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by John van Wyhe

'Letter from Dr. F. J. Gall, to Joseph Fr[eiherr] von Retzer, upon the Functions of the Brain, in Man and Animals'*

 Gallin 1804This letter was the first published account of Gall's system. Written 1 October 1798 to Joseph von Retzer, a Viennese censorship official. The letter remains a succinct description of Gall's system. The letter was published in the Weimar Enlightenment journal Der neue Teutsche Merkur, (vol. 3, Dec. 1798, pp. 311-332) edited by the famous German poet Christoph Martin Wieland.




'Letter from Dr. F. J. Gall, to Joseph Fr[eiherr] von Retzer, upon the Functions of the Brain, in Man and Animals'*

I have at last the pleasure, my dear Retzer, of presenting you a sketch of my Treatise upon the Functions of the Brain ; and upon the possibility of distinguishing some of the dispositions and propensities by the shape of the bead and the skull. I have observed that many men of talent and learning awaited with confidence the result of my labors, while others set me down as a visionary, or a dangerous innovator.

But, to the subject : my purpose is to ascertain the functions of the brain in general, and those of its different parts in particular ; to show that it is possible to ascertain different dispositions and inclinations by the elevations and depressions upon the head; and to present in a clear light the most important consequences which result therefrom to medicine, morality, education, and legislation a word, to the science of human nature.

To do this effectually, it is necessary to have a large collection of drawings and plans. Therefore, with regard to particular qualities and their indications only, I shall now submit to my readers so much as is necessary for the establishment and illustration of the fundamental principles.

The particular design of my work is to mark the historical outline of my researches ; to lay down the principles, and to show their application. You will readily conceive, that the study of the real springs of thought and action in man, is an arduous undertaking. Whether I succeed or not, I shall count upon your indulgence and support, if only on account of the hardihood of the enterprise.

Be so good as to recollect that I mean, by the head or cranium, the bony bog which contains the brain ; and of this only those parts which are immediately in contact with it. And do not blame me for not making use of the language of Kant. I have not made progress enough in my researches to discover the particular organ for sagacity, for depth, for imagination, for the different kinds of judgment, etc. I have even been sometimes wanting in precision in the definition of my ideas, my object being to make known to a large number of readers the importance of my subject.

The whole of the work is divided into two parts, which together makes about ten sheets.


contains the principles. I start with my readers from that point to which nature has conducted me. After having collected the result of my tedious experiments, I. have built up a theory of their laws of relation. I hasten to lay before you the fundamental principles.

I. The faculties card the propensities innate in man and animals

You surely are not the man to dispute this ground with me ; but, follower of Minerva, you should be armed to defend her cause. Should it appear from my system, that we are rather slaves than masters of our actions, consequently dependent upon our natural impulses, and should it be asked what becomes of liberty? and how can the good or evil we do be attributed to us ?-I shall be permitted to give you the answer, by extracting it literally from my preface. You can strengthen the argument by your metaphysical and theological knowledge.

Those who would persuade themselves that our dispositions (or qualities) are not innate, would attribute them to education. But have we not alike acted passively, whether we have been formed by our innate dispositions, or by education ? By this objection, they confound the ideas of faculties, inclinations, and simple disposition, with the mode of action itself. The animals themselves are not altogether subject to their dispositions and propensities. Strong as may be the instinct of the dog to hunt, of the cat to catch mice, repeated punishments will, nevertheless, prevent the action of their instincts ! Birds repair their nests when injured ; and bees cover with wag any carrion which they cannot remove. But man possesses, besides the animal qualities, the faculty of speech, and unlimited educabitity-two inexhaustible sources of knowledge and action. He has the sentiment of truth and error, of right and wrong : be has the consciousness of free-will; the past and the future may influence his action; he is endowed with moral feeling, with conscience, etc. Thus armed, man may combat his inclinations: these indeed have always attractions, which lead to temptation ; but they are not so strong, that they cannot be subdued and kept under by other and stronger inclinations which are opposed to them. You have a voluptuous disposition, but, having good morals, conjugal affection, health, regard for society and of religion as your preservatives, you resist it. It is only this struggle against the propensities which gives rise to virtue, to vice, and moral responsibility. What would that self denial, so much recommended, amount to, if it did not suppose a combat with ourselves ? and then, the more we multiply and fortify the preservatives, the more man gains in free agency and moral liberty. The stronger are the internal propensities, the stronger should be the preservatives; from them result the necessities and the utility of the most intimate knowledge of man, of the theory of the origin of his faculties and inclinations,, of education, laws, rewards, punishments, and religion. But the responsibility ceases, even according to the doctrine of the most rigid theologians, if man is either not excited at all, if he is absolutely incapable of resistance when violently excited. Can it be that there is any merit in the continence of those who are born eunuchs ? Rush mentions the case of a woman, who, though adorned by every other moral virtue, could not resist her inclination to steal. I know many similar examples, among others, of an irresistible inclination to kill. Although we reserve to ourselves the right to prevent these unhappy beings from injuring us, all punishment exercised on them is not less unjust than useless : they merit indeed only our compassion. I hope some day to render the proof of this rare, but sad fact, more familiar to judges and physicians. Now that our opponents are tranquilized, let us take up these questions-In what manner are the faculties and the propensities of man connected with his organisation? are they the expression of a principle of mind purely spiritual, and acting purely by itself ? or is the mind connected with some particular organisation ? if so, by what organisation ?-From the solution of these questions, we shall derive the second principle.

II. The faculties and propensities of man have their seat in the brain.

I adduce the following proofs :

-1. The functions of the mind are deranged by the lesion of the brain : they are not immediately deranged by the lesion of other parts of the body.

2. The brain is not necessary to life; but as nature creates nothing in vain, it must be that the brain has another distinction ; that is to say

3. The qualities of the mind; or, the faculties and propensities of men and animals, are multiplied and elevated in direct ratio to the increase of the mass of brain, proportionally to that of the body; and especially in proportion to the nervous mass. Here we find ourselves associated with the boar, the bear, the horse, the ox-with the camel, dolphin, elephant, and the stupid sloth. A man like you possesses more than double the quantity of brain in a stupid bigot; and at least one-sixth more than the wisest or the most sagacious elephant. By this, we are led to admit the second principle here laid down.

III. and IV. The faculties are not only distinct and independent of the propensities, but also the faculties among themselves, and the propensities among themselves, are essentially distinct and independent: they ought, consequently, to have their seat in parts of the brain distinct and independent of each other.

Proof 1. We can make the qualities of the mind alternately act and repose; so that one, after being fatigued, rests and refreshes itself, while another acts and becomes fatigued in turn.

2. The dispositions and propensities exist among themselves, in variable proportions in man, as also in animals of the same kind.

3. Different faculties and propensities exist separately in different animals.

4. The faculties and propensities develope themselves at different epochs ; some cease, without the other diminishing, and even while the other increases.

5. In diseases and wounds of certain parts of the brain, certain qualities are deranged, irritated, or suspended; they return by degrees to their natural state, during the curative process.

I do not imagine myself a man sufficiently great enough to establish anything by bare assertion : I must endeavor, therefore, to establish each one of these facts by proof. Nevertheless, some timid minds will object thus : If you allow that the functions of the mind are produced by corporeal means, or by certain organs, will you not assail the spiritual nature and the immortality of the soul? Condescend to hear my answer. The naturalist endeavors to penetrate the laws of the material world only, and supposes that no natural truth can be in contradiction with an established truth; he now finds that neither the mind or body can be destroyed without the immediate order of the Creator ; but he can draw no conclusion as to spiritual life. He contents himself with perceiving and teaching, that the mind is chained in this life to a corporeal organisation.

Thus much in general: but for details I answer in the following manner. In the preceding objection, the being acting is confounded with the instrument by which he acts. That which I laid down respecting the lower faculties that is to say, of the inferior organs of the functions of the mind, in numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, takes place also with it in regard to the external senses. For example, while the fatigued eye reposes, we can listen attentively; the hearing may be destroyed, without the vision being impaired ; some of the senses may be imperfect, while others are in full force; worms are entirely destitute of hearing and sight, but they possess a perfect touch; the new-born puppy is for several days both blind and deaf, while his taste is perfectly developed ; in old age, the hearing generally diminishes before the sight ; while the taste almost always remains unimpaired. Hence results the proof of the existence of the senses by themselves, and of their independence, which no one doubts. Has any one ever drawn the conclusion, that the mind ought to be material or mortal, from the essential difference of the senses ? Is the mind which sees different from the mind that hears ? I extend the comparison a little farther: he is mistaken who thinks that the eye sees, that the ear hears, etc. ; -each external organ of sense is in communication by nerves with the brain ; and at the commencement of the nerves is a proportionable mass of brain which constitutes the true internal organ of each sensitive function. Consequently, the eye may be ever so sound, the optic nerve may be ever so perfect, and yet, if the internal organ is impaired or destroyed, the eye and the optic nerves are of no avail. The external instruments of sense have, consequently, their organs also in the brain, and these external instruments are only the means by which the internal organs are put in relation with external objects: it is for these reasons, that it never entered the head of Boerhaave, nor of Haller, nor of Mayer, nor even of the pious Lavater, who seeks for the qualities of mind in the head, and of character in the body, that anything could be inferred against the doctrine of the immateriality and immortality of the soul, from the difference and independence of the faculties and propensities, and of their internal organs. The same mind which sees through the organ of sight, and which smells through the olfactory organ, learns by heart through the organ of memory, and does good through the organ of benevolence. It is the same spring which puts in motion fewer wheels for you and more for me. In this way the general functions of the brain are established.

I now proceed to prove, that we can establish the assistance and the relation of many faculties and propensities by the formation of the cerebral development. By which means will be demonstrated, at once, the functions of the different cerebral parts.

V. Of the distribution of the different organs and their various development, arising from different forms of the brain.

Among the proofs in support of this principle, I point out the differences of conformation between carnivorous, frugivorous, and omnivorous animals. Then I show the cause of the difference between different species of animals, also the cause of accidental differences of species and individuals.

VI. From the totality and the development of determinate organs results a determinate form, either of the whole brain, or of its parts as separate regions.

Here I take the opportunity to show, that an organ is the more active, the more it is developed, without denying other exciting causes of its activity. But how is all this to lead us to a knowledge of the different faculties and the different propensities, by the formation of the skull? Is, then, the form of the skull moulded upon that of the brain ?

VII. From the formation of the bones of the head, until the most advanced period of life, the form of the internal surface of the skull is determined by the external form of the brain: we can then be certain of the existence of some faculties and propensities, while the external surface of the skull agrees with its internal surface, or so long as the variation is confined to certain known limits.

Here I explain the formation of the bones of the head, and I prove that, from the moment of birth, they receive their form from the brain. I speak afterwards of the influence of other causes upon the conformation of the head; among which causes we may rank continual or repeated violence. I show that the organs develops themselves, from the earliest infancy, until their final completion, in the same proportion, and the same order, as the manifestation of the faculties and natural propensities. I show, besides, that the bones of the head-take on their different forms in the same proportion, and in the same order. I show, finally, the gradual diminution of our faculties, by the diminution of the corresponding organs, and how nature deposits in the vacant spaces new portions of bony matter. All these things were heretofore unknown in the doctrine of the bones of the head. By these, is the first step taken for the determination of the particular functions of the different parts of the brain.


Application of General Principles.

Establishment and determination of the faculties and propensities existing of themselves.

As I suppose a particular organ for each one of our independent qualities, we have only to establish what are the independent qualities, in order to know what are the organs which we may hope to discover. For many years I met great difficulties in this research, and at last I am convinced, that, as in everything else, we take the nearest and surest road if we lay aside our artificial logic, and allow ourselves to be guided by facts. I make known to my readers some of the difficulties which it was necessary to surmount. They may solve them, if they have more penetration than I have, I come at last to the means, which have served me most in the determination of the independence of the natural qualities, and I begin by pointing out more clearly the seat of the organs. It is necessary, first, to show and to examine the means by which we discover the seat of the organs. Among these means I cite,

1. The discovery of certain elevations or certain depressions, when there are determined qualities. I mark here the course which it is necessary to follow in like researches.

2. The existence of certain qualities together with the existence of certain protuberances.

3. A collection of models in plaster.

4. A collection of skulls.

We shall find many difficulties with regard to human skulls: you know how every one fears for his own head : how many stones were told about me, when I undertook such researches. Men, unhappily, have such an opinion of themselves, that each one believes that I am watching for his head, as one of the most important objects of my collection. Nevertheless, I have not been able to collect more than twenty in the space of three years, if I except those that I have taken in the hospitals, or in the asylum for idiots. If I had not been supported by a man who knows how to protect science, and to consult prejudices, by a man justly and universally esteemed for his qualities of mind, and for his character, I should not have been able, in spite of all my labors, to collect even a few miserable specimens.

There are those, indeed, who do not wish that even their dogs and monkeys should be placed in my collection after their death. It would be very agreeable to me, however, if persons would send me the heads of animals, of which they have observed well the characters; for example, of a dog, who would eat only what he had stolen : one who could find his master at a great distance; heads of monkeys, parrots, or other rare animals, with the histories of their lives, which ought to be written after their death, lest they should contain too much flattery. I wish you could establish the fashion, for every kind of genius should make me the heir of his bead. Then, indeed (I will answer for it with mine own), we should see in ten years a splendid edifice, for which, at present I only collect materials.

However, in the meantime, my dear Retzer, look a little with me into futurity, and see assembled the choice spirits of men of past ages;-how they will mutually congratulate each other, for each minute portion of utility and pleasure, which each one of them has contributed for the happiness of men. Why has no one preserved, for us, the skulls of Homer, Ovid, Virgil, Cicero, Hippocrates, Boerhaave, Alexander, Frederic, Joseph II., Catharine, Voltaire, Rousseau, Locke, Bacon, and of others ?-what ornaments for the beautiful temples of the muses !

5. I come now to the fifth means: Phenomena of the diseases and lesions of the brain. I have also much to say on this subject. The most important, is the entirely new doctrine of the different kinds of insanity, and the means of cure, all supported by facts. If all my researches should only conduct me to this result, I should deem myself sufficiently rewarded for my labors. If men of sense will not thank me, I ought, at least, to be sure of the thanks of fools.

6. The sixth means for discovering the seat of the organs consists in examining the integral parts of different brains and their relations, always comparatively with the different faculties and the different propensities.

7. I come at last to one of my favorite subjects, the gradual scale of perfections.

Here I imagine that I am a Jupiter, who beholds from the heavens his animal kingdom crowding upon the earth. Think a little of the immense space which I am going to pass through: from the zoophyte to the simple polypus, up to the philosopher and the theosophist? I shall hazard, like you gentlemen poets, some perilous leaps. In setting out I shall create only irritable vessels; then I add nerves and the hermaphrodite nature; then beings who merit something better, who can unite, and look around upon the world by the organs of sense. I make an arrangement of powers and instruments, and divide them according to my pleasure ; I create insects, birds, fishes, mammalia. I make lap-dogs for your ladies, and horses for your beaus; and for myself, men, that is to say, fools and philosophers, poets and historians, theologians and naturalists. I end, then, with man, as Moses told you long before; but it has cost me more than one reflection before I could elevate him to the rank of the king of the earth. I give you the language of signs, or natural language, that you may amuse yourselves, and that if any mute should be found, there may be for him one other language besides that of speech. I assure you that, although no one has thought of acknowledging it, I have not been able to effect this but by putting in communication, in a strange manner, your body and your muscles with your cerebral organs.

Strictly speaking, you only play the part of puppets in a show when certain cerebral organs are put in action, you are led, according to their seat, to take certain positions, as though you were drawn by a wire, so that one can discover the seat of the acting organs by the motions. I know that you are blind enough to laugh at this ; but if you will take the trouble to examine it, you will be persuaded, that by my discovery I have revealed to you more things than you observe. You will find the explanation of many enigmas, for example, why you defend so valiantly your women; why you become churls at, your advanced age; why there is no one so tenacious of his opinion as a theologian pourquoi plus d'un taureau doit éterneur lorsqo' une Europe le chatouille entre les cornes, etc.

I return at last to you, my dear Retzer, like a poor author, to satisfy you concerning my work.

The first section of the second part being here finished, I ought to beg my readers to examine all that I have said, so that they may be more convinced of the truth of my first principles, which I have explained in a superficial manner; but I think that he who is so blind as not to see by the light of the sun, will not do better by the additional light of a candle.

The second section contains various subjects.

1. Of National Heads.

Here I agree, in some measure, with Helvetius, whom I have heretofore contradicted. I shall, perhaps, fall out with Blumenbach, Camper, and Soemmering although I gladly confess that I am not certain respecting it. You may, nevertheless, perceive why some of our brethren cannot count more than three-why others cannot conceive the difference between meum and tuum-why lasting peace among men will be always but a dream.

2. Of the difference between the Heads of Men and Women.

That which I could say on this subject must remain entre noun. We know very well that the heads of the women are difficult to unravel.

3. On Physiognomy.

I shall show here that I am nothing less than a physiognomist. I rather think that the wise men have baptised the child before it was born ; they call me craniologist, and the science which I discovered, craniology; but, in the first place, all learned words displease me ; next, this is one not applicable to my profession, nor one which really designates it.

The object of my researches is the brain. The cranium is only a faithful cast of the external surface of the brain, and is consequently but a minor part of the principal object. This title then is as inapplicable as would be that of a maker of rhymes to a poet.

Lastly, I cite several examples to give to my readers something to examine, so that they may judge, not by principles alone, but also by facts, how much they can hope from the effect of these discoveries. You know, without doubt, my dear friend, how much strictness I observe in my comparisons.

If, for example, I do not find in good horse, the same signification as in good dog, and if I do not find in this the same as in good cook, or good philosopher, and if it is not in the same relation to each of these individuals-the sign or word is of no value to me ; for I admit no exceptions in the works of nature.

Finally, I would warn my disciples against a rash use of my doctrine, by pointing out many of its difficulties. On the other hand, I shall get rid of many doubters.

Allow me, at present, to touch upon two important defects in my work. First, it would have been my duty and my interest to conform more to the spirit of the age ; I ought to have maintained, that we could absolutely ascertain by the form of the skull and the head, all the faculties and all the propensities, without exception ; I ought to have given more isolated experiments, as being a hundred times repeated ; I ought to have made of the whole one speculative study, and not to submit my doctrine, as I have done, to so many investigations and comparisons; I should not ask of the world so much preparatory knowledge and perseverance ; I ought to have mounted Parnassus upon Pegasus, and not upon a tortoise. Where is the charm or the interest of a science so hard to acquire ? The premature sentences which have been pronounced, the jokes and squibs which have been let off at my expense, even before my intention or my object was known, prove that men do not wait for research, in order to draw their conclusions.

I remark, in the second place, I have not sufficiently appreciated the a priori, that is to say, the philosophy which is to be founded upon the a priori. I have had the weakness in this, to judge others by myself; for that which I have considered as well established by my logic I have invariably found incomplete or erroneous. It was always difficult for me to reason soundly upon the experiments which I make, as well as upon those made by others, although I am persuaded that I can collect truths only on the highway of experience. It is possible, nevertheless, very possible, that others have a more favorable organisation than I have, to arrive at knowledge a priori; but you will do me the justice not to insist upon my entering the lists with other arms than my own.


The original title is: 'Schreiben über seinen bereits geendigten Prodromus über die Verichtungen des Gehirns der Menschen und der Thiere an Herrn Jos. Fr. von Retzer'

This translation is taken from D. G. Goyder, My Battle for Life: The Autobiography of a Phrenologist. London, 1857, pp. 143-152.


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