and procreating artificial people is transformed in accordance with the advances in empirical science . The most advanced discourses ( mechanics , electromagnetism , genetics ) inspire this old human dream, up to the clone and AI fantasies of today. Such “scientific” ideas can already be heard in Francis Bacon's science utopia Nova Atlantis (1626) in the early modern period . In Nova Atlantis , Bacon designs a utopian ideal society, which is essentially dominated by the "House of Solomon", a kind of science academy. This house of Solomon has mastered wonderful techniques through scientific advances, including the possibility of profound modification of living organisms.

Robert Hamerling

The homunculus motif is not only used to express an optimism for progress in the spirit of Bacon. The Austrian poet Robert Hamerling sat around one the figure of the homunculus, a sharp critique of an increasingly materialistic oriented ideology to practice. In the satirical epic homunculus published in 1888, Hamerling describes a professor who creates a homunculus. However, this is not satisfied with its creation, its appearance is too small and wrinkled. Later in life, the homunculus made a career as a businessman and publisher. He founds a magazine that does not pay a fee for the printing of poems, but demands a fee. With the sale of this magazine the homunculus gets rich, but loses his money again in a stock market crash . After a suicide attempt, he sets up a school for monkeys with the aim of breeding better people. Since this project and other undertakings fail, the homunculus eventually develops into a radical misanthrope who retires as a hermit and builds an airship . After all, the homunculus drives around restlessly in this airship, devastating many stretches of land. The literary scholar Klaus Völker comments on Hamerling's homunculus figure as follows: “Hamerling uses the homunculus figure in his epic as a metaphor for what, in his eyes, was ominously materialistic attitudes of his time, for greed for profit and inhumanity. The humankind that the artificial creature would like to establish on earth is the vision of a world defaced by money and technology. ”However, Völker also explains that Hamerling cannot meet the demands of a criticism of science, since his work is ultimately lost in nationalistic and anti-Semitic stereotypes .

The homunculus in Goethe's Faust

The motif of the homunculus was taken up by Goethe , among others, during his work on Faust II between 1825 and 1831, as the idea of ​​a man made by chemical means. The first successful conversion of inorganic to organic matter in 1828, the synthesis of urea by Friedrich Wöhler in 1828, contributed to this. In a draft of December 17, 1826, Goethe explicitly describes Wagner as the creator of the Homunculus; this part is missing in the final version. The poet and close confidante of Goethe Johann Peter Eckermann therefore declared that Mephistopheles was the real creator of the Homunculus. This question can no longer be finally clarified.

It is possible to explain the idea of ​​the homunculus through Goethe's natural philosophy . Goethe was of the opinion that there is a special sap of life that belongs to all living beings and fundamentally separates organic and inorganic material from one another. Such a position is called vitalism . In the context of this theory, the creation of living beings from inorganic material is inconceivable. However, if organic materials come into play, as is the case with the creation of homunculi, the creation of artificial beings would be fundamentally conceivable. Even with Goethe, the homunculus motif is linked to the idea of ​​a successful natural science. So he lets Wagner speak:

Wagner incubates the homunculus in the glass flask

"It glows! look! - Now one can really hope
that if we
human matter out of hundreds of materials - because it depends on the mixture - leisurely compose human material,
it in a flask and cohobise it properly, then
the work is done in silence.
It will! the crowd is moving more clearly!
The conviction truer, truer!
What is praised in nature that is mysterious,
We dare to try it out intelligently,
And what else it has organized,
We have it crystallized. "

The homunculus in philosophy

In philosophy the term homunculus is used in a way that differs significantly from alchemical and literary usage. Since the early modern period, attempts have been made to view living organisms as functional structures, and this gave rise to the problem of having to explain at which point in an examined process the self-organized action delimits itself from externally organized functioning. One attempt at a solution was the homunculus, which shifted the idea of ​​man in front of the machine into an organism under consideration. In the philosophy of perception and in the philosophy of the mind , positions are referred to as "homunculus theories" if they postulate a place in the body where a conscious being or a mind can be found. Most of the time, talk of a homunculus has a critical function: Certain theories are accused of implying the existence of a homunculus. However, since there is no homunculus or such an assumption only shifts the problem to be clarified from the organism to the homunculus, these theories are to be rejected.

Philosophy of perception

René Descartes' illustration of the process of perception

In the philosophy of perception it becomes clearest how the assumption of a homunculus can come about. Many classic theories of perception can be referred to as image theories. René Descartes , for example, was already aware that visual perception generates an image on the retina . Descartes concluded from this fact that people do not perceive the material world directly, but rather inner images. The contemporary philosopher Lambert Wiesing comments: “The perceiving person always looks like the visitor to a camera obscura only images that are between him and the supposedly seen world.” Now the acceptance of an inner image only seems to be unproblematic if there is one Viewer who looks at this picture. After all, neglected images cannot lead to a conscious perception experience. This is why many classical theories of perception postulate a homunculus. With Descartes the homunculus took the form of an immaterial spirit, to which information about the material world was to be presented at the pineal gland (epiphysis).

John Locke

In addition to Descartes, John Locke's epistemology is a classic example of a homunculus theory. According to Locke, every idea must be perceived again in consciousness. Wiesing comments: "Just as someone has to stand in the camera obscura in order to be able to see the pictures on the wall, a viewer of the ideas has to be assumed in the consciousness room, a homunculus who looks at the representations in the mind."

However, there is a classic argument against such homunculus theories: Even if there were a homunculus, one would have to ask how it manages to perceive the inner image. If the homunculus perceives the inner image by creating an inner image again, one seems to have to postulate a further homunculus that perceives the inner image of the homunculus. One can continue this problem further and further, because of course one can also ask how the second homunculus can perceive the inner image of the first homunculus. Philosophers speak of an infinite regress with such continuable problems . However, if one asserts that the homunculus does not have to generate an internal image, one can ask why internal images and image theories are not completely dispensed with.

Many perception theorists draw the conclusion from this homunculus argument that the process of perception should not be explained by inner images or image theories. However, this does not mean that the idea of ​​inner images has to be fundamentally wrong. The question of inner images in cognitive science has received a lot of attention in the imagery debate .

Daniel Dennett and the Cartesian Theater

Cartesian theater

The philosophical debate about homunculi, however, is not limited to philosophy of perception alone. The philosopher Daniel Dennett advocates the thesis that numerous theories of the mind mostly unconsciously assume the existence of a homunculus. This happens exactly when it is assumed that all information has to be brought together in one place in the brain in order to become conscious. For example, cognitive neuroscience has discovered that there are regions in the brain that respond selectively to certain shapes, colors, or movements. The theories criticized by Dennett now assume that when perceiving a flying blue ball, for example, the information about the various properties must be merged in order to arrive at the perception of a flying blue ball.

Dennett claims that such a merging of the information is only necessary when assuming a homunculus and tries to make this point clear through the metaphor of the "Cartesian theater". As already described, Descartes assumed that an inner image had to be presented to the mind in order to achieve a perception. Dennett now argues that the joint presentation of properties such as color, shape and movement is only necessary if one assumes an observer in the brain who collects all the information that is distributed in a distributed manner. Dennett explains: "If a particular observation has been made by a specialized part of the brain, the information content is given and does not have to be sent to a central observer for renewed observation." Dennett provides his own "model of the various designs" ( multiple drafts model ) . According to this model, different interpretations of an input are developed in different brain regions, which compete with each other, but are never compared at a central point. After all, an interpretation prevails because it leads to a certain output.

Dennett's criticism of the Cartesian theater has been received very differently. Most theorists agree with Dennett that there is no spatially identifiable place where all information is brought together. However, it is often argued that people have uniform perceptions and not just information about individual properties. If one perceives, for example, a flying, blue ball, the result is a uniform perceptual situation that cannot be explained by Dennett's model of the various designs. Rather, one must identify a mechanism through which the linking of the individual properties to a uniform perception is made possible. In the neurosciences, the search for such a mechanism has become known as the attachment problem. However, the modern proposals for solving the attachment problem do not start from a place where all information is brought together. Rather, neuroscientists such as Wolf Singer and Christoph von der Malsburg claim that synchronous firing of different groups of neurons makes it possible to combine properties such as color, shape or movement.

Gilbert Ryle and the ghost in the machine

An even sharper criticism of the homunculus theories can be found in Gilbert Ryle , Daniel Dennett's teacher. Although Ryle speaks of a ghost in the machine and not of a homunculus, his and Dennett's arguments agree on essential points. Ryle also starts with Descartes and explains that the postulate of an immaterial res cogitans (a thinking thing ) has led to innumerable confusions in philosophy. According to Ryle, the central mistake is that mental states such as perceptions, memories or sensations are understood as inner states, which are localized in the body. According to Ryle, such an idea leads to the image of a ghost controlling a machine (the body).

According to Ryle, the alternative to this picture of internal states is methodological behaviorism : people can be assigned certain perceptions, thoughts or sensations precisely when they show a certain behavior or at least a behavioral disposition. For Ryle, mental states are not internal, but the disposition to behave in a certain way. Today behaviorism is rejected by most philosophers. It is generally not assumed that the postulate of internal, mental states leads to a homunculus problem. However, Dennett's position agrees on essential points with Ryle's theory. Dennett also assumes that there is no internal state (be it a brain process or an immaterial state) that can be identified with a mental state. Rather, he believes that there are innumerable processes, some of which eventually prevailed and led to certain behavior. The ascription of mental states would then take place as a result of the observable behavioral patterns.

Homunculus in Neuroanatomy

Well-known representation of a cortical homunculus according to Wilder Penfield . The motor cortex is shown.

The term homunculus has been used metaphorically in neurosciences since the 1950s . In the anatomy of the brain , the representations of body regions on the primary cortical fields in the area of ​​the central furrow are understood as sensory homunculus postcentral gyrus or motor homunculus precentral gyrus . For all sensory and motor tracts there is a point-to-point assignment between the body periphery and the brain. So is z. B. a certain group of cells in the cerebral cortex (cortex) is responsible for the conscious perception of a pain stimulus in a precisely defined area of ​​skin, and only for this area. The brain can therefore infer from the activated cell group in the cortex in which part of the body the pain occurs. These projections from the body to the brain correspond to the sensory and motor cortical fields. The size of the cell area in the cortex does not exactly correspond to the size of the area in the body. For particularly sensitive or fine motor parts of the body (e.g. fingers) there are quite large cortical areas available. Other parts of the body that do not perform finely tuned movements and that are not as sensitive to pain (e.g. stomach) only have relatively small areas of bark. The “homunculus”, which is created through the symbolic tracing of the body parts associated with the cortical areas, is thus strongly distorted compared to the actual body shape. The principal assignability of body regions and cerebral cortex areas ( somatotopia ) had already been postulated in the 19th century by John Hughlings Jackson .

The Canadian neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield was able to support these assumptions experimentally and observe the exact assignment. He sketched the proportions and jokingly referred to the drawing as a homunculus, referring to the cultural-historical context . To this day, almost all textbooks on neuroanatomy contain the faulty, somatosensitive homunculus with incorrect assignment of the genitals (in the postcentral gyrus). The sensitivity of the genitals is usually assigned to the fissura longitudinalis cerebri at the lowest point. This contradicts the principles of somatotopia . In 2005 it was shown that the position of the genitals also follows somatotopia. According to this, the genital is not projected below the sensory system of the sole of the foot, but at its logically correct point following the somatotopia at the level of the pelvis.

Division of the motor / sensory cortex and homunculi

Reception in popular culture

  • In Umberto Eco's novel The Foucault Pendulum (1988) [ch. 43] Lorenza jokes about creating a homunculus.
  • In the fantasy novel The Red Lion (1946) by Mária Szepes , the main character enters into a fist-like devil's pact with a demonic key figure whose name is Homunculus.
  • In the trading card game " Magic: The Gathering " there are several cards with the creature type "Homunculus".
  • In the 1979 film Manhattan , Woody Allen talks about a homunculus.
  • In the Europe radio play Draculas Insel, Kerker des Grauens (1981) by HG Francis from the horror series , the ship's captain Humunk turns out to be an “artificial human” and “a kind of machine” after a fatal incident, whereby he is referred to as a homunculus . Under its rubbery skin, it consists of an iron skeleton.
  • The character “Twig Leg” in the fantasy novel Drachenreiter (1997) by Cornelia Funke is a homunculus.
  • In the trading card game Yu-Gi-Oh! (1999, in Europe from 2001) one card bears the name Homunculus, creature of alchemy .
  • In the fantasy novel Otherland (2001) by Tad Williams , a homunculus from the Wutschbaum is revealed in the fourth part.
  • In the manga / anime Fullmetal Alchemist (2001), several homunculi are the antagonists of the protagonists.
  • The video game Shadow of Memories (2001) features a homunculus who has a time machine.
  • In the video game SpellForce: The Order of Dawn (2003), the avatar can bring a homunculus to life.
  • The novel The City of Dreaming Books (2004) by Walter Moers tells of a character named Homunkoloss or Shadow King , who lives far from sunlight in the catacombs of Buchhaim.
  • In the video game Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow (2005) the homunculus is one of the opponents. In the game it has a demonic origin.
  • In the TV series The Big Bang Theory (S03E03, 2009), Dr. Sheldon Cooper his roommate Leonard as a homunculus, a "true to original human miniature".
  • The Austrian band Angizia deals with a homunculus in their album kokon. A gruesomely beautiful box piece (2011).
  • In the science fiction series Perry Rhodan , the superintelligence IT created a servant named "Homunk".
  • In the prologue of the fantasy epic Planet Fantasia , the creation of the protagonist and homunculus Jack is described using necromancy and alchemy.
  • In the anime series Fate / Zero , the homunculus "Irisviel von Einzbern" was created.

See also


  • Klaus Völker (ed.): Artificial people (=  fantastic library . Volume 308 ). Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1994, ISBN 3-518-38793-6 .
  • Lambert Wiesing: Philosophy of Perception (=  Suhrkamp-Taschenbuch Wissenschaft . Volume 1562 ). Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 2004, ISBN 3-518-29162-9 .
  • Wilder Penfield , Theodore Rasmussen : The Cerebral Cortex of Man. A Clinical Study of Localization of Function . The Macmillan Comp., New York 1950.

Web links

Commons : Homunculus  - collection of images, videos and audio files
Wiktionary: Homunculus  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Karl Ernst Georges : Comprehensive Latin-German concise dictionary . 8th, improved and increased edition. Hahnsche Buchhandlung, Hannover 1918 ( zeno.org [accessed February 4, 2019]).
  2. homunculus. In: Concise dictionary of German superstition . Walter de Gruyter, 1932.
  3. Klaus Völker : Afterword. In: Klaus Völker (Ed.): Artificial people. (= Fantastic Library . Volume 308). Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt 1994, ISBN 3-518-38793-6 .
  4. Paracelsus : De natura rerum . Reprinted in: Klaus Völker: Afterword. In: Klaus Völker (Ed.): Artificial people. (= Fantastic Library. Volume 308). Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt 1994, ISBN 3-518-38793-6 .
  5. ^ Robert Hamerling: Homunculus . 1888.
  6. Klaus Völker: Afterword. In: Klaus Völker (Ed.): Artificial people . (= Fantastic Library. Volume 308). Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt 1994, ISBN 3-518-38793-6 , pp. 461-464.
  7. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe : Faust II . Second act, laboratory. 1832.
  8. Werner A. Müller, Monika Hassel: Developmental and reproductive biology of humans and important model organisms. Springer, Berlin 1999, ISBN 3-642-28382-9 , pp. 1f.
  9. ^ Rene Descartes: Dioptric . 1637
  10. a b Lambert Wiesing: Philosophy of Perception. Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 2004, ISBN 3-518-29162-9 , p. 24.
  11. a b Consciousness Explained . (German: Philosophy of Human Consciousness. ) Little, Brown , Boston 1991, ISBN 0-316-18066-1 .
  12. ^ Charles Gray, Wolf Singer: Stimulus-specific neuronal oscillations in the cat visual cortex: A cortical functional unit . In: Society of Neuroscience Abstracts , 1987.
  13. Christoph von der Malsburg: The Correlation Theory of Brain Function . In: Technical Report 81-2, Biophysical Chemistry, MPI , 1981.
  14. ^ Gilbert Ryle: The Concept of Mind . Chicago 1949 (dt. The concept of the spirit ).
  15. Wilder Penfield, Theodore Rasmussen: The Cerebral Cortex of Man. A Clinical Study of Localization of Function. The Macmillan Comp., New York 1950.
  16. Homunculus - The new exhibit in the tower sense from February 19, 2004. (PDF; 2.0 MB) Tower of the Senses , 2004, accessed on March 14, 2019 .
  17. ^ CA Kell, K. von Kriegstein, A. Rösler, A. Kleinschmidt, H. Laufs: The sensory cortical representation of the human penis: revisiting somatotopy in the male homunculus. In: J Neurosci. 25 (25), Jun 22, 2005, pp. 5984-5987.
  18. Homunk. In: Perrypedia. Retrieved September 3, 2012 .
This version was added to the list of articles worth reading on December 19, 2006 .