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Physiognomy (Gk. physis, nature and gnomon, judge, interpreter) is a theory based upon the idea that the assessment of the person's outer appearance, primarily the face, may give insights into one's character or personality. The term physiognomy can also refer to the general appearance of a person, object or terrain, without reference to its implied or scientific characteristics.
This article will deal with physiognomy as a theory of character evaluation that may produce a set of correlations not always evidenced in the general population (i.e., it is not always accurate when applied to the broad population). Physiognomy is not a strict science, but rather a method of analysis that indicates a variety of correlations in its subjects. Hence, physiognomy is not used as the basis of biological or psychological theory. Physiognomic applications can be considered folk science or pseudoscience, and were once used with other tools of scientific racism, in order to promote discriminatory ideas.
The term was commonly written in Middle English as fisnamy or visnomy (as in the Tale of Beryn, a 15th Century sequel to the Canterbury Tales: "I knowe wele by thy fisnamy, thy kynd it were to stele"). Physiognomy's validity was once widely accepted, and it was taught in universities until the time of Henry VIII of England, who outlawed it (along with "Palmestrye") in 1531. Around this time, scholastic leaders settled on the more erudite Greek form 'physiognomy' and began to discourage the whole concept of 'fisnamy'.
The following types of physiognomy may be distinguished:
Notions of the relationship between an individual's outward appearance and inner character are historically ancient, and occasionally appear in early Greek poetry. The first indications of a developed physiognomic theory appear in fifth century Athens, where one Zopyrus was said to be expert in the art. By the fourth century, the philosopher Aristotle makes frequent reference to theory and literature concerning the relationship of appearance to character. Aristotle was apparently receptive to such an idea, as evidenced by a passage in his Prior Analytics (2.27). Ancient Greek mathematician, astronomer and scientist Pythagoras, believed by some to be the originator of physiognomics, once rejected a prospective follower named Cylon simply because of his appearance, which Pythagoras deemed indicative of bad character
The Greek here is quite hard to express, but Aristotle seems to be referring to characteristics in the nature of each kind of animal thought to be present in their faces, that he suggests might be analysed for correspondences — for example, the koala's fondness for eucalyptus leaves.
The first systematic physiognomic treatise to survive to the present day is a slim volume, Physiognomica (English: Physiognomics), ascribed to Aristotle (but probably of his "school" rather than created by the philosopher himself). The volume is divided into two parts, conjectured to have been originally two separate works. The first section discusses arguments drawn from nature or other races, and concentrates on the concept of human behavior. The second section focuses on animal behavior, dividing the animal kingdom into male and female types. From these are deduced correspondences between human form and character.
After Aristotle, the major extant works in physiognomy are:
The principal promoter of physiognomy in modern times was the Swiss pastor Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741–1801) who was briefly a friend of Goethe. Lavater's essays on physiognomy were first published in German in 1772 and gained great popularity. These influential essays were translated into French and English. The two principal sources from which Lavater found 'confirmation' of his ideas were the writings of the Italian Giambattista della Porta (1535–1615) and the English physician-philosopher Sir Thomas Browne (1605–1682), whose Religio Medici discusses the possibility of the discernment of inner qualities from the outer appearance of the face, thus:
Late in his life Browne affirmed his physiognomical beliefs, writing in his Christian Morals (circa 1675):
Sir Thomas Browne is also credited with the first usage of the word caricature in the English language, whence much of physiognomy movement's pseudo-learning attempted to entrench itself by illustrative means.
Browne possessed several of the writings of the Italian Giambattista della Porta including his Of Celestial Physiognomy which argued that it was not the stars but a person's temperament which influences facial appearance and character. In his book De humana physiognomia (1586), Porta used woodcuts of animals to illustrate human characteristics. His works are well represented in the Library of Sir Thomas Browne; both men sustained a belief in the doctrine of signatures — that is, the belief that the physical structures of nature such as a plant's roots, stem and flower, were indicative keys (or signatures) to their medicinal potentials.
The popularity of physiognomy grew throughout the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth century. It influenced the descriptive abilities of many European novelists, notably Balzac, and portrait artists, such as Joseph Ducreux; meanwhile, the 'Norwich connection' to physiognomy developed in the writings of Amelia Opie and travelling linguist George Borrow. A host of other nineteenth century English authors were influenced by the idea, notably evident in the detailed physiognomic descriptions of characters in the novels of Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy and Charlotte Brontë. Physiognomy is a central, implicit assumption underlying the plot of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. In 19th century American literature, physiognomy figures prominently in the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe
Phrenology was also considered a form of physiognomy. It was created around 1800 by German physician Franz Joseph Gall and Johann Spurzheim, and was widely popular in the 19th century in Europe and the United States.
References and further reading
|This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Physiognomy". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.|