Phrenological bust by LN FowlerPhrenological bust by LN FowlerThe History of Phrenology on the Web

by John van Wyhe

'"phrenological, which is another word for natural": Reassessing the British phrenology debates 1815- ca. 1830' *

"In the future history of philosophy, no circumstance will create more amusement than the recital of the astonishment and contempt with which the philosophers and the public of the nineteenth century received the discovery [of phrenology]." George Combe, 1819.

In this paper I will argue that an important aspect of the history of the early nineteenth-century phrenology debates has been glossed over by earlier social-history accounts. No science had ever been criticised and ridiculed as much as phrenology. This put phrenologists, eager to acquire the status of men of science, under unique pressures to substantiate their science. In their desperation, the phrenologists appealed to Nature as the only authority capable of conferring this status. Over two decades of controversy this constant appeal to Nature led to what could be called phrenological naturalism. Phrenology was the system taught by Johann Spurzheim and his British disciples. Taken from the late 18th century organological system of the Viennese physician Franz Joseph Gall (later of Paris), phrenology was held by its adherents to be "the only true science of mind." The particular tenets of phrenology were: The brain is the organ of the mind. The mind is composed of distinct, innate faculties (such as Benevolence or Veneration). Because they are distinct, each faculty must have a distinct location or "organ" in the brain. The size of an organ, other things being equal, is a measure of its power. As the skull takes its shape from the brain, the surface of the skull can be read as an accurate index of psychological aptitudes and tendencies. Spurzheim left Gall and brought the system to Britain in 1814. He published his first book The Physiognomical System of Drs. Gall and Spurzheim in 1815. Spurzheim's grandiose claims for the power of his science, aimed at aggrandizing his own authority, elicited some extremely harsh reviews. The most polemical were in the Tory Quarterly Review and the Whig Edinburgh Review in 1815. The Edinburgh reviewer was a young extra-mural anatomy teacher named John Gordon. Gordon's review is a long ironic and often personally abusive diatribe against what he styled "a piece of thorough quackery from beginning to end". Everything from the anatomical basis of the system to Gall and Spurzheim's powers of reasoning were condemned. The sales of Spurzheim's book virtually ceased. Spurzheim travelled to Edinburgh to challenge his reviewer in June 1816. In Gordon's own anatomy theatre Spurzheim dissected human brains to demonstrate his claims. Many witnesses felt Spurzheim succeeded in disproving Gordon and some of Gordon's own students left his school as a result. Spurzheim remained seven months in Edinburgh, where he managed to convert other sceptics into disciples- including the most active British phrenologist, George Combe. By 1817 Spurzheim's Scottish followers began to publish on the system, which soon came to be known as phrenology. From the beginning British phrenology was the over-confident Spurzheim version- which was claimed to be "the most important scientific discovery ever made" or "the most intelligible and self-consistent system of mental philosophy that has ever been presented to the contemplation of inquisitive men." The Combe brothers and other phrenologists founded the Edinburgh Phrenological Society in 1820. The London phrenological Society was founded by John Elliotson of University College Hospital in 1823. Others soon followed in Manchester, Glasgow, Warwick, and other cities in the early 1830s. Phrenological societies were in direct emulation of existing scientific societies. Another typical accoutrement of an early nineteenth century natural science was a subject journal. The first phrenological journal was again founded in Edinburgh, in 1823. The journal seldom even managed to break even, and was personally floated by men such as the Combes who were desperate that their science should have a journal too. However, despite their persistent efforts, phrenologists failed to achieve the status of an accredited science for phrenology. The system was the subject of a number of high-profile attacks throughout the 1820s by figures such as the Edinburgh professor of history Sir William Hamilton, and Sir Francis Jeffrey the editor and co-founder of the Edinburgh Review, and the physiologist Peter Mark Roget. In November 1820, the Glasgow Enquirer summarized the controversies over phrenology: "We do not believe that any philosophical speculation...has given rise to so much disagreeable altercation, or so much personal invective, as the system of Phrenology...." The next significant event in the phrenology controversies was Roget's critical entry on the science in the Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1824. Roget, now remembered as the author of the thesaurus, examined phrenology only for its physiological and anatomical merit, and found it unfounded and its claims exaggerated. Roget termed phrenology a "pretended science". As the most prestigious and widely accepted reference work, phrenology's refutation in the Encyclopaedia Britannica was damning to its scientific credibility. Roget was elevated, for a time, to the arch-enemy of the phrenologists. In Combe's first book, Essays on Phrenology, he lists Roget's criticisms before inserting a blanket defence appealing to Nature. Rather than providing counter-arguments, the phrenological ace-in-the-sleeve was becoming an appeal to a strong secular Nature presented in such a way as to be sufficient "proof" that phrenology was "true". Roget provided evidence from medical texts of brain damage to regions attributed by phrenologists to a particular organ, to demonstrate that the phrenological functions had not ceased with the destruction of that part of the brain. This was a powerful criticism. But Combe was illusive. The sources Roget had used were too old, Combe wrote, and they were not originally made with reference to phrenology, so that the region was probably not identified correctly, as a phrenologist would have done. And for the coup de grace, Roget should have gone "to Nature for evidence to refute the system." Combe confidently tells his reader that reference books are pointless when "Nature herself can be appealed to". There was a final major attack on phrenology by the Edinburgh Review in September 1826, written by Sir Francis Jeffrey. Jeffrey lashed the advocates of phrenology with the accusation that contradictions and inconsistencies were merely explained away and that no critical account was taken of evidence. He demanded that any trait without the bump or vice versa must be accepted as contradicting the theory to destruction. George Combe was quick in responding to such a widely-read and caustic attack. In addition to denying or answering many particular objections or criticisms by Jeffrey, Combe made use of the by now familiar phrenological appeal to Nature. For to "coincide with nature", Combe wrote, was "the only authoritative standard of physical truth." Such a rhetorical axe was meant to chop Jeffrey's authority as a critic out from under him. Only Nature was to have the authority to say whether phrenology was true or not, and the phrenologists claimed to speak for Nature. The phrenologists' attempts to defend their science by an identification with Nature, sometimes went so far as to claim that "whatever is natural is just to the same extent and in the same degree phrenological." This immoderate language led some critics to find that "Fool and Phrenologist are terms nearly synonymous". The phrenologists used a rhetorical crane to lift their version of Nature above the 'experts' who rejected them. Through the 1820s the phrenologists' Nature became more self-reliant, steering clear of particular disciplines and Christian theology- all of whose authority were brought to bear against phrenology. Through its new application in the unique circumstances of the exigency of phrenology, Nature became, rather than God, "the greatest authority of all". This demonstrates that there are multiple ways that more radical views of Nature can form and be applied besides those of political and social radicals trying to undermine the established order. Apart from other reform interests, the phrenologists' naturalism was fundamentally different from a radical subversive Nature because the phrenologists wanted a piece of the scientific pie, not to disperse that pie amongst the masses. Phrenologists also believed they were spreading the word about the amazing new picture of Nature which their science conveyed. The phrenological naturalism which evolved in the way I have described wedded with a specific rendition of natural law culminated in George Combe's 1828 book The Constitution of Man. This book became one of the biggest sellers of the first half of the century, selling 100,000 copies in Britain by 1860. (In comparison Charles Darwin's Origin sold 50,000 between 1859 and 1901.) Two other greatly influential outlets for phrenological naturalism were Robert Chambers anonymous and hugely controversial Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844) and in the Free Trade ideology popularized by Richard Cobden in the 1840s. Cobden was also a phrenologist and co-founder of the Manchester Phrenological Society (1839). By these means the phrenologists' cult of Nature was diffused throughout the English speaking world where it evolved into the hugely prolific language of natural-law in the latter nineteenth century. This was just in time to accommodate a new natural law- natural selection.

John van Wyhe

* This paper was read at the British Society for the History of Science postgraduate conference, Dept. of History and Philosophy of Science, Cambridge, 12 January 2000.

Last modified 14.1.2000

See also: The Phrenological Organs which contains several charts to compare.

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