This page discusses character identification on the basis
of phrenology, ie 'reading' the shape of a person's skull.
It covers -
It supplements discussion elsewhere on this site regarding
Identity and Biometrics.
Phrenology is predicated on the belief that there is a
direct and readily identifiable relationship between an
individual's character (eg honesty, loyalty and bravery),
aptitudes (eg suitability to become a successful accountant,
novelist or business executive) and skull shape.
It enjoyed a vogue in the West from around the time of
the French Revolution to the turn of last century, with
some practitioners still enjoying success in providing
phrenology-based career guidance as late as the 1930s.
Like physiognomy it was a pseudo-science, one that enjoyed
considerable support among people of all classes, attracted
a devoted following, and provided both practitioners and
publishers or vendors of phrenological aids with substantial
revenue. It offers a perspective on the shape of belief
over the past two centuries and the operation of recruitment/career
Observations about skull shape and character, albeit on
a very anecdotal basis, predate the Enlightment and can
be found for example in pre-modern biographers or poets
who implied that there was a correspondence between a
mis-shapen head and anger, lust, cruelty or simply insanity.
Those observations are not very surprising in cultures
that had a shaky grasp of psychological mechanisms and
Phrenology as a supposed science - a discipline based
on objective recording of phenomena identified in a large
population and on principles that could be verified through
application by enthusiasts or critics - has been traced
to the writing of German savant Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828)
and associate Johann Gaspar Spurzheim (1776-1832), who
offered a materialist argument that the mind - and hence
the soul - was located in the brain rather than the heart.
Gall's cranioscopy proposed that 'mind' is associated
with the brain and comprises multiple innate faculties.
Each of those faculties are distinct and thus must have
a discrete "organ" in the brain, with the size
of that organ - sometimes referred to as its development
- being an indication of the strength/sophistication of
the particular faculty. The brain's overall shape is determined
by the development of the various organs. That shape in
turn determines the shape of the individual's skull. Examination
of the skull - with a novice or expert phrenologist looking
for protuberances and declivities - supposedly allows
the 'reader' to accurately identify the person's emotional
makeup and aptitudes.
In essence, by feeling the person's head a phrenologist
could determine that person's character and for example
advise on whether the individual could be trusted with
money, was a secret drunkard, was likely to run amok or
worthy of investment in training.
That determination would be independent of any statement
by the individual or cues such as clothing. Phrenological
examination would thus supposedly reveal meaningful and
independently verifiable insights through 'reading' the
head of someone who was unconscious or asleep; phrenology
saw a vogue for the collection or measurement of skulls
(craniometry) and a trade in plaster reproductions casts
from the heads of live or deceased celebrities.
Gall argued that the brain comprised 27 organs, each corresponding
to a discrete human faculty. (Spurzheim later publicised
a higher figure.) Nineteen of Gall's faculties were shared
with other species. The organs - helpfully mapped onplaster
or ceramic phrenological busts - were
instinct of reproduction
of one's offspring
associated instinct of friendship and affection
instinct of courage and self-defence (including a tendency
carnivorous instinct, including a tendency to murder
organ of guile or cleverness
feeling of property, evident in hoarding by animals
and in theft by humans
arrogance and enjoyment of power or authority
ambition and love of glory (characterised as "beneficent
for the individual and for society")
of things and of facts, along with 'educability
sense of place, space and proportion
sense of language and capacity for speech
sense of colours
of sounds and capacity to create/enjoy music
of connectness between numbers
of mechanics, including aptitude for construction and
sense of satire and witticism
benevolence and gentleness
firmness of purpose, constancy and obstinacy
adapted particular aspects. Influential criminologist,
racist and graphology fan Cesare Lombroso (1835-1895),
in L'homme criminel (1895), claimed that particular
'craniofacial features' were consistently associated with
specific classes of offenders. Murderers thus supposedly
prominent jaws, pickpockets had long hands and little
hair. Several generations of racists used craniometry
to advance their careers and ostensibly substantiate claims
about the inferiority of members of other 'races'.
Neuroanatomists have resoundingly dismissed the notion
of a brain consisting of 20 or so independent and competing
organs. Claims that the size of the skull necessarily
correlate to the size of the brain or to particular functions
and that bumps on the skull closely match the grey matter
inside have rightly attracted particular derision.
Defenders of phrenology have relied on traditional defences
'reader' was led astray by the person's haircut
reader was inadequately trained
reader conducted an inadequate examination
contemporary enthusiast attributes
Insufficient attention for the interaction between faculties.
This is a very common cause of errors. It is not correct
to make a judgment on one single faculty; the interaction
of other faculties must always be taken into account.
Example: a strong Destructiveness does not in itself
stand for a violent, aggressive person; a strong development
of Moral faculties may lead this person's dynamic forces
towards higher aspirations.
basis for determining the interaction between the faculties
is unclear and a sceptic might argue that defences are
so open-ended as to be meaningless.
practitioners and consumers
phrenology and law
As with physiognomy and astrology, phrenology is not recognised
by Australian law as a science or as a professional discipline.
Practitioners thus do not have a special status in the
provision of evidence in criminal or other litigation.
What about discrimination in the workplace and other fora.
Could someone for example be legitimately excluded from
a job because a phrenologist claimed that phrenology demonstrated
the person's lack of 'the right stuff'.
In Australia an adverse employment decision or other exclusion
on the basis of a phrenological assessment would breach
Commonwealth and state/territory anti-discrimination law.
Possession of particular bumps on the skull is not an
inherent requirement of a job as a policewoman or bus
driver, jobs where there is an expectation that performance
can be objectively measured.
For historical accounts see in particular Roger Cooter's
The Cultural Meaning of Popular Science. Phrenology
and the organisation of consent in 19th-century Britain
(Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press 1984), John van Wyhe's
Phrenology and the Origins of Victorian Scientific
Naturalism (Aldershot: Ashgate 2004), Charles Colbert's
A Measure of Perfection: Phrenology and the Fine Arts
in America (Chapel Hill: Uni of North Carolina Press
1998), Steven Shapin's 'Homo Phrenologicus: Anthropological
Perspectives' in Natural Order: Historical Studies
of Scientific Culture (Beverly Hills: SAGE 1979)
edited by Barry Barnes & Shapin, David De Giustino's
Conquest of Mind: Phrenology and Victorian Social
Thought (London: Croom Helm 1975) and 'Reforming
the commonwealth of thieves: British phrenologists and
Australia' in 15 Victorian Studies (1972) 439-461,
John Thearle's 'The Rise and Fall of Phrenology in Australia'
in 27(3) Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry
(1993) 518-525, 'The murderous Dutch fiddler: Criminology,
history and the problem of phrenology' by Nicole Rafter
in 9(1) Theoretical Criminology (2005) 65-96,
John Davies' Phrenology: Fad and Science - A 19th-Century
American Crusade (New Haven: Yale Uni Press 1955),
Madeleine Stern's Heads and Headlines: Phrenological
Fowlers (Norman: Uni of Oklahoma Press 1971) and
Terry Parssinen's 'Popular science & society: The
phrenology movement in early Victorian Britain' in 8 Journal
of Social History (1974) 1-20.
For egregious abuses by Lombroso and his peers see Deviant
Bodies (Bloomington: Indiana Uni Press 1995) edited
by Jennifer Terry & Jacqueline Urla, The Criminal
Body: Lombroso and the Anatomy of Deviance (London:
Routledge 2003) by David Horn, A Cultural History
of Causality: Science, Murder Novels, and Systems of Thought
(Princeton: Princeton Uni Press 2004) by Stephen
Kern, Criminals and their Scientists (Cambridge:
Cambridge Uni Press 2006) edited by Peter Becker &
Richard Wetzell, 'American Polygeny and Craniometry Before
Darwin: Blacks and Indians as Separate, Inferior Species'
by Stephen Gould in The "Racial" Economy
of Science: Toward a Democratic Future (Indiana Uni
Press 1993) edited by Sandra Harding 84-115 and Faces
of Degeneration: A European Disorder, 1848-1918 (Cambridge:
Cambridge Uni Press 1993) by Daniel Pick.
For primers by contemporary enthusiasts see Phrenology
(London: Collier-Macmillan 1970) by wiccan Sybil Leek,
Phrenology, A Study of Mind (London: L.N. Fowler
& Co 1970) by Frances Hedderly and Heads, or the
Art of Phrenology (London: London Phrenology Company
1983) by Helen & Peter Cooper. Reprints of works by
Gall, Spurzheim and devotees such as the Fowler brothers
and George Combe are also available.
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