Chapter 20 : Of Phrenology

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Chapter 20

From: Thoughts on Man, His Nature, Productions and Discoveries Interspersed with some Particulares Respecting the Author by William Godwin


The following remarks can pretend to he nothing more than a few loose and undigested thoughts upon a subject, which has recently occupied the attention of many men, and obtained an extraordinary vogue in the world. It were to be wished, that the task had fallen into the hands of a writer whose studies were more familiar with all the sciences which bear more or less on the topic I propose to consider: but, if abler and more competent men pass it by, I feel disposed to plant myself in the breach, and to offer suggestions which may have the fortune to lead others, better fitted for the office than myself, to engage in the investigation. One advantage I may claim, growing out of my partial deficiency. It is known not to be uncommon for a man to stand too near to the subject of his survey, to allow him to obtain a large view of it in all its bearings. I am no anatomist: I simply take my stand upon the broad ground of the general philosophy of man.

It is a very usual thing for fanciful theories to have their turn amid the eccentricities of the human mind, and then to be heard of no more. But it is perhaps no ill occupation, now and then, for an impartial observer, to analyze these theories, and attempt to blow away the dust which will occasionally settle on the surface of science. If phrenology, as taught by Gall and Spurzheim, be a truth, I shall probably render a service to that truth, by endeavoring to shew where the edifice stands in need of more solid supports than have yet been assigned to it. If it be a falshood, the sooner it is swept away to the gulph of oblivion the better. Let the inquisitive and the studious fix their minds on more substantial topics, instead of being led away by gaudy and deceitful appearances. The human head, that crowning capital of the column of man, is too interesting a subject, to be the proper theme of every dabbler. And it is obvious, that the professors of this so called discovery, if they be rash and groundless in their assertions, will be in danger of producing momentous errors, of exciting false hopes never destined to be realized, and of visiting with pernicious blasts the opening buds of excellence, at the time when they are most exposed to the chance of destruction.

I shall set out with acknowledging, that there is, as I apprehend, a science in relation to the human head, something like what Plato predicates of the statue hid in a block of marble. It is really contained in the block; but it is only the most consummate sculptor, that can bring it to the eyes of men, and free it from all the incumbrances, which, till he makes application of his art to it, surround the statue, and load it with obscurities and disfigurement. The man, who, without long study and premeditation, rushes in at once, and expects to withdraw the curtain, will only find himself disgraced by the attempt.

There is a passage in an acute writer1, whose talents singularly fitted him, even when he appeared totally immerged in mummery and trifles, to illustrate the most important truths, that is applicable to the point I am considering.

"Pray, what was that man's name,--for I write in such a hurry, I have no time to recollect or look for it,--who first made the observation, 'That there was great inconstancy in our air and climate?' Whoever he was, it was a just and good observation in him. But the corollary drawn from it, namely, 'That it is this which has furnished us with such a variety of odd and whimsical characters;'--that was not his;--it was found out by another man, at least a century and a half after him. Then again, that this copious storehouse of original materials is the true and natural cause that our comedies are so much better than those of France, or any others that have or can be wrote upon the continent;-- that discovery was not fully made till about the middle of king William's reign, when the great Dryden, in writing one of his long prefaces (if I mistake not), most fortunately hit upon it. Then, fourthly and lastly, that this strange irregularity in our climate, producing so strange an irregularity in our characters, cloth thereby in some sort make us amends, by giving us somewhat to make us merry with, when the weather will not suffer us to go out of doors,--that observation is my own; and was struck out by me this very rainy day, March 26, 1759, and betwixt the hour of nine and ten in the morning.

"Thus--thus, my fellow-laborers and associates in this great harvest of our learning, now ripening before our eyes; thus it is, by slow steps of casual increase, that our knowledge physical, metaphysical, physiological, polemical, nautical, mathematical, aenigmatical, technical, biographical, romantical, chemical, and obstetrical, with fifty other branches of it, (most of them ending, as these do, in ical,) has, for these two last centuries and more, gradually been creeping upwards towards that acme of their perfections, from which, if we may form a conjecture from the advantages of these last seven years, we cannot possibly be far off."

Nothing can be more true, than the proposition ludicrously illustrated in this passage, that real science is in most instances of slow growth, and that the discoveries which are brought to perfection at once, are greatly exposed to the suspicion of quackery. Like the ephemeron fly, they are born suddenly, and may be expected to die as soon.

Lavater, the well known author of Essays on Physiognomy, appears to have been born seventeen years before the birth of Gall. He attempted to reduce into a system the indications of human character that are to be found in the countenance. Physiognomy, as a subject of ingenious and probable conjecture, was well known to the ancients. But the test, how far any observations that have been made on the subject are worthy the name of a science, will lie in its application by the professor to a person respecting whom he has had no opportunity of previous information. Nothing is more easy, when a great warrior, statesman, poet, philosopher or philanthropist is explicitly placed before us, than for the credulous inspector or fond visionary to examine the lines of his countenance, and to point at the marks which should plainly shew us that he ought to have been the very thing that he is. This is the very trick of gypsies and fortune-tellers. But who ever pointed to an utter stranger in the street, and said, I perceive by that man's countenance that he is one of the great luminaries of the world? Newton, or Bacon, or Shakespear would probably have passed along unheeded. Instances of a similar nature occur every day. Hence it plainly appears that, whatever may hereafter be known on the subject, we can scarcely to the present time be said to have overstepped the threshold. And yet nothing can be more certain than that there is a science of physiognomy, though to make use of an illustration already cited, it has not to this day been extricated out of the block of marble in which it is hid. Human passions, feelings and modes of thinking leave their traces on the countenance: but we have not, thus far, left the dame's school in this affair, and are not qualified to enter ourselves in the free-school for more liberal inquiries.

The writings of Lavater on the subject of physiognomy are couched in a sort of poetic prose, overflowing with incoherent and vague exclamations, and bearing small resemblance to a treatise in which the elements of science are to be developed. Their success however was extraordinary; and it was probably that success, which prompted Gall first to turn his attention from the indications of character that are to be found in the face of man, to the study of the head generally, as connected with the intellectual and moral qualities of the individual.

It was about four years before the commencement of the present century, that Gall appears to have begun to deliver lectures on the structure and external appearances of the human head. He tells us, that his attention was first called to the subject in the ninth year of his age (that is, in the year 1767), and that he spent thirty years in the private meditation of his system, before he began to promulgate it. Be that as it will, its most striking characteristic is that of marking out the scull into compartments, in the same manner as a country delineated on a map is divided into districts, and assigning a different faculty or organ to each. In the earliest of these diagrams that has fallen under my observation, the human scull is divided into twenty-seven compartments.

I would say of craniology, as I have already said of physiognomy, that there is such a science attainable probably by man, but that we have yet made scarcely any progress in the acquiring it. As certain lines in the countenance are indicative of the dispositions of the man, so it is reasonable to believe that a certain structure of the head is in correspondence with the faculties and propensities of the individual.

Thus far we may probably advance without violating a due degree of caution. But there is a wide distance between this general statement, and the conduct of the man who at once splits the human head into twenty-seven compartments.

The exterior appearance of the scull is affirmed to correspond with the structure of the brain beneath. And nothing can be more analogous to what the deepest thinkers have already confessed of man, than to suppose that there is one structure of the brain better adapted for intellectual purposes than another. There is probably one structure better adapted than another, for calculation, for poetry, for courage, for cowardice, for presumption, for diffidence, for roughness, for tenderness, for self-control and the want of it. Even as some have inherently a faculty adapted for music or the contrary2.

But it is not reasonable to believe that we think of calculation with one portion of the brain, and of poetry with another.

It is very little that we know of the nature of matter; and we are equally ignorant as to the substance, whatever it is, in which the thinking principle in man resides. But, without adventuring in any way to dogmatize on the subject, we find so many analogies between the thinking principle, and the structure of what we call the brain, that we cannot but regard the latter as in some way the instrument of the former.

Now nothing can be more certain respecting the thinking principle, than its individuality. It has been said, that the mind can entertain but one thought at one time; and certain it is, from the nature of attention, and from the association of ideas, that unity is one of the principal characteristics of mind. It is this which constitutes personal identity; an attribute that, however unsatisfactory may be the explanations which have been given respecting it, we all of us feel, and that lies at the foundation of all our voluntary actions, and all our morality.

Analogous to this unity of thought and mind, is the arrangement of the nerves and the brain in the human body. The nerves all lead up to the brain; and there is a centrical point in the brain itself, in which the reports of the senses terminate, and at which the action of the will may be conceived to begin. This, in the language of our fathers, was called the "seat of the soul."

We may therefore, without departing from the limits of a due caution and modesty, consider this as the throne before which the mind holds its court. Hither the senses bring in their reports, and hence the sovereign will issues his commands. The whole system appears to be conducted through the instrumentality of the nerves, along whose subtle texture the feelings and impressions are propagated. Between the reports of the senses and the commands of the will, intervenes that which is emphatically the office of the mind, comprising meditation, reflection, inference and judgment. How these functions are performed we know not; but it is reasonable to believe that the substance of the brain or of some part of the brain is implicated in them.

Still however we must not lose sight of what has been already said, that in the action of the mind unity is an indispensible condition. Our thoughts can only hold their council and form their decrees in a very limited region. This is their retreat and strong hold; and the special use and functions of the remoter parts of the brain we are unable to determine; so utterly obscure and undefined is our present knowledge of the great ligament which binds together the body and the thinking principle.

Enough however results from this imperfect view of the ligament, to demonstrate the incongruity and untenableness of a doctrine which should assign the indications of different functions, exercises and propensities of the mind to the exterior surface of the scull or the brain. This is quackery, and is to be classed with chiromancy, augury, astrology, and the rest of those schemes for discovering the future and unknown, which the restlessness and anxiety of the human mind have invented, built upon arbitrary principles, blundered upon in the dark, and having no resemblance to the march of genuine science. I find in sir Thomas Browne the following axioms of chiromancy: "that spots in the tops of the nails do signifie things past; in the middle, things present; and at the bottom, events to come: that white specks presage our felicity; blue ones our misfortunes: that those in the nails of the thumb have significations of honor, in the forefinger, of riches, and so respectively in the rest."

Science, to be of a high and satisfactory character, ought to consist of a deduction of causes and effects, shewing us not merely that a thing is so, but why it is as it is, and cannot be otherwise. The rest is merely empirical; and, though the narrowness of human wit may often drive us to this; yet it is essentially of a lower order and description. As it depends for its authority upon an example, or a number of examples, so examples of a contrary nature may continually come in, to weaken its force, or utterly to subvert it. And the affair is made still worse, when we see, as in the case of craniology, that all the reasons that can be deduced (as here from the nature of mind) would persuade us to believe, that there can be no connection between the supposed indications, and the things pretended to be indicated.

Craniology, or phrenology, proceeds exactly in the same train, as chiromancy, or any of those pretended sciences which are built merely on assumption or conjecture. The first delineations presented to the public, marked out, as I have said, the scull into compartments, in the same manner as a country delineated on a map is divided into districts. Geography is a real science, and accordingly, like other sciences, has been slow and gradual in its progress. At an early stage travelers knew little more than the shores and islands of the Mediterranean. Afterwards, they passed the straits of Hercules, and entered into the Atlantic. At length the habitable world was distributed into three parts, Europe, Asia, and Africa. More recently, by many centuries, came the discovery of America. It is but the other day comparatively, that we found the extensive island of New Holland in the Southern Ocean. The ancient geographers placed an elephant or some marine monster in the vacant parts of their maps, to signify that of these parts they knew nothing. Not so Dr. Gall. Every part of his globe of the human Scull, at least with small exceptions, is fully tenanted; and he, with his single arm, has conquered a world.

The majority of the judgments that have been divulged by the professors of this science, have had for their subjects the sculls of men, whose habits and history have been already known. And yet with this advantage the errors and contradictions into which their authors have fallen are considerably numerous. Thus I find, in the account of the doctor's visit to the House of Correction and the Hospital of Torgau in July 1805, the following examples.

"Every person was desirous to know what Dr. Gall would say about T--, who was known in the house as a thief full of cunning, and who, having several times made his escape, wore an additional iron. It was surprising, that he saw in him far less of the organ of cunning, than in many of the other prisoners. However it was proved, that examples, and conversation with other thieves in the house, had suggested to him the plan for his escape, and that the stupidity which he possesses was the cause of his being retaken."

"We were much surprised to be told, that M., in whom Dr. Gall had not discovered the organ of representation, possessed extraordinary abilities in imitating the voice of animals; but we were convinced after inquiries, that his talent was not a natural one, but acquired by study. He related to us that, when he was a Prussian soldier garrisoned at Berlin, he used to deceive the waiting women in the Foundling Hospital by imitating the voice of exposed infants, and sometimes counterfeited the cry of a wild drake, when the officers were shooting ducks."

"Of another Dr. Gall said, His head is a pattern of inconstancy and confinement, and there appears not the least mark of the organ of courage. This rogue had been able to gain a great authority among his fellow-convicts. How is this to be reconciled with the want of constancy which his organization plainly indicates? Dr. Gall answered, He gained his ascendancy not by courage, but by cunning."

It is well known, that in Thurtel, who was executed for one of the most cold-blooded and remorseless murders ever heard of, the phrenologists found the organ of benevolence uncommonly large.

In Spurzheim's delineation of the human head I find six divisions of organs marked out in the little hemisphere over the eye, indicating six different dispositions. Must there not be in this subtle distribution much of what is arbitrary and sciolistic?

It is to be regretted, that no person skillful in metaphysics, or the history of the human mind, has taken a share in this investigation. Many errors and much absurdity would have been removed from the statements of these theorists, if a proper division had been made between those attributes and propensities, which by possibility a human creature may bring into the world with him, and those which, being the pure growth of the arbitrary institutions of society, must be indebted to those institutions for their origin. I have endeavored in a former Essay3 to explain this distinction, and to shew how, though a human being cannot be born with an express propensity towards any one of the infinite pursuits and occupations which may be found in civilized society, yet that he may be fitted by his external or internal structure to excel in some one of those pursuits rather than another. But all this is overlooked by the phrenologists. They remark the various habits and dispositions, the virtues and the vises, that display themselves in society as now constituted, and at once and without consideration trace them to the structure that we bring into the world with us.

Certainly many of Gall's organs are a libel upon our common nature. And, though a scrupulous and exact philosopher will perhaps confess that he has little distinct knowledge as to the design with which "the earth and all that is therein" were made, yet he finds in it so much of beauty and beneficent tendency, as will make him extremely reluctant to believe that some men are born with a decided propensity to rob, and others to murder. Nor can any thing be more ludicrous than this author's distinction of the different organs of memory--of things, of places, of names, of language, and of numbers: organs, which must be conceived to be given in the first instance long before names or language or numbers had an existence. The followers of Gall have in a few instances corrected this: but what their denominations have gained in avoiding the grossest absurdities of their master, they have certainly lost in explicitness and perspicuity.

There is a distinction, not unworthy to be attended to, that is here to be made between Lavater's system of physiognomy, and Gall's of craniology, which is much in favor of the former. The lines and characteristic expressions of the face which may so frequently be observed, are for the most part the creatures of the mind. This is in the first place a mode of observation more agreeable to the pride and conscious elevation of man, and is in the next place more suitable to morality, and the vindication of all that is most admirable in the system of the universe. It is just, that what is most frequently passing in the mind, and is entertained there with the greatest favor, should leave its traces upon the countenance. It is thus that the high and exalted philosopher, the poet, and the man of benevolence and humanity are sometimes seen to be such by the bystander and the stranger. While the malevolent, the trickish, and the grossly sensual, give notice of what they are by the cast of their features, and put their fellow-creatures upon their guard, that they may not be made the prey of these vises.

But the march of craniology or phrenology, by whatever name it is called, is directly the reverse of this. It assigns to us organs, as far as the thing is explained by the professors either to the public or to their own minds, which are entailed upon us from our birth, and which are altogether independent, or nearly so, of any discipline or volition that can be exercised by or upon the individual who drags their intolerable chain. Thus I am told of one individual that he wants the organ of color; and all the culture in the world can never supply that defect, and enable him to see color at all, or to see it as it is seen by the rest of mankind. Another wants the organ of benevolence; and his case is equally hopeless. I shrink from considering the condition of the wretch, to whom nature has supplied the organs of theft and murder in full and ample proportions. The case is like that of astrology

Their stars are more in fault than they),

with this aggravation, that our stars, so far as the faculty of prediction had been supposed to be attained, swayed in few things; but craniology climbs at once to universal empire; and in her map, as I have said, there are no vacant places, no unexplored regions and happy wide-extended deserts.

It is all a system of fatalism. Independently of ourselves, and far beyond our control, we are reserved for good or for evil by the predestinating spirit that reigns over all things. Unhappy is the individual who enters himself in this school. He has no consolation, except the gratified wish to know distressing truths, unless we add to this the pride of science, that he has by his own skill and application purchased for himself the discernment which places him in so painful a preeminence. The great triumph of man is in the power of education, to improve his intellect, to sharpen his perceptions, and to regulate and modify his moral qualities. But craniology reduces this to almost nothing, and exhibits us for the most part as the helpless victims of a blind and remorseless destiny.

In the mean time it is happy for us, that, as this system is perhaps the most rigorous and degrading that was ever devised, so it is in almost all instances founded upon arbitrary assumptions and confident assertion, totally in opposition to the true spirit of patient and laborious investigation and sound philosophy.

It is in reality very little that we know of the genuine characters of men. Every human creature is a mystery to his fellow. Every human character is made up of incongruities. Of nearly all the great personages in history it is difficult to say what was decidedly the motive in which their actions and system of conduct originated. We study what they did, and what they said; but in vain. We never arrive at a full and demonstrative conclusion. In reality no man can be certainly said to know himself. "The heart of man is deceitful above all things."

But these dogmatists overlook all those difficulties, which would persuade a wise man to suspend his judgment, and induce a jury of philosophers to hesitate for ever as to the verdict they would pronounce. They look only at the external character of the act by which a man honors or disgraces himself. They decide presumptuously and in a lump, This man is a murderer, a hero, a coward, the slave of avarice, or the votary of philanthropy; and then, surveying the outside of his head, undertake to find in him the configuration that should indicate these dispositions, and must be found in all persons of a similar character, or rather whose acts bear the same outward form, and seem analogous to his.

Till we have discovered the clue that should enable us to unravel the labyrinth of the human mind, it is with small hopes of success that we should expect to settle the external indications, and decide that this sort of form and appearance, and that class of character, will always be found together.

But it is not to be wondered at, that these disorderly fragments of a shapeless science should become the special favorites of the idle and the arrogant. Every man (and every woman), however destitute of real instruction, and unfitted for the investigation of the deep or the sublime mysteries of our nature, can use his eyes and his hands. The whole boundless congregation of mankind, with its everlasting varieties, is thus at once subjected to the sentence of every pretender:

And fools rush in, where angels fear to tread.

Nothing is more delightful to the headlong and presumptuous, than thus to sit in judgment on their betters, and pronounce ex cathedra on those, "whose shoe-latchet they are not worthy to stoop down and unloose." I remember, after lord George Gordon's riots, eleven persons accused were set down in one indictment for their lives, and given in charge to one jury. But this is a mere shadow, a nothing, compared with the wholesale and indiscriminating judgment of the vulgar phrenologist.


1 Sterne, Tristram Shandygaff, Vol. 1.
2 See above, Essay II.
3 See above, Essay II.

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