This page considers character identification on the basis
of physiognomy (ie the shape of an individual's face).
It covers -
supplements discussion elsewhere on this site regarding
Identity and Biometrics.
Pre-industrial cultures often assumed that there was some
relationship between an individual's character (eg honesty,
cruelty, generosity, aggression) and face, with references
in folktales, legal documents, dramas and other literature
regarding "villainous appearance" or "cruel
nature" unintentionally revealed through an unguarded
That assumption reflected notions that the face was "the
window of the soul" and that a twisted or evil nature
was generally signalled by a 'distorted' or 'ugly' face,
virtuous, noble and brave having handsome features
deeds and bad thoughts causing disfigurement of a face.
Physiognomy was just a hop, skip and jump away from 'blaming
the victim', assuming that the 'ugly' are bad and that
the 'deformed' are inwardly distorted. Dwarves, it was
claimed, were by nature peevish, sly and greedy. The blackness
of an African's skin reflected the blackness - or savagery
- of his character.
Physiognomic theorists seized on particular attributes.
Barthelemy Cocles' 1533 Physiognomonia thus warned
with snub noses are vain, untruthful, unstable, unfaithful
bulbous noses ends belong to persons who are insensitive
noses belong to the irascible - those easily provoked
large, obtuse noses to the magnanimous and lionlike
and outstanding ears indicate a tendency to chatter
de Montaigne's De la phisionomie scoffed at such
nonsense, noting that virtue was not necessarily written
on the face and that some exemplary characters - such
as Socrates - were notable for their physical ugliness.
Swiss proto-romantic Johann Lavater (1741-1801) sought
to systematise traditional physiognomy, notably in his
1775 Physiognomische Fragmente zur Beförderung
der Menschenkenntnis und und Menschenliebe.
Lavater argued that 'moral character' could be reliably
discerned by observation of involuntary facial features,
with a close and unalterable correspondence between the
geography of the face - ears, eyes, nose, brow, distance
between lips and chin, and so forth - and that individual's
appetites, self-control, fears, diligence and honesty.
That geography was independent of expression (which Lavater
characterised as pathognomy), for example a person's grimace,
tears, laughter or smile. A disciple of Lavater would,
it was claimed, accordingly be able to determine the person's
true character through momentary observation (even where
the person was an experienced liar with a strong incentive
to engage in deception). The same disciple would not be
misled by fine words, flash clothing or an impressive
title, being instead able to 'read' the real person. Lavater
assumed that those best equipped to read character would
themselves be handsome, with inner beauty, wisdom and
virtue being reflected in a comely appearance.
Lavater's claims were attractive in an era marked by the
same receptiveness of pop science (or merely fashion)
as our own time, anxiety about social status, uncertainty
about financial or other bona fides and dificulties in
readily identifying whether an individual was whom she/he
claimed to be and what that person had done in the past.
The publishing boom of the late Enlightenment thus featured
a vogue for physiognomic primers and lectures, alongside
mumbo jumbo such as mesmerism and magnetic beds.
One example was Della Porta's illustrated Pocket Lavater
of 1817, which claimed to enable readers to quickly discriminate
between the physiognomy of a trustworthy man of business,
a rogue, a wastrel and a drunkard. George Brewer offered
The juvenile Lavater, or, A familiar explanation of
the passions of Le Brun in 1815, a sort of Dummies
Guide to Physiognomy. Peers claimed that
white race, with oval face, straight hair and nose,
to which the civilized peoples of Europe belong and
which appear to us the most beautiful of all, is also
superior to others by it's genius, courage and activity
the ugly peoples are more or less barbarians, beauty
is the inseparable companion of the most civilized nations
The same vogue was apparent in several generations of
sculpture, painting and drawing, with artists aspiring
to represent ideal types (in a prevision of quackery from
Bachofen and CJ Jung) and to illustrate the 'good' and
the 'bad'. Physiognomy strengthened the fashion for freehand
silhouettes and the physiognotrace, a mechanical device
for drawing a profile.
Criminologist Cesare Lombroso, soothing Victorian anxieties
with nonsense about the "criminal classes",
"atavism" and "born criminals" claimed
that the latter were detectible through -
Deviation in the head size and shape from type common
to race and region from which the criminal came.
2 Asymmetry of the face.
3 Eye defects and peculiarities.
4 Excessive dimensions of the jaw and cheek bones.
5 Ears of unusual size, or occasionally very small,
or standing out from the head as do the chimpanzee.
6 Nose twisted, upturned, or flattened in thieves, or
aquiline or break-line in murderers, or with a tip rising
like a peak from swollen nostrils.
7 Lips fleshy, swollen and protruding.
8 Pouches in the cheek like those of some animals.
9 Peculiarities of the palate, such as are found in
some reptiles, and cleft palate.
10 Chin receding, or excessively long, or short and
flat, as in apes.
11 Abnormal dentition.
12 Abundance, variety, and precocity of wrinkles.
13 Abundance of the hair, marked by characteristics
of the hair of the opposite sex.
reality, of course, there is not a necessary relationship
between character and 'facial architecture'. Thieves -
among the 'criminal classes' or otherwise - do not all
have receding chins, five o-clock shadows, 'simian jaws'
and beady eyes. (Sweaty hands, smelly feet and limp handshakes
are also not a reliable signifier.) The size and/or shape
of the ears does not provide an accurate predictor of
honesty and diligence, contrary to the belief of figures
such as J Edgar Hoover and Henry Ford. A large nose does
not signal a profound appetite for money, an aptitude
for high finance (legitimate or otherwise) and a tendency
towards sexual predation.
Physiognomy is, in a word, nonsense - a set of anecdotes,
absurdities and ethnic stereotypes disguised as a coherent
and verifiable scientific theory that can be readily applied
by specialist and novice alike.
Unsurprisingly it has fallen out of favour, although some
of the stereotypes linger among individuals in the public
and private sectors.
physiognomy and law
Physiognomy is not recognised by Australian law as a science
or as a professional discipline. Like the pseudo-sciences
discussed in the following pages it is not forbidden by
Australian statute or common law and a cursory search
of the web or 'alternative medicine' magazines will thus
discover people engaging in physiognomy on a commercial
or amateur basis and a market for sale of physiognomy
charts, primers and other items.
Use of physiognomy to deny a job, a promotion or other
opportunity to a person would unsurprisingly breach one
or more Commonwealth and state/territory anti-discrimination
statutes. That legislation for example emphasis employment
selection on the basis of inherent requirements of the
job, with courts accordingly unlikely to be impressed
by claims that a physiognomic reading of an applicant
proved that the person was lazy, stupid, cowardly or adulterous.
Historical explorations include About Face: German
Physiognomic Thought from Lavater to Auschwitz (Detroit:
Wayne State Uni Press 2004) by Richard Gray, Physiognomy
and the Meaning of Expression in Nineteenth-Century Culture
(Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press 2001) by Lucy Hartley,
Windows of the Soul: The Art of Physiognomy in European
Culture, 1470-1780 (Oxford: Oxford Uni Press 2005)
by Martin Porter, Seeing the Face, Seeing the Soul:
Polemon’s physiognomy from classical antiquity to
medieval Islam (Oxford: Oxford Uni Press 2006) by
Simon Swain, Physiognomics in the Ancient World
(Philadelphia: Transactions of the American Philosophical
Society 1969) by Elizabeth Evans, Lavater's Essays
on Physiognomy: A study in the history of ideas (Berne:
Peter Lang 1979) by John Graham, Studying the Jew:
Scholarly Antisemitism in Nazi Germany (Cambridge:
Harvard Uni Press 2006) by Alan Steinweis, Physiognomy
in Profile: Lavater's impact on European culture
(Newark: Uni of Delaware Press 2005) edited by Melissa
Percival & Graeme Tytler and In the Eye of the
Beholder: The Science of Face Perception (Oxford:
Oxford Uni Press 1998) by Vicki Bruce & Andrew Young.
Works on iconography include Hitler's Face: The Biography
of an Image (Uni of Pennsylvania Press 2005) by Claudia
Schmölders, 'Physiognomical Theory in Renaissance
Heroic Portraits' by Peter Meller in The Renaissance
and Mannerism: Studies in Western Art (Princeton:
Princeton Uni Press 1963), E.H Gombrich's 'On Physiognomic
Perception' in Meditations on a Hobby-Horse and Other
Essays on the Theory of Art (London: Phaidon 1963)
and 'The Mask and the Face: The perception of physiognomic
likeness in life and art’' in The Image and
the Eye: Further Studies in the Psychology of Pictorial
Representation (Oxford: Oxford Uni Press 1972), The
Artist as Anthropologist: The representation of type and
character in Victorian art (Cambridge: Cambridge
Uni Press 1989) by Mary Cowling, Physiognomy in the
European Novel. Faces and fortunes (Princeton: Princeton
Uni Press 1982) by Graeme Tytler
Studies of racism and physiognomy include 'Lavater, Lichtenberg
and the Physiognomy of the Black' by Sander Gilman in
Blackness without Blacks: Essays on the Image of the
Black in Germany (Boston: Beacon Press 1982), A
Human Comedy: Physiognomy and caricature in 19th-century
Paris (Chicago: Uni of Chicago Press 1982) by Judith
Wechsler, Apes and Angels: The Irishman in Victorian
Caricature (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press
1971) by L Perry Curtis.
For recent revivals see 'In your face: facial metrics
predict aggressive behaviour in the laboratory and in
varsity and professional hockey players' by Justin Carré
& Cheryl McCormick in 275(1651) Proceedings of
the Royal Society (2008) 2651-2656, Reading Faces:
Window to the Soul? (Boulder: Westview 1997) by Leslie
Zebrowitz and 'Physiognomy, Phrenology and the Temporality
of the Body' by Richard Twine in 8(1) Body & Society
next page (phrenology)