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

by John van Wyhe

Other Physiognomies

Gall's system, although original to him, was a form of physiognomy, i.e. a method of determining a persons' inner qualities and character from external appearances. Based loosely on ancient Greek and medieval writers, physiognomy became widely popular in sixteenth century Europe before fading away again. Gall's theorizing came in the wake of the most recent resurgence of physiognomy. Gall's system is sometimes confused with the physiognomy of the Swiss priest Johann Caspar Lavater (1741-1801) whose Sturm und Drang appreciation of aesthetic facial form and expression, best known through his Physiognomsche Fragmente (1775-8) concentrated on the facial features and the effect of an individual's appearance on the beholder. Lavater believed character and temperament could be read in the contours of the human face and he wished to promote attention to the richness of facial diversity and its artistic representations. Lavater's physiognomy was more aesthetic and mystical than scientistic. He sought to reclaim physiognomy from negative associations with a medieval enthusiasm for physiognomy.

Another similar physiognomical theory was the Dutch naturalist Petrus Camper's (1722-1789) facial angle, which was a great influence on contemporary and nineteenth-century aesthetics and anthropology. Camper's facial angle was based on comparative anatomy and prescribed that the more vertical the angle of a straight line drawn from the chin to forehead, the closer to the ideal head, the classical head being assumed as the epitome of aesthetic and anatomical perfection. Camper provided diagrams in his posthumous Über den natürlichen Unterschied der Gesichtszüge (1792) showing a scale of perfection from monkeys at the bottom of the scale, to an Apollo at the termination. Camper's facial angle would later be joined with phrenology in nineteenth-century racial anthropology. Gall's organology lended itself to the facial angle by positing the highly esteemed intellectual organs at front of the skull. A head equipped with large intellectual organs was expected to present a full forehead. Varying physiognomies were devised in the later eighteenth century, but it would be inappropriate to see one as causing another rather than all deriving from common themes of the late Enlightenment period.

The facial angle from Camper's Über den natürlichen Unterschied der Gesichtszüge. 1792.

The 'four temperments' from Lavater's Physiognomische Fragmente. vol. 4, 1778.

 Other sites on the internet provide information on other physiognomies. See: Other websites concerned with phrenology


Back to home page

© John van Wyhe 1999-2011. Materials on this website may not be reproduced without permission except for use in teaching or non-published presentations, papers/theses.